The scientific endeavour has certainly made significant changes to human society. It has been that through which the modern household is now equipped with items that not even royalty were able to enjoy a mere one hundred years ago; a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things. Those of us lucky enough to live in a modern home have access to blessings such as running water, central heating, and washing machines. Science has facilitated revolutionary transport systems which are capable of taking people across the planet in less than a day. Technology continues to evolve rapidly, and with that our insights into the darkest depths of our universe become more profound. The hadron collider is smashing atoms, which were ironically named as such because they were thought to be indivisible; robots now explore other planets; and telescopes produce high definition pictures of exploding stars in deep space. What more could we ask for? With such a grand list of achievements, with such amazing luxuries, it would be hard to think that anyone could say anything but nice things about the achievements of the scientific community.
However, as with any historical endeavour, one is always capable of finding a dark shadow under any illuminated object. All of these blessings, are, without a doubt, accompanied by curses. First of all we have the obvious ones, such as the atom bomb, along with an arsenal of hyper effective weaponry allowing warfare to be unfathomably more destructive than it has ever been in the past. We also have problems with pollution and waste, leaving our oceans littered with plastic and our air contaminated with poison. But I would further argue that there are less obvious curses, such as our dependancy on technology and the luxuries we praise that make us weak in spirit and body. We don’t perceive them as easily because we are mesmerised by what we think is positive in them. We rely on the current societal structure a lot; God help us if it were ever to collapse. I doubt the modern person would be able to cope without the safety buffers offered today.
We no longer know how to suffer with dignity and honour. Instead, we recoil from it and beg to be protected from having to deal with any hardship. Yes, science offers us experiences which can instil one with awe, but given enough time these gifts become peripheral, unnoticed and taken for granted. We become ungrateful, demanding more while we transform into a pitiful condition. Shoes with memory foam soles make our feet weak and soft; convenience stores with abundance make us fussy and wasteful; social media promises to make us more “sociable” while families isolate themselves from each other and their communities in order to stare blankly into a solid, brightly lit surface.
I don’t mean to criticise the good that has come out of these innovations. It is clearly an amazing feat that we have been able to get to such a point; where all my basic needs can be fulfilled with ease, and all praise be to Allah for providing it to us. However this detracts from the issue. We have been given a lot, yet society has become blundering and ungrateful.
Science gives with one hand, but it also takes away with the other. Every convenience and benefit (if one looks carefully enough) will more than likely be accompanied by an opposing effect which can often be equally as detrimental, if not more so, than the benefit is beneficial. Science has not only changed our societies, but it has changed us! And not necessarily for the better. Yes we live longer lives, and have access to an absurd amount of choice when it comes to buying coffee at the supermarket, but are we fulfilled? Are we content? Some claim, ‘it is better to live a day as lion, than a lifetime as a worm‘. So I ask you, what kind of people are we producing in our scientifically advanced post-modern communities? Are we producing a stronger generation that is able to overcome adversity? Or are we producing weaklings more inclined to complain and ask someone else to sort the problems out for them? And to what extent has science influenced the answer to this question?
