Monday, April 25, 2016

Science and Arts

At one point, I thought I had figured out the crucial difference between science and the arts: Science could speak with authority only about things in general; it could not say anything about a specific individual. Science draws conclusions about the species acer saccharum; the artist writes about what a specific sugar maple outside the window means to her as a window into the connection between humans and trees.
Sugar Maple planted 
in front of our house 
in Wellsboro, PA
One problem with my tidy conclusion grew out of my work with biologists in our university’s environmental studies program. When I looked at specific trees with them, they saw so much more than I did so they could spot variations that I missed. They seemed better equipped to appreciate individuals than I was.

My brother Tim is a research scientist and a medical doctor who is senior associate dean for clinical and translational research at the University at Buffalo Medical School. So I thought he might have some insight into this paradox; so one day as we were sitting on the patio during a visit to our younger sister, I summarized my theory:

Me: Science can speak only in generalities. Since scientific conclusion must be replicable, it can draw a conclusion about a species but not about one particular tree.

Tim: Actually, your statement ignores the importance of the particular in science because the foundation of science is statements about particular events, each one maintaining its individual characteristics. I run a series of experiments and then look at the outcomes of each instance, and the initial conclusion I draw is that in n% of t cases, when we did x, we obtained a result y in the range between a and b, or whatever. We make a restricted statement about what we observe in the sample we analyzed. Any subsequent generalization we draw is valid only in so far as it connects with what happened in the particular instances in the experiment we performed. If a generalization is insufficiently connected to those original specific incidents, then it is not scientifically valid.

Based on what Tim said—that scientists depend on their ability to observe and distinguish particular individuals to draw their conclusions—I concluded that I needed to revise my neat distinction. And the more I thought about his point, the more I began to question, for example, the role of the specific in literature. After all, Emily Dickinson sits in her room and writes,

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

Dickinson packs into four brief lines the insight that a person standing under the sky (contained by it) can also contain the sky in her mind so that each one contains the other. In addition, both the mind can contain “You,” which could mean the reader, who is in the poet’s mind as she writes, or it could be the universal “you,” so that not only does a person’s mind contain the sky that contains it, but the brain also contains the person who contains it. Folding these ideas in on themselves should unbalance us a bit and force us to look with fresh eyes at our place in the world.

Dickinson exploits both her insight into experience and the elasticity of language to point to a universal experience. She draws a conclusion based on an insight; when that conclusion is (finally) published, we get to see whether it resonates with others so that, as in science, the particular is the foundation for the general. The experiment in this case is the work of literature, and where v is value, p is the number of people who read it, and t is the time over which people continue to read it, we decide whether something is a great piece of literature based on v = pt. If the poem contains an effective combination of particular and general experience, then the value is high.

For a while I had a shiny new theory about the difference between science and art, not one based on general vs. particular, but one based on unambiguous vs. ambiguous or single statements vs. double statements of truth. The goal of science is a statement so restricted in its meaning and scope that there is no difference in understanding between speaker and listener, or that difference approaches zero. Thus, scientists can communicate (ideally) without ambiguity,

In previous posts I have argued for the complexity and ambiguity inherent in questions, in metaphors, in creative non-fiction, in art, in humor, and in the concept of truth, and have asserted that the ability of artistic and humanistic expression to embody and help us understand the ambiguity inherent in our worlds is its great strength. So, here is another tidy distinction.

But then, of course, there is quantum mechanics, with its wave-particle duality and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Erwin Schrödinger, by creating a thought experiment—a metaphor of sorts—tried to point out the absurdity of positing that the quantum state of an electron should be measured using probability. In his experiment, a cat in a sealed box has an equal probability of being alive or dead. Using probability, quantum theory would assert that the cat was partly alive and partly dead, a patently ridiculous idea. Unfortunately for Schrödinger, his opponents embraced his experiment as an explanation, stating that opening the box and observing the state of the cat collapses the superimposed states and resolves the conflict. Unobserved, however, the cat is both alive and dead, just as an electron can be in more than one state.

I do not pretend to understand what is going on with quantum theory yet, but out at the edge, where theoretical physics is operating, we are dealing with ideas where opposites must be held in tension, the kinds of ideas that have long been formulated in the language of art and literature. I don’t know what we will discover when we are finally able to open the quantum mechanics box and look inside, but right now the unopened box seems to be half art and half science.

So ultimately, science and art both contain ambiguities and set side by side are contained in a larger ambiguity, which also includes all of us.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

One Can’t Handle the Truth.

“It takes two to speak the truth,—one to speak, and another to hear.”
I came across this passage in doing the research for another blog post. When I first noted it, the sentence struck me because it suggested that truth is collaborative: it has two participants who must coordinate their understandings. The expression captured another complexity in how we know the world. However, the statement now suggests something deeper.

Person A
Person B
Person A
in the present
Person A
in the past
Person A
in the past
Person A
in the present
Variations on "two to speak the truth"
Collaboration may be a potential attribute of truth, but it may not be an essential one. It may take “two to speak the truth,” but that does not mean it takes two different people; it can also be two versions of the same person. The gap between my original understanding of Thoreau’s statement and my subsequent understanding illustrate one aspect of how I can function like two people. We can also tell the truth to ourselves, perhaps after deluding ourselves for a while. On the other hand, we write things down, time passes, and we change, so the new person we become can learn the truth from the old person we were.

In the present or the past, we can tell the truth to ourselves, and though the gap between speaker and hearer in this case may be small, the two are not identical.

In addition to the speaker/hearer duality in “truth” is the statement/reality duality. In the Oxford English Dictionary one high-level definition for the word “truth” is “Something that conforms with fact or reality.” That definition means that the “Something” is not fact or reality; it bears a relationship but is not identical.

