Monday, June 18, 2012

Will science colonize philosophy, the humanities, and the arts?


Last August I was standing in a church in a small village in Belgium. I was there with a good friend named Kristiaan. A retired elementary school headmaster, Kristiaan is an expert in Belgian history, especially art history. He had brought me to the church as it was one of many venues hosting pieces in a local art show. An older man with a round face and big yellow teeth met us in the entryway eagerly pointing at his large abstract works hanging all over the walls. He was explaining how the perfection of math made his stark depictions of hyperbolic shapes beautiful. Most of his canvases were two colors of acrylic paint, a bright background in yellow and a ribbon shaped hyperbola in purple.

To me this art was not good at all. The man had obvious enthusiasm but the art was just lifeless. He paid little attention to detail and it all looked like a 7th grade art project gone bad. I did not have the heart to tell the aging man I did not like his work but I had a long conversation with Kristiaan about such art after exiting the church. Kristiaan told me he did not fancy art where artists intentionally infuse scientific or mathematical ideas into their work. He thought art like this seemed forced or overly contrived. I had to agree with him in this instance. But I wonder if this was just an isolated case of a mediocre artist. Can there be scientifically informative art that is not aesthetically dead?

I think about daVinci's Vitruvian Man and his helicopter sketches, I think of the occulus in the dome of the pantheon in Rome or the myriad other instances I have seen artistic beauty and scientific enlightenment intersect. I can't help thinking these poorly painted lines I had seen on the walls of the church were just the result of misdirected talent. But do the examples I listed give the same emotional reaction to viewers as other more "artistic" art. Like Thomas Dewing's In the Garden (above) Picasso's Guernica, Gauguin's D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous?

These painted examples have nothing to do with scientific concepts. They do not attempt to educated the masses by hiding the golden ratio, the Fibonacci sequence, or the physical requirements for aerodynamic lift. These paintings speak to the audience through emotional recall. The works may affect the viewer in a physiological way. We could measure things like heart-rate, body temperature and breathing depth while viewers approach the paintings. However the paintings themselves were not produced for the advancement of scientific education. Yet they maintain tremendous value.

Where does this value come from? Is this a question science can answer?

An assertion was made by E.O. Wilson as I listened to his On the Shoulders of Giants address at the 2012 World Science Festival. He said that science would inevitably "colonize philosophy, the humanities, and the arts." I can see this happening as a great unifying event (an ongoing series of events is a better way to describe it) where artists and scientists communicate constantly, to a point where either could switch position any time.

The problems I foresee arising in this transition involve specialization and fractionation. All of humanity  as seen through the ages looks like vast branching tree. With each new generation there are a whole new set of buds on the tree. Throughout history the branches bifurcate. With each bifurcation comes new divisions (catholic/protestant, shiite/sunni, Eastern/Western, Mashed Potatoes and gravy/mac and cheese). With all the new bifurcations coming online you would think there ought be a shit-storm of sectarian violence at present. But that is not the case. Why not?

I think it is because of the transparency happening right now; the unprecedented level of cross-hierarchical communication going on. You, out there somewhere on earth are reading a blog written by a person you may have never met and you are empathizing. You are reading along with me and even if it is just for a fraction of a second your neurons are firing in some similar pattern to mine. We now live in an age of permissionless innovation where I can hit the publish button without any publisher, editor, mother, or father giving me the go ahead. More and more people are realizing this ability every day and that brings me great happiness.

Back to the art-science fusion project. I do not know if science will successfully "colonize" art because specialists do like to keep there sects pure and free of the passing fancier. But I also think our broader and more transparent view of the world, especially the talents and weaknesses of our fellow humans, will continue to help in creating the most beautiful art and the most beneficial science the world has ever known.
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