In the title of this essay I allude to a controversial claim: Science is Art that has forgotten it is Art. So let me address this directly and explain why Science should be seen as such. This claim originates with the renowned German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who says on this subject in The Birth of Tragedy:
“Lessing, the most honest theoretical man, dared to express the idea that he was more concerned with the search for truth than with truth itself: in the process, the fundamental secret of science was exposed, to the astonishment, even annoyance of the scientists. Now admittedly this isolated insight, as an excess of honesty, if not of arrogance, is accompanied by a profound delusion, which first came into the world in the person of Socrates– the unshakeable belief that, by following the guiding thread of causality, thought reaches into the deepest abysses of being and is capable not only of knowing but also even of correcting being. This sublime metaphysical madness accompanies science as an instinct and leads it again and again to its limits, where it must transform itself into art: which is the real goal of this mechanism. “– F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, #15
Here, Nietzsche makes it very clear that Science often ventures unreasonably beyond its borders; and once it has entered into the abyss, it is left with no way of communicating its experiences with anything other than an appeal to art. This point is also expressed by Albert Camus in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, where he explains it with the example of a scientist trying to describe the atom:
“You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicoloured universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realise then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art.”– A. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, (Penguin Books: London, 2005) p.18
Can you see the issue yet? Science does this over and over again. In and of itself it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s absolutely necessary for science in order to make the progress it does and provide us with the comforts that we receive. In favour of these purposes, art is itself a hyper effective form of communication. It really helps to solidify ideas in the minds of the populous, and also helps them spread quickly from person to person. The more attractive the aesthetics, the more beauty it invokes, then the more likely people will incline towards accepting it, to share it, to adopt it as a model, and not to resist its implementation and further funding. This beauty is invoked through the process of making something which was otherwise experienced as chaotic and confusing, into something ordered and digestible. Many of you have likely seen this image…
It is meant to be a visual representation which assists our understanding of what the atom is. However, as should be quite obvious, we don’t actually know what the atom looks like, or whether it even makes any sense to say it ‘looks’ like anything. The atom is just too small and we’re left with no alternative but to resort to art; to lie for sake of truth; to utilise metaphor. That isn’t to say that the atom doesn’t exist, and that this is all a conspiracy! Let me be clear of that. However, it is true that science must mislead you in some respect with its images and its narratives, in order to direct you towards its consensus. Even the name of the atom is an oxymoron, as pointed out at the beginning of this essay.
It derives from the Ancient Greek atomos, meaning indivisible. However, science had to do a u-turn on this in the past because of discoveries like the atom bomb…
And the hadron collider, which smashes these little “indivisible” atoms apart…
Yet the scientific community never bothered to change the name. Why? I can only guess that it was the result of an aesthetic attachment to the word. That is, there is a history invoked by it, and this instills the experience of beauty in the pursuit of knowledge; it grants us awe because of the representation of the mysterious. It is for this reason that the discrepancies are mostly (if not completely) ignored by the layman, and inevitably become forgotten.
Now don’t get me wrong. I must reiterate that I am by no means trying to make the claim that science is ultimately subjective, or relative. Nor am I trying to say that it has no relation to truth whatsoever. I am not anti-science, nor am I a post-modernist. I believe in absolute truth, and that humanity should be directed as best as it possibly can towards this pursuit. In so far as Science does this, and doesn’t venture beyond its realm, I find it to be an honourable pursuit. However, I am acutely aware of a certain dogmatism that is pervading the current political climate which is being unwittingly pushed by atheists. They see themselves as having access to absolute truths through science, which each of them claims to have accessed objectively, without the use of faith or belief (a dirty word to the dogmatic atheist). They deny that objective facts have their roots in pragmatic views of truth and inter-subjective experience, because that sounds too much like one is calling it subjective; despite this being a massive oversimplification of what is actually being said. It is not that reality is what ever any one wants it to be, its that we can recognise there is a shared reality, and establishing ‘facts’ about this reality is made extremely difficult by a number of the conditions that none of us are capable of escaping. We are human, and these conditions are inextricably tied to our finite nature.
These conditions were alluded to by Immanuel Kant, who pointed out in his book, The Critique of Pure Reason, that we cannot claim to have direct access to the external world. Why? Because any experience of the world is the result of information being received by our senses, and then filtered and transformed by the mind in order for it to be presented to our consciousness. Much of the informational input we receive is ignored:
“The visual system is constantly processing our surroundings. The auditory system is stimulated by all of the many miniscule sounds that compose our environment. We’re taking in all the smells around us at any given moment, and we’re constantly feeling the clothes on our skin. Even within one sensory system, there is an enormous amount of data that gets processed.Jordan Gaines Lewis, “This Is How the Brain Filters Out Unimportant Details”, Psychology Today, article link.
With this onslaught of input, how do we manage to not go completely insane? The key is that we pay attention to only a small proportion of that information and throw much of it away. This process is known as selective filtering or selective attention, and most people do it all the time.”
