Chapter 85: The Fountain

“The Fountain” is a fair and reasonable argument in the centuries-old conflict between science and religion. It is perhaps natural for science, relying on observation from which to draw conclusions, to conflict with religion, which relies on revelation and faith. At the same time, religion and science approach the world with such wildly different lenses and address such different realms that any conflict between the two is nonsensical. As we see in “The Fountain,” the two perspectives can, even should, coexist in human life.

Ishmael begins with a question: do whales spout only air, or a mixture of water and air? He begins his answer with good, observational science about the anatomy, habits and biological needs of whales. According to the information at hand, whales should only spout air, or breath. But despite what he knows should be true, a whale spout appears to contain water as well.

At this point, observation has failed Ishmael. No matter how many different situations he observes whales under, there are always multiple explanations for the water’s appearance. Ishmael can’t get closer to observe because men who have tried in the past have been badly burned or blinded. Yet “still, we can hypothesize, even if we cannot prove or establish.” At this distance, science becomes hardly distinguishable from mysticism — hypothesis and myth become explanations on equally fanciful footings.

Strangely, we are left feeling that the blurring of these lines is not such a bad thing. Ishmael compares the uncertainty to a mist, and reminds us that rainbows cannot appear in clear air. Likewise, the grandeur and portentousness of nature cannot appear without some uncertainty.

No matter how deep the mysteries we discover, our observational tools will always be inadequate to explain the next level deeper. Ishmael suggests we should appreciate the resulting mystery as an opportunity to embrace the spiritual. “Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with an equal eye.”

Chapter 85: The Fountain

Oh, Believer or Infidel?
Oh, Believer or Infidel?
Not for a want of science —
Oh, perception isn’t half enough!
And not for a want of prophets —
Oh, mysticism’s imprecise!

Oh, will we ever understand
The mysteries of nature’s hand?
We can’t tell the difference —
Is it water or is it air?
The spout is of significance
As an observable phenomenon.

Yeah, these creatures of the deep
Are filled with the profundity
Of the Heavens and the Earth,
Whoa, whoa!

So you can’t get very close,
To study or experiment —
It once burned a man to the quick!
Whoa, whoa!

Oh, was it hubris that struck him down,
Or unfathomable nature, now?
Oh, Believer or Infidel?
Oh, Believer or Infidel?
Regard them with an equal eye!

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 22, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea November 30, 2008

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