Personal History – Science vs. Art

What follows below is a slightly edited version of a long letter I wrote a few years back explaining to Robin Burnett, another of the three founding partners of Mindport, something of my views about science and art and some of my questioning about where my interests might be leading me in the future. At the time Mindport was not yet even a gleam on the horizon, but the thinking expressed here has been a force in Mindport’s evolution. The other two partners of Mindport have their own individual stories to tell of course, so please do not read this as being more than my personal perspective…. Kevin Jones

An awareness has come to me over the years that my fascination with science, technology, and all that, isn’t quite the same as that of other people who work in these fields.When I was growing up, I found science a completely absorbing subject, and my ambition from an early age was to be a scientist or an engineer. I started reading science books when I was in the first or second grade, and before long was reading the science textbooks for grades far ahead of me, particularly the sections on electricity and magnetism.

That should have been a great start toward a career in science. Trouble was, when I got to high school and actually started studying physics and chemistry, I found myself completely turned off and dulled by the subjects. I’ve never had a particularly good mind for math, and the plodding beginning of physics study mired in the tedium of vectors, linear motion, work, energy, and the dull computation which went with them completely turned me off. Later, when I took physics as a freshman in college, I finally dropped it because I couldn’t stand another instant of computing relativistic mechanics in three dimensions because it had nothing whatever to do with what fascinated me about science.

I sniffed about meteorology and geology a bit, and biology as well. I contemplated a career in oceanography for a time. I spent nearly two years aboard an oceanographic ship in the Indian Ocean. That was interesting and fun, but the work I saw being done seemed to me plodding and dull, relating to nothing but numbers, statistics, and minuscule details which were certainly a far cry from getting me in touch with what I craved to be in touch with.

At some time in my twenties, I began to suspect that my early interest in science was something other than what I’d conceived it to be. I thought back to my very first inkling of interest in technical things, namely magnets. My uncle gave me a couple magnets salvaged from speakers, and I was fascinated by the invisible force between them. It wasn’t long before I was wrapping wire around nails and hooking the ends to a dry cells to get the same effect. What was this force between two pieces of metal? It seemed to me to be a link with mysteries beyond my ken. I began reading science books because magnets, of course, had to do with science.

My father and the uncle who gave me the magnets took me to the science museum in Boston. I was completely floored. I loved the place! One of the exhibits showed how clouds formed. When I got home I tried to duplicate it by inverting shot glasses in pans of water because that seemed to be the essence of the exhibit I’d seen. I wanted to capture those clouds. But it didn’t work. I’d missed some essentials somehow.

Later, when I was in my twenties and having my crisis with science study, I remembered this experience with the clouds. So ridiculous and absurd, that little boy me trying to make clouds form with shot glasses and pans of water. But I still remembered the powerful feeling behind that experiment. I wanted something having to do with the essence of clouds, and I wanted power over it.

It was then that I decided that my interest in science was really tinged with something which smacked more of the artist mentality than that of a true scientist. What I wanted was not to analyze the universe around me with the abstraction of mathematics, but I wanted to possess it somehow, embody it in myself. Clouds were feelings. Big dark thunderclouds, little fair-weather cumulus, the wisps of mare’s tail cirrus: all of them tugged powerfully at my feelings. So did the forms of the earth, the flowing water, the cool umbrellas of maple trees on hot summer days, and the ascetic spare beauty of baking desert. I loved all these things with a love beyond understanding and I craved a communion with them that I had identified as the desire to be a scientist. That is, until I studied science in school and discovered that what I was being taught had nothing to do with what I felt inside about “science.”

Over the ensuing years, I’ve thought and worked a great deal, trying to understand and reconcile what seem to be two conflicting and mutually exclusive parts of myself: one which is wrapped up with a fascination with technology and machinery (conventional science), and another which is preoccupied with what most people might call art. Except it isn’t quite that, either.

Here’s a somewhat edited extract from my journal which I wrote during a trip to Baja with my parents about ten years ago. We were driving down that main highway somewhere north of La Paz, through the hottest, driest, most barren desert imaginable, when I spotted a windmill standing in that lonely, bleak heat. What follows are my musings in response to that sight. They may make it clearer to you something specific about the ideas I’ve groped with above.

A windmill is for me an appealing device: a fulcrum enabling wind to lift water. A windmill is also a statement about a particular way that some humans choose to understand and relate to nature.

