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Are science and art diametrically opposed?

  1. Apr 19, 2005 #1
    Recently I watched a documentary on Vladimir Nabokov's outlook on Kafka's Metamorphosis, and he made the comment, "The passion of science and the precision of art." Usually it is interpreted the other way around "The precision of science and the passion of art" according to modern interpretations of the normally (seemingly?) diametric fields.

    Now, it seems to me that even though the sciences rely heavily on concrete facts and numerical reasoning, art seems to apply the same amount of detail but on a much more abstract scale (even though the goals of art may not always coincide with the goals of science, ie you don't see an artist trying to paint the energy levels of an excited atom or a poet describing the exact nature of superconductivity).

    But the goals appear to be the same: the search for truth and knowledge. In this case, however, it is found in fundamentally different ways. Art in general seeks truth through usage of emotions and human nature (through the sharing of human experience), whereas science tends to find it through the formentioned logical reasoning and analysis (mainly to describe the fundamental through use of reduction). Both attempt to find the underlying nature of the structures that may per chance govern the way the universe operates.

    So would it be to our benefit if artists were to take up science and scientists were to take up art? Different views can thus inspire ideas on both sides, and would thus enrich both fields. Now, they may not contribute exactly like a scientist or an artist would in their respective fields, but the peaceful exchange of philosophies doesn't seem all that unreasonable.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 19, 2005 #2
    What truths has art discovered?
  4. Apr 19, 2005 #3
    For one thing, literature would be the best example. Literature (prose/poetry) has encompassed a wide range of such truths, or at least observations of human reality. A good example would probably be T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, and probably numerous other poetry. It may not as empirically sound as mathematical proofs, but nevertheless it is the observation of our reality (just like physics, chemistry, biology, etc.)

    I'm not too familiar with the visual arts, but contemporary music (kinda a broad generalization I know) seeks to convey emotions which in themselves, are depictions of the world we live in.
  5. Apr 19, 2005 #4


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    But you cant do anything useful with a book or a poem. :)
  6. Apr 19, 2005 #5
    ...You can't be serious.

    Even if I were not a writer and not entirely passionate about the arts and fascinated with the way they reflect the scientific theories of their time, I would still be compelled to argue with you. How can you say that you cannot do anything useful with literature? May I remind you that the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and (on the same level for some) The Origin of Species are all books? Religious texts particularly began as collections of stories for the followers of those religions so that they would not forget their past, and now they are the basis of most of modern society.

    What books truly are, though, is the representation of ideas. Ideas are what shape us, change us, form us... how is that not power? Ideas can start wars, ideas can save lives, ideas can bring peace, and ideas can cause debates that last for centuries. How is that not use? Ideas are science. What is physics but an attempt to understand the universe? Is literature not the same thing?
  7. Apr 19, 2005 #6


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    that's a matter of perspective and opinion. without books, how could we learn about science? without poetry, how could (some of us) understand the beauty of the laws of physics?
  8. Apr 20, 2005 #7

    OMG I just wrote an immense thing for my first post here in reply to this and hit some button on the left side of my keypad that took me back a page or something and when I came back to what I was writing it was gone! Thats bull****. Im on message boards where you can **** around all day and come back to the page where you were typing a reply and your text remains. So in this I think you have just witness the beggining and the end to my stay on this forum. I just wish I knew what happened to sciforums. I love that place. peace August Voss
  9. Apr 20, 2005 #8
    I read this paragraph twice and I still can't find a single one of these truths that art has supposedly revealed. What I'm looking for is a truth that art has discovered. Not some truth that has been known all along by humans, but something first discovered by art. In science I can name countless examples, like the theory of evolution, how stars shine, how the redshift of galaxies scales with distance, how the strength of gravity varies with distance, how light gets absorbed by atoms, how an atom binds together, and so on. Certainly, art lets us experience certain emotional states, it entertains us, it enthralls us ... but what has art actually discovered?
  10. Apr 20, 2005 #9

    I would say no, they are not opposed as many other people think (or at least i think they think). It more of a greyish area..

    There is a dialogue between Sir William Rowan hamilton and William wordsworth: (this is Wordsworth talking to hamilton)

    ''You send me showers of verses which I receive with much pleasure ... yet have we fears that this employment may seduce you from the path of science. ... Again I do venture to submit to your consideration, whether the poetical parts of your nature would not find a field more favourable to their nature in the regions of prose, not because those regions are humbler, but because they may be gracefully and profitably trod, with footsteps less careful and in measures less elaborate. ''

    (see the link for more details)

    That is a direct contact between two highly respected artists of the different disciplines. So would it benefit they swap roles? probably not. As we can see, people like wordsworth view Science as strained imagination.
  11. Apr 20, 2005 #10
    I believe that art is related to everything. Art is an abstract expression of self. Artists study the way light moves, the shapes objects take at different angles, the way sounds vibrate objects, the way words and images influence emotions. They all come from art.

