Thursday, March 03, 2011

Blinding Me with Science

The Internet sure hasn't been providing me with much stimulation lately. But fortunately, I have read a book or three in my day, so I can always dredge up one interesting passage or another for your entertainment and illumination. Here's one from Owen Flanagan:

The claim that science can, in principle, explain everything we think, say and do—that it can, in principle, provide a causal account of human being (a causal account of Dasein)—should be distinguished from the claim that everything can be expressed scientifically. Consider art and music. It is patently crazy to say that the works of Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Mozart, Chopin, Schönberg, Ellington, Coltrane, Dylan or Nirvana could be expressed scientifically. Assuming something like the best-case scenario for science, we might want to say that artistic and musical productions can be analyzed in terms of their physical manifestations—painting in terms of chemistry and geometry, and music in terms of sound waves and mathematical relationships.

Furthermore, some very complex combination of the culture, individual life, and the brain of the artist might allow for something like an explanation sketch of why that artist produced the works he or she did. Kay Redfield Jamison has done some very interesting work on the high incidence of bipolar disorder among great nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets and musicians. Such work might lead us to understand more deeply what ordinary and creative imagination consist in. But such work does not replace or reveal what Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, or Seamus Heaney says, means or does in the language of poetry.

There is nothing remotely odd about these kinds of scientific investigation of art or music, or of the creative process itself. But although such inquiry takes artistic or musical production as something to be explained, it does not take the production itself as expressing something that can be explained scientifically. The claim that not everything can be explained scientifically is not a claim that art, music, poetry, literature, and religious experiences cannot in principle be accounted for scientifically, or that those productions involve magical or mysterious powers. Whatever they express, it is something perfectly human, but the appropriate idiom of expression is not a scientific one. The scientific idiom requires words and, often, mathematical formulas. Painting, sculpture and music require neither. Indeed, they cannot in principle express what they express in words or mathematical formulas. Therefore, whatever they express is not expressible scientifically. To be sure, poetry, literature and music use words. But their idiom is not a scientific one. And the reason is doubly principled: Many of the relations explored are not explored causally (the relation in which science excels). A good love song can make you feel love, but it never does so by getting into the "pheromonics" and the neurobiology of love. The arts work our imaginations with all the playful tricks of language, allegory, metaphor and metonymy that science, for its purposes, doesn't much care for.