Atheism, Reductionism, and Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

The poem below by Walt Whitman expresses emotions akin to my own after I had recently spent a full day, and most of an evening, attending lectures by Richard Dawkins and other scientists at an atheist conference in Burbank, Ca.:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before


When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,

    and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with

    much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Is this reaction to science on the part of Whitman, and my sympathy for it, a sign that an irrational spirit grips us? Or is this a proper and sane reaction to an excess of reductionism? Was William Wordsworth right—or merely hysterical—when he said, “We murder to dissect?”

Are the poets at war with the scientists?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Atheism, Reductionism, and Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

  1. 1minionsopinion says:

    On the topic of astronomy, the Vatican is offering a look at early era telescopes starting this week:

    Sure, it’s good to understand how stars can be so hot, or big, and how they fall into themselves sometimes or whatever. But I also think there’s a tendency to feel like everything needs to be picked apart and dissected and have all the parts completely understood, like it can’t be enough to just enjoy the whole view of the night sky as is.

    I certainly wouldn’t be disagreeing with Whitman here. Knowing how it all works is great, but stepping back to just admire the beauty of it all.. that’s completely worthwhile.

  2. Ephemerae says:

    Of course now that I’ve found you I can’t stop reading – or, evidently, responding. I’ll try to curb it.

    I deal with this particular issue all the time, being a very scientifically-interested person in a family that prefers not to discuss, and an evolutionist in the Bible Belt. But I’m also an artist.

    An excess of reductionism is a perversity of curiosity – of what use is knowledge without subjectivity? Nothing has value without humanity. But when people insist that willful ignorance is pious, it seems as a perversion of humanity – for what use are constructs of virtue without the wisdom to apply them well? Even sincerest kindness easily goes astray without understanding.

    Awe breeds curiosity, curiosity creates comprehension, comprehension gives rise to further awe. I am baffled at those who live outside that cycle. And I am revolted whenever culture claims that either awe or curiosity are to be done away with.

  3. santitafarella says:


    Based on your comments, I think that you might like a book by Stuart Kauffman that I’m reading right now:

    It’s really quite an amazing book, addressing that split between science and religion that you are reflecting on above.

    Oh, and I like Socratic interaction, so please don’t be shy about commenting when you are so inclined. One of the reasons I blog is in the hope of sometimes generating an intellectual salon dynamic in the threads.


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