Impressions for Art and Science

by Brian Sanderson

It was the evening before Hurricane Earl. I was wandering through a forest of Norwegian spruce, lost in thought. A sharp chirping grabbed my attention. An alert squirrel had sensed my Labrador and perceived him to be a threat. That squirrel was telling his friends all about it as he scarpered up a tree trunk. At least that's what I thought. Who's to say what that squirrel really perceived? How are one squirrels perceptions related to those of other squirrels, or me? I have already got ahead of myself.

Max Born, one of the founders of modern physics, characterized the above when he wrote:
The average human being is a naive realist: i.e., like the animals, he accepts his sense impressions as direct information of reality and he is convinced that all human beings share this information.
Obviously, evolutionary processes might favour the survival of squirrels that can share and communicate some commonly held impression of the threat impossed by a coyote --- a Labrador applies less selective pressure. Similarly, all humans will share at least some perceptions of reality as part of the evolutionary heritage that is stored within the human genome. The average human being, like the average squirrel, may be a naive realist and that is a very useful thing to be. Similarly, one might argue that culture is an evolutionary process enabling a common heritage to be stored within a meme which further enhances the advantages of being a naive human realist.

Of course evolution does not operate at the level of some higher intelligence so we might expect single sense impressions to have some limitations. Again, in the words of Max Born,
Single sense impressions have no objective, i.e., communicable and confirmable, significance.
I'm going to write that again because it's real imporant and it isn't obvious:
Single sense impressions have no objective, i.e., communicable and confirmable, significance.

First, why isn't it obvious? Well, because "common sense" seems to confirm that many of your impressions are the same as mine. Of course, the reason that our impressions are the same is because of our shared evolutionary history --- and also, perhaps, because of a shared culture. Culture and evolutionary history appear to add commonality to our single sense impressions.

It is instructive that nature similarly conspires to make it difficult to grasp Newtons Laws of motion. I know this to be true, for I have taught Newtonian Mechanics many times. Arguably, Newtonian Mechanics begins with a statement to the effect that
Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.
Every year, in first year physics, I would teach Newtons Laws of motion I would conduct experiments to demonstrate those laws. I would write mathematical equations that follow from those laws. I would solve applied problems using those laws. Then I would do two things:

  1. I would make the students do some test questions.
  2. After handing back their test results, I'd subject poor Newton to the democratic process:
    "All those who think that you have to apply a force to keep a body moving at a constant velocity, raise your hand."
    Every single time, a majority of the class voted us back to the dark ages.
The diffculty is, of course, that friction muddies the waters of our everyday experience. Let me illustrate this with a simple experiment shown to me by my 12 year old boy. He said, "Look, if I drop this small piece of paper it falls much slower than this big thick book". Thunk, one of my more precious texts crashed to the floor. I started to explain but he cut me short. "Dad, I've already figured that out. Look, if I put the small piece of paper on top of the book and drop it, they both fall at the same speed". QED

I'm happy to report that by the end of the year most of my university class "got it".

The fact that "single sense impressions have no objective significance" placed a limit upon what humanity could achieve. This limitation does not manifest in mundane aspects of our lives since these are coordinated by evolution in both the genetic and cultural sense. Limitations are imposed when we seek to stretch our impressions beyond common experience. Clearly human beings wanted their single sense impressions to have broader significance. We can see this in the art preserved for tens of thousands of years in caves and under rocks. I look, and feel a connection that seems deep but which I cannot explain. Art and culture can positively flourish within the constraints of single sense impression. Perhaps, even, they flourish because of those constraints and a human yearning to make connections beyond those constraints? Music and poetry are glorious abstract achievements that can focus in on the very essence of being. Sadly, politics sometimes seems to be a more duplicitous art.

Only in the last few hundred years have we human beings found a systematic way to bring objectivity to bear on our impressions. Who could say it better than Born?
The essence of science is the discovery that relations between two or more sense impressions, particularly statements of equality, can be communicated and checked by different individuals. If the restriction of using only such statements is accepted, one obtains an objective, though colourless and cold, picture of the world. That is the characteristic method of science.
Since science must be about relationships it follows that mathematics is a natural language for science. Of course relationships need not have anything to do with sense impressions and so mathematics is much bigger than its mere utility for science.

If art is everything that might be derived from single sense impressions then science can only ever be a small part of art. Thomas Jefferson characterized a wondrous harmony of science and the political art when he wrote of his Declaration of Independence:
May it be to the world what I believe it will be... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and supersition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government... The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favoured few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God...
Perhaps in those earlier times, when science was relatively unspecialized, it was easier for a politician to also be a scientist. Few modern politician's demonstrate Jefferson's deep understanding of science and its place relative to the rest of art and the essence of being human. And knowledge of our specialist science seems fenced off from the rest of the human experience. Above all else, I am convinced that this defect has prevented humanity from having all the benefit that scientific and technological mastery should have bestowed.

The story of this defect must be told on another day.