Science and Art
Abstract and Keywords
This essay explores the relationship between science and art. It discusses their similarities and differences, and then compares them with respect to autonomy. Science autonomous in terms of its goal to produce knowledge and its means of achieving this goal; but is not autonomous because of its dependence on extraneous factors. Arts have a single aesthetic purpose which differs from those of practices. However, whether a certain work can fulfill this purpose is highly subjective.
Art and science are amongst our two most valuable and intriguing cultural practices; and in order to help understand them better it can be useful to scrutinize them in relation to one another. The present effort in that direction will be divided into two parts. First, I will mention some ways in which the arts and the sciences resemble and differ from each other. In particular, I will look sceptically at whether we can think of them as having the same goals—as both oriented towards truth, knowledge, and understanding. Second, I will compare them with respect to autonomy. I will note various respects in which science depends on extraneous factors and is therefore not autonomous. But I will then focus on a couple of respects in which it is: namely, the autonomy of its goal (to produce knowledge) and the autonomy of its means of achieving that goal (conformity with specifiable norms of rational inference and belief). Finally I will turn to the question of whether the arts are autonomous in these two respects; and my answer will be mixed. On the one hand, they have a singular aesthetic purpose which differs from those of other practices. But on the other hand, whether a certain work is held to fulfil that purpose tends to be highly subjective: it is regarded as doing so only when a characteristic aesthetic (p. 150 ) satisfaction is provoked, which is contingent on a host of cultural and personal variables. Of course, this noncognitive goal and its correlated lack of autonomy are in no sense defects. On the contrary, the vibrancy and power of art depend on its distinctive function—one that leaves no room for norms of objective assessment.
Science is a socially vital practice with a history of thousands of years. It is conducted by specialists, who have undergone considerable training to become expert. It is divided into subpractices—e.g. physics, chemistry, biology, linguistics—and each scientist tends to concentrate on one or another of these areas. Norms (i.e. standards of quality) are applied to scientific work as to whether it is valuable, interesting, original, etc.; and a scientist recognized as especially talented can thereby achieve considerable wealth and fame.
At this high level of abstraction, art and science are barely distinguishable. Like science, art is a socially significant practice with an ancient history; it is conducted by highly trained specialists; it is divided into subpractices—painting, music, poetry, dance, and so on; it is assessed as valuable, original, and interesting; and it is capable of bringing substantial worldly rewards to those regarded as exceptionally proficient.
But now let us increase the magnification, looking more carefully at the goals, methods, and ultimate purposes of science and art; and let us see how far the parallels between them are preserved.
1. The goal of science is knowledge; knowledge of how the world works; knowledge of the laws of nature. Such knowledge is rightly valued for its own sake. But what sustains this sentiment is its utility: scientific knowledge enables us to predict and control our environment, and thereby to survive and flourish.
2. The various sciences are distinguished by reference to that part or aspect of the world they scrutinize: biology focuses on living things, physics on the fundamental elements of matter, psychology on the mind, etc. For each such domain there are basic principles governing the phenomena within it; and the job of the relevant science is to gain knowledge of those laws.
3. Knowledge has three main ingredients: belief, truth, and justification. That is to say: in order for one to qualify as knowing something, one must of course believe that it is the case, the belief must be true, and this true belief cannot be merely a lucky guess—one must be in possession of evidence that justifies it, that provides a good reason for having it. Therefore the immediate goal of a science is to be accomplished by its engendering beliefs of a certain special kind about the laws in its domain: namely, beliefs that are justified; beliefs that we have good reason to think are true.
4. The norm, or standard, or rule, that tells us whether a given belief is justified in science is roughly this:
A belief is justified (rational, reasonable, legitimate) if it is part of a system of beliefs (an overall theory) that fits the observed facts and is relatively simple.
Thus a new proposed theory is better than some current collection of beliefs—so that we ought to transfer our allegiance to it—when it exemplifies a higher degree of observational fit and simplicity.
5. This norm, specifying what a scientist ought to believe, is fairly constant across cultures and through time. Of course, what a given individual actually believes will be sometimes determined by various factors other than, and competing with, respect for this norm. A person may be subject to extreme political pressures or may be in the grip of self-interested ulterior motives, and such factors may engender beliefs that violate the norm of rationality. However, that norm is by and large respected.
6. As a consequence, science has arrived, through the centuries, at theories that are more and more observationally adequate and (p. 152 ) simple. This is the sense in which science is progressive—the sense in which our current scientific beliefs are better than Newton's, and Newton's were better than Aristotle's.
On all of these points the arts diverge radically from the sciences
(a) The various arts are not distinguished by reference to their focus on some distinctive part of the world but, rather, by reference to their concern with some distinctive sensory or cognitive faculty (or combination of such faculties) and their use of some distinctive medium. Thus, roughly speaking, painting is associated with vision and surfaces, sculpture with vision and three-dimensional objects, music with hearing, perfumery with smell, gastronomy with taste, fiction with the cognitive faculty of imagination and the medium of written language, etc.
