Monday, February 05, 2007

Science and Humanity

I just came from a literary convention and one of the forums I attended was from a group entitled Café Scientific and the discussion revolved around science and how it relates to the world we’re living in. One of the points mentioned was how science appears to the layman—an accepted branch of knowledge that is only understood by a special few. And then there is the schism between the scientist and the artist, as if these two vocations stood on the opposite end of the spectrum and how they are distinct from each other. But for me, these are simply misunderstood notions. How different really are the schools of science from the school of humanities? And should there be a distinguishing line dividing the two?

My thesis challenges the norm. I mean for most people, nothing can be more different than the arts and the sciences. The former is more in touch with one’s creativity and one’s emotions while the latter seems to be comprised of cold logic and deduction. I’d like to think, however, that this is simply an oversimplification brought about by modern views. Currently in the 21st century, the concept of specialization has been nurtured more so than in the past. Mass production for example relies heavily on specialization, with one person focusing on merely one skill. And specialization is a comforting idea; rather than diversifying, one merely needs to concentrate on one area of expertise. It’s a lot simpler and arguably easier. Yet us being human beings, we aren’t exactly creatures born with simply one purpose, nor can our entirety of being can be summarized in just one word or adjective. We are complex, driven by not just one emotion or need but by various factors. For example, I might like person not because I find him or her simply pretty but for a lot of reasons such as their companionship, the way they talk, their habits, their social stature, and yes, their appearance. There could be one reason why we pursue something or there could be several. Personally, language is another example. As a Filipino-Chinese, I speak three languages: Chinese, English, and Filipino. I may not be adept at all three but I do use all three to one extent or another. The rest of my countrymen are usually familiar with English and Filipino. There is a plurality of languages in our culture and it is not limited to us: look at Canada, look at France, look at Singapore. As much as one single language might be applied so that everyone might understand each other, some people are born bilingual, trilingual, or even more. And the same goes with our other talents. There are tri-athletes, people with resumes that list themselves as singer/songwriter/composer, or even people who are able to play several musical instruments. Specialization, as much as it makes life a lot simpler, isn’t necessarily true for everyone. People are pluralities, multi-faceted beings that are endowed with a wide variety of talent and skill.

All that brings me to art and science. Yes there are people who choose either art or science as their vocation. But that doesn’t mean it’s always an either/or proposition. Look at Leonardo da Vinci, a man who was both driven by the sciences and the arts (and in fact I dare, based on pure speculation, that it’s perhaps his interest in science that has influenced his art and vice versa). Of course a rebuttal some might say is that Da Vinci is the exception rather than the norm. But if we look back in history, one of the world’s earliest human scientists didn’t begin as scientists—we called them philosophers and philosophy currently is known as a branch in the school of humanities. Yet the contribution of philosophers in the field of science has been astounding. Democritus, for example, is one of the people who first conceptualized the atom. Aristotle has also been known to pursue scientific inquiry even if they are currently proven to be inadequate or erroneous.

I think most people expect science to be useful and relevant. The former quality is debatable; sometimes scientific inquiry is simply there to sate our curiosity. Whether it is relevant, it is. But how I arrive at that conclusion is not via the results of science but rather at the beginning of science: we ask the question of why and how. And when we ask those two questions, it’s only then we begin to see how science relates to the other fields. Philosophy for example similarly asks why and how although the approach is different. Even religion results from the question of how and why and again, the methodoly is different but the fundamental question remains the same. Science, philosophy, and religion seeks to understand our world—at least that was the case in the beginning. Now in its modern forms, these three fields might appear different, more “evolved” from its original incarnation. Which is why people distinguish between philosophy and science and religion. But again, if you look at their roots, they are not so much different.

And then comes the artist. They fall under a wide category: the fictionists, the poets, the singers, the illustrators, the performers, the musicians, and the list goes on. What do they have in common? They see their output as works of art. But before I start asking the question of what is art, perhaps it is important to look into why these people make art in the first place. In certain ways, their creative output is the result of the need they have to express themselves, to sort out the feelings and emotions and ideas they have. In a certain way, they are also asking within themselves the question of why and their art is their way of doing so. The form their answer takes might be unfathomable at first but to the artist, there is some sense of release, a relief that can only come from discovering more about themselves. That is not to say, however, that the scientist and the artist are the same. Whereas the latter focuses more on internal questions, the scientist is usually interested not in what lies from within but from without. And the way each answers their questions is significantly different. Whereas the artist might employ a subtler, metaphorical method, the scientist is usually direct and forthcoming. Which method is more effective, on the other hand, is subject to a different discussion altogether.

