Thursday, October 04, 2012

The Scientist and the Artist, part 2

Zorthian might of course just as well claim that the "truth" about the flower is as available to him as it is to Feynman. He may not be as scientifically "refined", of course, but he can understand the cell structure and the biological processes that constitute the flower. You don't have to be a scientist to know something, just as you don't have to be an artist to appreciate something.

But Zorthian is right to say that science can interfere with our enjoyment of life. At 3:58, for example, he reminds Feynman that he knows perfectly well how to enjoy the company of a beautiful woman and that it would not have very much to do with marveling at the evolutionary process that produced her physiology. Now, as a debating point, I think Feynman's next move should be to suggest that art can also interfere with our enjoyment of life. To approach the beauty of a woman as an artist means to render that beauty "problematic", to engage with it as a difficulty to be overcome (e.g., how to capture this beauty on the canvas), not as a gift to be enjoyed.

But this would undermine Feynman's message of hope and abundance. "Science ... adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of the flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts," he says, with an almost desperate intensity. But the simple point here is of course that any specialization of effort will focus on some things and leave other things at the margins of our attention. Science must leave beauty at the margins of experience as it pursues truth. Art must leave truth at the margins as it pursues beauty.

In the end, science will hopefully produce knowledge that helps us to live more intelligently. Art will produce works that help us experience life more fully. But neither the art nor the science is, in itself, life. That is why we don't want a society run by either scientists or artists alone. We want a society that has a place for both.

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