(b) The goal of the arts is not the engendering of knowledge—of justified, true belief. The special point of a work of art is not to make a claim, to assert a proposition, to express some belief of the artist. Granted, an artwork—even a piece of music—may sometimes communicate something the artist believes, and may be intended to do so. But that does not provide its value as a work of art; it is not judged, qua artwork, by reference to the truth or novelty of such a statement. The artist is not expected to provide evidence in support of his or her work. The terms of evaluation—whether the thing is beautiful or kitsch or gripping or boring or whatever—do not concern the plausibility of some theory that is being advanced. Michelangelo's Brutus attributes a certain appearance to him, but would not be less great if he did not in fact look that way. And the same goes for a piece of conceptual art. The correctness of what it might be intended to ‘say’ is not the point. Thus the arts, unlike the sciences, are not oriented towards belief, reason, truth, (p. 153 ) explanation, or understanding; and a work of art is not primarily assessed in terms of its possession of these characteristics.
(c) Instead, the goal of the arts would seem to be something special, which we call ‘aesthetic value’. Of course, this is to offer merely a label, and it would be desirable to have an account of what that label stands for—or at least an account of how we go about judging whether something has that mysterious quality. I have little to say on this hard and important topic. But one thing we can be confident of—or so I have just argued—is the negative point that aesthetic value is not the same thing as knowledge or rational justification or truth. Whatever may be the basis for our assessment of works of art, it is certainly not the same as the norm we deploy in the evaluation of scientific beliefs.
(d) Generalizing this point, a particular artist (or school) may be oriented towards some particular moral, political, spiritual, practical, or epistemological goal. But the resulting works are not assessed as art by reference to the desirability of such a goal or by reference to their effectiveness in promoting it. The primary focus of evaluation of the work is in terms of its aesthetic merits. One can disagree with the goal and/or be sceptical of the work's chances of accomplishing it, yet still be impressed with its quality as a work of art.
(e) Not only does aesthetic judgement pay no attention to epistemological standards; but whereas the product of a scientist—namely, some recommendation about what to believe—is always combined with an explicit account of why such belief is appropriate (i.e. of how it meets the above-mentioned norm of reason), the artist on the other hand tends simply to present his or her work with the presumption that it has aesthetic value (whatever that may be exactly), but without any attempt to show why it does. The artist is not expected to explain or defend himself or herself.
(f) There may of course be discussion by critics of whether some work of art is or is not good—of why it does, or does not, or should, or should not, produce the proper aesthetic response. But it is striking how much disagreement there is about what the standards of evaluation (if any) should be, and also how much disagreement there can be about whether a thing is aesthetically valuable. And, unlike in science, such disagreements very often remain unresolved.
(g) These two characteristics of art—there being no requirement of justification, and the extent of disagreement—suggest that the arts do not rely on objective norms of assessment. It would seem rather that aesthetic judgement results from something like the following process. In the first place, the artwork gives rise to a complex experience involving immediate sensations, associated memories and thoughts, and feelings and emotions (such as delight, excitement, disgust, or being moved to tears). In the second place, this experience engenders (and then incorporates) a distinctively aesthetic feeling of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, where (and this is the crucial point) that reaction is not guided by, or subject to, standards or norms. And finally, a positive or negative aesthetic judgement is made in order to give expression to that feeling: the work is held to be valuable or not. Thus, the experience of an artwork either works on a person or not, either it gives the aesthetic buzz or it doesn't, and diverse judgements of quality or value are made accordingly; but no objective relevant considerations can be cited to justify such judgements. Doubtless, a critic or educator may help someone to derive from the artwork the appropriate experience, may help them to see or hear it as intended. But the vital further effect—aesthetic pleasure—either occurs or not, independently of explanations or guidance from experts.
(h) The claim that art lacks objective norms is admittedly something of an oversimplification, but not much of one. There would seem to be a few fairly objective general norms of (p. 155 ) assessment relating, for example, to (i) technical expertise, (ii) originality, and (iii) the range of people over which the artwork is effective. But these are surely peripheral and secondary. The central ground of someone's positive aesthetic judgement is his experience of aesthetic satisfaction, and that appears to be a highly subjective and contingent matter.
(i) One might attempt some specification of the characteristics that, for a given person and culture and type of art, are conducive to the production of aesthetic pleasure. And the results of such an investigation might be articulated as directions for how to construct something that works. But such principles are not norms of assessment. Moreover they are bound to be extremely local and incomplete. Separate art-forms and periods will call for separate advice manuals, and they could never be more than crude guidelines—there will surely never be a foolproof recipe.
(j) In so far as there is no objective standard of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in art, there can be no objective progress. Someone might happen to prefer contemporary installations to impressionism, and impressionism to Renaissance painting—and might then have the feeling of progress. But someone else will have the opposite preferences, and there is no sense in supposing that either of these views is objectively correct. This is not to deny that judgements of aesthetic value may appropriately be labelled ‘true’ or ‘false’: as in any domain, the claim that a judgement is true asserts barely more than the judgement itself. What is denied is that scientific and aesthetic theses have the same prospect of justification, hence the same prospect of progress.
