Science, Art and the World about Us
A lecture presentation to ‘Natural Sciences’ students by Alan Rayner
Summary of Intention
My intention in this presentation is to show how different ways of seeing yield distinctive, but ultimately complementary perceptions of reality, which, when combined, have the potential to lead to a deeper understanding of our human relationships with one another and the ever-changing world we inhabit. I will discuss this potential in the light of the limitations and conflicts that have resulted from the historical and educational severance of scientific and artistic cultures. I will suggest that the combination of artistic and scientific perspectives may, above all, radically transform our understanding of the dynamic role of ‘space’ and ‘boundaries’ in evolutionary processes.
Introduction - Some Personal Reflections
For much of my adult life, I tried to keep my work as a professional biological scientist separate from my personal pleasure in expressing my feelings artistically. Eventually, however, I began to think that something was missing from my practice of science, and that this absence was restricting both my understanding and enjoyment of what I was doing. I wondered whether it might be possible to restore this missing something by bringing my artistic sense of kinship with the living space within and around my self into communion with my scientific knowledge. I also wondered whether science in general might benefit from the inclusion of an artistic perspective, both in its approach to understanding nature and communicating that understanding to others. I felt this question was relevant because it was becoming very clear to me in the light of occurrences like BSE and debates over climate change and genetically modified organisms etc, that in the public mind, science had a serious communication problem. It came across as insensitive, unintelligible and increasingly unreliable as a basis for making any kinds of decisions about how to live in and interact with the ‘world about us’.
And so, a few years ago, I took the opportunity to begin to explore this possibility personally, by preparing and presenting a painting entitled ‘Fountains of the Forest’ as part of my Presidential Address to the British Mycological Society, in 1998.
Slide: ‘Fountains of the Forest’. Within and upon the branching, enfolding, water-containing surfaces of forest trees¾and reaching out from there into air and soil¾are branching, enfolding, water-containing surfaces of finer scale, the mycelial networks of fungi. These networks provide a communications interface for energy transfer from neighbour to neighbour, from living to dead and from dead to living. They maintain the forest in a state of flux as they gather, conserve, explore for and recycle supplies of chemical fuel originating from photosynthesis. So, the fountains of the forest trees are connected and tapped into by the fountains of fungal networks in a moving circulation: an evolutionary spiral of differentiation and integration from past through to unpredictable future; a water delivery from the fire of the sun, through the fire of respiration, and back again to sky, contained within the contextual boundaries of a wood-wide web. (From Rayner, 1998)
At about the same time, an interview with a well-known scientist in response to growing interest in re-connecting Art and Science, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. To my dismay, the scientist pronounced that Art and Science were completely different human endeavours and should therefore keep a respectful distance from one another. I was taken aback, because the scientist seemed to be arguing that difference was a reason for staying apart, whereas I thought it was a reason for partnership, an opportunity to realize the new possibilities implicit in complementary viewpoints, as in a mutually beneficial symbiosis.
So, the difference between me and the well-known scientist seemed to lie in our attitude to difference. He wished to exclude it, for fear of the contamination, take-over and dysfunction it could bring about; I wished to include it for the new opportunities it might bring. He wanted Art and Science to agree to differ – each to adopt their own distinctive view of the world and not intrude upon one another, especially not Art into Science. I wanted them to differ to agree – to discover through their diverse perspectives a common but many-stranded reality, all views of which were necessarily partial but for that very reason also unique contributions to the overall picture, as in a hologram.
Abstraction and the Schism Between ‘Two Cultures’
So, what, then, is the difference between Art and Science? We all assume there’s a difference, don’t we? After all, you are here to study for a ‘Natural Sciences’ degree, aren’t you - not a ‘Natural Arts’ degree. And, perhaps, like me, you were asked at an absurdly early age at School to make a choice between these two paths, with the lure of employability in our competitive, ‘high-tec’ world being dangled over the scientific path, notwithstanding its supposed ‘intellectual difficulty’ and demand for ‘hard work’. And every year, when GCSE and A Level results are announced, we hear scientifically illiterate politicians and company directors hypocritically bemoaning the fact that ‘youngsters’ aren’t taking the bait, and our educational system is failing to provide the necessary fodder for technological success. Meanwhile, David Beckham, Robbie Williams, Tracy Emin and Liz Hurley earn a fortune playing games, entertaining and making up! You cannot be serious! …Unless you’re a scientist, in which case you have to be, like Saffy confronted with the fatuous, egotistical World of Patsy and Edina in ‘Absolutely Fabulous’. Then it’s no laughing matter!