Oddly enough, this article makes a strange assumption about the filtering process in the title. The author states that the brain filters out the “unimportant” details, but how is its importance determined before the filtering? The issue with this is that it infers an active observation which occurs prior to the filtering, which establishes what it discards as necessarily unimportant. However, there are enough examples in everyday experience which show that important information is neglected by the brain all the time (those of you who have ever been to a university lecture will know exactly what I’m talking about 😉). The objective value of what is discarded is never considered, as it is a conditional process which operates according to the task at hand and does not bother to determine things with such certainty. It is much more pragmatic than it is objective. A question that arises here is, to what degree does this filtering apply to hermeneutical endeavours? When a scientist (or anyone for that matter) is presented with evidence, to what degree does this filtering out of ambiguities, establishing its assumptions and hypothesising, get effected by the filtering processes of the mind? And how does this effect our claims to knowledge?
The experiences of the scientist can’t escape any of these traps. All information is processed before it is presented, even for them. It is precisely because of this that we can never be sure what form the information took prior to it being processed by our minds. Nor can we necessarily know what was neglected in order to make room for what we have focused on. The obvious issue here is that our focus can be misguided, and this possibility always stands for the scientist as well; regardless of how senior they are in their field.
We can never know the “things-in-themselves” with absolute certainty, as Kant put it. That is, the unadulterated truth, unpolluted by any form of subjectivity or finitude. Even our scientific instruments – which Neil Degrasse Tyson refers to as “an extension of our senses” – suffer from this problem. They take in information and then process it according to how we have determined it should be processed; it can’t act beyond its programming. It then provides a representation of its findings to us, which also goes through further layers of processing and filtering. This raises all sorts of issues that many scientists completely neglect for pragmatic reasons, not objective ones. To add to this, Nietzsche mentions the problem with regards to the very language we use to communicate these ideas in the following quote, which (to some degree) also applies to the language our equipment is forced to utilise:
“The stimulation of a nerve is first translated into an image: first metaphor! The image is then imitated by a sound: second metaphor! And each time there is a complete leap from one sphere into the heart of another, new sphere. One can conceive of a profoundly deaf human being who has never experienced sound or music; just as such a person will gaze in astonishment at the Chladnian sound-figures in sand, find their cause in the vibrations of a string, and swear that he must now know what men call sound – this is precisely what happens to all of us with language. We believe that when we speak of trees, colours, snow, and flowers, we have knowledge of the things themselves, and yet we possess only metaphors of things which in no way correspond to the original entities. Just as the musical sound appears as a figure in the sand, so the mysterious “X” of the thing-in-itself appears first as a nervous stimulus, then as an image, and finally as an articulated sound. At all events, things do not proceed logically when language comes into being, and the entire material in and with which the man of truth, the researcher, the philosopher, works and builds, stems if not from cloud-cuckoo land, then certainly not from the essence of things. “F. Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense”, – From: The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writinsg, (Cambridge UP: Cambridge, 1999) p. 144-145
Two problems have been presented thus far. First, the structures of the mind always interfere with the information before it is presented to consciousness; and second, the metaphorical nature of language presents an epistemological gap which cannot be traversed. How can a scientist ever be so bold as to say that they have access to the “true essence of things”, when the very results of their exploration point to the opposite of these very conclusions? They can look at the brain and see that its function is to process incoming information for representation to the observer! Scientists are human too, and have certainly not escaped these problems by virtue of becoming scientists, and simply ignoring this does not make the problem go away. They can dedicate themselves to whatever “objective” ethos they like, none of it will extinguish these issues. And this isn’t even to mention the issues faced by the scientific community with regards to the fact that it is subject to the forces of social powers; be that by authority or by majority and regardless of whether they admit to it or not. It is important to remember that being the opinion of a human authority or that of the the majority does not guarantee the transmission of unadulterated truth. Ullrich Haase sums Nietzsche’s thoughts on this very succinctly in his book Starting with Nietzsche, in the following quote:
