1: Science versus Art

This one was prompted by a post in Terry McGarry's newsgroup back when it existed on Greyware. The post was a quote of Lord Dunsany, uploaded by Steven desJardins:

I look upon the artist's work as being the giving back to others what he has got out of the universe, and I think that if my theory of the artist is correct, there obviously must be far more in his spirit than his intellect can ever discover. And I feel that because like a tiny drop of dew the artist reflects perhaps even something of infinity, then somehow he is greater than the more precise and more exact scientist.

I responded:

What Dunsany gets utterly wrong here is that he misses the point the scientists are, by and large, doing exactly what he says the artists are doing, except that they also do it with a little more precision and exactitude than the artists do.

An individual scientist or artist can do little more than reflect a bit of reality. The difference is that all the scientific reflections add up to a gestalt that has objective value in describing and understanding the world. I'm not sure what the artistic reflections add up to, but it has more to do with "subjective" and "the human condition," and to say that that equates to a glimpse of "infinity" that is "greater" than the scientific glimpse is as absurd as saying "blue" is greater than "pi."

And I'm not taking "infinity" to be the naive literal scientific meaning of the term. I'm taking it to mean the vast sweep of "creation" (to use an artistic term) or of "spacetime" (to use a scientific one) and humankind's place in it. All of my awe at that infinity is powered by my knowledge of science, which imbues "infinity" in this sense with a meaning I can grasp at and try to envision. Without the science it becomes a mystery on a level with "gee, I wonder if it will rain tomorrow" and "gee, aren't those foreign countries strange and far away compared to here." (I admit there are scientists who reduce science to that level of banality, but they are not scientists with a spark of greatness, just as Dunsany isn't talking of artists with no spark of greatness.)

Even "infinity" as a term hinting at one's individual mortality and the mystery of how we come to be here for a short while as living, breathing beings capable of experiencing sensations and emotions, etc, etc, doesn't let Dunsany off the hook.

Without science, well, gee, I guess it was some god created everything and made up all the rules. We're just pale shadows of this god thing, kind of like characters in a book. Well, that's that solved (and we can never know why god chose this creation and these rules), so let's go have a beer down at the pub, now.

With science, it's an honest-to-god [sic] awe-inspiring mystery.

Increasingly one learns that things are the way they are because perhaps nothing else could make any sense (nothing else could "be consistent"). Or, to put it another way, one "derives" the parameters of this "creation," with fewer and fewer arbitrary assumptions and with an increasingly elegant set of underlying principles.

And you turn that around and think of it lying behind what you see out there... the waterfall rushing over a cliff, a fish swimming in the river, the rainbow over there, and the sun blazing in the sky over there, the trees sprouting bright green leaves to catch the sunshine; and tonight the stars twinkling on a black sky...

Now that's glimpsing something that deserves the word "infinity." Try glimpsing that without any scientists going before you and seeing what's there first.


Written on 4 May 1996; included in web page 14 July 1996.
© 1996, Graham P. Collins

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