This seeming division between what C.P. Snow notoriously described in 1959 as Two Cultures, each using and abusing the other but rarely recognizing their common origin in philosophical inquiry, appears, however, only to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Throughout human history, we have creatively combined acute, careful observation, description and technique with our ability to imagine possibilities, in our quest to understand and make our way in the world about us. ‘Science’ itself was only distinguished from ‘Natural Philosophy’ as a separate human endeavour in the nineteenth century. One of the few things I like about the academic traditions of Cambridge University is that it awarded me a Bachelor of Arts degree in Natural Sciences, indicative of an old idea of the inclusion of science within Art. And the iconic figure of Leonardo da Vinci continues to be held up as the epitome of the creative potential that arises through the combination of artistic and scientific perspectives.
So, what happened to split our artistic and scientific Genius? Increasingly, postmodern philosophers are prone to link this split to the time that the French philosopher René Descartes spent locked in an oven to keep himself warm during a bleak winter. This insular experience is said to have led Descartes to proclaim ‘Cogito ergo sum’ and divide ‘mind’ from ‘matter’ - the ‘Cartesian Split’, upon which the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment movements are said to be based. Rather than attribute so much responsibility to one lonely person, however, I suggest that that this division was the ultimate rendering of an idea that had been a very long time in the making. I see it as the product of a ‘cognitive illusion’ to which we are all subject in the way we perceive and consequently interpret the ‘world about us’ in a potentially very abstract way - the illusion of ‘solidity’.
As land-inhabiting creatures unable to digest herbage and so needing to find and catch or grasp localized sources of food as well as to avoid or overcome danger, we couldn’t survive for long without being able to make distinctions. Making distinctions is therefore an essential part of our early learning, urged on by our caring elders and aided by our physical senses, especially our primates’ binocular vision. This binocular vision, unlike the panoramic vision of herbivores with eyes on the sides of their heads, gives us three-dimensional depth of field but in so doing entails viewing the world about us in a very one-directional way. Moreover, the way that our retinal cells and their associated neurons are aligned results in what is known as ‘lateral inhibition’ and a tendency to ‘harden up’ the edges of ‘things’, making them seem like discrete objects. And this ‘hardening up’ is reinforced by the fact we are surrounded by air - which literally ‘tans the hides’ of land-creatures, whilst seeming so invisible and insubstantial - imagine how different our perceptions of the world about us might be if air was water. Moreover, underlying our visual interpretations is a split between our brain hemispheres, with the left hemisphere analytical, methodical and verbally articulate, always trying to tell us stories that ‘make sense’ of, i.e. ‘rationalize’ our experiences and the right hemisphere integrative, intuitive and verbally inarticulate.
Clearly, if we pay too much attention to the stories resulting from our left hemisphere’s interpretations of our physical sensations, and thereby neglect the complementary input from our right hemisphere, we are likely to develop a particularly partial view of the world - a condition neuroscientists increasingly recognize. We literally become focused on the explicit substance that appears to constitute our bodies and the ground beneath our feet that fixes our location. And we regard whatever is insubstantial, undetectable by our physical senses, as ‘nothing’ - an absence that isn’t a presence yet puts distance between one ‘thing’ and an other. We abstract space from matter, and regard matter, and where matter is located as if sealed within a fixed boundary and hence definable as ‘property’, as all that matters - ‘everything’. We become ‘materialists’ and ‘individualists’ inhabiting an incoherent world and universe of what appear to us as independent, solid objects - isolated bodies - that have to be forced into motion. A mechanistic Newtonian world inhabited by what Einstein and Infeld described as the ‘two frightening ghosts’ of an inertial reference frame and absolute time, underpinned by the mathematics of discrete numbers and space-excluding geometry of Euclid. A world in which we unrealistically excommunicate ourselves, as ‘external observers’, from the nature we are observing, but within which we are inextricably immersed.
