The meeting point of ordered complexity
Debraj Mookerjee — who teaches literature, but is also a keen student of the sciences — attempts to peel the layers of self-inflicted deception that seek to separate the sciences from the arts in the minds of people. He does not merely argue that the twain should meet, he believes the two are not apart from each other to begin with
After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.
— Albert Einstein
Recently I bore witness to two separate conversations in my place of work, which happens to be a college in the University of Delhi’s North Campus. In the first, a colleague from the arts spoke disparagingly about her science colleagues before a visiting artist, only to be assured by the artist that she herself was a keen life sciences student, and had found her artistic form through her search for answers as a student of the sciences. In the second, a senior science teacher asserted how the ‘new’ principal (who had just joined) understood systems well because he was a science person, and not a woolly-headed arts person. Clearly, neither seems to have paid adequate attention to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Drawn in 1490 for private viewing and not really intended for the public gaze, it is today a unique work of art, valued highly along with the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. The drawing was based on the principles of proportion enumerated by the ancient Roman architect, Vitruvius, in Book III of his treatise De Architectura. Vitruvius, an architect, described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the classical orders of architecture.
In Da Vinci, these architectural principles marked the convergence of art with science. Da Vinci himself was a Renaissance polymath, whose genius encompassed invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. He pioneered paleontology, ichnology, and architecture, and is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time. It is also believed he invented the parachute, the helicopter, and the tank. In fact, Renaissance ‘humanism’, which he emblematised, included all forms of knowledge. A botanist would be referred to as a humanist (if he was famous and celebrated) back then. The concept of the humanities was to emerge much later. And Cambridge University continues to award only BA and MA degrees, even to engineering students! Frankly, what would you call your dentist — a person of science, or an artist, or a bit of both? To return then to the Vitruvian Man, which remains entrenched in the annals of human civilisation as a singular statement about the inseparability of the arts and the sciences. To understand this inseparability, one has to transcend a few epistemological (knowledge-imposed) barriers that artificially separate them.
The human mind is trained to think in terms of binaries. Binaries help our minds line up contradictory concepts and objects in diametrically opposite alignment, thus shaping into recognisable forms the thoughts and things that define our quotidian lives. To understand light, you need darkness; to appreciate good, you need to recognise evil; and so on. In mediaeval Europe, a popular trope in literature was dialogus inter corpus et animam (dialogue between body and soul), which along with variations existed as moral/ethical compass for judging human conduct where the soul was righteous, whereas the body was the site for worldly temptation. Today’s knowledge systems have become victims of such binaries. By extension, both in campuses and in our minds, the arts versus science binary is the primary determinant of key thought processes.
Novelist and British civil servant CP Snow started this science versus arts debate in his 1959 lecture ‘Two Cultures’, which later became a book, besides stirring a furious debate in which he was accused of being a PR person for promoting the sciences. Within academic circles and among the intelligentsia, this debate has continued to rage along more or less the trajectory established by Snow and his detractors. It is a trajectory we are familiar with. Science studies promote scientific thinking. Arts studies are essentially romantic and divorced from material reality. That this argument is completely false is not immediately obvious to most.
Let us take the example of political consciousness among the youth and subject it to the arts versus science test. Of course the intention is not to counter one generalisation with another; on the contrary, the idea is to shake up our existing assumptions. I got a wonderful insight into this when I visited Pakistan in March 2008 with theatre groups to participate in a theatre festival in Lahore. The professors at the university there contended that the largest attendance at the tabliqijamaat (religious instructions, etc, as in a satsang) was from the engineering colleges. The arts students, on the other hand, were more rational in their analysis of society. This is generally true elsewhere as well. Science students tend to slant towards the Right; arts students towards the Left; the former mobilises through an appeal to emotions, the latter through materialist dialectics. But this in itself is a narrow view, one that seeks to justify one against the other. Deeper answers lie elsewhere.
The arts versus science conundrum cannot be resolved by looking in from up close; if at all the picture pans out better if viewed from a distance. Physics, particularly space and particle physics, provides some clues. Stephen Hawking in his iconic A Brief History of Time suggests how physics and philosophy come very close to each other when you begin to ask the really difficult and fundamental questions about how the universe came to be. Abstract speculative ideas spring from complex ideation, somewhat like the thought experiments that helped Einstein discover some of the more intricate theories of physics. Hawking suggested that the laws of physics had to be exactly what they are for the evolution of the universe to reach exactly that point today when an intelligent species has evolved enough to ask questions about how these laws came to be. Called the anthropic principle (strong and weak anthropic principles are its primary variants), this theory argues for a human-centric causality to the universe’s evolution, which ultimately is a philosophical position.
In the subatomic space, where particle physics comes into play (inside particle accelerators where the search is on for fundamental particles that existed at the moment of the Big Bang), we enter the quantum world. Here again, we counter ideas that challenge intuition and our received understanding of phenomena. Multiple histories, where every possibility is said to exist simultaneously, with the one being observed becoming ‘real’ for us, and the future determining events in the past (John Wheeler’s classic ‘delayed choice’ experiment) are not ideas that are easy to wrap one’s head around. The crossover imagination that is needed to experiment with, and understand, these mind challenging concepts are an admixture of science and philosophy, of mathematical exactitude and speculative creativity. One for the other, or the other for the one, cannot separately establish a higher understanding of who we are and what we can become.
