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The Art Science Phenomenon Posted on January 30th

Something to do with the brain

Lately, there has been several books, articles, and even critical movements that aim to break down the walls between art and science. These approaches, in general, strike me as either irrelevant or absurd. The “walls” that exist between science and art are simply the bounds of their description, and “breaking them down” serves only to make both art and science more fluidly defined. While there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, the problem I see is that many of these thinkers seem to assume there is an inherent benefit in collapsing the differences between art and science. But if there is value in simply breaking down the walls between distant bodies of knowledge, then why stop with art and science? Why not break down the walls between surgery and sculpture? Between literary criticism and horticulture? Between manufacturing and eulogistic poetry? There’s an inherent drama in the gesture of pulling together disparate fields, and it is this drama, not the articulation of any real benefit, that seems behind the movement to join art and science.

Beyond that, the fruits of the art/science movement tend to dilute both art and science rather than meaningfully melding the two. For instance, Ellen Dissanayake’s Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began, posits an evolutionary basis for art. Dissanayake claims that “artifying” helps strengthen community bonds, and this is of critical importance for the survival of a species. Dissanayake also believes the interaction between mother and child is the original source of communal aesthetic pursuits. A New York Times article describes her watching mothers and children for “hundreds of hours,” coming finally to the conclusion that “These operations of ritualization, these affiliative signals between mother and infant, are aesthetic operations, too.” This claim, while interesting enough, is in no way dependent on the “hours of study”–it is a purely subjective reading of what goes on between a mother and child, and what art itself is.

This is the problem with “scientific” studies of art–they can’t really be scientific. Art is such an open concept that it can be adjusted to concur with any body of research. For example, given the generalness of Dissanayake’s observations, a completely contrary thesis about the origin of art could find equally legitimate proof. It would be just as easy to say, and find evidence for, the idea that the purpose of art is to isolate and disarm a group of humans unfit for the more critical functions of society–hunting, gathering, finding shelter, etc. The “artists” were the physically inferior and emotionally dissonant members of society that, in their ineptitude, threatened a groups’ survival. Rather than simply culling them, “art” was created to keep them too busy to interfere with the hunt. I could watch artists for “hundreds of hours” and find “evidence” just as solid for my claim as what Dissanayake found for hers! The point here is not that Dissananyake’s ideas are incorrect, but that they are not truly supported by research. At best, Dissanayake’s study is an interesting daydream about the origin of art. At worst, it’s a reductive speculation that passes itself off as research-based, and thus benefits from an unearned authority.

And even if Dissananyake’s study could somehow be made more legitimately scientific, I’m not sure explaining art with science is all that worthy a goal. What does art stand to gain from being given an evolutionary purpose? Will we discover that art is like the tailbone, a leftover nub of something that once had purpose? How can scientific explanations do anything but simplify and diminish art? Even art itself–with all its imagination and subtleties–is hardly up for the task of explaining itself. How can the logic-bound world of science have a better shot?

Still, despite my suspicion of the art/science world, I did find one article that made a truly compelling case for how art and science might interact. The article, titled “The Future of Science…is it Art?,” is by Jonah Lehrer for Seed magazine. Lehrer is best known for his book Proust was a Neuroscientist, a study of how writers and artists often predated science in their understanding of the scientific concepts. What’s interesting about Lehrer’s approach is that he presents art as useful for science, rather than presenting science as the beacon of light for art–a welcome switch. The article is quite long, and much of it reiterates that art can gesture to future scientific discoveries–a fine point, but probably not deserving the attention Lehrer gives it. The strongest part of Lehrer’s argument is how he describes the language of scientific discovery.

Lehrer points out that science has begun to overstep human understanding, and that the more abstract its discoveries the more impossible they are to comprehend. Lehrer uses physics as an example of a body of knowledge so deeply counter-intuitive that it is nearly impossible to accept. As Lehrer puts it:

It’s a brute fact of psychology that the human mind cannot comprehend the double-digit dimensions of string theory, or the possibility of parallel universes. Our mind evolved in a simplified world, where matter is certain, time flows forward and there are only three dimensions.

Lehrer then goes on to say that science needs art because science needs art’s metaphors. The expanding of the universe only makes sense when spoken of metaphorically–an expanding balloon. The Big Bang is only imaginable when described as a “big firecracker in the cosmos.” New scientific insights are useless when no one can get their mind around them, and therefore science must resort to metaphor–the dominion of poets and novelists–to make them palatable. Art’s ability to distill abstractions into concrete images (written or verbal) could aid in making scientific concepts more comprehensible.