Transparency - Excommunicating Nature
Such is the nature of objective scientific methodology, which always starts by imposing a rigid frame, actual or theoretical, around some isolated fragment of nature from which the observer is excluded, and then proceeds to test ‘falsifiable hypotheses’ about events occurring within this frame by means of quantification and experimentation. Nature is brought into laboratories, contained in various vessels, purified from ‘contaminants’ and located in ‘controlled environments’ where the effects of ‘one variable at a time’ can be tested. But the question of how what can be quantified within this frame actually relates to the reality outside the frame cannot be addressed by this approach alone. The ‘certainty’ about whatever is in the frame therefore comes at the expense of enormous uncertainty about the relevance of the findings to the ‘real world’.
I unconsciously expressed my feelings about this excommunication in a painting I made about 30 years ago, when I was depressed after a year of postgraduate research:
Slide: “ARID CONFRONTATION”
This painting depicts the limitations of unempathic, analytical methodology. At the end of a long pilgrimage, access to life is barred from the objective stare by the rigidity of artificial boundaries. A sun composed of semicircle and triangles is caught between straight lines and weeps sundrops into a canalized watercourse. Moonlight, transformed into penetrating shafts of fear encroaches across the night sky above a plain of desolation. Life is withdrawn behind closed doors.
Only a year earlier, I had made the following painting in the exuberance that followed completing my final undergraduate examinations in Natural Sciences.
Slide: “TROPICAL INVOLVEMENT”
This painting depicts the dynamic complexity of living systems. A turbulent river rushes between rock-lined banks from fiery, tiger-striped sunset towards unexpected tranquility where it allows a daffodil to emerge from its shallows. A night-bird follows the stream past intricately interwoven forest towards darkness. A dragonfly luxuriates below a fruit-laden tree, bereft of leaves. Life is wild, wet and full of surprises.
Clearly, there are some very different feelings underlying these images. How are these feelings related to viewpoint and hence to perception? What is being perceived differently? And how does this difference in perception relate to the difference between the currently predominant practice of Art and Science?
If we study the ‘arid confrontation’ picture, there are some familiar signs of the mechanisms and consequences of objective detachment.
- The Pilgrims are ‘external observers’, isolated from the object of their quest, which they view unilaterally rather than from all round, from eyes placed on the front of their faces.
- The observers are excommunicated from nature by an artificially imposed, static boundary - a fixed frame of reference - by means of which they can compare what they see going on outside with the position of their own self-centres.
- The canalized water in the space between subject and object is stationary.
- The world of the excluded observers is a fearful, devitalized wasteland.
So, the discernment that comes with the imposition of distance between subject and object has the effect, when used as the sole means of perception, of schism, immobilization and abandonment of living space and relationship. A world comes into view of bodies as discrete entities, which can only be moved by external force, and whose movements are plotted as trajectories through empty space framed by Cartesian co-ordinates in absolute time. Such is the dangerous misrepresentation of reality that may arise through scientific detachment. A misrepresentation that I would argue has contributed to profound environmental, psychological and social damage.
Meanwhile, the effect of abstraction on Art has been to go to the other extreme. The efforts to represent the world about us and our place in it that culminated in the Renaissance, have been abandoned in order to explore increasingly surreal and formless worlds of extreme subjectivity in which 'anything goes' as long as it can attract an audience. Whereas Science might be said to have mistaken the reference frame for the picture, Art has loosened the frame so much that it is in danger of losing the picture, thereby having nothing meaningful to say about our relationship to one another and nature in a world increasingly dominated by science and technology. In particular, it is in danger of losing whatever influence it might have on our practice and communication of science, by replacing an unrealistic world of fixed boundaries with an unrealistic world of no boundaries.