The ultimate academic degree one can earn is a PhD, or a doctorate in philosophy. Ultimately, therefore, whether you are a sociologist, a chemist, or a Sanskrit scholar, if you have defended a thesis that contributes new knowledge to your chosen field of scholarship, you are considered a doctor of philosophy. The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek word ‘philosophia’, which means love of wisdom, or knowledge. At its absolute apex, knowledge is not segregated, it is not, to misquote Tagore somewhat, “broken up into fragments/by narrow domestic walls”. Knowledge unites; it is ultimately one, uncontaminated by the separatist tags of science and humanities. In fact, only when you recognise it as one can you claim to have acquired true knowledge.
How about putting this entire argument to test? And how about moving away from philosophical generalities and abstract configurations to the arena of lived human experience? What is the end product of science? Technology. What is the end product of art? Aesthetics. And what is the end product of the humanities and the social sciences? Perhaps explaining the relationship between the two!
The Industrial era, inaugurated in the early 19th Century, created a deep chasm in the imagination of writers and thinkers in Europe. The Romantic poets rebelled against the inhumanity of the machine. Later, documenting the difficult period of transition to an industrial society from an agrarian one, writers like Dickens painted in detail the horrific visual assault industrialisation inflicted on the beauty of England (his description of Coketown, an newly emergent industrial town created for his novel Hard Times, is graphic and disturbing). The primary objection these creative artists had against industrialisation was aesthetic — big machines were ugly, dirty, dehumanising, and excessively powerful.
This early idea about technology has undergone tremendous churn in the last 150 years. Whereas the earliest machines were grimy and huge and smelly, over time, machines moved out of factories and entered homes. By the turn of the century, technology was cleaner, smaller, and useful in so many different ways within the domestic sphere of human existence. These machines, now called gadgets, blended with human labour, at times fully substituting it, like the washing machine and the dishwasher did. And then began to provide entertainment: Enter the radio and the TV. And further became an adjunct to professional productivity, eg, the calculator and the computer.
Slowly, technology began to ingratiate itself further into the human experience by donning the role of a companion — the notebook, or laptop. Meanwhile, the Internet melted the distance between knowledge (stored in books and offices and forests) and our mind’s ability to connect with it. An important thing happened at this point — technology enmeshed itself with our consciousness.
The world of quantum physics and anthropic principles had leaped out of the laboratory and entered our daily lives. In today’s world, technology, for most, is not ugly and forbidding; it exists inside our pockets and makes life easy, freeing up time for other things.
The story does not end here. This piece began with Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, arguing how it encapsulated both the arts and the sciences. It will end with Steve Jobs and the company he built, Apple Industries. An iPhone today is an iconic lifestyle product. In fact, it is more than a product, it is actually a lifestyle choice. An iPhone, not necessarily the most advanced product in the mobile telephony space, nevertheless is the most valued. This is so because aesthetically, it commands a rarefied iconic status that competing bands are unable to breach. Why is it so? Quite simply because in terms of aesthetics, and pure artistic qualities, there is a certain economy of design that defines the iPhone. Its form and function blend into one. It is that one singular focal point where art merges with science. Steve Jobs was a technological genius, but more than that, he was an aesthetic genius. He willed into life an aesthetic consensus where technology could become iconic in its stylistics and command unprecedented worldwide following. Jobs rounded the circle that the industrial revolution has started etching on the consciousness of humanity.
The arts versus science debate ought to have been long declared dead. Most of us are digital natives. We live in a world where we continually make sense of complex science and technology. With the explosion of social media and the ever expanding footprint of a digital world, ideas float readily today from one platform to the other. Politics, identity, contesting social categories, and so on are the staple of everyday news consumption, making us all amateur social scientists in our own right. And in encountering fictional narratives via films and photos and tele series, besides books and audiophiles and YouTube and what have you, we everyday make aesthetic choice about what we like, and what we do not. In short, we are dealing with technological and societal and aesthetic choices all the time and in our own personalised ways. The world has indeed shrunk. The ICE (information, communication, entertainment) age is truly upon us and inside it, those who attempt to draw a distinction between its various components are shortsighted and in urgent need of lens correction.
Aristotle was as much a philosopher of science as was Karl Popper (famous for his concept of ‘critical rationalism’, which itself provides keywords for what we’re trying to examine herein) or Thomas Kuhn. Bertrand Russel was a mathematician philosopher. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was a (not very bright) mathematician who nevertheless created the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, and Humpty Dumpty. In the Indic tradition, as well in the Islamic tradition, philosophers were often scientists and scientists were philosophers. In fact, India gave the world both the idea of Shunyata (Buddhist philosophy) and Shunya (zero).
Perhaps the final resting place for this debate lies inside a yet-to-be-built museum dedicated to ‘zero’, designed to beautiful architectural proportions, and mathematically poetic in its expressions. Science helps us understand the world; art urges us to appreciate it. Anyone who chooses to cast the one out for the other is choosing to lead half a life. Binaries divide. Wisdom unites. And the ultimate wisdom emerges from the deep enmeshing of the arts with the sciences.
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