This elegant machine enables us to get water out of the ground for ourselves, our plants, and our animals without recourse to any source of power, save that of the hot breath of the wind. Or a windmill may operate a generator, in which case wind action moves coils of wire in proximity to magnets, sending electrons surging through metallic conductors. Their motion alters the chemical balance in an alchemy of lead, copper, and acid, otherwise known as a battery. Later we release the deluge of stored electrons, which tumble through their copper conductors, doing all manner of work for us as they bash themselves against the resistance of tungsten lamp filaments, and careen through the electromagnets which drive our washing machines, sweepers, pumps, and other savers of human muscle power.

The windmill is a kind of “white-man’s magic,” ** bending nature to our will, bringing her to work for our benefit. As technology goes, it is a rather local and charming sort. Elegant. Its operation is based on a series of observations about nature having to do with gravity, mechanical advantage, the movement of electrons. These observations are single-pointed, extractive ones – that is they derive from noticing the behavior of one aspect of nature at one time, then putting everything together to achieve a specific end, or to solve a specific ‘problem.’ (The word used by Westernized civilizations to describe perceived insufficiencies.)

A windmill points to other possibilities. A person of a different sort than a so-called ‘civilized Western man’ would solve the ‘problem’ of feeding himself differently. For one thing, he might be aware that benefits derive from not eating – benefits of a spiritual sort. But aside from that….he might look at the whole scene before him and feed himself by observing different aspects of it than would be observed by his aforementioned brother. By minute observation of the inhabitants of this desert, he would learn that cacti store water, that lizards could be eaten, and so-on.

My question is, what is the innate difference between these two ways of observing nature? Both accomplish feeding the man, but each results in radically different societies. The Westerner becomes more comfortable, but increasingly abstracted from his earthly environment. He evolves toward being a creature of mind, bending all reality to his own purposes. His life becomes idea grinding against idea without end. (Look at me, endlessly grinding these ideas into a computer, making minuscule magnetic marks on the surface of a hard drive.) If one carries this to its ultimate conclusion as science fiction writers have, then we end up as naked brains floating in vats dreaming of hunting lions in the veldt. Western man, in Jungian terms, is extroverted and thinking. Analytical. Sensation oriented. Concerned with immediate and apparent rewards. Ironically, the end result is a submersion in total mind-stuff, the generation of a society which has lost the awareness of the sources of it own sustenance.

The aspect of the windmill which interests me most is the most difficult to describe. It ties in with my earlier description of machinery as conceived by Western-style thinking. The act of abstracting the windmill machine as an expression of a particular view of nature intrigues me. The process requires meditation on subtle aspects of perceived reality: the meditations of Newton on gravity, Galvani and Ben Franklin on electricity, Thomas Edison and Tesla on magnetism. When seen this way, as the product of meditation, the windmill becomes an art object: the expression of devotional observation of the physical universe. In other words, I enjoy the windmill as a succinct embodiment of a particular set of beliefs about the universe and our place in it. (But that doesn’t mean that I think our way of understanding the universe is necessarily good for us in the long run.).

I interrupted myself at this point to watch the scenery go by. I’d said something about windmills in particular, and about machinery and technology in general. They’re artifacts of our beliefs about the universe and how we fit in it. But I hadn’t satisfied something that the sight of the windmill had stirred in me. It was a piece of machinery which evoked something in me, but I wasn’t sure what. I took another stab at getting closer to the feeling:

Back to the bloody windmill: The sun beating down on the earth stirs the winds which strike the blades and give them a twist. A steel shaft turns a crank connected to a push-rod which plunges deep into the earth and the waiting water. A piston moves up and down in a cylinder with a one-way valve at the end. At each turn of the crank, the piston descends then ascends, drawing water into the cylinder through the one-way valve. Since the water cannot flow back into the well, it is steadily drawn up a pipe until it spills forth on the parched dust, running in little rivulets which dry up under the glaring sun.

That wasn’t quite it, so I tried again:

Still not very satisfying. I’d rather be there under that hot sun, letting that jet of glittering water splash over my feet. I’d rather carve that wooden blade, watch it cut the breeze, tug on the machinery, draw the coolness from its secret place under the earth, flashing out into the glare. I want to feel the heat, the cold, the pressure, float with the water through gullies and channels, circle stems under shadowed, rustling leaves, sink at last into the earth again, only to once more be drawn upwards through a billion microscopic root hairs and broadcast to the blue sky as invisible vapor blowing on the breeze.

Ah, that’s it. I crave communion with the heat, the cool water, the odor of damp soil, the liquid cutting its way through dust, the sparse desert greenery, the sun and the clouds.

