Science, Art, and Inspiration

I was invited by Symphony Nova Scotia to be a pre-concert guest panelist leading up to their performance of Hadyn’s Creation at the Rebecca Cohn. This also marked the 150th anniversary of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science. Over the weekend we were asked to discuss and debate the nature and role of “inspiration,” “imagination,” and notions of “beauty” in the sciences versus the arts. Here are the questions we were asked and notes regarding my responses.

Q. What is the nature and role of “inspiration” in science and the arts? Does a drive to discover, understand, and describe the nature of the universe constitute “inspiration” in a scientist? Is this analogous to the impulse which “inspires” an artist to create a musical composition, painting, poem, or sculpture?  Or do scientists and artists operate in two different worlds in their approach to their work?

A. I would argue that scientists and artists generally operate in different worlds, though there is overlap.

An empirical science seeks to explain the material world by what one can objectively observe with the physical senses. It is primarily committed to materialism and to reductionism. The goal is to reduce something to its mechanistic parts, and in doing so, explain some object, phenomenon, or cause-effect relationship. In many cases it seeks to demonstrate a capacity to manipulate the physical world, giving us a greater sense of control and mastery over our environment. While this can create a subjective sense of awe, wonder, and perhaps inspiration, it can also be a primary cause of disenchantment, since it often demystifies many of our subjective experiences and can reduce human meanings to a description of mere mechanisms. For example, we often describe art in subjective terms: we say that a painting is ‘brooding,’ ‘vivid,’ and so on, whereas an objective science might describe the same object in terms of structural organization, electromagnetic waves, and light.

Science wants to answer a question, whereas the artist seeks to create some symbolic representation – one that usually transcends objectivity and even rationality. In a certain sense it operates in defiance of a cold materialism, as it gives birth to something intangible and symbolic. Science seeks to find answers in the objective world, while art finds answers in the subjective consciousness of the artist, and in order to be received well, by the perceiving audience. Art is in large part subjective (versus objective), which is why people feel something different when they view the same piece of art or hear the same piece of music. But art also speaks to the collective – a pluralistic community of subjective human minds. It thus has the power of validating the wishes, hopes, dreams, and feelings carried in the collective consciousness; art also has the power to heal.

An objective and reductionistic science may explain the mechanics of a musical composition: the key, individual notes, timing, rhythm, and so on, but it cannot adequately explain the emergent experience of the whole musical piece that speaks to the conscious first-person individual. The reason why it cannot is because science describes objective mechanism, whereas the first-person observer is moved by subjective meaning. Meaning transcends mechanism. The science and arts are thus quite different – art traditionally finds its inspiration in the reification of meaning arising from subjective needs (of both artist and audience), whereas science tries to minimize expression of the subjective individual, in order to answer objective questions from a 3rd person perspective… often to serve some rational or objective function (e.g. to cure cancer, to more effectively predict weather patterns, etc.). A scientist may be inspired, but I suspect that has less to do with intrinsic characteristics of the scientific process of investigation, and more to do with the fact that scientists are subjective human beings who naturally crave understanding and meaning – for many scientists, meaning can be extracted from their work if they have bought into some of the larger myths that help to sustain it (e.g. the myth of scientific ‘progress’). For example, their impulse or motivation might be tied to the belief that they can contribute to humanity in some meaningful way.

Q. How do scientists use imagination to generate novel ways of conceiving and understanding nature (“creation”)? Are there imaginary concepts in science which are not susceptible to experimental confirmation, which are wholly abstract and cannot be experienced?  When musicians “imagine” a composition, are they using an intellectual approach analogous to that employed by, say, a mathematician when devising an equation to express an idea?

A. In science, our abstract or imaginary concepts are our theories: human ideas that attempt to bridge the gap between cause and effect or some other phenomenon we are trying to explain.

I cannot speak for a mathematician or physicist, but in the realm of philosophical or psychological proof, we might start with a problem and try to solve it using certain rules of logic and reasoning, which is usually followed by some kind of scientific experimentation to test them out. Creativity might play some role in the process, but I suspect this occurs despite traditional scientific methods, and not necessarily because of it. The scientist (and not science per se), must be willing to let go of his/her concrete theories to make room for creative thought and the construction of new ideas or theories. This is not easy to do when we are taught that our science should always be objective.

I suspect that when musicians create a composition, they of course have some understanding of the mechanics involved (some more than others), but unique creation is I think more likely based on intuition, guided by subjective thought and feeling, which might be influenced by life experience, culture, history, and so on. To a certain degree, you almost have to ‘let go’ of the mechanistic, concrete, ‘safe,’ modes of expression… emotions and the need for subjective expression takes over. When formal and forced thinking gives way to muscle memory or some other reflexive process, intuition is free to create something unique. Otherwise, it is likely a re-hash of something that has been done before. That said, I suppose musicians may also run into mechanical problems in the creative process, and they may rely on music theory or rational thinking in order to resolve the issue. So in this sense, there can be a back-and-forth between subjective intention and rational framing.

