Stevie Wonder, Lucretius, And Fear Of The Unknown : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture How far can science go in explaining the world? All the way? Traditionally, what people don't know they fear. Science offers an alternative: what we don't know we embrace as a challenge.
NPR logo Stevie Wonder, Lucretius, And Fear Of The Unknown

Stevie Wonder, Lucretius, And Fear Of The Unknown

A groovy Lucretius: 'Superstition ain't the way.' Kevin Winter/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

A groovy Lucretius: 'Superstition ain't the way.'

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

What do Stevie Wonder and Lucretius, the Roman poet who wrote "The Nature of the Universe," have in common? As it turns out, more than you'd think. While jogging yesterday, I listened to Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." Even though I heard this song countless times, yesterday the chorus really stood out:

When you believe in things
That you don't understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain't the way.

Here is what Lucretius had to say about the same topic, over 2,000 years ago:

Which mortals gaze upon (O anxious oft
In quaking thoughts!), and which abase their minds
With dread of deities and press them crushed
Down to the earth, because their ignorance
Of cosmic causes forces them to yield
All things unto the empery of gods
And to concede the kingly rule to them.

Lucretius's agenda was to propose a new way of thinking about the world, based on the atomistic philosophy of the pre-socratics Leucippus and Democritus. "Think," Lucretius might have said, "try to find explanations about Nature within Nature, don't attach them blindly to some supernatural cause." Stevie Wonder's song is trying to say the same thing, admittedly in a much groovier way.

Well, science did come along, and Nature's workings became more transparent. God's role as ruler of the world and its affairs became progressively less obvious over the centuries; the more Nature seemed to follow rational laws, the more God got squeezed into a gap. Sure, there was still death, life, and the mystery of the soul. Even so, by the late eighteenth century, Enlightenment's manic attachment to all things rational started to backfire. Out came the Romantics, accusing the scientists of taking the beauty out of Nature with their equations, "of unweaving the rainbow," as Keats wrote. Actually, things weren't as clear-cut, as Richard Holmes writes in his excellent The Age of Wonder, published last year. In fact, many of the Romantics had a fascination with science, in particular with its power to probe into the deepest questions. This is the same fascination that attracts the general public to science nowadays. (And, of course, many of the scientists too.) Although digital technology is much more impactful in our everyday lives than the big bang and black holes, books on cosmology sell much better than those on technological marvels. We see these things happening on the Earth and in the sky, and want to know more. Can science go all the way? Can it explain it all?

Readers of 13.7 know that co-blogger Stuart Kauffman has been writing about related issues, arguing that science can't go all the way, that it has fundamental limitations. I second that, and have a whole upcoming book to explain why. (There will be some brief previews here.) Making a long story short, my point is that we can't know all that exists. What we know of the material world is determined by our tools. And since our tools are limited, and will always be limited, we will always have a limited knowledge of physical reality. This being the case, there is an "out there" region, beyond what we know and can know. There can't be a Final Theory. Sure, the circle expands as we learn more. But we also learn that there is more to learn than we anticipated. There is a perennial darkness out there... The short of it is that our scientific theories, beautiful and powerful as they are, are not the whole story. Now, does that mean we should forget about Stevie Wonder and Lucretius and embrace fear? Absolutely not! If we stop asking questions we stagnate; the circle stops growing and starts to choke us. If we stop asking questions the unknown ceases to be a challenge and a marvel and turns into a fearful monster, out to get us. We may not ever know all the answers; but we will be better off for trying.