I might have written something similar about a spring bubbling from the side of a rock, but the idea of the windmill as an artifact of human creation brings me more into the scene. Suppose I imagine myself as an aboriginal with a sip-well, lying face down on the sand of a riverbed, hot sun beating on my back. I penetrate the sand with my hollow reed, draw up coolness from below to slake my thirst. In this vision I’m there, yet with the windmill in the scene, I’m more there yet. The windmill is a robot of my creation, powering its drink by spreading sails to the wind. I’m at once inside and outside the scene as actor and observer both. The windmill is a product of the meditations of humans on their surrounds and its presence is that of a devotional object- much as the image of Christ on the cross represents Christianity, or the rotund image of Buddha represents Buddhism. But unlike the cross and the image of Buddha, the windmill is a kinetic image. We not only see its form, we see its ACTION.

What I’ve said so-far allows me to articulate an idea which has escaped me before, and it points me toward some theories about what I might like my work to accomplish.

I’ve identified the windmill, and all the rest of our technology as a kind of artwork (or a kinetic metaphor?) which expresses something of our beliefs about ourselves and our universe. I’ve also compared it to a kinetic religious image. In our case (we Westerners), it’s an idol because we have mistaken the thing itself for that which it expresses. The observations of historical scientists like Newton and others I’ve referred to were done in a spirit of true devotion. These were people who wanted to discover truths about the universe. Their object was pure curiosity, untinged by desire for financial gain, or even usefulness. (Assuming we’re talking about Newtons and Einsteins; not Thomas Edison!) What they discovered became the fabric of our system of beliefs about the universe. They even became our religion, and the technology which arose from the religion of scientific thinking has become our idol. We worship it for itself, allow it to permeate all aspects of our lives with scarcely a question as to the historical beliefs which begot it or its ability to give us the lives we want.

If we consider our use of technology as an idol, wouldn’t helping people understand its true nature be valuable? Could we make it clearer to people that all technology is varieties of robot which subsume human functions? To replace human functions this way is not necessarily bad unless it’s done unconsciously, or for the sake of the exercise of doing it. When we replace human skills with those of machines (human clones), then the evil is in not fully identifying the functions which we’re replacing. A craftsperson is more than just somebody who turns out drinking vessels made of clay. He/she is a part of a society who performs a useful function creating what may be a beautiful expression of her individuality. When we replace her with a machine which pops out plastic cups by the thousands, we thoughtlessly replace a complex of human functions with a simplistically conceived piece of machinery which replaces only ONE of the functions of the original potter. In this case we have not observed carefully what the function of the potter was, and we have replaced her with a robot which fulfills our economic need for cups and nothing more.

Those who create technology are quite devoted about its creation. In fact, as I’ve explained, the creation of technology amounts to religious activity. If we consciously separated the creation of technological “art” which expresses our beliefs about the universe, from the creation of tools to help is live comfortably, we would find ourselves on a track toward much more fulfilled lives. Separating our tools from our devotional images would allow us to consciously examine what we believe our existence to be about. If we presume to replace the potter, and we consciously practice our technologizing as devotion, then we take the time to observe what the potter REALLY does beyond make cups. We ask questions about the beauty of the potter’s work, the beauty of the potter’s station in life. Then if we think we can invent tools to enhance the potter’s position and function, then by all means, we should do it.

So, the work to which I referred earlier is that of devising ways to make clear the true nature of technology and science. This work might be in the form of artifacts which make it obvious to the beholder the ways in which technological creation is a statement about belief. It might be in the form of artifacts which QUESTION whether science as it is commonly practiced is a valid religion. (It IS a religion, by the way.) The work also might be a science and/or technology curriculum which includes human values (including art and esthetics) as part of its fabric. Part of the work might also be to discover ways in which science and mathematics could be taught to people who find conventional math symbolism difficult to relate to. (I’ve heard that somebody has been working on this quite successfully.)

Herein I’ve put forth some ideas about science and technology which I find intriguing and challenging. I’m still in the process of working out what to do with these things in the real world and in my own real life. The ideas I’ve outlined are generalized to the larger world, but they obviously have much to do with my personal life as an individual. The work I do for the outside world needs to link intimately my own conflicts and quandaries. Working out outside must work out inside as well.

~ ** The reference to “white man’s magic” should not be construed to have any racial overtones. This is simply reference to the fact that when westerners first invaded the homelands of indigenous peoples, some of their artifacts, like the compass and firearms, were viewed as magical, since they made use of principles and a world view alien to those who lived hunter-gather existences.