Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Science as a Subset of Art

From Ibn al-Haytham, the great Islamic scholar-scientist and inventor of the empirical study of optics (died aprox 1040 CE) and perhaps, modern empirical practice:
"Truth is sought for its own sake. And those who are engaged upon the quest for anything for its own sake are not interested in other things. Finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough."
It's worth noting that he studied optics intently while in prison (for failing to invent impossible military technology), watching the movement of sunlight passing through his tiny window. This lead to a complete intellectual revolution, leapfrogging the ancients by cementing theory to observation and experimental practice.

Truth is an interesting and complicated idea itself. The empirical concept presumes the existence of universal truths, more universal than monotheistic religions, which tend to be very jealous with their access to what they consider to be truth. The evangelical ones seem to enjoy company so much they're willing to kill for it, but happily degrade any truth but their own.

One reason that Art still exists is that both religion and science have inadequately described and practiced human imagination and experience. As people, we are sensitive to phenomena - both real and imagined, and which dynamically change one other - as subtle as Art is capable of, which the gross summaries of aggregate systems and ideologies, ones as aspirational and effective as Science, and as apparently meaningful as religion, do not begin to describe.

I do not mean this to draw equivalency. I'm more arrogant than that. Not every culture has institutional religion, nor does every culture have an organized science practice (a more acidic wag than myself might suggest America is one of these.)

But all cultures have expressive art forms, in which personal and social meaning is seemingly built in the actual act of expressive construction. And the end product is in many ways less important than it's creation ( a wonderful example are the Tibetan sand paintings.) That "I" and "We" are making, pulling something real and frequently beautiful from the crushing vast emptiness, is after survival, social bonding, and sex the most essential and inevitable human act, and it is the one that to this day best defines the quality of humanity that is distinct from other animals.

It would be absurd to suggest that people had no meaningful appreciation of moral action or physical truth before the relatively recent phenomenon of monotheistic religion or, in historical terms, the shiny new toy of scientific method.

A defining, truly ancient essence of us it to make: art, music, things, designs, structures, systems, beer, even and maybe especially when we do not need to. That the structural cruelty of materialist capitalism - which really does raise the idolatry of the abstract concept of money above that of human beings - has beaten creativity out of everyone but specialists doesn't change this desire to make the imagined/observed, so common, so natural, so powerful in every child.

This rounds around to this: I think religion and science are both external, somewhat nationalized aspects of the more essential impulses of Art. As Carl Sagan pointed out, a Zen monastery is a highly evolved form of civilization - you don't require radio telescopes to qualify. And one might argue whether a Japanese Zen monastery is really a religious practice.

What I would argue here is that the strange persistent of Art is evidence that the nature of God, still less his/her/their existence, is far less important to human society than we tend to think, and that Science is a really a very late form of Art: it shares generally truth-seeking empirical practice that has been refined through many millenia to recently adding reducible and repeatable and theoretically universal methods. The phenomena of religion is a another creature, itself a social construction of Art, blended inevitably and usually horribly with politics and economic conquest. Science has left it, though only perhaps through its practical limits, to parent Art to probe and explain the inexhaustible nuances of individual being, a problem renewed and deepened with each and every new life.

One will naturally wish me to define art. I demur. All definitions truncated by written language are terribly, terribly, terribly inadequate. What does orange actually feel like, especially that orange in that Van Gogh? Which smells do the key of D minor recall? What were the spiritual views, maker of Venus of Willendorf, or did they just like big tits, or was it, more likely, a combination.

It is best described by observing and participating in its practice and its products, which is of course the same maddening unsatisfactory answer supplied with such blithe self-satisfaction by the religious. And which is precisely why I am forced to paint.

And so there is no summary/symbol of the amazing richness of human consciousness that is still the human consciousness. There is no single, wholly complete path to truth, and the road is rough. We can however, at least, commit to destroy with Reason those demonstrable, self-serving falsehoods upon which so much cruelty and misery is built. We can with it seek what universal truths there are to be had. Where Reason can no longer forge forward alone, Art can guide.