Session 1 Still Lives! (Response to Elaine)

Werner Sun/ First of all: Elaine, many thanks for bringing a fresh perspective to this conversation! I very much enjoyed your talk on Saturday. I wanted to react to the comments in your post and also synthesize a few threads from elsewhere in Session I.

I wholeheartedly agree that the scientific method in practice is much messier than the way it is taught in schools. I made a similar point in one of my earlier comments. When I said that science is a way of thinking, I was referring to scientists’ underlying attitudes and worldviews, not any specific procedure for doing science.

Similarly, returning to a previous thread, the “core concerns” that I suggested we should unpack also reside on this fundamental level. Dan Weiskopf nicely characterized the practices of science. And Taney cited a definition of art from Sian Ede. But I’d also like to hear some answers to these questions: what are the deeply held beliefs implicit in our work as artists and scientists, and what makes us believe these things?

For example, physicists might say they believe that the universe can be modeled mathematically (even if we don’t have a complete description yet), and the reason for this belief is the spectacular track record that physics has enjoyed so far. This does not preclude the possibility that there might be an ultimate limit to our knowledge, but we seem to be far from hitting that limit (if it exists), so why throw in the towel now?

How would others here — artists, scientists — answer these questions? I am genuinely curious about this!

I think your (Elaine’s) broader point is wonderfully provocative (and perhaps makes the question of core concerns a moot one): that artists may have already intuited (through trial and error) how the brain processes stimuli, and that scientists might look to this technical know-how to address certain “hard questions” (including consciousness). It implies that artists, in the very act of grappling with ambiguity, have produced a kind of knowledge that can be leveraged concretely. This idea echoes the notion that many others here (Anker, Elkins, Nowlin, Weiskopf) have advanced about the value of the drunken conversation, that the conversants need not understand each other fully, or that sci-art need not know where it’s going, for there to be some benefit.

Going one step further (though still within sci-art’s co-production regime) is Daniel Kohn’s suggestion that sci-art could explore the tension between different types of knowledge, which I find intriguing because this tension can take place even within a single person. Strictly speaking, scientific knowledge can be encapsulated in information-theoretic terms as the reduction of a large dataset with many degrees of freedom to a more compact model with fewer degrees of freedom (or free parameters). But then, these models are necessarily beheld by humans, for whom the knowledge itself (as it might be written on a chalkboard) is complemented by the experience of knowing (the jolt of finally understanding what’s on that chalkboard). This unique personal component is not easily quantified but appears to be universal. In the fullness of time, as neuroscience progresses, this personal knowledge might eventually become amenable to measurement/description. But until then, one only has to look within oneself for a sci-art subject.

4 Replies to “Session 1 Still Lives! (Response to Elaine)”

  1. Werner, I’m so glad you’re pressing the issue of “core concerns,” and I do hope others will answer the call. I think it’s important because here is where the distinctions between artists and scientists are most telling — and also, for this reason, where we might find a genuinely productive basis for partnership.

    You say that physicists, for example, might have as their core belief that the universe can be mathematically modeled, that it is ultimately both knowable and “mappable.” This amounts to nothing less than a metaphysic, and one that, it seems to me, most artists would balk at. I should speak only for myself here, but I thought it significant that when our conversation on Saturday turned to the subject of mystery, Elaine [for readers just joining: a biologist and neuroscientist] was quite clear on her position: “I want to know!” The artists, on the other hand, thought otherwise; to us mystery is sacrosanct, and the specter of its annihilation signals nothing less than the end of art. This, too, is a worldview. I’m curious to hear how other artists feel about this, but in my worldview the universe is ultimately unknowable, and this is exactly what gives it its profound beauty. I just don’t think we’re wired to know the universe, humble creatures that we are. I’ll end with Karsten Harries on this: Every attempt to “think the infinite” is bound to suffer a shipwreck. The best we can do is know that we can’t know, and that alone puts us one step beyond our ignorance. (paraphrase)

  2. I think you probably speak for many artists, Taney, and eloquently so. What about the second half of the question — what makes you believe the universe is ultimately unknowable? How would you explain that to a scientist?

  3. Perhaps as an artist I am an anomaly, but mystery is not sacrosanct for me. It is a motivator for sure- especially that there is still so much more to know- but ultimately, I want to know too!
    If I had to have a core concern, I suppose it comes in the form of the question “why?” I continue to make work largely driven by curiosity and asking “what happens if…?” I would not attempt to answer if we are capable of knowing the universe. (I would prefer to leave that door ajar.)
    For me, what matters most is the process and practice of discovery and invention. The art is almost secondary, for if the drive to discover and invent is taken away, then there is no art. It would appear this can be common factor between artists and scientists. Is this desire for discovery innate or acquired?

  4. The process and practice of discovery and invention — yes, I place great value on these, too. I like to think that the drive to discover is an innate trait because I can imagine how it might have improved our chances of survival as a species.

    I am of two minds about mystery itself. The questions we can ask concretely, I feel a need to seek answers for. But the questions that can’t even be formulated — these evoke a certain amount of awe.

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