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Science and art, art and science, and .... life

Paul Grobstein's picture

My old colleague and friend Eric Raimy posted some interesting thoughts in Facebook recently.   Some excerpts for those who can't get there directly, followed by some thoughts of my own ...

"I think people who think there is a fundamental divide between art and science do not understand either.

(1) Lakatos Research Programs
Once one buys into the idea that any sort of scientific inquiry requires a research program to define what questions are relevant to the inquiry then one can begin to see a lack of objectivity at the core of science. Research programs are in themselves unfalsifiable but are necessary because they produce the questions that are falsifiable which pushes our knowledge forward. I do not think Research Programs are science specific because they basically provide a person with a list of things to do when they wakeup. Am I going to do syntax today? Am I going to paint? Am I going to do a close reading of Alexander Pope? Am I going to play bluegrass? The choice of a research program is basically an arbitrary personal decision thus subjective.

(2) The 'scientific method'
My understanding of the scientific method is as such:
(a) pick a research program
(b) make a hypothesis within the program
(c) observe the world in some way which provides data relevant to the hypothesis in (b)
(d) evaluate the match between the data from (c) and the hypothesis in (b)
(e) revise hypothesis in (b) accordingly
(f) go to (a)

If this is about right, then I see this general method in almost anything anyone does when you replace 'hypothesis' with 'draft', 'song', 'dish', 'painting' or other objects defined by the research program. Any activity which tries to improve results from previous tries basically follows the 'scientific method' so its actually everywhere not only in science.

(3) Biology
I don't believe in any sort of mind/body split so everything we do eventually needs to be cashed out in biological terms somehow. We are nowhere near accomplishing this goal for any interesting cognitive phenomena as far as I know. One important aspect that we do know from biology though is that we have a relatively 'constructed' view of 'reality'. We do not have direct access to the 'outside world'. Everything we do and know is through our perceptual system which is demonstrably not 'flat' or 'accurate'.

Biology is just plain weird when it comes down to it and we have to respect that. For example, Bill points out that 'science' would not admit observations such as "John likes 3 + 2 = 5 but Ben does not" but there is a problem with this. We have results from experiments where human beings behave in this exact way. How a person rates the 'goodness' of an example of an odd number varies depending on the size of the number (e.g. the lower the number the better rating so 3 is a better odd number than 371). This is just weird but must be respected.

I think the most productive way to think about the above 'biological weirdness' is to understand science in an artful way. If we look at different traditions in art, we can find examples where it is perfectly acceptable to have a gradient view of whether an exemplar is or is not in a category (e.g. does Phish play 'bluegrass'?). This is basically the 'invariance problem' that is found at the heart of scientific inquiry. Any model we have must be 'loose' enough to handle variation of exemplars which are members of some class."

Yep, science and art and humanities and biological evolution seem all to be about locally "getting it less wrong" (cf and /sci_cult/lesswrong/lesswrong/ and /sci_cult/pragmatism.html).

And "reality" seems  always and necessarily to be a "construction" of the brain, itself challengeable (cf /sci_cult/pragmatism.html and /exchange/node/2604 and /exchange/hofstadter/applet ).

So, where do we go from here?  Are there practical implications of all this for how we do research (/exchange/grobstein/olympiad07)? For how we teach (/exchange/node/3613 and /exchange/node/2610)?  For better understanding the relation between objectivity and subjectivity (/exchange/node/1547)?  For how think and act as human beings (/exchange/rorty and /sci_cult/lesswrong/descartes/)?

Noticing the limitations of existing categories and principles is fun for some people, less so for others.  Maybe we can all more enjoy it if we see it not only as destructive but also as constructive: as the wherewithal to "create opportunities that weren't there before and provide the grist for meaning that had yet to occur to us."  To do "science in an artful way," art in a "scienceful" way, and live life in an open-ended way?