And science said, let there be light

14th July 2000 at 01:00
THE edge was taken off my end of term exhaustion when the principal teacher of physics invited my philosophy pupils to a science lecture. The subject was astronomy and his discourse was tantalisingly termed "Lifting the darkness". As science has always been "a darkness" to me I attended with curiosity and anxiety.

We were hooked immediately. Contemplate, said the speaker, how impossible it would have been for people at the beginning of the last millennium to have predicted the awesome advances in science. Imagine the protagonists at the Battle of Hastings being able to see ahead to how wars are fought today.

It's equally mind thrashing to contemplate what mysteries science may solve during the next 1,000 years. Looking round during the lecture you knew that everyone was challenging themselves about the ultimate destiny of the human race. Our thoughts could not have been tracked just then; we were airborne and beyond radar and we listened for one hour.

That moment of intense expectancy just before the plane leaves the runway on your first flight. The final burst of throttle which will ensure your climb to another world. As a teacher I experienced that rare jeu d'esprit when my pupils felt, in the words of Louis MacNeice, "the drunkenness of things being various".

What thrilled us most were the references to "reading the human genome". But however much we may want it to, science alone cannot give us all the answers to the secrets of the universe. The recipe for the human genetic code may now be cracked but there is no scientific key to unlock everything of what it means to be human. Philosophers have spent centuries trying to decode the essence of human consciousness and now my philosophy students are doing the same.

They say that they are really enjoying the debates about what is real and what is not. A tremendous introduction to what philosophy is about is the film The Matrix. Here philosophers and scientists meet in an "ncorrigibly plural" world where the added dimension, if indeed it can be described as a dimension, is virtual reality.

Another angle is to think about lemons. You have tasted a few in your time. You say that they were all sour, so you therefore conclude that all lemons are sour. Thus speaks the scientist. But the philosopher argues that just because every lemon you have ever tasted is sour you cannot say with absolute certainty that one day you will not taste a sweet lemon. Businesses pay philosophers to teach their employees how to think deeply. If we want to, we can do that in school.

The narrow confines of the curriculum are wearisome. There should be much more emphasis on the converging points of the curriculum and much less on the diverging nature of the subjects of which it is composed.

The secondary school system encourages teachers to stay within the boundaries of their own subjects, promulgating a compartmentalisation which is not healthy. In the philosophy class we are examining the paradoxical pictures of the Dutch artist Escher. The students were taken with the idea of perceptual stereotyping - the process where the mind puts together incomplete data to arrive at a conclusion, a process which is essential but, at the same time, unreliable. That the pupils have already explored these pictures in their art class makes the exercise so much more satisfying.

If we don't make the effort to be more seamless in our approach to the curriculum we are at risk of a great deal more than just visual trickery. If we think that something is a log we may fail to notice the crocodile observing us, and be horribly shocked when its crushing jaws open to swallow us.

Completing a jigsaw can be so satisfying. It may be right to assume that some students see links themselves between the subjects which constitute the whole picture. But "Lifting the darkness" is our responsibility and I want to explore more ways of doing so.


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