What fits between the arrows, we may accept, but beyond that 
right arrow we might decide the gap is too large.
Because the statement is always a translation of the case, there is always a gap between the case and the statement, even when we are doing no more than quoting someone (orally, the tone and timbre will not be identical and in print the context will differ). We accept some slippage in the case-statement relationship; we allow for adjustments, but sometimes the statement moves too far from the case and the statement is no longer a truth, even if the speaker believes it is true. No matter how close, however, necessarily a gap opens up between the case and the statement of it.

This doubleness of the truth is no basis for dismissing “truth” as an illusion or as relative, nor does it mean there are two truths involved when “two speak the truth.” The separation of the human eyes means that each eye sees something different; Nick Sousanis in Unflattening [page 4] suggests we can observe this effect by closing alternating eyes as we look at a finger held up against a background. The two separate images converge into a single image to give us our depth perception. The constituent elements of truth act in the same way; though those elements are a unity, they do not collapse into a single entity, but remain in tension, and it is in the tension among the speaker and the hearer and the case and the statement that the truth lies and does not lie. In both senses.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Ambiguity of Humor: The Joke’s on You

From the King Trump Bible. Real Time with Bill Maher
September 18, 2015
This Bible parody from Bill Maher’s show is intended to be humorous. I think it is. It uses the wonderful camel/needle eye, rich man/heaven comparison, which appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, and uses it to satirize a man whose primary claim to fame is that he is a rich man as he tries to gain the support of Christians. It also throws in a shot at Trump’s exaggerated promises and his Mexican wall proposal. 
However, the humor depends on what the reader or viewer brings to the transaction.

Maher introduces the segment including this and other Trump Bible passages by referring to Trump’s ranking his The Art of the Deal as the second-greatest book of all time. Anyone’s response to this joke and the others will depend on what the reader/viewer thinks about Trump and the bible. A Trump supporter might see this as an attack on his values, an effort to ridicule his beliefs; he is unlikely to notice the point about the incongruity between the avaricious Trump and the poverty espoused by Jesus. A Christian Trump supporter may see this as mocking the inconsistency between the teachings of Christianity and the wealth in religion. Some people could see it as an insult to the bible. Humor is all about frame of reference. Part of what makes the Trump campaign so frightening for some people is that given their values, the Trump campaign is a joke; those people are terrified and astonished to realize that so many people actually have values that are so outlandish that Trump is a serious real option.

Let’s look at someone who is the opposite of Donald Trump: Henry David Thoreau. Here he is talking about taking a walk. After referring to the Crusades, Thoreau advises,

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk. “Walking” The Atlantic (June 1862).

He is exaggerating, using hyperbole, for humorous and rhetorical effect. I always smile at the end, when his list crescendos. For me, he is not making fun of taking walks seriously; he is pointing out that a walk in the natural landscape is an opportunity for adventure, and though he is exaggerating, his description endows the simple walk with an air of grandeur. Later in the essay he compares the landscape of Italy, rich in Roman ruins, to the landscape of the U.S. and concludes that we are actually living in the kind of golden age that those ruins commemorate.
Henry David Thoreau
There he is arguing seriously; in the case of the walk, he must overload the comparison using irony to make the point and not make the point at the same time.

Not everybody got Thoreau’s ironic humor. Based on Thoreau’s writing, in 1865 in the North American Review, James Russell Lowell concluded that, “Thoreau had no humor, and this implies that he was a sorry logician” (338). Though Lowell did have some reputation as a humorist, as well as a poet and an essayist when he wrote that, he has little reputation left to speak of today.

Perhaps even Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson may have not always gotten the joke:

The tendency to magnify the moment, to read all the laws of Nature in the one object or one combination under your eye, is of course comic to those who do not share the philosopher's perception of identity. To him there was no such thing as size. The pond was a small ocean; the Atlantic, a large Walden Pond. He referred every minute fact to cosmical laws. (Emerson’s Eulogy)

Many, more modern critics, including E. B. White, have found humor in his writing, but how can we tell whether Thoreau was serious about preparing for a walk by preparing for death? Surely if he was, he would be Lowell’s “sorry logician.”

We can’t know for sure, but Thoreau was a great admirer of Thomas Carlyle and of Carlyle’s brilliant and wierdly ironic Sartor Resartus. In his essay “Thomas Carlyle and His Works,” Thoreau observes,

Sartor Resartus is, perhaps, the sunniest and most philosophical, as it is the most autobiographical of his works, in which he drew most largely on the experience of his youth. But we miss everywhere a calm depth, like a lake, even stagnant, and must submit to rapidity and whirl, as on skates, with all kinds of skillful and antic motions, sculling, sliding, cutting punch-bowls and rings, forward and backward. The talent is very nearly equal to the genius. Sometimes it would be preferable to wade slowly through a Serbonian bog, and feel the juices of the meadow.

Here Thoreau uses ice skating images to describe the “antic motions” of the work. According to Sophia Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, Thoreau was “an experienced skater” who executed “dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps on the ice.” Thoreau contrasts two extreme states—the swift, precise movement of the skater and the slow, deliberate movement of one wading through a bog—both of which his life and writing suggest he was capable of and capable of appreciating.

Whether a passage like his prescription for walking is humorous or not will depend on what each of us thinks of the context and the author. The difference between Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report version) and Bill O’Reilly was essentially the audience. Lowell thought Thoreau was a humorless mediocrity; I think Thoreau was brilliant. Although what the author intended to say does not determine the outcome (many who intend to be funny are not), in the case of humor, we would like to know whether we are laughing at or with the author. Sometimes we will never be sure, especially when authors sail close to the wind, the most exciting point of sail, but ultimately humor depends on an agreement, real or illusory, between an author and an audience.