I am reading Daniel Dennett’ book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, slowly and patiently because it is well written and full of information. I will bring some of this here. Today I am struck by his discussion (p. 140) of a question posed by another philosopher, Nicholas Humphrey . If you had to choose one, say between the some artistic masterpiece, like the Eiffel Tower
or some grand scientific understanding like Newton’s formulation of the laws of gravity or Einstein’s relativity, which would you choose?
Their answer was to choose the artistic piece, reasoning that scientific laws are important because they reflect nature in some way and if not discovered by one person would eventually be discovered by another. Who formulates or applies them does not matter; that is rather their essence, they appear and apply the same to everyone. The personal origins of an artistic piece on the other hand matter a great deal because the artist’s vision and piece is vitally unique and could not be replicable by others. A wonderful emphasis on artistic truth.
This implies that one difference between artistic and scientific statements is that the former’s symbolic forms render an artifactual self gestalt of one’s complex feelings and the latter’s symbolic form is abstracted or linearized for a general perspective. Susanne Langer refers to these two forms as presentational, i.e., a particular gestalt, and discursive, i.e., a general or categorical formulaic or syntactic unit. Here is a clue to symbolization’s biological roots. We know that the self begins in the brainstem as an embodied self, moves up through the midbrain as an emotional self, and culminates in an autobiographical, symbolic self through cortical processes. Our brains function essentially as social organs, so that art reflects self processes from embodiment on up. When they function as intellectual organs, processing information displaced from any current personal events and even autobiographical memory, the self processes must be restricted, dissociated from the process of transforming abstract information into useful communication subject to consensual evaluation, formulation and practice. Art is an expression of self truth and may be evaluated for its aesthetic qualities, e.g., its resonance with others, but it is not subject to consensual formulation and use.
Thus, surprised as I am, I have to agree with Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey about choosing the artistic particular over the scientific generalization on the faith that we will continue to grow and understand nature scientifically and on realizing that once a masterpiece is gone, it is gone. And I think we can begin to think about how the brain manifests artistic and scientific endeavors differently.