The Black Hole Between Science and Art
by Charles Borkhuis
In a famous 1959 essay entitled “The Two Cultures,” C.P Snow argued that the sciences and humanities were at a serious impasse, suffering from “mutual incomprehension.” The lack of common ground made communication between the two cultures difficult if not impossible. Due to accelerated overspecialization, suspicion ran high in both camps. To illustrate the climate of cultural paranoia that existed in America in the 1950s, brought on in part by the Cold War, the McCarthy raids on political freedom, and fears of stifling conformity, let me quote from Edward Albee’s stage classic of the period “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” The scene pits the competing worldviews of the aging humanist-historian George against the young, confident biologist Nick.
GEORGE: Martha, this young man is working on a system whereby chromosomes can be altered … well not all by himself – he probably has one or two co-conspirators – the genetic makeup of a sperm cell changed, reordered … to order, actually … for hair and eye color, stature, potency … I imagine … hairless, features, health … and mind. Most important … mind. All imbalances will be corrected, sifted out … propensity for various diseases will be gone, longevity assured. We will have a race of men … test tube-bred… incubator-born … superb and sublime.
HONEY: How exciting!
GEORGE: But! Everyone will tend to be rather the same … Alike. Everyone … and I’m sure I’m not wrong here … will tend to look like this young man here. It will, on the surface of it, be all rather pretty … quite jolly. But of course, there will be a dank side to it, too.
Although C.P. Snow called for a third culture that would foster a dialogue between the arts and sciences, no significant change has taken place in the last 50 years. Scientists such as Brian Greene, Daniel Dennett, Carl Sagan, Stephen W. Hawking, David Bohm, and Paul Davies, among a host of others, have written popular books on the new science that have been extremely informative and influential, but there is little evidence that the sciences and humanities are seriously reading each other’s work as was done in previous times. Perhaps in part, that is due to the aforementioned overspecialization in our educational system and the accelerated pace at which science and technology are transforming the cultural landscape. To read well outside one’s own discipline, whether it be theoretical physics, neuroscience, or postmodern criticism, has become not only a luxury but also tantamount to learning another language with its inbred vocabulary and extensive allusions.
At the heart of the conflict is the problem of methodology: science must produce measurable data, corroborating support, and predictable outcomes; art, however rational, must follow the demands of experience. While science relies on quantifiable evidence, art depends upon qualitative descriptions and analogies. Although these differences are clear and well accepted, many may wonder if we are still talking about the same world.
Can the subtle, in-the-moment sensations of feeling and thought that sometimes bring us to the brink of ecstasy or despair, be boiled down to the firing of neurons or reduced to the reactions of glucocorticoids, neurotransmitters, and DNA on-off switches? Or is the issue that the humanities are not communicating anything real or measurable and should be regarded as the whim of artistic excess and finally deemed irrelevant? The divide between the cultures of science and art has never been wider and more unforgiving. And yet, the best, most innovative work in both fields depends upon the illumination of creative insight.
Einstein described his own creative processes to be “of a visual and some muscular type” that appeared to him as “certain signs and more or less clear images.” The eminent mathematician Henri Poincaré declared, “The feeling of mathematical beauty, of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance, this is a true aesthetic feeling that all real mathematicians know, and surely it belongs to emotional sensibility.”
In contemporary American psychology, however, studies of the psyche have been replaced by neuroscience’s investigations of brain functions. Although still highly respected in Europe, Freud, Jung, Adler, Klein, and Lacan, among other eminent psychologists, are no longer studied or respected in most American psychology departments. Instead, they have been shipped over to literature and languages departments, which means that they are essentially regarded by cognitive and ego psychologists as writers of fiction. This leads us to ask the question: Is present day psychology suffering from scientific measurement-envy? Many scientists doubt whether the mind is even an operative term in today’s brain research. Perhaps the mind is the latest castoff on the junk heap of other outmoded concepts such as self, spirit, and soul in our contemporary search for the proper scientific language from which to make any useful inquiries. The contemporary art historian Roslind Krauss has summed up the confluence of art and spirit in two sentences.
In the increasingly de-sacralized space of the nineteenth century, art had become a refuge for religious emotion; it became, as it has remained, a secular form of belief. Although this condition could be discussed openly in the late nineteenth century, it is something that is inadmissible in the twentieth, so that now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.
Krauss’s extreme distaste for the cohabitation of “art and spirit in the same sentence” is primarily a linguistic issue. Although the term spirit is unfashionable today because of its historical associations with religion and metaphysics, its withdrawal leaves a hole in the language that a more scientific word choice cannot fill. Mind is already beginning to disappear from scientific parlance, but its uneasy ghost still haunts the language because, like spirit, the baby often gets thrown out with the bathwater. Yet we must seriously ask ourselves if we have truly finished with such terms and if they don’t still carry new implications.
One approach to bridging the seemingly impenetrable divide between science and art may involve the study of consciousness. Why do human beings have self-awareness? How do we account for subjective experience and how do we value it?
The subject of consciousness was avoided by neuroscientists for many years because it did not appear to be available to objective analysis. Consciousness was considered too subjective to be quantitatively studied. And yet, physics, the discipline to which all other scientific disciplines must ultimately defer, has been irrevocably altered by the existential presence of the observer. Ultimately, scientist and poet alike change what they are observing by observing it, which means that mind is the fly in the ointment of every observation. But because consciousness is at the core of everything we know, that doesn’t make it any less mysterious or impenetrable, just the opposite. Regarding the present chasm between the arts and sciences, consciousness may be seen as a kind of incredibly dense black hole from which no light escapes.