Q. Are there similarities in the way in which “beauty” is understood and experienced in art and in science?

For science, beauty might be the simplicity of natural law and an elegant explanatory theory, the feeling like everything ‘fits’ together in some way that makes sense (including human beings) – however, this is less an intrinsic part of how science works, and more a result of the fact that scientists are themselves subjective beings perceiving their own work in the context of their personal human needs – including their demand for meaning, purpose, unity, and so on.

I feel most capable of answering this question from my own field – that of psychology. Personally, I find some psychological theories beautiful – mostly those that make room for our subjective realities… the dynamic or existential theories, or theories of consciousness that account for emergent mental properties. I find the more objective or mechanistic theories cold and uninspiring, even though they may occasionally be right. Maybe that has something to do with the objective-subjective distinction that I have been talking about… the difference between trying to explain mechanism versus meaning. Then again, perhaps my assertion is based on subjective taste… perhaps these concrete theories can be inspiring or beautiful to a certain kind of individual, though I personally find that those drawn to such theories are emotionally aloof and dull – I think there are certain kinds of people that are drawn to these mechanistic ways of describing the world.

Q. It is legitimate, possibly essential, for the expression of a musical idea to elicit an emotional reaction; is it legitimate for a scientific concept, as an intrinsic element of the way it is formulated, to do so as well?

A. I am not so sure if it is essential for music to elicit an emotional reaction, but I think this is where it is most powerful – when it speaks to our subjective experience… a feeling, a thought, a struggle, a sense of wonder or joy… these are subjective 1st person phenomena that science has a very difficult time explaining.

While a scientific concept is less capable of eliciting the same kind of reaction, it certainly happens… where it might touch our psychological need for understanding, order, completeness, etc. We might feel momentarily in-touch with the whole world… perhaps that gives us a subjective sense of meaning. … perhaps if it creates a paradigm shift that changes our worldview or sense of how we extract meaning from our day-to-day lives… I would guess that this is rarer? I have had that experience in my own academic work (hair standing on end; chill down my neck), but again I think it happens more so when it speaks to some subjective part of my own experience with the world or dramatically changes my day-to-day perception of the world.

Q. Can an argument be made that artists and scientists are both motivated (“inspired”) by a need to explore “reality”, but are simply doing so in different ways that appeal to different aspects of the human condition? Is there a point at which art and science converge in this respect?  Alternately, do the arts and the sciences complement one another in their contribution to human experience?  Or is the attempt to conflate these two fields of human endeavour simply fatuous, an example of intellectual dilettantism?

A. Yes, I think scientists and artists are moved to explore different aspects of our human reality. Scientists attempt to explore and explain the objective natural reality from a third-person perspective, whereas the arts seek to explore a first-person subjective reality while creating some symbolic representation of that part of our human experience.

It is hard to say where they converge – there is definitely overlap. We cannot forget that while science may involve cold reductionism, the users of science are subjective human beings… the creative scientist must occasionally flirt with uncertainty and perhaps even the irrational. The birth of new ideas is only possible when we are willing to let go of the stable foundation that we sit upon. People forget that the great Isaac Newton, the poster-boy for science and reason, also practiced alchemy and was himself a religious man.

Likewise, in the arts, it is hard to imagine someone having the ability to create a moving piece of meaningful art without the mechanistic components to give it its expression. Objective rational mechanisms are necessary but insufficient conditions for the creation of unique and meaningful art.

2 Responses to “Science, Art, and Inspiration”

  1. Alicia Says:

    I think that this nicely compliments the post(s) that speak about scientism and the push to strive for objectivity within science and more specificly psychology. Art escapes objectivity each time because it has a different impression upon everyone because of everyone having different experiences and other psychological factors. Two people may look at the same painting- one perceives the colour we call green as green and another may see another colour, or lack or colour- we call this being colour blind. One person may see a painting of a cow in a field and not give it any more thought, while another will be captivated, even terrified by the painting.

    Psychology, although trying to be objective, must appreciate the individual differences as well as the differences of groups and cultures. A psychology that tries to pigeonhole people into the same boxes is not effective. There are 7 billion people on this planet; they will not all have the same experiences, nor will people who have gone through similar things will have experienced it the same. Not all people who experience clinical depression will exhibit it exactly the same, which is why the DSM is so problematic.

    In short, psychology that is flexible and malleable to each person’s unique life history and experiences is much more valuable than a psychology that tries to use the same list to describe everyone. The list, the DSM will not be able to account for all the variability between people. Thus, psychology that tries to be objective in all situations fails to consider each person’s unique differences. There is indeed value in everyone’s subjective experiences, which is why art is so mysterious and engaging depending on who views it.

  2. Nicholle Isaacsen Says:

    This is great but my greatest flaw is that “that one desire” makes me depressed.