Thinking Out Loud on Art, Science, and Human Values

A couple years before the advent of Mindport, Robin Burnett and I contemplated creating a traveling science exhibit on the subject of sea stars (starfish). The following piece records some thinking out loud I did about the relationship between art, science, and human values and how these might apply to the proposed exhibit. As it turned out, that exhibit never materialized, but the ideas incubated, alive and well, until two years later when Joe Edwards happened on the scene with a burning desire to start a science museum. Mindport eventually turned out to be something different than a science museum, but the ideas explored here express, from my perspective, much of the intention behind what Mindport has become.

This material interestingly exemplifies how ideas arise, evolve and eventually hatch into things you never anticipated.

While watching a video of avian mating dances, I was struck by the thought that this ritual performed by birds is a dance in every sense that a dance performed by humans is. We choose mates according to our subjective sense of beauty, just as the birds seem to. It is obvious, but not so obvious, that beauty consists of that which attracts us; that which we instinctively believe to be good for us.

With the foregoing in mind, how can we qualify the difference between the scientist’s judgement of an object’s beauty versus that of the artist?

The major difference I can discern between a scientist and an artist is one of belief. The scientist proceeds from one set of assumptions about the universe and his relationship to it, and the artist proceeds from another.

The scientist presumes that we live in a rationally comprehensible universe which is outside of ourselves, and that it is knowable by the exercise of so-called “objective” observation and the use of formal logic. The scientist is moved by the beauty of what he sees, and his reaction is to want to understand it, to encompass it some way. But his way of encompassing is different than that of the artist.

Scientific observation is of physical relationships between things. The scientist encompasses the object of his attraction by noticing what it does in relation to other objects and their actions. Necessarily, the scientist must break his observed world up into discrete objects so that he has something to observe. (This process of “lumping” things is probably a fundamental property of the Western way of thinking.) We say, “This thing here is a cup, this one is a teapot, this is a paper towel.” All of them are separate and discrete objects which exist apart from each other in form and function. Certain of their qualities are fair game for scientific study. . . in fact ANY quality is fair game as long as nothing “subjective” is brought to the observation.

We can clash the cup against the teapot and observe that it breaks. We can cover the mess with a paper towel and observe that it deflects photons from the scene. Our dismay at breaking the cup is not considered a legitimate part of the observation. In fact we may pride ourselves on the dispassion of our science. “Bash a cup against a teapot and the stored kinetic energy causes the cup to break.” So what. Our relationship and feeling about the breakage is not part of science. In fact we pride ourselves on purposely ignoring any emotion which intrudes.

Why do we observe the world this way? How did we come to it? Why did we want to “lump” the things of the world, then try to understand them with no reference to ourselves or the subjective meaning of their interactions?

Clearly, we proceeded from a belief; namely that the physical world exists apart from our perception of it, and that things happen in it according to invariant physical laws which are discoverable by dispassionate observation. We believed that we might discover the so-called “truth” of the universe if we could observe it without imposing or projecting on it our internal judgements, which we call our feelings and emotions. I.e. those qualities with endow the universe with meaning.

But the belief in an impersonal, physical, mechanical universe has meaning in itself. The desire to remove meaning has meaning. It is a conscious effort to see ourselves as inhabitants of a human-value-free environment. We wanted to live in a universe which allowed us anything at all. We purposely decided only to observe the physical relationships between things without referring to how important those things were to us or to each other. We decided that humanity and values were only one set of relations between all the possible relations of things, and that we were going to ignore that particular set of relations. Such an act has deep meaning.

As it turned out, we didn’t succeed in driving meaning out of our “scientific” observations. We just repressed it and used the so-called dispassion of science as a cover up for promoting hidden agendas which had to do with shifting power from one set of priests to another. That is, we shifted the power from the priest of religion to the priests of science.

But I’m taking a side track which is unnecessarily hard on scientists, and which focuses on the worst aspects of the practice of science. What I was trying to get at was the difference between science and art. I said that both were ways of knowing the world which proceeded from different sets of assumptions. Science knows the world (supposedly) without the intrusion of human values. Art is about knowing the world in a more general way, and it consciously includes the knowing of the knower.