    Have you seen the cubist works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque?
    Before science can begin there must be an observation and a question based on it. Somewhere in that question there is art. Science seeks to answer the why and when they do there is a truth and beauty to it. That expression is also art. Science without imagination is just memorization.
  12. Apr 20, 2005 #11
    In general, art cannot accurately describe quantitatively the things that science can (which explains the necessity of science), because art deals with things on a much more subjective level. Likewise, the perspectives of human experience in Chekhov's writing cannot possibly be expressed mathematically, but they represent certain truths about life and our reality that are indeed present. I don't see how that is a detriment to art per se, because in these cases it still is describing the world we see (though not on a mathematcially concise level and on the same subjects), but in this case the goals of art and science coincide. As Huckleberry and caitir said earlier, art can inspire ideas which can be a precursor to science.

    Art may perhaps have "discovered" something in terms of making ideas come to fruition... the cave men probably found beauty in mathematics by etching a circle onto a stone thousands of years ago which subsequently lead to advancements in both aesthetic art and the mathematical sciences. The subjective nature of art prohibits an easy answer to your question. The nature of human experience described in Shakespeare's may not necessarily be as objective as Lord Rayleigh's discoveries in the field of physics, but realizations and insight exist within both fields of science and art that help to better describe the universe we live in.
  13. Apr 20, 2005 #12
    Thanks for the link Bladibla.

    With all due respect to Wordsworth, his philosophies appear to come from a fairly narrow-minded outlook on the way science is advanced. His view towards science appears to be overly reductionist-materialistic and seems to lack a fundamental understanding why science is pursued (perhaps a bad experience or two?). Science is not advanced for the sake of putting off imagination (and leaving cold shells of the scientists who pursue it), but rather to discover the truths that govern the observable universe. Scientists do not worship atoms just as much as artists worship watercolor paintings. And while science does not necessitate abstract imagination since it is bound by the rules of logical reasoning, that does not make it any less valid than art in finding the truths in this world (though they may be fundamentally different such as human experience versus cosmology, etc).

    Though science may not necessarily be as intuitive as art, creativity is required on behalf of the mathematics, especially when one tries to describe many different possible interpretations of the same reality (similar with the string theory/loop quantum gravity of modern physics). Hamilton seems to have a broader picture of the two, suggesting that mathematical representations have as much merit as any works of art.

    Hamilton's poetry may have not have been as eloquent as Wordsworth, but I suspect that Wordsworth probably wouldn't have understood Hamilton's mathematics the least bit at all, but this particular case displays the level of subjectiveness present within the field of literature.

    Perhaps science and art differ in this respect, but for all intensive purposes the goals of both seem to be the same.
  14. Apr 20, 2005 #13
    A good argument... except that not everything is about discovery. Art is about understanding. You could discover something absolutely ground-shaking, but if no one understands it then it will never be used. Discovery without understanding is useless, confined to only one person. Art is about exploration and communication, about nurturing the creativity that leads to the discovery which will lead to understanding which will lead to an ideal state of being. Einstein himself said that music led him to his discoveries. Art is necessary to science, necessary to help it grow.
  15. Apr 21, 2005 #14


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    If I may just budge my way in a bit for this:

    "Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live. The value for LIFE is ultimately decisive."

    This quote gives me reason to believe that art and science can both provide "truths". They are at least similar in some fashion.

    On the other hand, they sometimes oppose in style - science assumes a metaphysical world that they can truly learn, study and catalog, while art takes in appearances and imagination to showcase alternative viewpoints - a showcase that involves going beyond the level of language and numbers.
  16. Apr 21, 2005 #15
    Like what? What insights into human experience has Chekhov or Shakespeare or Faulkner discovered? I don't need it expressed mathematically. Just use words like they did. These are not rhetorical questions, by the way.
  17. Apr 21, 2005 #16

    I think I post this somwhere else, but anyway....

    Arts, science and philosophy (of couerse there are other branches, but I will use these ones only) are all branches of humanity. In the impossible and ifinite way to perfection (unexists) and to understand nature. They need each other to work and alone they are nothing, although each works with only one of the other.
  18. Apr 21, 2005 #17
    The visual arts require a lot of science to succeed. In fact, technique carries the day, in visual arts. It takes a lot of cunning to create art, and in realism, it takes a great deal of distancing from attachment to subject to see and then create what is seen, using knowledge of how reflected light acts, how color affects the human psyche, how objects really look, and how to make it work within a medium.

    A lot has been said about the right and left brain functions, science seems a left brain function, except for the theorists, the stars of science who see grand universal interplay, with their right brains. Science is a lot more communal and hierarchical, while art is in its essence a solitary act, except for group dynamics like orchestra, or dance, or theater. Science relies on a lot of assent, and structure; art recreates a piece of the cosmos, using the sciences left brain physics and calculation to make physical what was once the energy of creative ideation.

