Science needs art

2008/02/03


In a powerful common theme in recent science writing, art has been viewed as a necessary exploratory faculty of human intelligence, one expanding the language of the mind, equipping us with new metaphors and intuitions. Science provides rigorous tools to solidify and validate our knowledge of the universe, whereas art enables us to relate to the universe, incorporate its laws into our common language, intuitions, and ethos. Art and science together enable us to break through our collective cognitive limitations. Jonah Lehrer has written, once again, an excellent piece for the Seed magazine titled “The future of science is art” in which he argues convincingly that arts and sciences are inseparable in our relationship with nature and our own minds. I loved the examples Jonah used in his piece! A cultural divide between the arts and sciences has grown in the 20th-century academia and continues to present an obstacle to progress. We need art to intuitively comprehend the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, the mind, and society. We need new metaphors to communicate across boundaries. Artists and poets indeed explore the universe and the mind with tools available to them and perhaps yet unavailable within the limits of the scientific method.

To my greatest delight, my university’s Center for Interdisciplinary Art and Technology CIDAT has organized a series of lectures titled “Common Ground: Making Meaning in the Arts and Sciences.” In the first installation, Pat McMurty , a University of Utah Mechanical Engineering Professor described his lifelong fascination with fire and turbulent flow of fluids and gases. Flames, twisters, and smoke rings can be described by elegant formulas and simulated on a computer while at the same time that are mesmerizingly beautiful. Dr. McMurtry’s work is highly technical but his inspiration comes from a visceral fascination with forces of nature. In the second presentation, choreographer Prof. Ellen Bromberg described how frames of reference radically transform our perception. Technology and new media create ways to express meaning succinctly and eloquently. I was particularly impressed by the use of choreography to convey and relate to scientific concepts such as tectonics and ecology. I cannot wait to see the second installation of the lecture series!

Does I exist?

2008/01/28

Most thinkers must pass through a phase when they question their own existance. My running buddy db has made the denial of his own existence the central theme of his life philosophy, which he equates with a modernized form of Buddhism: admitting to being nothing, one can become everything. The thought is succinctly and humorously captured at extelligentsia.

Studying the brain will inevitably put one through a reality-questioning phase. My brain is a collection of interconnected cells, none of which can care or even knowing about me. All behavior, perceptions, and emotions result from a mix of electric and chemical messages among these cells. There is no one place in my body where I is. Every experience and every perception ever so slightly modify the synapses between neurons and, voilà, I emerges.

René Descartes started from the opposite end of questioning: As the one having these very thoughts, I must exist and I question the reality of everything else. Is there a fallacy in his Cogito ergo sum?

These dilemmas come from our misconceptions of what qualifies as real or true. For us, emergence boundaries present insurmountable cognitive hurdles: we cannot accept something as real if we cannot reduce it to its clear causes or moving agents. Things that arise through emergence cannot be real, our intuition tells us, they are but ephemeral constructs!

And scientists have been the worst! Over-reliant on reductionism, science has consistently claimed to uncover how things really are. The result has been the alienation of vast vast majorities of people or the reduction of science to just another conceptual framework, a point of view, or a social construct. Scientists often think of their subject being more real than other disciplines because they fail to recognize that the regularities in their own discipline emerge from another type of reality.

The greatest tragedy of our inability to comprehend emergence is the rise of postmodern philosophy. Postmodernism postulates that there exist infinitely many disparate and equally valid and interesting interpretations of everything, all of which arise simply from the observer’s point of view. A biologist views the brain as a collection of neurons whereas I see a person and a soul. The physicist sees atoms and quarks while I see a beautiful flower. The dichotomies seem irreconcilable to most. Thinkers feel like they have to choose a cognitive framework from which to interpret the world.

I hope that, with time, we will learn to overcome reductionist thinking in science and develop the language to comprehend emergence and that postmodernism will fade as a dark page in our cultural history.

Neuroscientifically informed philosophers are leading the transformation from the intellectually segmented postmodernist academics to coherency between them. In his new book, Proust was a neuroscientist, the science writer Jonah Lehrer explores how art, music, and literature bring understanding of human nature that is only later solidified and elaborated by science. I am finishing the book here at the coffee shop and will share my further impressions soon.