(I continue my riffing on Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer. You will need a Flash enabled WEB browser or mobile device to see the animation below)
If something can’t be quantified or calculated, it can’t be true. Our current
culture subscribes to a very narrow definition of truth. (Lehrer p8)
As an artist, author, social commentator, technologist, futurist, scientist, teacher (descriptors I am selecting today to define myself – shouldn’t everyone keep such a list?), it is the above statement from Proust was a Neuroscientist that I most want to address. It is a theme, quite frankly, that I am driven to address with the whole of my being and life, because I have always lived in these multiple worlds. And my days have been spent bridging the worlds of art and science.
The day I spent at the Cal Tech TEDx conference a couple of weeks ago was one of the most exciting and stimulating days of my recent memory. But I brought my “narrow definition of truth” magnifying glass to that conference, and noticed things I might otherwise have missed because of my concerted effort to view my experience through that lens.
One of the presenting scientists said: “The smartest people go into physics or math.”
In point of fact, lots of smart people go into a phlethora of fields, but to keep my focus here narrowed to a manageable amount of information, I will concentrate on the choice to go into the Arts.
Sure, scientists and mathematicians have figured out some pretty amazing truths. But so have artists. We’ll look at some particulars in future riffs about some of the artists Lehrer discusses in his book. The differences in the discovered truths of artists and those of scientists has more to do with the fact that society has often valued the accomplishments of scientists over those of artists, and, more importantly, paid more attention to the accomplishments and discoveries of scientists than those of artists.
There are many discovered truths in the work of artists – truths waiting to be to be perceived by the general population, or known only to those who have experienced and understood the particular truth-laden artistic work.
When I was eight or nine, I figured out Pi. This discovery was really no big deal. It was a simple matter of observation and logic. When I looked at circles, it was obvious that there had to be a relationship between the diameter and the circumference of them, a relationship that would be the same for all circles; it followed naturally, then, that there must be some number that connected them. We were doing addition tables or some such nonsense in school at the time, so I did Pi on my own time. (see animation above)
During most of my childhood I was far more interested in music, ballet, movies, novels and art than in math. These were the complex things. The things that demanded my full attention, because they were difficult to understand.
Much art required interpretation, which added to its complexity. It was not black and white like math and science. Art truths were usually subjective, and not self-evident like the truths of math.
So, at what point did society determine to be awed by scientific discoveries, but not those of art? At what point did society begin to denigrate the work of artists and the need for the arts, in deference to science?
Science may have gotten us to the moon, but art has given us comfort, enlightenment, deep understanding of human nature and experience. Art has brought us joy and solace. And, in many cases, art has anticipated later discoveries of science. Art also has the ability to observe and present truths and realities that will never be touched by science.
To be continued.