What is art for? Part 2

London Fine Art Studios Journal

Art, Science and a few other things

Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of blog posts on the purpose of art from the viewpoint of anthropology.

Title page of Il Saggiatore (The Assayer) by Galileo Galilei, published in Rome in October,1623.

When I first started to prepare my talk I had an overwhelming urge to use the title page of Galileo’s Il Saggiatore as my first slide. I knew what I wanted to say about this book, but I had no idea why I wanted it in this talk – it has no obvious relevance to art or what art is for. It was some time before I realised a connection. I had recently heard Ann commenting – with a hint of satisfaction – on how much art and science have in common. I guess this followed from “Viewing the Invisible” last September, a creative initiative by LFAS and King’s College, bringing artists and scientists together to compare processes and explore parallels between two disciplines often thought of as polar opposites. In 2018 King’s opened the Science Gallery “where science and art collide”, Central St Martin’s offers an MA in Art and Science, and there are quite a few other initiatives attempting to bridge the two with what often seems to me a naive enthusiasm.

Many scientists regard Galileo’s book as the foundation stone of modern physics. In this work he describes the universe as a Grand Book written in the language of mathematics. This statement has probably done more than any other to drive scientists mad. They love to quote this claim, but seldom cite the rest of the sentence: “…and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures…” That’s the part that makes it sound a bit less grand and a bit more… well, odd.

It’s true that many things in science can be described and predicted by mathematical equations. But equations are things that just sit there passively on a page or blackboard or back of an envelope. They don’t do anything. And there always has to be something else – something dynamic – that the equations describe. What no one can tell us is what puts the fire into the equations – why, for example, E = mc2 tells us nothing about the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The ghost of Galileo is still alive today, and never more so than since 1948 when Claude Shannon, pioneer of digital computing, published “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” in the Bell System Technical Journal. His aim was quite modest – how to send a message through a noisy channel and have it received with minimal error. Computers never know what anything means, and Shannon was not interested in meaning either. He made “information” synonymous with“entropy” (originally a measure of disorder), and defined “information” as the number of bits required to encode a message. So the sentence “What hath God wrought?” (a Bible quote which just happens to be the wording of the first telegram sent from Washington to Baltimore in 1844)  and its scrambled rearrangement ‘a?thh Gugod aWwt hroht’ both require 176 bits in ASCII. Computing had divorced information from meaning.

Another publication that changed the course of science

In 1948, Shannon could hardly have foreseen that his telecommunications work would make him the “father of information theory”, with enormous impact on far-flung realms of thought. He had given to modern science and philosophy an irresistible gift – a perfect instrument of abstraction from reality. Though Shannon is not particularly famous, his impact on western culture has been substantial. Many theoretical physicists now believe that the universe is not made of matter and energy. They think it’s made of bits (binary digits, 1 and 0, like the bits in your computer). Further, the three dimensional world that we think we live in is a delusion. It’s a hologram coded in two-dimensional pixels on the “event horizon” of the universe – though no one knows where that might be. You may think you have a solid body, but you’re more like a paper cut-out living in Flatland.

The same computer-based thinking has hijacked psychology and neuroscience as well. Cognitive scientists assume that the function of the brain is to turn input into output, using an input-processing-output model derived from computing. But brains have to be doing organs before they can become thinking organs. That is obvious in evolution – an animal than doesn’t move is not going to evolve neurones. And until it has neurones to control its movement, it’s not going to evolve sensory organs. So you have output first, then processing, then input last. The same applies when a baby develops in the womb. The foetal brain grows output nerves to muscles before it receives input nerves from sense organs. Again, output first and input last. The computer metaphor for mind and brain leads to a tunnel-vision science that ignores or underestimates the importance of spontaneous output-first behaviours, which means just about everything that makes us human.

Three- to four-month-old babies show a lively interest in bold colourful pictures

Now this is relevant to art, because art is spontaneous in children. It’s one of those things that enable them to grow into healthy, happy and constructive adults – so long as they are loved and no one gets in the way. Babies show a lively interest in bold colourful pictures as soon as they are old enough to sit up on mother’s lap. And at nine or twelve months they start to make marks on any surface – even their own bodies – whether with paint, crayons, jam, or faeces. Art is part of the spontaneous (output-first) and playful things that babies and children do for fun – and in doing so assure their own development and socialization. The narrow thinking of cognitive scientists just cannot accommodate this spontaneous self-development, which is why they get so much wrong when they try to understand art. Colwyn Trevarthen, who spent forty years studying babies and pre-school infants in different cultures, put it like this: “Cognitive science, restricting the role of motives and emotions, puts childhood play and imagination behind bars.”