“Nietzsche thus accounts for objectivity as a necessarily communal value, which is to say that it is never free from the exertion of power. If a majority of scientists agree on something, then they have the right and the power to make others agree. If a scientist still refuses to agree, then the majority can, as the twentieth-century logical positivist Rudolf Carnap has argued, say of him that he is colour-blind or a bad observer or fantasising or a liar or mad. That this notion of scientific objectivity directs itself to the necessary agreement of all means for Nietzsche that it does not discover truths about the world, but works at the normalisation of experience. As he says later in the Zarathustra, here ‘everyone wants the same, everyone is equal to himself: whoever feels differently voluntarily goes to the madhouse’ (4/20)”Ullrich Haase, Starting with Nietzsche (Continuum Publishing: London, 2008), p. 23
Now let me stress again, this is not a post-modern claim in favour of saying that there is no objective truth, or that all interpretation is arbitrary and subjective. To hell with the extremes of post-modernist skepticism and aversion of grand narratives. One does not need to be a post-modernist to admit that this, unfortunately, is the inescapable predicament of science, and of all spheres of knowledge in general for that matter. This is simply an issue we have to face up to in order to be able to understand where our limits lie. It doesn’t mean we have to give up on science and close all the labs. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue research. Science has its advantages and these shouldn’t be denied. The issue is simply that the concept of truth is much more complex than the neo-athiestic would have you believe. Despite this however, these spheres shouldn’t be thought of as cohesive monoliths. It’s not as though the entire community agrees on everything, or that there aren’t dissenters or revolutions in thought. These things can and still do occur, but they must do so in the face of such forces, not absent from them.
There is nothing logically coherent in the claim that our experience of reality is a direct representation of that reality and its underlying substratum. Take the Australian Jewel Beetles as a great example of this. The males evolved in such a way that they couldn’t distinguish brown shiny beer bottles from potential female mates. I think its fair to say that this could only have occurred if the evolutionary function which guided their development was not concerned with the “absolute truth” of reality, but that it make simple pragmatic changes which assist in the species survival and propagation. This, however, eventually led them to endangering themselves in an “evolutionary trap”, and the presence of the brown bottles posed a serious threat to their mating system. If the evolutionary function was concerned with the absolute truth of reality, this would never have occurred.
Furthermore, the “necessarily communal value” of objectivity mentioned in the above quote by Hasse is exactly why many of these issues must be considered and taken seriously. What is often reffered to as objective, is better understood as inter-subjective. The differences in experience among the community are removed, and the similarities and evidences are catalogued, archived and then communicated. It is this entire process which Nietzsche considers to be equivilent to art. He does not consider science as a distinct catagory, but rather as a sub catagory that belongs to it. Albeit, as a much more rigourous and communal form of grand art than we are privy to, that has roots in morality more so than it cares to admit..
“What Nietzsche tries to demonstrate in this essay is that our convictions concerning the notion of truth as certainty of knowledge, this certainty in turn understood as an objectivity of knowledge based in facts, does not ground in itself, but is the consequence of another motivation. Modern philosophers often pride themselves on the scientific nature of their enquiries. They repudiate for example, Nietzsche’s thought as being ‘merely literature’, which is to say art. And art they understand as making things appear in a way that they are not. That is, art lies about reality, while, if we are lucky, it lies in an entertaining way. And yet, as Nietzsche has just shown, science, understanding itself as establishing factual truths, belongs to the realm of morality, while the underlying truth of this moral imperative is the lie, that is, an artistic falsification of reality. It is a falsification of reality, making reality appear in a mathematical way, which is to say, in the image of human thought. In other words, Nietzsche demonstrates that science is an art that has forgotten that it is an art, and that for it to be true, we first had to create the human being for whom it can be so.”Ullrich Haase, Starting with Nietzsche (Continuum Publishing: London, 2008), p. 23-24
And so we conclude here; science is a creative endeavour which wishes to legitimise the experience of the human species, and represent it with the forms that it has established as tools to aid this understanding.
Science is Art, and it is an absolute shame that it has lost sight of this.