The Potential for Reconnection - From Abstractive Rationality to Immersive
Inclusionality; From Binary to Ternary Logic
So, what might be the possibilities of reconnecting Science and Art, so that they can work together complementarily, like left and right brain hemispheres, rather than in isolation? For me this is much more than just a question of how science can be illustrated and communicated artistically, or how art can explore the potentialities of new technology. It goes to the heart of how we inquire into and understand the world about us.
Most fundamentally, I suggest that this reconnection can help us out of the 'binary' rationalistic logic' of 'either-or' thinking. We thereby move on from perceiving boundaries as fixed limits and space as distance between objects, into 'ternary' or 'inclusional' logic, where space connects and boundaries both distinguish and dynamically couple the insides and outsides of universal features. These features are then understandable as relational PLACES, distinct, but not discrete couplings of inner with outer through intermediary domains, rather than as independent OBJECTS. Try thinking of yourself and others as PLACES with both individual and collective aspects, rather than as separate bodies. Does it make a difference to how you feel?
If we now re-view the ‘tropical involvement’ picture, the following features are apparent:
- The imagery is of vibrant, vital, dynamic relationships in which every movement reciprocally changes the shape of spatial possibility for every other movement.
- Everything is intimately involved - reciprocally coupled - with everything else; there is no dislocation of subject from object and the presence of the artist is implicit in the making of the picture.
- There are distinct boundaries and features present, but these are in constant flux, and new possibilities are forever emerging from their interactions in the common space that permeates around, through and within everything.
- The water within this common space is not canalized - artificially contained and motionless - but rather is riverine, contained by shifting banks that mediate the dynamic relation between stream and landscape, co-created and co-creative, both shaping and being shaped by the river’s flow.
In my own work as a biologist, I see this riverine form both as a valuable metaphor and an actual description of life forms as complex dynamic embodiments of inner or 'individual' local space with outer, 'collective' non-local space. And we see this form whenever we look at life as an ever-unfolding, enfolding presence, rather than in freeze-framed snapshots giving the illusion of discrete individual entities.
Slides of Riverine Life Forms
Far from being the calculating machines beloved by those seeking ‘artificial intelligence’, life forms are embodied water flows. Simply by ‘tuning’ the ‘holeyness’ and consequent permeability, deformability and continuity of their inner-outer boundaries, these forms can change pattern and process as they create and respond to changes in their dynamic context. They differentiate outwardly when and where there is external plenty, and integrate inwardly when and where there is external shortage.
Slide: Integration/Differentiation Mandala
When space and boundaries are seen in this way as connective and coupling rather than distancing and dislocating, the tendency for conflict with objective other is superseded by acceptance of the necessary togetherness of inner with outer in complementary relationship, each ‘breathing space’ from and into the other. This relationship necessarily embodies light and dark, constructive and destructive processes as the source of creativity, renewal and diversity in our living space.
Slide: 'Loving Error'
Just in case you would like to explore these and related ideas further, here are a few sources.
Papers, books etc
Kemp, M. (2000) Visualiizations - The Nature Book of Art and Science. Oxford University Press.
Rayner, A.D.M. (1997) Degrees of Freedom - Living in Dynamic Boundaries. Imperial College Press, London.
Rayner, A.D.M. (1998) Presidential address: fountains of the forest¾the interconnectedness between trees and fungi. Mycol. Res. 102, 1441-1449.
Rayner, A.D.M. (2000) Challenging environmental uncertainty: dynamic boundaries beyond the selfish gene. In Towards an Environment Research Agenda vol. 1 (A .Warhurst, ed), pp. 215-236. London: Macmillan.
Rayner, A.D.M. (2003) Inclusionality – an immersive philosophy of environmental relationships. In Towards and Environment Research Agenda – a second collection of papers (A. Winnett and A. Warhurst, eds.), pp. 5-20. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Spowers, R. (2002) Rising Tides. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
Spretnak, C. (1999). The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature and Place in a Hypermodern World. New York: Routledge.
Tarnas, R. (1991). The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books.
Wilber, K. (1996). A Brief History of Everything. Boston: Shambhala Publications.