Monday, May 08, 2006

A prospect truly sublime

posted by Chet at 10:59 AM UTC

In my book Honey From Stone I used the metaphor "knowledge is an island in a sea of mystery." I attributed the image to "a friend," and drew the corollary that as the island grows, so does the shoreline along which we encounter mystery. Rather than depleting the world of mystery, knowledge in fact increases our opportunities to encounter mystery on levels and in places of which we were previously ignorant.

Not long after the book was published, the motto "Knowledge is an island in a sea of mystery" began appearing on those signs you see outside of churches -- Universalist Unitarian churches in this case -- attributed to me. It was a flattering attribution, but the thought is not original.

The 19th-century experimentalist Michael Faraday used the metaphor, among others. The earliest reference I have found is in the Preface of the second volume of Joseph Priestley's Experiments and Observations Relating To Various Branches of Natural Philosophy, published in 1781. He wrote: "The greater is the circle of light, the greater is the boundary of the darkness by which it is confined. But, notwithstanding this, the more light we get, the more thankful we ought to be, for by this means we have the greater range for satisfactory contemplation. In time, the bounds of light will be still further extended; and from the infinity of the divine nature, and the divine works, we may promise ourselves an endless progress in our investigation of them: a prospect truly sublime and glorious."

Which is, all things considered, a splendid affirmation of the open-ended curiosity of science, never satisfied with absolutes, eschewing Truth, always searching.

On the title page of his book, Priestley took as his epigraph a phrase from Virgil's Aeneid, Vires acquirit eundo, which translates roughly as "it gathers strength as it goes," which Priestley applies to science, that ever increasing circle of light, that growing island of firm knowledge lapped on every side by all that we do not yet know.