Wonder and the Modern Scientific Project

NOTE: Today’s blog entry is from our guest contributor, Dr. Michael Ivins, whose study of great books and subsequent research surrounding the philosophy of Aristotle have equipped him with a quick eye for the philosophical implications of modern science. Dr. Ivins taught for five years at St. Vincent College (PA) and now teaches at Scottsdale Preparatory Academy (AZ). 

Though the humanities and the sciences are often thought to view the world in different and even incompatible ways, we ought to consider that the passion of the humanities to appreciate beauty in the products of human soul might also be found at the heart of the scientific impulse to understand the inner workings of nature.  Aristotle must have understood something of this in identifying the source of all love of wisdom as wonder 

For by way of wondering, people both now and at first began to philosophize, wondering first about the strange things near at hand, then going forward little by little in this way and coming to impasses about greater things, such as about the stars or the coming into being of the whole.  But someone who wonders and is at an impasse considers himself to be ignorant, for which reason the lover of myth is in a certain way philosophic, since a myth is composed of wonders. 

And though Aristotle has clearly taken a side in that ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry, he recognizes that all learning shares the same origin, namely the recognition of a difference between what seems true and what is true.  This is the sort of formative ignorance we experience when we realize what we think doesn’t quite match up with the way things are: 

For everyone begins from wondering whether things are as they seem, such as the self-moving marvels, or about the reversals of the sun or the incommensurability of the diagonal.”  

The experience of wonder might not only be the common source of the desire to understand the human in us and the natural world in which we live, but wonder might be precisely what allows humanity and nature to find themselves in relation to one another.  And man being a part of nature, our wonder lies at the beginning of nature becoming conscious of itself. 

For more on the experience of wonder in the sciences and the role of experimental science in liberal education, I  recommend to the reader Peter Pesic’s succinct 18 minute lecture “A Seminar with a Scalpel: Studying Science Through Conversation” delivered at the conference “What is Liberal Education For?” at St. John’s College in 2014.  Mr. Pesic’s talk runs from 37:39 – 55:42 and is followed by a question period.  



N.B. Quotations from Aristotle are adapted from Joe Sachs’ translation of the Metaphysics (Green Lion Press). 


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