March 6, 2012, by Stephen Mumford

Art versus Science?

My previous post set me to thinking more about the differences between the arts and the sciences. Are they really as distinct as we seem to assume? And if they are, what is the distinction? Do we have a clear definition of each that allows us to see their separation?

There is no universal agreement on these questions. It was Aristotle who first divided up the subject areas and our modern universities tend to protect those boundaries that he created. Most universities will have distinct faculties of arts and sciences, for instance. But the division clearly has some artificiality. Suppose one assumed, for example, that the arts were about creativity while the sciences were about a rigorous application of technique and methods.This would be an oversimplification because all disciplines need both.

The best science requires creative thinking. Someone has to see a problem, form a hypothesis about a solution, and then figure out how to test that hypothesis and implement its findings. That all requires creative thinking, which is often called innovation. The very best scientists display creative genius equal to any artist. Consider Einstein’s innovations, for instance, or those of Niels Bohr, who realised that he was often entering into philosophical speculation.

And let us also consider our artists. Creativity alone fails to deliver us anything of worth. A musician or painter must also learn a technique, sometimes as rigorous and precise as found in any science, in order that they can turn their thoughts into a work. They must attain mastery over their medium. Even a writer works within the rules of grammar to produce beauty. One of my favourite song lyrics is so precisely because it works so well within the constraints: “You came at a time / when the pursuit of one true love in which to fall / was the be all and end all.”

Philosophers in the Twentieth Century thought hard about the demarcation of science from non-science but with limited success. The logical positivists, who were reconstructing David Hume’s general approach, looked at verifiability as the mark of science. But most of science cannot be verified. It mainly consists of theories that we retain as long as they work but which are often rejected. Science is theoretical rather than proven. Having seen this, Karl Popper proposed falsifiability as the criterion of science. While we cannot prove theories true, he argued, we can at least prove that some are false and this is what demonstrates the superiority of science. The rest is nonsense on his account. The same problems afflict Popper’s account, however. It is just as hard to prove a theory false as it is to prove one true. I am also in sympathy with the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus who says that far from being nonsense, the non-sciences are often the most meaningful things in our lives.

I am not sure the relationship to truth is really what divides the arts and sciences. But there nevertheless does seem to be some kind of division, although only a vague one. The sciences get us what we want. They have plenty of extrinsic value. Medicine enables us to cure illness, for instance, and physics enables us to develop technology. I do not think, in contrast, that we pursue the arts for what they get us. They are usually ends in themselves. But I said this was only a vague distinction. Our greatest scientists are not merely looking to fix practical problems. Newton, Einstein and Darwin seemed primarily to be seeking understanding of the world for its own sake, motivated primarily by a sense of wonder. I would take this again as indicative of the arts and sciences not being as far apart as they are usually depicted. And nor do I see them as being opposed. The best in any field will have a mixture of creativity and discipline and to that extent the arts and sciences are complimentary. A broad-based university with a comprehensive range of subjects, and in which artists and scientists can interact and cross-fertilise, is thus rightly the ideal.

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