Now let me turn to the second part of my discussion, leading to the question of whether art is autonomous. In order to help clarify this question, consider the corresponding issue as it arises in connection with the sciences. What would it mean for us to ask (p. 156 ) whether chemistry, for example, is autonomous? Obviously we would be asking whether certain aspects of this subject are independent of certain other matters? But which aspects and which matters?
Clearly the activity of doing modern chemistry requires a certain social structure, certain economic conditions, and so on. In that sense chemistry is not autonomous: the practice could not exist in isolation.
Also, the selection of which topics within chemistry are practically important, and decisions about which experiments are safe, and morally acceptable and not too expensive, depend on political and ethical priorities. So there is a further respect in which this subject is not autonomous.
Third, the theoretical conjectures that occur to a scientist may well be stimulated by external factors—by a symphony, a dream, what happens to be seen while walking down the street, etc. Again, we find a certain lack of autonomy.
But fourth, and focusing now on the immediate goal of chemistry (which is to discover the laws within its domain), that goal is distinctive and independent of other practices. Thus we have finally identified a respect in which chemistry is autonomous. And this is related to another one: the norms for assessing theoretical proposals. Whether or not a certain theory in chemistry should be believed will admittedly depend on the situation in physics. However, if one considers science as a whole, the above-emphasized norm of theoretical justification—the preference for observational fit and simplicity—dictates that whether a scientific belief is reasonable does not depend on anything outside science itself.
Moreover, since scientific theorizing is predominantly rational—i.e. since it does more or less conform to this norm of reason—then one can say that the evolution of science is fairly autonomous. In other words, two cultures with different ethical proclivities, different political systems, and different aesthetic sensibilities, would (given the same body of observed facts) be expected to arrive at more or less the same scientific theories. Thus one should resist (p. 157 ) those critics of ‘Western science’ who emphasize its embedding within a specific socio-cultural context and proceed to draw relativistic conclusions about the impossibility of objective knowledge and progress. For the above-mentioned norm of reason is universally acknowledged, at least implicitly: i.e. those theories that work (providing the ability to predict and control) are generally believed.
How about the arts? Clearly they also depend on other practices in all the various ways that we have seen that the sciences do. The existence of orchestral music requires certain social and economic conditions. An installation may be too dangerous or morally abhorrent or expensive to be implemented. An artist, like a scientist, may get ideas from anywhere at all.
But the interesting question is whether there are nevertheless residual respects—concerning goals, and standards for determining when they are met—in which the arts are autonomous? In the case of the sciences the answer was yes: their aim, knowledge, is autonomous; whether we have achieved it in a given case is objectively decidable, for the norms that will engender it are universally respected. As a result, the historical development of the sciences is fairly independent of other causal factors. But in the arts the situation is somewhat different.
Vis-à-vis goals, the arts are just as autonomous as the sciences. The production of aesthetic value is distinctive and independent of the goals of other cultural practices. Surely nothing besides music can do for us what music does. And the same thing goes for literature, film, dance, and the rest.
However, vis-à-vis judgements regarding whether these goals have been achieved, there would appear to be a relative lack of objectivity and autonomy in the arts. Granted, the aesthetic response to certain exceptional artworks is impressively invariable, (p. 158 ) perhaps determined by human nature. But such cases are rare. Much of the music and literature and painting that is prized in one culture is not especially appreciated in another, even after appropriate exposure to it. And there are also enormous variations of taste within cultures. This contingency and variability in the production of aesthetic pleasure would seem to be tied to the above-noted fact that assessment in the arts is only minimally governed by norms. Beyond considerations of technique, inventiveness, and popularity, there remains the most important thing—the production of aesthetic pleasure—for which the very idea of a guiding norm is absurd. Instead, whether an artwork gives aesthetic pleasure to a person would appear to depend on a myriad of external facts about that person—facts that vary within and across cultures.
In summary, what I have been suggesting is that science and art differ significantly from one another with respect to the issue of autonomy. In the case of science, despite its interaction with other practices, there is a constant and essential and sufficient principle of evaluation, as a result of which science evolves, to a first approximation, independently of external influences. However, the practice of art incorporates no such norm; aesthetic value is attributed on the basis of aesthetic pleasure; but what will produce that desired effect varies enormously across individuals, times, and cultures as a highly complex and unknown function of external factors. This is why, although Einstein's theories improve on Newton's, and Chomsky's improve on Bloomfield's, one shrinks from speaking of such progress in the transition from Rembrandt to Matisse, Mozart to Prokofiev, or Shakespeare to Brecht. Not of course that one doesn't have preferences, and not that one can say nothing about why one has them. But there is no established context-independent norm by which the correctness of such choices may be settled.