    I think it is all the same stuff, people have a passion for the sciences, but play it out incrementally; and artists have a passion for creation, and are doomed to play that out incrementally too.
  19. Apr 22, 2005 #18
    Insight into human experience is why literature exists in the first place. For example, in Chekhov's In Exile, one of the characters deals with the perturbing questions of loneliness and being separated from his family, and not ever getting the chance to see them again. The thing that separated him from the other characters is that he maintained hope and actively tries to return home. Frankly, my description alone of the experience does not do the story justice, one must read it for oneself.

    It is all too easy to just describe an emotional state (or human experience) instead of portraying it in a literary manner. This is especially true in poetry, where there are many different interpretations of the same emotion, and exist in varying degrees of possible states. It can mean the difference between confusion and bewilderment.

    As for the other two, many human trends that existed in Shakespeare's time also exist now. The indecisiveness of Hamlet, the trustworthyness of Othello, and the cruel and deceptive nature of Iago all manifest in his plays (and also in contemporary society for that matter). Faulkner dealt with the decline of the Southern aristocracy, differing psychological states, and the waste that is left behind in its wake. All of these authors described at least in part the mechanisms that describe human experience to this day, despite being there for several centuries.

    There are so many different insights presented by literature that it is impossible to describe it in a single post. Whether it be the 20th century themes of isolation and desolation presented by playwrights such as Edward Albee and his Zoo Story that represented the impartiality of urban America, or extended into the realm of poetry and Eliot's Wasteland, such themes are a very important aspect of the literary world. Of course, there are numerous other themes that exist within the branches of literature, and all reflect important ideas that explain human experience.

    To say that literature does not reveal human nature undermines the entire concept. It is not there solely for entertainment, for that would be like science without the interpretation; all numbers with no meaning.
  20. Apr 22, 2005 #19
    If you have read Shakespeare, or seen Shakespeare performed, then you know that he had enormous insight into the human psyche, archetypes, conflict and resolution, betrayal, villainy, the sweep of history, affection, rejection, affectation, and relation, and the many small things that make up the essential liveliness that is to be human. A demand is being made to prove that these artists had some innate understanding. The fact that Shakespeare is played again and again, and studied in order to be properly educated, indicates a high value is placed on his understanding of things human, and his poetic descriptions of universals that were so then, and still now.

    Here is something. I am always amazed to read a play again, and realizing I am hearing the source of so many sayings, that I hear on a daily basis.

    Macbeth's Soliloquy

    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    There is a speech in Hamlet where Polonius sends his son off into the world, I will look for it. I am always amazed at what is there, that every parent tries in vain to communicate to a child approaching adulthood.

    Polonius tells his son: Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but,
    being in, Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee. Give every man they ear, but few
    thy voice. Take each man’s censure, but reserve they judgment. Costly thy habit as thy
    purse can buy, But not expressed in fancy (rich, not gaudy) For the apparel oft proclaims
    the man, And they in France of the best rank and station (Are) of a most select and
    generous chief in that. Neither a borrower or a lender (be,) For (loan) oft loses both itself
    and friend, And borrowing (dulls the) edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine own self
    be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.
    (1. 3. 71-87) The advice that Polonius gives to Laertes is simple and sounds foolish being
    told to a person of Laertes’ age. Martin Orkin comments on the nature of Polonius’
    speech: 2 “Shakespeare’s first audience would recognize in Polonius’ predilection for such
    commonplace expressions of worldly wisdom a mind that runs along conventional tracks,
    sticking only to what is practically useful in terms of worldly self-advancement” (Orkin
  21. Apr 24, 2005 #20
    I don't doubt that artists such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky created insights about human nature. What I doubt is:

    1) That they were the first to discover these insights. Or in other words, that their insights represent new knowledge about the world. I find it difficult to believe that intelligent people from every place and every time did not also have these insights. Maybe they didn't express them as beautifully, but they had them all the same.

    2) The truth of these insights (which is not the same as saying that they're flat-out wrong). I'm sure you'll agree that what we get from artists are very subjective impressions of the world. They aren't testable in the way that scientific theories are. I'm wary of attaching the label "truth" to scientific theories, and hence even the thought of using "art" and "truth" in the same sentence makes me very uncomfortable.

    3) The desire of these artists to find truths as opposed to beauty. I've heard it said that a good writer never let truth get in the way of a good story. A throwaway line perhaps, but I'm not so sure. When I read a book, listen to music, watch a film, I often feel that the artist is more interested in seducing me with beauty than revealing a universal truth. There's no reason why truth has to be beautiful, so the same should apply to art if it is indeed a search for truth.

    Maybe the view of the masses, that art is about entertainment and beauty is right. Maybe art is a retreat from the truth -- which is often very ugly -- into a beautiful fantasy world. Then again, maybe I am clueless when it comes to art.
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