Now that I’ve told you a few of the things that scientists get wrong, I think I can explain what art and science have in common and how they are profoundly different.

First, both art and science are exploratory behaviours. 

Many animals have curiosity and will investigate things. Laboratory rats will explore a maze and discover where a food reward has been hidden. Curiosity is what motivates science. Einstein emphasized the role of wonder: “Anyone who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” But he also believed that “the process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder.” Which is one difference between science and art.

Science has ancient evolutionary roots, because it works in exactly the same way as perception. Light is focussed on our retinas in an unedited way. But the brain interprets this information, creating “object hypotheses” and constructing models of the world, very much like a scientist. When the model makes a wrong prediction, the brain will modify the model and try again. In exactly the same way, scientists must revise their theories whenever a theory makes a wrong prediction. So perception is exploratory. Babies learn to perceive by exploring their environment – picking things up and putting them in their mouths, knocking things down, crawling around and bumping into things, and so on. Even invertebrates like octopus and squid have evolved eyes that work very much like ours, so perception is an ancient and widespread adaptation.

But many vertebrates – especially social carnivores and primates – have evolved a more sophisticated form of exploration that enables their young to develop skills and knowledge – especially social skills and knowledge about themselves and others. They play. Even herbivores may have some form of play. A lamb gambols, so exploring the potentials of its own body. Young carnivores will do a lot of play-fighting, so exploring social relations and dominance relations, as well as their own bodily capacities. This is called embodied play – discovering what your body can do and exploring the physical and social environment.

Embodied play begins very early in human babies. Only 30 minutes after birth they can imitate the facial expressions of their mother – the beginning of contingent mirror play. If the mother sticks out her tongue, so will the baby; if the baby gurgles, the mother gurgles back. And this is not a case of simple imitation, as assumed by too many cognitive scientists. Babies spontaneously initiate such games themselves, and if the mother refuses to respond (as confirmed in laboratory research), the baby will make strenuous efforts to get her to play. If those efforts fail, the baby will lapse into what looks like severe depression. 

Embodied play continues throughout life. Children will climb trees, swing on swings, play-fight, ride on carousels, and play games like tag and king-of-the-castle. Football is a conventionalized form of embodied play, and a goal scored in a big match can rouse powerful emotions in an audience of billions, even though a goal delivers no obvious economic or biological reward (unless you have a bet on the outcome). Many animals enjoy embodied play. Dogs, for example, enjoy play-fighting, fetch, and bait-and-snatch. It’s the most primitive form of play.

…we might say that art is less primitive and more sophisticated than science.

In human infants, pretend play begins twelve months later than embodied play. The first kind of pretend play is called projective pretence, because an idea is projected onto a toy which represents, but is not mistaken for, a real thing – such as pretending that stones are sweets, or a toy aeroplane is a real aeroplane, or pretending a doll is a baby and feeding it with imaginary food. Other than human children, pretend play has only been observed with certainty in great apes, unless you count play-fighting as pretence.

Human play also develops into what I call “performance”. For example, around three months of age babies begin to synchronise melodic babbling with balletic limb movements – the beginning of song-and-dance display. Their early interest in bold colourful pictures is the beginning of art, followed by their own mark-making at least six months later. These are examples of embodied performance. Performance is similar to play – being pursued “just for fun” – but, unlike play, performance can also be goal-directed and manipulative. This is true in certain animals as well as humans. For example, two or more dolphins can engage in song-and-dance display, with rhythmic whistles and buzzes synchronised with body movements. Performance can be used for social grooming (establishing and maintaining friendships and alliances) and social entrainment (establishing rapport and enabling two or more “selfish” individuals to behave like one great big selfish individual). Dolphin song-and-dance displays are used to threaten potential opponents (“if you attack me you attack my friends”), or to bully females (“we can do this the hard way or the easy way”).

Dolphins can synchronize their balletic displays with millisecond precision. According to the “play and display” hypothesis, this is one reason why they need such large brains.

Just as embodied play can lead to embodied performance, so pretend (representational) play can lead to  mimetic (representational) performance, such as iconic art (creating pictures, often of the “mummy, daddy, and me” variety). 

