The Future of Science…Is Art?

Fourth Culture / by Jonah Lehrer /

To answer our most fundamental questions, science needs to find a place for the arts.

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The Tragedy, 1903

Artists have known for a very long time that color and luminance can be treated independently. Our perception of depth, three-dimensionality, movement (or the lack of it), and spatial organization are all carried by a subdivision of our visual system that is essentially color-blind, and sees the world in shades of gray. This is an evolutionarily older part of our visual system. One cannot see depth or motion in the absence of luminance contrast. In Picasso’s The Tragedy, one can appreciate the three-dimensionality of the scene because, despite the peculiar choice of colors, the luminance is just right.—Margaret Livingstone, Neuroscientist, Harvard University © Francis G. Mayer/Corbis

Neuroscience can also benefit from the reactions of artists. Novelists can simulate the latest theory of consciousness in their fiction. If a theory can’t inspire characters that feel true, then it probably isn’t true itself. (Woolf, for example, was an early critic of Freudian theory, dismissing the way it turned all of her “characters into cases.”) Painters can explore new theories about the visual cortex. Dancers can help untangle the mysterious connection between the body and emotion. By heeding the wisdom of the arts, science extends to art the invitation to participate in its conversation and the opportunity to add science to its repertoire. And by, in turn, interpreting scientific ideas and theories, the arts offers science a new lens through which to see itself.

C.P. Snow, the essayist who coined the “two culture” cliché, proposed a simple solution to the problem of divided cultures. He argued that we needed a “third culture,” which would close the “communications gap” between scientists and artists. Each side, Snow said, would benefit from an understanding of the other, as writers learned about the second law of thermodynamics and scientists read Shakespeare.

There is currently a nascent third culture, but it strays from Snow’s conception. While his third culture was based upon dialogue, our current third culture consists, almost entirely, of scientists talking directly to the general public. As John Brockman, the founder of this new third culture, wrote: “What traditionally has been called ‘science’ has today become ‘public culture’...Science is the only news.” There is, of course, much to be said for scientists cutting out “the middleman” and translating their data for the masses. Many of the scientists that make up this third culture have greatly increased the public’s understanding of the scientific avant-garde. From Richard Dawkins to Brian Greene, from Steven Pinker to E.O. Wilson, these figures not only do important scientific research, they write in elegant prose. In doing so, they are teaching us much.

But what of the collaboration between science and the arts? Are we really prepared to live with a permanent cultural schism? If we are serious about unifying human knowledge, then we’ll need to create a new movement that coexists with the third culture but that deliberately trespasses on our cultural boundaries and seeks to create relationships between the arts and the sciences. The premise of this movement—perhaps a fourth culture—is that neither culture can exist by itself. Its goal will be to cultivate a positive feedback loop, in which works of art lead to new scientific experiments, which lead to new works of art and so on. Instead of ignoring each other, or competing, or co-opting each other in naïve or superficial ways, science and the arts will truly impact each other. The old intellectual boundaries will disappear. Neuroscience will gain new tools with which to confront the mystery of consciousness and modern physics will improve its metaphors. Art will become a crucial source of scientific ideas.

This will ultimately lead us to take a broader view of truth. Right now, science is widely considered our sole source of Truth, with a capital “T.” Everything that can’t be stated in the language of acronyms and equations risks being disregarded as a pretty fiction, which is the opposite of scientific fact.

But the epic questions that modern science must answer cannot be solved by science alone. Bringing our two cultures together will allow us to judge our knowledge not by its origins, but in terms of its usefulness. What does this novel or experiment or poem teach us about ourselves? How does it help us understand who we are, or what the universe is made of? What long-standing problem has it engaged, perhaps even solved? If we are open-minded in our answers to these questions, we will discover that poems and paintings can help advance our experiments and theories. Art can make science better.

But before any of this can happen, our two existing cultures must modify their habits. First of all, the humanities must sincerely engage with the sciences. Henry James defined the writer as someone on whom nothing is lost; artists must heed his call, and not ignore science’s inspiring descriptions of reality.

At the same time, the sciences must recognize that their truths are not the only truths. No single area of knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge. As Karl Popper, an eminent defender of science wrote, “It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach.” The struggle for scientific truth is long and hard and never ending. If we want to get an answer to our deepest questions—the questions of who we are and what everything is—we will need to draw from both science and art, so that each completes the other.

Originally published January 16, 2008

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