Across the Great Divide

"Shared Futures", Newcastle, July 2017

The word science is often deployed in opposition or contrast to something else. Science and art; science and religion; science and the humanities. Binary opposites can be a useful tool of classification and analysis, but they also run the risk of predetermining thought. I originally trained as a theoretical physicist, became a novelist and now lecture in creative writing. So I started as a scientist, became an artist, and teach in a department of humanities. My image of science is the physicist or mathematician's view, which is not necessarily the same as the biologist's or geologist's. My image of art comes from writing prose fiction, not from carving wood or taking photographs. From within this limited perspective, if I were to offer some rough distinction between art and science, I would say that science explains phenomena, art expresses values. This is not to say there is no room for the explanatory within art or for value within science. It's more like saying that horses trot and ladybirds fly.

What about truth, beauty, creativity? The last, I think, is most easily dismissed. Creativity, as typically defined, is when some problem is solved in a way that is original, inventive and imaginative. It refers to the mode of production, not the product. For me, writing a scientific paper and writing a novel both amount to drinking lots of coffee, taking lots of walks, thinking hard and hoping I'll have an original, inventive and imaginative idea. The strength of creativity as a tool of production, and its weakness as analytic concept, lie in the range of its applicability. As to beauty, unless we are essentialists, we recognise it as an aspect of response rather than stimulus, of the beholder not the beholden. A person might cry over E=mc2 while a computer dissects the harmonies of a Bach fugue and calculates its algorithmic coefficient of beauty. So what?

Truth is less easily dismissed. Consider these statements. Carbon has atomic number 6. Leonardo was a great painter. Torturing babies is wrong. They are different forms of truth, requiring different forms of explanation. Protecting babies could be seen as biological phenomenon, moral duty, or social practice subject to historical change. The scientist, humanist and theologian all have their say.

My emphasis, then, is on the explanatory power of respective disciplines, and the forms of knowledge they produce. What is knowledge? The answer to a question; an answer that expands our reality. What does that mean? It's for each discipline to decide. The claim of science and religion is that the decision has been made in advance, by nature or by God, to be discovered empirically or by revelation. For humanists, unless they aspire to be quasi-scientists or quasi-theologians, the issue is less clear, though the reality-expanding potential surely no smaller. Art, meanwhile, does not explain, yet its expressive power expands reality and thus creates knowledge. Art is an answer that makes us ask: what was the question?

© Andrew Crumey

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