Science and Arts: The Not-so-Great Divide

Science and Arts: implacable foes or secret buddies? James Prendergast sorts the sense from the nonsense.

Much has been made over the supposed division between the arts and sciences. While the dichotomy is a real one, the two disciplines are in many ways indispensable to each other. The most basic difference lies in how theories are tested. Many theories in the physical sciences can be proven beyond reasonable doubt. The same certainty is impossible in the social sciences, while such proof is not even sought in the humanities. However, the fundamental motivation that drives the scientist to research has the same well-spring as that of the artist. The quest for knowledge of how the physical world ‘works’ is a highly emotional one, and science can have just as much aesthetic value as a work of art.

From the passage tombs of Newgrange and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt to the skyscrapers that today dominate skylines of the world’s great cities; aesthetic beauty has been seamlessly combined with scientific precision for millennia.  Architecture is itself a discipline that is inseparable from both art and science. And today with growing interest in urban ecosystems it is increasingly influenced by the social sciences. The explosive growth of popular science books and the proliferation of television programmes of the same genre, has demonstrated the enormous benefits of combining the scientific and the creative.

On a more fundamental level, science and other ‘practical’ disciplines may provide us with the means to live, but it is the desire for understanding inherent in both the arts and sciences that provides us with the will to live. All societies, from the most materially poor to the wealthiest, have rich artistic cultures. Moreover, scientists are almost always motivated by a desire to better the lives of humanity. They are moved by empathy for humanity, and this impulse cannot be explained in a cold or rational way.

Science could benefit from a strong relationship with the arts, as it would help provide a moral framework for the scientist to work in. A scientist with a background in the social sciences or who has a love of literature is less likely to put their discoveries to evil uses. They would have an insight into the human condition and an awareness of the wider world, which would ensure that they realise that the consequences of their experiments are not confined to the lab. Einstein is often quoted as saying “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” If ‘art’ were substituted for ‘religion’ the aphorism would have a deeper meaning.

The arts, humanities and most especially the social sciences benefit hugely from the application of scientific rigour. It prevents the social sciences from descending into an idealism that dreams only in utopias. Marx and Engels, two of the most eminent social scientists of all time labelled their socialism ‘scientific’ as opposed to what they saw as the ‘utopian’ socialism of their predecessors. Their analysis began with an empirical analysis of existing capitalism, in contrast to the thought of their forebears that was epitomised by Robert Owen’s model settlement at New Lanark. However, an excessive eagerness among the social sciences to emulate the physical sciences can dehumanise them and cause them to lose their ‘social’ aspect.

This ‘physics envy’ has had particularly pernicious effects in economics. The search for mathematical certainty has led to the replacement of a social science for a pseudo-physical science. Deductive reasoning that derives its theories from empirical analysis of the real economy has been replaced by inductive reasoning that models an ideal version of a market economy divorced from reality. While this neoclassical economics has the veneer of science with its neat mathematical theorems, it is more akin to a religion with its meaningless and irrefutable tautologies. This severing of economics from the rest of the social sciences would have been anathema to Adam Smith, the founder of economics, whom modern neo-classicists never tire of invoking.

But, it must be admitted, there appears little danger of arts students neglecting the ‘social’ side of things. While their science colleagues are draped in white coats modelling new chemical molecules among other unenviable tasks, the typical arts student is sipping coffee and chatting with friends on one of the many arts block couches, if they can find one. (The same problem rarely arises in the Hamilton, for obvious reasons.) While this activity may contribute greatly to the general jollity of campus, it can only have deleterious academic consequences if we make the safe assumption that the subject under discussion is not the Collected Works of Bertrand Russell.

Imagine what achievements would be made by arts students, if they only dedicated as many hours to their chosen field as their scientific colleagues. It would only be a matter of time before great works of literature and history would be written. The only downside would be a fall in fashion standards in the arts block. When you have to rise for lectures significantly before noon it’s tempting just to slip on your Nike trackies rather than force yourself out of bed an hour earlier for the sake of keeping up appearances.

These would among the benefits of a broad university education that combines both the arts and the sciences. Students at Columbia College in Columbia University in New York study a ‘core curriculum’ in their first year that involves literature, art, philosophy, history, science and music.  This system would save many students who make the mistake of believing that the subjects they enjoyed at Leaving Cert will be the same at Third Level.  Here, the introduction of the Broad Curriculum has been a very welcome step in this direction.

History has provided us with many great figures who combined both scientific and artistic pursuits. Benjamin Franklin successfully combined the skills of journalist, printer, inventor, scientist, musician, entrepreneur, diplomat and statesman. The level of knowledge required to be at the frontier of a discipline today is immeasurably larger, making such polymathy increasingly difficult to achieve. But a swing in that direction and away from academic sectarianism would be no bad thing.