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.

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