As exploratory behaviours, we can say that both science and art are extensions of play. But science, exploring the physical world, is an extension of embodied play, whereas art is an extension of pretend play (making representational toys). Further, art is a performance. Science too is a form of performance, though largely at an intellectual level, whereas art involves entrainment at all levels – kinaesthetic, body image, sensation, and emotion, as well as the intellectual level of ideas. As performance is a refinement of play, and pretend play is more sophisticated than embodied play, we might say that art is less primitive and more sophisticated than science. The ultimate roots of science are even more primitive than play – in curiosity, pre-social exploration, and perception. In my last blog I also suggested that the aesthetic aspect of art – particularly evident in “decorative” pattern-making – is also ancient. But it cannot pre-date perception.

On the other hand, we can also argue the other way round, making art more primitive than science. From a historic perspective, art is much older than science (in the strict sense of the term). Our ancestors were making vivid representational art at least 35 thousand years ago, whereas the first systematic science – astronomy and medicine in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt – is a tenth of that age. Further, our intellectual abilities are certainly less primitive than our sensual and emotional capacities, though every department of mental life has become more sophisticated as humans evolved. 

Perhaps we should call it quits 

But wait…

I am a scientist (if only part time) and I think science is great. It can do a lot of good for humanity and all living things (when it’s not being abused for political ends). But scientists are a different matter. Most scientists today are guilty of what I regard as a serious sin. They have embraced an ideology called “physicalism”. People who don’t believe in physicalism call it “scientism” – presenting something which is not science as “scientific fact”. Physicalists believe that the universe evolved for 13.8 billion years “in the dark”, until brains of sufficient complexity evolved, and then a miracle occurred – consciousness “arose” from “physical processes” in the brain. They believe that everything in the universe is reducible to physics. 

Only art can speak to the human heart.

Physics is the study of the movement of bodies in space. Physicalists believe this means the movement of dead bodies propelled by meaningless forces. But it is surely self-evident that consciousness cannot be reduced to the movement of dead bodies in dead space. Which means that physicalism is just plain wrong. And it’s not just scientifically wrong, it’s morally wrong, because (if we accept the rhetoric) it affects the way we see ourselves – as deterministic, mechanistic, depressing robots – with no conceivable role for consciousness, free will, compassion, or other positive qualities that make us human. Since we can’t have any free will, there is nothing we can do to make the world better unless it was predetermined from the moment of the (miraculous?) Big Bang.

Art too can do a lot of good for the world. But artists too have committed a sin called “postmodernism”. It’s not quite as bad as physicalism, but it’s all about deconstructing the very idea of art. I twice saw Damien Hirst (the wealthiest artist in the world) being interviewed on television. Both times he was asked to define art, and both times he said “Art is anything you put in an art gallery.” In other words, there was no art until someone had the brilliant idea of creating a gallery to put it in. In effect, he is saying “There is no such thing as art, but as long as you want to give me vast sums of lovely cash for my non-art, I won’t complain.” It’s cynical, and it’s probably the result of physicalism.

Science has limitations which are not shared by art. You cannot use science to sing a baby to sleep or relax a child with a bedtime story. That takes art. Only art can speak to the human heart. There is a lot of good that artists can do, but I think one important duty of art is to repudiate physicalism.

Theodore Major – a visionary artist from my home town (Wigan) – said:

The purpose of art is to find and express meaning and understanding of man’s spiritual existence on earth.

Post script:

I left out an important point – that physicalism is not the only ideology that has influenced science, as well as education and western culture more generally. Another influential bias is the Protestant work ethic – associated with the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution – resulting in an ethos which values work over play, object over social skills, logic over imagination, and science and technology over the arts. I think that is one reason why so many people are interested in forging links between art and science – it’s an attempt to reaffirm the value of art.

There are other ideological biases affecting science, notably western individualism (which undervalues human sociality including the social significance of art), cognocentrism (the input-processing-output paradigm which neglects output-first behaviours like child art), genocentrism (the idea that “selfish genes” and “selfish memes” determine what we are and God is a parasitic virus), and logocentrism (the attribution of such major importance to language that other social mirrors – including art – get overlooked). These are discussed more fully in my chapter “Health, development, and the culture-ready brain” in The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience (Oxford University Press). Download DOCX

If you fancy a more pungent critique of western science (and are interested in the paranormal!) send me an email and I will send you two articles from the latest issues of The Paranormal Review – drcwhitehead@aol.com.