There’s a paradox here. Scientists usually feel a strong aesthetic attraction to their work. Few real scientists talk about their work without waxing emotional about the beauty of that which they observe. So if both artists and scientists are attracted to beauty, then what’s the difference between them? One difference I can see is that the scientist pretends that he is “objective,” and the artist makes no such claim. The scientist observes relations between things, carefully leaving out of his observations certain relations between things which are not defined within the scientific world view. If a starfish ingests (more accurately, EXgests!) a clam, the scientist observes the fact of the starfish feeding and the clam becoming part of its substance. Science ignores the clam’s subjective state because subjective states are not considered to be within the purview of science. Scientists carefully avoid anthropomorphizing, assuming that “lower” living beings have no subjective states because they do not have brains like ours. We make no value judgement about the morality of starfish feeding on clams, or about whether clams feel pain.

However, the clam and starfish both consist of living protoplasm just as we do. Some clams will move to avoid starfish if they chemically sense the presence of one. In human terms, the clam smells the starfish, gets scared, and runs like hell. We have identified certain chemicals in our own bodies which are associated with the emotion of fear and the desire to flee. Some even argue that our feelings are entirely chemical. If a lion comes after us, we get scared and run like hell. Who is to say that the clam on some level doesn’t experience exactly what we do?

Science and art both are driven by an esthetic sense and a desire to know the world. Science is limited by certain rules: it pretends to ignore values. You might even say that science is really art with something left out. Both scientist and artist have a subject sense of beauty in connection with what they observe. The scientist does his observations according to a certain set of beliefs about what he’s doing, and the artist conducts his observations according to a different set of beliefs which encompass more.

What does all I’ve said above have to do with a starfish exhibit?

Clearly, we humans have reached a point in our evolution where we’ve come up against the limitations of our scientific view of the world. Heretofore, we’ve considered science to be the ultimate truth, and other truths to be less legitimate. We’re discovering in unpleasant ways that it is impossible for human beings to live in a value-neutral universe. Consequences, many of them more than merely unpleasant, accrue from the unfettered practice of science without reference to human values. We create weapons which can destroy the world, and tamper with our genetics before we are remotely capable of understanding the subtleties of what nature has evolved. Before we unwittingly destroy ourselves, it’s time to put science in proper perspective next to other ways of understanding.

This brings me to education in general, and our exhibit specifically.

Science and art, as I’ve said, are both ways of grokking* the world, to use Heinlein’s term. You can collect starfish skeletons on the beach and study them mathematically or esthetically. (Mathematics IS esthetics to some.) Each way of studying them is an attempt understand the ISness of the starfish. But each way is also an attempt to understand a relation of the man to the starfish, and the man to himself. The understanding of the scientist requires a different mode of being than the understanding of the artist, and each mode of being has its own importance in the scheme of things. Each mode requires the manifestation of a different aspect of our selves, and both these manifestations of self are important aspects of our all.

In grokking the starfish, we grok ourselves. We might say that the exhibit we’re building is our grokking of a corner of the universe which we name “starfish” and of our simultaneous grokking of ourselves grokking starfish. Someone who sees our exhibit might say, “Look at all this stuff about starfish.” But he isn’t seeing stuff about starfish, he’s seeing starfish as understood by us. We hope that his seeing it will teach him something about his ability to widen his own understanding.

It seems to me that good art is the end product of the process of grokking, and that what we call “inspiration” is really contact mind expansion. We are inspired by a work of art because it shows us a new way to see something, and by extension, a new way to use our minds. Putting what we call “art” and what we call “science” in the same exhibit calls attention to the two as different modes of experiencing, and displaying the two modes in juxtaposition tells the visitor that this is an exhibit about our minds and their modes, rather than just an exhibit about starfish. The science part of the exhibit becomes part of the art, which is properly where it belongs. Art is an expression of many aspects of human understanding about humans and their relationship to the world. Art contains all that is. Science is a focused beam which picks out individual aspects of being. As a mode of thought it is powerful and important, but our exhibit should put it in the perspective of just one mode amongst many, thus legitimizing other forms of understanding which have, for too long, been dismissed as inferior.

I suggest that we envision our exhibits as teachings about how to understand; as mind expanders. Our exhibits aren’t about the things they seem to be about, they are about our ways of understanding these things. Defining our work this way leaves it open-ended, and we hope it evokes excitement, questions, and curiosity in those who view it. We want people to leave saying, “Gee, that’s neat, now I have ideas about new ways to use my mind, and even if I’m not a scientist, my personal way of perceiving the world is important and legitimate.”

*This term appeared in Robert Heinlein’s book, Stranger in a Strange Land, which was popular with the counter-culture during the 1960’s. To “grok” something means approximately to understand it completely in all its complexity.