Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Scientist and the Artist

John Keats famously said that "beauty is truth, truth beauty". In this clip, starting at 2:30, Richard Feynman makes a similar argument for the beauty of science and, not incidentally, the science of beauty. I think it is important to push back on this idea in order to clarify our values. Art and science are both valuable pursuits, but the value of art is not the value of science.

Feynman and Zorthian both err, to my mind, by approaching this as a kind of contest. Zorthian (Feynman's "artist friend") had apparently argued that science destroys the beauty of natural things, like flowers, by "taking [them] all apart". And Feynman then explains that this is not only not true, science can see much more beauty in the flower than the artist. It is as if they both think there is only one way to be right, and that is to appreciate the beauty of something. (There is of course something admirable about that scale of values.)

This morning I want to deal specifically with Feynman's argument. Tomorrow I'll have a closer look at the alternative example Zorthian proposes at the end of the clip.

Feynman begins by saying that he also recognizes the immediate beauty of the flower. But it is telling how quickly he passes over it to get into the biology of the thing. He claims that "the beauty that is available to [Zorthian] is also available to me", what Zorthian sees, Feynman sees. But he makes an important concession: "I may not be as aethetically refined". And that of course the whole point of Zorthian's objection. The beauty of the flower that Zorthian sees is simply not "available" to the scientist (qua scientist) in the same way, to the same degree, that it is to the artist. "Beauty is difficult," (said Beardsley to Pound). For the artist, the beauty of the flower is the hard part, not just an obvious impression it makes on us. It is the point of artistic engagement to bring that beauty out.

Feynman then goes on to claim that the science of flowers, its understanding of cells and even the science of perception, somehow bear upon the beauty of the flower itself. But the fact that science, too, has an aesthetic dimension, the fact that a cell, for example, can be beautiful, or that knowledge can be elegantly expressed in words and pictures, does not speak for science's appreciation of the beauty of the flower that Zorthian held before Feynman.

This is going to take a few more posts to get clear about, I can see.

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