Why to thank God “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics” (Jeremias)

The poem’s title assumes that Auden read a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics. Now, it seems to me, he is quite ambivalent about it. Having major doubts about the relevance of science for society, he still utters them in a modest tone and refuses to give any kind of answer. Consequentially Auden, as a prolific author of political essays, chose a poem about children’s literature to give this doubting voice an appropriate stage. Let me elaborate a little about what this doubt is all about (first section), the limitations of doubting science apparent in Auden’s wording (second section), and on his Christian undertone in the poem (third section).  

1) Auden’s most burning question is what “we wanted the knowledge for” – the teleological question -, whereas the existence of science – the ontological question – remains unquestioned for a  pragmatic reason: mankind  “once” made a free choice for the path of science anyways (last stanza). This pragmatism and modesty shapes Auden’s tone in this poem. First of all, his approach to science is certainly not an pretentious attempt to reduce the societal role of science on the level of instantly graspable or usable knowledge. I believe, the “what-for” question is rather meant as a philosophical, maybe Christian reflection about the unguided strive for scientific progress (see below). The abstract reasoning implied in this opinion stands in stark contrast with the narrator’s tone.  You could even say he shies away from drawing the conclusion, the former stanzas call for: While speaking of “our kind” in the central stanza (number five), he switches to the first person when he says: “But I would rejoice in it more if I knew more clearly what we wanted the knowledge for” (5th stanza). In spite of this vagueness, he insists, as stated in the last line, this is just “something” which would be good to know. It seems as if Auden “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics” just feels the urge to shortly clarify how minor the role of science is for the daily well-being of children (and us) and that one should not be scared but “altogether wise” in guiding the path science takes.

2) Auden’s doubt of scientific knowledge, one can conclude, is aware of its limits. What are these limits? The strive for abstract knowledge and men’s superiority and responsibility for nature are given as natural and intuitive. This is not what he feels we could or should change. Originally the mind is “free to know or not”, Auden writes, but now that it has chosen once for the path of scientific knowledge, all peculiarities of modern physics reestablish both the dependence and the superiority of mankind over nature (fifth and sixth verse). And even now, that we are caught up into this path, Auden seems to remind us, that we still have a choice. Accordingly the poem finishes by actually placing this question, not science, in the centre of our common thinking (“learning”): How shall we use our control over knowledge and nature? In asking this, one thing remains untouched for Auden, a foundation described at the very beginning of the poem: It is last but not least us who just “have a better time” than nature, which is meaninglessly caught up in a struggle with death, just as the dying stars (Greater Nebulae) or atoms in our brains. This superiority, explicit from the first stanza onwards, is the unscientific result of all what the “top physicist knows about the Truth be true”. Paradoxically this not only a valid result concerning dying stars easily forgotten in earthly life. The superiority even applies for the atoms in our brain, which would be in charge to process the rethinking of science, that Auden recalls in our minds.

3) It is maybe a boring kind of interpretation, but most intuitively this poem can be understood in a rather biographical manner. It is well possible that it is just Auden’s Anglican Christian heart speaking, when he pleas for modesty, intuition, responsibility and free choice concerning scientific knowledge. Just as protestant theology would, which the Anglican Church is influenced by, all four aspects put the individual’s free mind in the centre of everything. Central in the poem as well as in a Christian worldview are the notions of love (second stanza), the face (third stanza) and the home (forth stanza). All three, which one might connect to theological notions such as family or God as the source of human love, are intrinsically dependant on material arrangements but simultaneously transcend their materiality. In that sense Auden mocks natural determinism as intuitively illogical and therefore reduces the role of science in society. As Auden colorfully states, the cognitive understanding of the world is dependant on outdated physics, Newtonian physics of gravity (the face being only at one place, for instance). Thus, Auden argues, we can be glad that quantum physics does not rule our imagination. We merely could not feel kisses or live in a cozy home. Auden supposes that people (“our eyes”) just prefer “a quiet Euclidean space” and thereby deliberately – and rightly – ignore the scientific state of the art. This is a necessary ignorance with which everybody in this poem gets away –  the kissing lovers, the shaving man and the architects. In accordance with this interpretation, Auden literally thanks God for these scientifically disproven facts of life (4th stanza).  Thereby he persuasively opens up a space which is not accessible for scientific inquiry but even more for our intuitive imagination.

Here a close look reveals a strange inversion of the old believe in God’s Hand, which Newton was empirically tracing. In a Christian interpretation as described here, Auden gives room to a sacred space ruled by the hand of God, not by science. Ironically Auden’s God, the God who gave us love, a face and a home, follows Newtonian physics of gravity in order to facilitate our lives that comfortable. Unlike Newton, however, Auden strongly doubts that science could ever reveal God’s influence on earth by empirically enquiring into nature. Obscure scientific results like Greater Nebulae or atoms in our brain serve Auden to ridicule such an attempt (2nd and 3rd stanza). Actually his God is not very scientific, let alone the God creationists believe in. If this poem is can be understood religiously, then Auden’s God is the origin of love, the human face, and human homes. Those altogether remain untouched by the present or future state of science (first stanzas) which therefore evokes the question, what other use science could have (last stanzas). To understand this poem as a Christian mockery of unreflected beliefs in science also explains why his wording is disrupted by uncertainties (all the so-and-so’s, exploded myths, and “understand more clearly”, which is also kind of modest) and non-scientific notions, such as wisdom instead of knowledge, and learning instead of inquiring (last two lines).


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