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Thoughts on the Arts-Science Interface

Chris Isham

When thinking of potential links between Science and the Visual Arts, certain ideas arise at once. For example, the physiology and psychology of vision; the physics of light; the physics and chemistry of materials used in artistic products, etc. There is also Science considered as a source of subjects for artistic inspiration of metaphors and analogies; and then there is Art put to work as a tool in the exposition of science, especially the biological and medical sciences. Certainly, there is no doubt that individual artists and scientists can benefit from meeting each other and, perhaps, acting to stimulate each others ideas and to enhance each other as individuals.

However, valuable though these encounters may be, what is of greatest personal interest to me is the challenge of relating 'Science and Art' in a much more general way that is similar to, for example, the studies in recent decades of the relation between science and religion. This is consistent with my overall view of reality as being essential 'veiled', and with no single discipline capable of uncovering more than a fragment of the mystery. Thus-for me-science, philosophy, music, art, poetry, literature, human relations, etc are all valid modes of exploring 'reality', with each capable of providing symbols, or ciphers, that point beyond themselves to what lies beneath the mystery. It is a fascinating task to explore possible overlaps between any pairs of such modes of engaging with the world.

One consequence of this view is that I would like to see a discussion of how 'Science and Art' is similar to, or differs from 'Science and X', where 'X' is any of the major human activities via which we might hope to gain some access to 'reality'. Visual art seems to have some special properties in this respect. For example, I frequently encounter artists who are genuinely keen to understand what is happening in modern theoretical physics; whereas amongst my musician friends this is a something of a rarity: evidently, visual art involves a movement both into the artist and then back to the outer world, whereas music would seem primarily to be inward looking.

In writing the above I am conscious of some important philosophical qualifications. The first is that there are many branches of science, and the ways in which individual branches relate to philosophy can be very different. Modern theoretical physics has a particular bias towards metaphysical considerations; but this should not-and, indeed can not-be regarded as paradigmatic of science in general.

Secondly, it is not productive to study 'Science and X' with just a simple realist philosophy. One of the problems in discussing, for example, Science and Religion, is to get beyond what one might call, somewhat uncharitably, the "6th-form debating society " level. In particular, modern work in this area has taken fully on board the development of critical philosophy since Kant's time, and also includes a serious recognition of the issues raised by post-modernist thought, especially the question of cultural relativism. From this perspective, I think it is vital to emphasise that the crucial issues are not just technical questions of epistemology-in particular, I feel that the existentialist side of philosophy is also essential for any really meaningful analysis of the different ways of encountering reality. Personally, I find the work of Jaspers (who focuses on the problem of subject-object dualism) particularly helpful in this direction.

A few random thoughts on the issues involved:

  • Many scientists find it helpful to distinguish between 'experimental' science and 'observational' science, and this might be appropriate in the artistic context too. To some extent, the difference between scientific experiment and observation is just a question of what is technically feasible; but the difference could also be construed as being between 'forcing Nature to respond in our terms' and 'allowing Nature to speak in Her own terms'; this might be is a fruitful line to follow further in the artistic context.
  • Some consideration might be given to the special place of pure mathematics in the sciences. For example, certain types of experimentation in art seem not dissimilar to the way mathematicians 'experiment' when arriving at new ideas and conclusions.
  • There is also the question of what constitutes 'good' art, and 'good' science; and the grounds on which such decisions are made. Again, I feel that-of all the sciences-pure mathematics may be closer to art in this respect.
  • There is an interesting issue of the roles of the 'observer' in both Arts and Science. In particular, much has been said about the role of the 'observer' in quantum theory, although the way this issue is regarded by people who actually work in the foundations of quantum theory tends to be somewhat different from those who comment on the subject from outside! [Similar cautionary remarks apply to an over-enthusiastic invocation of ideas of 'chaos'].
  • In regard to the role of the 'observer', one thing that might usefully be discussed is the role played by logical positivism in the development of both art and science in the early part of this century. In the latter case, this produced an emphasis on instrumentalism and operationalism that has survived to the present day; at least in the way we tend to teach physics, even if it not what we actually believe!

Chris Isham

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