Why supposed opposition is actually a donation to one from the other

Image credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

For about fifteen hundred years, most Western higher education was focused around what were termed “the Arts.” This included not only history and philosophy and languages but also logic (as understood back then) and rhetoric. For a long time there was precious little difference between superstition and science; chemistry grew slowly out of alchemy and biology struggled to break free from the mistaken notions of the Ancients. Mathematics and philosophy were likewise entangled and had been since before the time of Pythagoras.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that as a more empirical approach toward discovery began to gain ground and ultimately resulted in The Enlightenment, those in “the Arts” began to feel increasingly threatened. The natural reaction was to cultivate a certain scorn for “mere scientists” that unfortunately became rather solidified in certain cultures. Even as recently as the 1980s it was common to hear within centers of excellence such as Oxford and Cambridge the phrase “ignorant scientists.”

Western culture was supposedly split between “the Arts” and “the Sciences” with the latter very much regarded as inferior by those practicing or studying the former. This assumption was underscored by the BBC; its much-praised series Civilization had art historian Kenneth Clark wandering the globe and expressing admiration for various buildings and paintings but avoided all mention of science, as though scientific endeavors had contributed nothing whatsoever to the civilization we see around us every day.

This attitude was, of course, very silly.

Art has always been the beneficiary of science, from the study of harmonics enabling the tuning of instruments to the development of pigments enabling a wider palette. As mathematics was rediscovered and developed during the Renaissance, perspective reappeared in Western visual art after a thousand years of naïve representation. Today it is literally impossible to imagine any type of art that does not entirely rely on science to provide the necessary materials.

Meanwhile, though a great many in the Arts are utterly ignorant of even the most basic precepts of science and even the most rudimentary knowledge of the universe, a great many scientists and engineers are highly cultivated in the Arts. The physicists responsible for both Relativity and quantum mechanics were talented musicians and writers, for example. During my time at Oxford it was common to hear PhD Physics students talking about poetry and architecture but I rarely heard their Arts equivalents discussing scientific matters in even a rudimentary manner.

Keats believed, as do far too many “artists” even today, that science somehow removes the magic of art. It seems the general philosophical position is that we ought to gape uncomprehendingly at things rather than seek to understand them. Keats famously wrote of Newton “unweaving the rainbow” by explaining how the millions of tiny water droplets each act as a prism, refracting the incident light between the observer and the source and thus creating the visual illusion we all know and love.

Yet it is surely absurd to claim this somehow robs us of the magic of the rainbow. If anything, knowledge of prismatics serves to increase our wonder and delight in the phenomenon.

Image credit: Science Sparks

If it were true that understanding diminishes pleasure, Keats should have likewise claimed that poetry destroys the magic of untutored prose, and a novel entombs a child’s artless scribblings. But he didn’t make these claims because he hadn’t really considered the coherence of his position. He was merely reacting emotionally, denigrating something he didn’t understand. It’s an all-too-human reaction but it is (as are many of our attitudes) profoundly misguided and unhelpful.

Science is the only method our species has ever developed that truly enables us to get some purchase on reality. Whereas Art can reflect what we already know (because it is generated from the mind of the artist, who can draw only on what they’ve absorbed), Science can tell us what we did not previously know.

Science is why we have all the technological wonders of the modern world. Science has provided art with opportunities: different kinds of instruments, photographs, moving pictures, and now virtual reality. Art, meanwhile, has provided emotional satisfaction but little else. No literature has ever pointed forward to new insights about the human condition; indeed, the more we learn about the limitations of cognition and the predispositions imposed by evolution, the less convincing most stories become. Even Shakespeare, always held up as a genius whose understanding of the human condition is unparalleled, is unconvincing. Does anyone even remotely believe Iago’s motivation? Do we really think that Miranda’s teenage infatuation is true love?

Of course we can argue endlessly over definitions. Is “science” purely an empirical matter? Does “art” include the random splashes created by swinging a can of paint over a canvas? As is usually the case with words, the deeper we look the less certain we can be. Words are the way we convey vague general concepts; that’s why mathematics is used whenever we need greater precision. But regardless of quibbles over how we define our terms, it’s clear that science births not only understanding but is also the very foundation of art itself.

Thus the contention that the Arts are “superior” to the Sciences is not only misguided but also arguably the wrong way around.

It is lamentable that much pedagogy is so poor that far too many of us leave formal education with little appreciation for the beauty contained within a poem or a mathematical equation. But this is not because poetry or mathematics are “dry” subjects. It’s because teachers too rarely know how to convey the wonders of each.

The primary difference between Art and Science is that the former attempts to embody both ideas and emotions, whereas Science is more strictly focused on conceptual understanding. Yet no one who’s truly immersed in scientific endeavors would pretend for a moment that emotion and imagination have no roles to play. Indeed, one of the primary motivations that pulls many people into scientific and engineering careers is the sheer joy of playing with concepts and seeing how abstractions can create concrete realities and conversely how concrete realities can be expressed symbolically. I suspect a mathematician gets as much sheer pleasure from describing the motion of a pendulum precessing due to the Earth’s rotation as a painter gets when they capture precisely the effect of light on water they were striving for.

If we step back from pointless arguments over definitions and superiority, one thing is very clear: when we remain confined for long periods of time within the bounds of limited knowledge, we end up with rather cramped productions. Comparing the tedious claustrophobia of religious mythologies against the wonders we’ve uncovered through astronomy and cosmology is like comparing an infant’s scrawl to the Mona Lisa. The great art we associate with religion is actually the result of normal human creativity coupled to the productions of science. Without pigmentation and a mathematical understanding of perspective, Michaelangelo could never have painted the Sistine Chapel. And without science we could not have moved beyond endless depictions of the Virgin and Child to far more interesting subjects such as Picasso’s games with perception based on the ideas contained within the theory of Relativity.

Image credit: Picasso Museum, Paris

Furthermore, science has one enormous moral advantage over all religious mythologies: it does not pretend to absolute knowledge. Science is based on the concept of provisionality. Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism were brilliant and helped us understand fundamental forces in a way previously unimaginable. But Einstein and others saw the minor problems and as they looked for resolutions this led to Relativity and eventually quantum mechanics, which are more complete descriptions but still incomplete (and irreconcilable at present).

It is this fundamental provisionality of science that is one of the key reasons why scientists don’t try to kill each other when they disagree. Lee Smolin may profoundly disagree with Leonard Susskind over the validity of string theory, but Lee doesn’t show up at Stanford University with thousands of followers all united in their desire to stone Leonard and burn the university to the ground. In the world of religious mythology, however, such violence is a persistent feature even today, and even with supposedly peaceful mythologies like Buddhism.

Equally, science enables rather than suppresses art. No particle physicist (for example) is going to try to censor a poet who writes about tiny angels moving motes of dust in a sunbeam. Sadly however history shows how very common it is for religious institutions to censor art in all its forms. Christians burned “blasphemers” who wrote plays or poems or pamphlets deemed insufficiently in line with prevailing dogma and even today most Moslems are outraged by visual depictions of their prophet.

Much Western art relies therefore not only on the physical tools that science has provided but also on the tolerance that the scientific mindset imbues. And so, perhaps more now than ever before, Art relies on Science in order to continue flourishing.

In the end, one conclusion seems inescapable:

At its best, Art expresses what we think today.

At its best, Science creates the opportunity for us to think entirely new things tomorrow.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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