Then we come to the question of what is art. It is an important question because it usually seems like the polar opposite of what is scientific. Art is usually accepted as something impractical, non-utilitarian. Science, on the other hand, seems like something important, something vital, something useful. I will not debate whether art is utilitarian—that is a discussion of a different sort. But I do want to point out that science in itself isn’t as utilitarian as most people assume it is. Knowledge of science is just that—knowledge. Awareness or ignorance of the laws of gravity, for instance, won’t make the pull of gravity any stronger or weaker. It applies to us all equally. That’s not to say, however, that science doesn’t have a practical application. It does but that is putting science into action and not science in itself. A physicists, for example might know the forces and the mechanics empowering a plane to fly but that does not mean that given the chance and the materials that he will be able to build himself a working plane. A scientist and his discoveries is necessary, no question about it, in crafting the plane but the scientist himself is not necessary in the reproduction and piloting of the aircraft (that job is presumably left to the more “practical” professions such as laborers and technicians who might not necessarily understand what they’re doing on the level a scientist understands the laws of physics but they nonetheless are able to successfully construct a working airplane). Science enables us to find the answers but what we do with the answers (and its practical applications) is a whole different thing. The value of art is similarly like science. Art per se isn’t necessarily useful (except perhaps to its creator who finds fulfillment in the very act of creativity) but later on, people do attach significance to it. For example the Mona Lisa, in the end, is simply a painting. It becomes valuable (aesthetically and financially) because of the significance people attach to it. In itself, it has no value. Without humans to appreciate it, it is just paint on paper. The same goes with science. All the theories and discoveries remain in the form of knowledge until someone transforms it into something useful.

Speaking of usefulness, one of the speakers in the forum mentioned that scientific inquiry doesn’t need to be useful in itself. We pursue scientific experiments not because we think it will be useful but because we do not know if it will be useful or not. I think that leads us back to the foundations of schools of thought such as science, philosophy, and religion. A scientist doesn’t set out to be useful at the start. Its usefulness is merely a byproduct (and it is a great byproduct indeed considering how science has shaped our modern world). First and foremost, they set out to satiate their curiosity, to find the answers to why and how. The artist is placed in a similar situation. When they create their work of art whatever form it might take, the primary concern isn’t to be useful or to be profitable or to even be entertaining—art is merely one way for the person to express themselves. What we do with art later on is another matter entirely and often, it’s not even in the control of the artist what happens to it. And science is in a similar plight. One just needs to look at our findings regarding Global Warming. Several scientists have warned us about it yet few are actually acting against it. The US government for example have either ignored the reports or try to suppress it. In such a scenario, the awareness, the knowledge of Global Warming seems useless. The end result is just the same if we were ignorant of the phenomenon. So it takes human action to make science—and art—practical. (Of course for the record, I’d like to mention that people are acting on Global Warming thanks to the discoveries and publishing of science on the topic. Whether it is enough to stave off the impending catastrophe is another matter. And perhaps the words of my college professor ring true now: it is not for the Earth’s sake that we should take care of our environment for the planet Earth will go on for centuries even amidst disasters both natural and man-made; we should do it for ourselves for it is we humans who are inhabiting this planet and the inhospitable environment we are creating is merely inhospitable to ourselves and the creatures living on the planet.)

Having said all that, the line between art and science seem tenuous. But I do think there is a difference between the two, just not as huge and encompassing as people originally thought it to be. I’m not here to say art and science are the same for while they might share a common origin, their methods, the way they express themselves, are obviously different, in the same way that we do not relegate science, philosophy, and religion to the same field. The difference might seem minute or huge, depending on what perspective you choose to view it in, but it is these differences that makes it relevant to us humans. However, I would like to point out that the gap isn’t as difficult to bridge as most people imagine it to be, and it is conceivable for one to choose both paths. Art and science aren’t exclusive—they’re both part of the human condition. Whether we pick one road or both roads is up to you (or if we should even pick either of those paths; perchance maybe there is even an undefined third option or even a fourth or a fifth… the possibilities are endless for human beings are pluralities). And perhaps a part of us relishes and wonders what if we instead chose the other path. I’m here to ask then what’s stopping you now? If there’s anything we should realize by now, the two share certain elements in common, and sometimes the leap of faith isn’t such a huge leap at all.

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