This is a fascinating way to link art and science, but what I find most interesting about this part of Lehrer’s argument is what he is tacitly saying about language and meaning-making. Lehrer makes the point over and over that discoveries, particularly in physics and neuroscience, have become so abstract and divorced from the lived experience that they are rendered nearly meaningless. Lehrer implies that metaphors help translate these concepts into real life terms. Yet at the same time, Lehrer seems to also say that metaphors do much more than this. Lehrer’s line: “Maybe a simile will help unlock the secret of dark matter” seems to imply that metaphors are the discoveries–they are not simply a mode of translation. So what constitutes a scientific discovery? Is it discovering an abstract equation about space? Or is it discovering the language to make that equation real? Which is the discovery–the physical truths that science uncovers or the mode of expressing those truths?

But how can I explain my findings?

This speaks to a fundamental mystery about art, science, and meaning in general. There are two different ways to see the operations of both artists and scientists . An artist and scientist could both be seen as accessing truths that already exist out in the world. Once accessed, the artist or scientist merely needs to find a mode of expressing these truths in a way that makes sense to others. In the conception of art and science, finding the truth out in the world is stressed, and the expression of that truth is a necessary evil. The scientist has found the equation, the artist has felt a sublime insight–now on to the tedium of delivery. But there is a second way of seeing truth and expression that flips their importance. In this conception, all the truths in the world are spread before us as if a banquet. There is nothing to hunt down or discover–the truths are all out in the open. The job of the scientist or artist is not then to “find” truth–it’s all right there–but to find a way to express that truth to others. To put it another way, the expression is the truth. Lehrer’s article is an interesting study of someone who cannot settle on one of these conceptions of truth or the other. His scientific background sees metaphors as utilitarian language serving a truth, whereas his attachment to the arts belies a belief that the metaphors might just be the truth.

All this is well worth thinking about, but Lehrer makes some other points about the arts that are simply strange. Lehrer is an expert in neuroscience, so much of his interest in literature has to do with how writers describe the workings of the mind. Lehrer rightly points out that consciousness is a tough thing for science to tackle because it is non-quantitative and hard to track. How can science address that disembodied energy that is the mind? Lehrer’s idea is that great writers–Proust, Woolf, etc (he unwisely omits Hawthorne) can provide neuroscience the best record of the mind from which to study. As he puts it:

They have constructed elegant models of human consciousness that manage to express the texture of our experience, distilling the details of real life into prose and plot. That’s why their novels have endured: because they feel true. And they feel true because they capture a layer of reality that reductionism cannot.

He even refers to the arts as “an incredibly rich data set” tracking “high order mental events.” (I would love for this language to work its way into art reviews!) While I have no doubt that the arts do provide insight into the mind, a data set they are not. Lehrer seems to believe that literature both aims to represent the mind with accuracy and is able to do so. Neither is likely true. Literature is not the recording or simulation of mental phenomena, it is a phenomenon itself. It is a demonstration of a certain kind of mental effort, not a description of consciousness. The fact that the mind can and does create art is significant for neuroscience, but so is the fact that our memory is triggered by our senses. The phenomenon of the mind is addressed by the equally mysterious phenomenon of art, but Lehrer presents it as if the mind is the phenomenon and art is simply its record.

Lehrer ends the article with a call for unifying human knowledge by encouraging collaborations between art and science, and accepting that art is no less a truth than the logical truth of science. As even handed as this is, “knowledge” indicates that after plucking the art-science-art-science flower, the last petal remaining was science. Unified knowledge implies a collection of fixed truths that art and science can put away together, and this clearly privileges the certainty of science over the indeterminacy of art. But what if art and science come to agree that truth lies in expression, in the metaphors themselves? Art and science might both benefit from the agreement that nothing is truly discovered that cannot be compellingly expressed.

Note: Part of this article expanded on comments I made at this thread at

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One Response to “The Art Science Phenomenon” :

  1. There’s much to discuss here, but I’ll focus for now on your fascinating point about the role of language. Personally, I find George Lakoff quite convincing that even everyday language is deeply dependent on metaphor. Having spent years teaching physics, I believe all the more that almost anything you have in mind when I say “electron” is based on metaphor. Not only that, but even Newtonian concepts such as force or energy are metaphorical. That metaphorical, suggestive language is very important in doing new science or in communicating, but it’s not really necessary in, say, predicting which pixel will be illuminated by an electron launched in your (non-flatscreen) monitor. It’s rather semantic whether you say the truth is the described behavior–how the world out there works–or our understanding of it. Like content and form, or genetics and environment, both are necessary to actually do science.

    Lehrer missed the fun example of knitters helping mathematicians to visualize complex surfaces and their properties. Some information can be found at a site with the geometric-literary name of

    Commented Steve Durbin on February 2nd, 2008.
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