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.
And as you are no doubt aware, Stephen, there are other ways in which the commonalities betwixt science and art are a fruitful place to linger. Consider Van Fraassen’s work on representation in art and science. Or, to return to the Tractatus, the picture theory of meaning. And both of these references merely point out a link between straight forward representation in representational art and scientific models qua ‘pictures’. (No doubt only a tiny subset of such commonalities)
Your point about extrinsic benefit is interesting, however consider that creation of cultural objects also has a lot of extrinsic benefit – ranging from the economic to the pedagogical. Similarly, a recent Scientific American article (sorry, can’t find the link) summarised contemporary cross-fertilisation between the fields of evolutionary psychology and cultural studies., whereby the vehicles of reproduction acted upon by environmental stress might be whole cultures (attempting some respectability for group selection). Also of note in this regard is Pagel’s latest book (‘Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind’).*
In my view, none of this should seem surprising. We live in one World, that is not divided up by disciplines. Rather, disciplines represent a computational limit on individuals. Perhaps.
* Please note I don’t think this book is actually any good though!
Really interesting thoughts, Simon. Thanks.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the way humans categorise information, trying to understand new modes of creation (in this case artistic practices) in relation to previous knowledge about the world. This partially stems from re-reading Rosalind Krauss’ famous essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field*, in which she discusses, amongst other things, the reliance critics place on historicity to verify disciplinary border crossings (sculpture/architecture/landscape/Minimalist practices); the products of which were/are strange and needed/need explaining – or placing. Similar things happen within the Art Vs. Science debates, as you say, when more-often-than-not things are placed in the either/or category, and usefulness is judged on verifiability and truth. The parameters separating one from the other have always been permeable, but their categorisation and assumed differences allow individuals to create a safety net for their evolution of thought.
Of course, as both you and Simon suggest, there is another side to this argument, too – the application of science and the application of arts in everyday life. In avoiding discussing the individual creator as genius, we could also think about the benefits or uses of science and art in general society (advertising is a good, if not predictable example). Here, I feel, is where the line is definitively blurred and put into question.
I think the development of, and discussion surrounding, digital humanities will openly question these issues, and will hopefully show that the lines between disciplines are always speculative and not conclusive.
Trouble reigns when boiling anything down to single words such as science and art, and then opening them up to definition and/or comparison. The final sentence in your post highlights that, where you suggest ‘broad-based’ and ‘comprehensive’ work. As you mention, over-simplification isn’t useful.
Just consider the suggestion of the student as ‘consumer’ and the fuss that brings with it. For that matter, consider a single definition for the ‘student’. So much trouble and you’re not even comparing the term with another term.
You’re right, much of the art/science division is artificial. But instead of using that for the sake of ease or to highlight a general concern, the over-simplification brings a sense of opposition or a platform for necessary debate. I once said that we should stop fussing and let art and science live together. Maybe I should have said that the fuss should stop because art and science cannot live apart from each other.
Thank you for presenting your ideas so they can be understood by those of us who are philosophically challenged. I find it is difficult to embrace the idea that “A musician or painter must also learn a technique”. Technique is not essential. Technique is found in convention, which is a collection of preferred suggestions wrought from experience. Which came first; artistry or convention? Likewise, “…that we [do not] pursue the arts for what they get us. They are usually ends in themselves,” doesn’t account for the healing properties of music. When I play piano, there is no end achieved by finishing a piece. It is all process; all means. Visual arts would offer an actual product, but I think the process is the expression of artistry.
Given two words, arts and science, with no clear definition of either, I think they are both words which seek to express a general understanding of something artish and something sceinceish, but which both belong to what I call the Irrational, which is the collection of all the stuff we think we know (but don’t) — which is most everything. You may have said as much. But as to where they are divided, that definition is left to us, as words will permit us to convey, and only to the degree that we are interesting in doing so. When we ask too many questions, we get lost in the Irrational. It remains beneficial to get stuck in the muck for the clarity it provides to those who do not get stuck. I know not to bring a paint brush to a chemistry class, or a test tube to a piano lesson. I can live with that division. 🙂
Science is constantly referred to having distinction and technique, with it being drilled into peoples head from a secondary school learning angle of methods and conclusions, however, a vast majority of scientific studies are based on creative thinkings patterns, and a even vaster majority of today’s products and services are derived from scientific experimentation, which in itself requires a great deal of creativity, so if you ask me, the two subjects are not simply split down the middle.
Hi I was thinking a bit scientifically and artistic this morning and cam up with this one
Scientifically art is self expression, but that leaves a rather cold dead feeling as to what art is as if there is something more?
That is because Art is self expression, of spiritual beings living in human body’s.
Everyone is an artist creating art all the time whether they know it or not as they are spiritual beings whether they know it or not.
Science tells us about the principles of natural nature, we must follow while we are living in human body’s.
A natural principle of nature is be good to natural nature or naturally by nature it will not be good to you, so follow natural principles of natural nature so naturally by nature it will be good to you in a spiritual artistic way.