Re: Science, Knowledge, Understanding, Art and Wonder

Subject: Re: Science, Knowledge, Understanding, Art and Wonder
From: Michael Gogins (
Date: Sat Sep 10 2005 - 09:33:30 EDT

I believe one underlying cause of fear of science in art is that many
scientists have what I would call a "mechanistic" view of existence, in
which beauty, wonder, and love are epiphenomena, and thus life has no
intrinsic worth.

Such a view, though consistent with the formal content of science, is of
course quite inconsistent with the actual views and attitudes of most
working scientists, who generally become scientists because they fall in
love with the beauty of nature, and are conscious of dedicating their lives
to a pursuit of truth.Generally, scientists are preoccupied with their work,
and do not delve into possible inconsistencies in their philosophical

Still the conflict is very real. It is rooted in the methodological
presupposition of the scientific method, originating with the ancients and
clarified and codified by scientists such as Galileo and Newton, that
natural phenomena are never to be explained by appeal to some purpose or
end. They are to be explained only in terms of mechanical cause and effect.
This presupposition, unnatural to the human mind though it is, has
nevertheless been thoroughly justified by its stupendous success over
centuries of increasing understanding of nature.

This lends the scientific worldview in general, and mechanism in particular,
an enormous power and prestige to the point where it, now, seems to many,
especially the technically educated, to be 'natural'. And that in turn has
the effect of sucking vitality out of art, philosophy, and the humanities in
general, who sometimes ape the methods and attitudes of the sciences.

Computer music obviously is in a special position here.

As a composer, I will state that although I very much am NOT a mechnist, I
do find a good deal of inspiration in science, mathematics, and the formal
order of creation. This to me seems not only beautiful, but a source of
artistic inspiration in the sense of adapting mathematics and natural
patterns to musical composition. So, I personally do not feel this conflict,
but I do feel that I understand it and I sympathize with those who do feel


----- Original Message -----
From: "Lisa Whistlecroft" <>
To: <>
Sent: Saturday, September 10, 2005 7:18 AM
Subject: Re: Science, Knowledge, Understanding, Art and Wonder

> >Considerations?
> All that follows is only my opinion. I have commented on some of Kevin's
> questions in an order different from the one in which he wrote them.
>>Why do poets and artists so often disparage science in their work?
> Is it insecurity, grown from ignorance? I'm sure it is exactly the
> same as the way that some engineers I know are - or pretend to be - proud
> that they can't spell, can't write elegantly and know nothing about
> anything they deem to be 'arty'. It's easier to derogate than to admire,
> if you are insecure in your own self (though not in your expertise in your
> own narrow field).
>>At a meeting of romantic poets in 1817, Keats suggested that Newton had
>>destroyed the wonder of the rainbow by explaining how it came about.
> But can someone who is a literature/philosophy scholar tell us if he meant
> it or was trying to provoke debate? I know nothing about Keats!
>>He [Dawkins] shows how the scientific "unweaving of rainbows" has always
>>lead to other amazing and wonderful mysteries.
> I haven't read the book, but for me, that is a secondary (derivative)
> effect. That says that 'solving' one mystery leads to more beautiful ones
> to be solved - like some sort of mythical quest. Surely, understanding
> something makes that particular something more wonderful to contemplate?
>>In "Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder",
>>Richard Dawkins provides an elegant defense of his contention that knowing
>>how something works in no way diminishes its wonder.
> For me, knowing how something works has almost always enhanced my pleasure
> and wonder at it. The difference between when that is so and when it is
> not is when the 'thing' was a 'trick'.
> What I mean is this: understanding how a chrysalis turns into a moth
> increases the wonder of both - but understanding how a stage magician
> turns a handkerchief into a dove only increases one's respect for the
> performer, not one's wonder or understanding of either silk or birds!
> What this leads me on to (back to?) is a question. Does this imply that
> the artists who mock science and the scientists who mock art somehow see
> the other discipline as a (cheap?) trick? That makes the criticism even
> more stupid, I think - and very sad.
> <different topic alert>
> As a postscript, I find it interesting that it should be Dawkins who says
> understanding leads to greater wonder and more mysteries when he is
> reputedly such a strong proponent of the theory that there is no ultimate
> mystery or ultimate solution or god. Surely simple logic says that if
> greater understanding leads to greater wonder and pleasure then at the
> point where we understand the last mystery we should enter a state of
> bliss!!! (And I'm only half flippant here!)
> </different topic alert>
> Lisa (science trained, albeit some time ago!)
> PS Language is a strange and powerfully ambiguous thing - is the quote at
> the end of my current signature really an insult to the other sciences?
> I've just come back from a conference where Etienne Wenger was the closing
> speaker. The point of his talk was not that communities of practice exist
> (he proposed that in 1989) but that we are actually also enriched by our
> understanding of how we don't belong to other C's of P - our knowing that
> there are things we have chosen not to pursue or never had the opportunity
> to pursue - and that these have their own languages to define their
> knowledge.
> --
> --------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Lisa Whistlecroft
> Lancaster University, UK. Tel: +44 (0) 1524 593776
> Me:
> All science is either physics or stamp collecting. (Ernest Rutherford)

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