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February 03, 2004

Reason and art

The thing is, I'm not positing a deep division between exalted, rational "science types" and fuzzy-headed artistes. To begin with, I'm not a scientist. I'm an editor and writer, an avocation found deep into artiste territory. I like reading and writing about the sciences, but what I do is in no way science. Upon a shallow base of observation I layer opinion, metaphor, emotion and self-involvement.

And I'm not one of those people who reflexively sneers when he says the word "deconstruction." The practice is useful, and scientists have much to learn from the social sciences as regards how socially formed attitudes affect the very process of observation. The literature teacher's "deconstruct" means exactly the same thing as the molecular biologist''s "analyze" — to dismantle a construction into its relevant parts, examining how they fit together, and deducing how the form of the individual affects the function of the whole. Which word you use depends mainly on what kind of foundation grants your salary.

But I do believe in the existence of an objective reality, and I believe that the task of science and art alike is to approach that objective reality. Which is not to say that there's only one way to so approximate. There is no spectrum of art on which a representationalist Robert Bateman is objectively superior to Impressionist Degas who is better than Cubist Picasso who outranks abstract expressionist Clyfford Still. Any objective reality worth its salt must include an infinite number of subjective realities.

I'm just saying that where some academics get it wrong is equating the subjective with the objective. Postulate all you like that the cast iron pan I'm swinging is a construct of my social expectations and the assumptions that support a massive iron ore extraction and refining infrastructure: it will still fry an egg laid by a hen who never thought of anything but corn.

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 3, 2004 03:49 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Quite a few people believe God is an objective reality. (They may say they "know" this, rather than they believe it, because belief implies doubt, which there can be none of where objective realities are concerned.) Other people believe God is a subjective reality; still others believe God is a scientific impossibility. Not quite sure where this fits into your discussion but I was prompted by your art spectrum thought: Bateman through Still. Is Bateman, however, superior to Thomas Kincaid? And who's to decide? The gallery mafia in New York? The knowledgeable art buyer? The UNknowledgeable art buyer who knows what she "likes"?

GREAT post. Thanks for asking these questions.

Posted by: Pica at February 4, 2004 06:37 AM
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I have no quarrel with people saying that there is an objective reality. Could well be, though I can't imagine how such a statement could be proven -- seems to me to be just a blind statement of faith. I just argue, along with Buddhist tradition, that, objective or not, the external world is not knowable "an sich," or "from its own side."

I think the scientific project is essentially a theistic one: it depends upon the fry-pan-ness of fry-pans having been given by God, and therefore to be knowable by human beings. The scientific project is to know that fry pan as God knows it. (I'm always amused by the cat-fight between science and theistic religions, since they seem to me to have such similar outlooks.)

We can learn a great many things about fry pans in their relationship to human beings. But I think that we will never know fry pans as God knows them, or as as they know themselves, in their glorious eternal objective fry-pan-ness.

Posted by: dale at February 4, 2004 02:29 PM
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I think reproducibility of experiements by independent researchers goes a long way toward proving the existence of an objective reality, but I do agree in the main with most of what you say, Dale.

I think the "task of science" with regard to objective reality is pretty much the same as the task of men with regard to feminism: to try to get as close as possible by increments, but never to expect to arrive.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 4, 2004 02:53 PM
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Well, I'm willing to take reproducible experiments as evidence of an objective reality, if you're willing to take irreproducible ones as evidence against :-)

Posted by: dale at February 4, 2004 03:56 PM
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"I think the "task of science" with regard to objective reality is pretty much the same as the task of men with regard to feminism: to try to get as close as possible by increments, but never to expect to arrive." -- Oh, my. Is it really that bad? This destination point is laughing...

Posted by: beth at February 4, 2004 05:00 PM
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=v= Some postmodernists hold that there's no central authoritative interpretation of a thing, and use "deconstruction" to dismantle a creator's apparent intent, or anything else that a thing might seem to effectively communicate. A sort of deliberate misunderstanding. This can get very annoying, especially to the thing's creator, and most especially when the dismantling is being done just to sneak in the deathless wisdom of some other artiste with a capital E.

So, while I agree that deconstruction is an incredibly useful form of analysis in the right hands, I can understand why some people would be put off by it. And yet, if I honestly deconstruct my own relationship to annoying people (a clause open to multiple interpretations, you're welcome), I have to confess that I'm quite tickled when an overzealous deconstruction is done to somebody such as Camille Paglia.

Posted by: Jym at February 7, 2004 11:16 AM
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