The study of consciousness, if pushed to its limits, leads inevitably to the more difficult but well-documented area of psychic or paranormal events, not to be confused with supernatural miracles. In 1979, Robert G. Jahn, professor of aerospace sciences, founded the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab, and with clinical psychologist Brenda Dunn, ran early experiments in psychokinesis. Using a random events generator, which produces an unpredictable string of binary numbers, they asked volunteers to concentrate on trying to influence the outcome of a heads or tails coin toss. After hundreds of thousands of trials, Jahn and Dunne found compelling evidence for the existence of psychokinesis.
The more conservative wing of neuroscience may limit the study of consciousness to the cognitive and behavioral functions of the brain, but the recognition of paranormal abilities must give us pause; at the very least it suggests a greater humility when addressing the nature and scope of consciousness. But to broaden scientific research into paranormal states of consciousness would require the study of Eastern and mystical traditions, among others, that have been generally ignored by Western analytic thought. Traditionally, science has summarily dismissed such bodies of knowledge as possessing any merit, not because they lack evidence or pragmatic application, but because they lack the accepted scientific language.
What is missing is a concept that underlies the Janus-faced mind-matter schism. A leading candidate for this idea is information — the bits of meaning generated from a set of separate states based on their similarities and differences. The collection and transmission of such data can be seen on a material, subatomic level as well as on a more obvious conscious level. In his book “The Elegant Universe,” physicist Brian Greene speaks about photons or messenger particles that act as information carriers. In an electromagnetic field, two charged particles fire “a swarm of photons … back and forth between themselves,” and thus “influence each other by exchanging these smallest bundles of light.” Like-charged particles carry the message “move apart,” while unlike-charged particles carry the message “come together.” In this regard, we might suggest that each particle experiences or as Greene says “feels” the repulsion or attraction “between their respective force fields.” Perhaps it is not a mistake to use this kind of anthropomorphic or para-scientific language as an aid to understanding, for what I am hypothesizing is that all information exchange has an experiential component. This is not an argument for conscious stones, but that consciousness and stones as well as sub-atomic particles experience information processing: simpler entities experience simpler kinds of information and more complex ones emerge to form various states of consciousness. The difference is degree of complexity. The idea proposed here is that there may be a single information state that unifies psychical and material phase changes within a continuum.
Information theory may be one important avenue of research in the quest for a para-scientific language that can represent psychic forces in the world which have traditionally communicated to us in spiritual and poetic terms. The radical complexity and simple elegance of some of the major breakthroughs in modern physics over the last century, i.e. the special and general theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, parallel worlds theory, super symmetry, and the 11 dimensions of string theory, have been daunting to both artist and scientist alike. Certainly there is incontrovertible evidence that the leading artists of the modern era seriously read the scientists, philosophers, and psychologists of their day. Walt Whitman was a great admirer of Emerson and studied anatomy, Proust was a close reader of Bergson, Gertrude Stein was a lab assistant of William James, Virginia Woolf was deeply inspired by Freud as was Salvador Dali, who was also profoundly influenced in his later years by Einstein. Many innovative modernists made significant advances in art and literature that anticipated later scientific findings about consciousness and physical reality. Their reciprocal readings and observations in art and science recall a tradition of previous eras, in which philosophy, art, science, religion, and politics were deeply interrelated.
Research into consciousness may prove to be the area in which opposing disciplines are drawn to cross-read outside their traditional boundaries and return to their areas of expertise with a head full of new and useful ideas. The quest for a unification theory that can speak in a quantitative and qualitative language or at least offer inspired translations will not likely fade away. In fact, leading research in theoretical physics indicates the opposite. However, there remains a deep division in the sciences regarding determinism. By replacing the study of the mind with the study of the brain, the life sciences have adopted an orthodox materialism similar to 19th century physics, whereas the new physicists have eschewed strict mechanical models in favor of a more observer-oriented study of how the mind affects all physical events.
Consciousness may not prove to be the spiraling black hole or no-man’s-land between the disciplines after all, but rather a loadstone drawing new theories to its core. Herein lies the hope that the 21st century will be the first to discover a bridge-language to help consolidate the psychical and material forces operating in reality and show how they are inexorably linked. For this to happen, the arts and sciences will have to work towards a more comprehensive and complementary dialogue about the universe and our unique place in it.
Charles Borkhuis is a poet, playwright, screenwriter, and essayist. His books of poems include: Afterimage, Savoir-fear, Alpha Ruins, Proximity (Stolen Arrows), Dinner with Franz, and Hypnogogic Sonnets. Alpha Ruins was selected by Fanny Howe as a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Book Award. His poetry has appeared in the anthologies: Writing from the New Coast: Technique and Practice, Primary Trouble, The Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative Poetry, and the Avec Sampler. Disappearing Acts, his latest book of poems, is forthcoming from Chax Press in 2012. His essays have appeared in two books from the University of Alabama Press: Telling It Slant and We Who Love to Be Astonished. He is the recipient of a Dramalogue Award. His plays are published in four collections: Mouth of Shadows, The Sound of Fear Clapping, Stage This: 3, and Poets’ Theater. His CD, Black Light, contains two radio plays produced for NPR http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Borkhuis.php . Author photo by Tim Peterson (Trace).