Saturday, December 31, 2011

Rational Discourse

Somewhere in W. Virginia
We have just returned from our 5-day 3-city (4-city in the end) tour of loved ones during which we spent, I now realize, a significant amount of time in science museums. (We also spent a significant amount of time eating food - pierogis, Thai, Stollen, and ham are highlights that reveal our good fortune.)  Glorious hours in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and almost an entire day in the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.  Two observations emerge: one, that America must surely love her children deeply to offer and renew such spaces for discovery. And two, that science, in being rational thought quickly tinged with wonder, is really quite terrific. I am often puzzled that I can be such an enthusiastic medievalist when I am at the same time such an unreconstructed enthusiast of the Enlightenment Project, whereby it is fervently believed that rational thought in the form of education will provide dignity, comfort and meaning to all human beings (and all beings if you stretch the implications which, really, I do).  Now, rational discourse may be a myth (it has proven limited in its ability to stem human folly), but as I watched the kids delight in repeated experimentation, and proclaim triumphant predictability, I'd be willing to say it's one of the better myths we have.  I think that I'm particularly sensitive to the importance of rational discourse in their lives because they are of an age when they are starting to feel the power of that reasoning: Oliver just read his first Agatha Christie and marveled at Poirot's ability to discern and decide from seemingly random but all telling facts; Iris worships Miss Frizzle who drives the scientific Magic School Bus on its adventures; and Eleanor is liberated in her realization that Santa was her uncle all these years to posit that aliens might then be what are real (see above).  It's important that rational discourse maintain wonder - for those who truly love the law or the economy, there's a sense of wonder there. And the best academic writing rallies evidence or objects or original sources unto a theory that enlivens the whole lot. But for all of us, in so many ways, there is science, by which I think I mean scientific method more than anything else, which, actually, gets us very quickly to medieval Arabic scientists like Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) and his work On Optics (which ought to interest an art historian). And so the Middle Ages are not so far after all, and I wonder anew how I will think through medieval thinking from stone to statue, and from carving to devotion, from what we have billed as nature to what we think we know as culture, and what I will learn along the way. This New Year's Eve there is a delight in knowledge, and a seeking out of the wonder that leaves us wanting more.

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