The Frontal Cortex

Two Cultures

Ouch. I got my first nasty review today. (For some nice reviews, check out the NY Times, LA Times, NY Post, Amazon, etc.) In Salon, Jonathan Keats takes issue with the basic premise of the book, which is that meaningful connections can be drawn between science and art:

Lehrer’s book is worth discussing for this reason: It embodies an approach to the humanities and sciences that threatens the vitality of both. In his coda, Lehrer evokes C.P. Snow, whose 1959 book, “The Two Cultures,” has become the standard reference in any discussion about the “mutual incomprehension” (as Snow phrased it) between these divergent realms. Snow famously proposed a third culture to fill this gap. Lehrer rightly believes that the scientific writings of Richard Dawkins and Brian Greene and Steven Pinker, which have sought to make science accessible to all, have addressed this divide without truly bridging it. He justly says that “[t]here is still no dialogue of equals … [and that] there are many ways of describing reality, each of which is capable of generating truth.” While often artful in their writing, Dawkins and Greene and Pinker show no interest in the arts as such. Theirs is a world understood totally through the scientific method, to the exclusion of literature and music and painting, except to the extent that the arts offer apt imagery, or provide ready-made examples of phenomena in need of scientific explanation.

To address this problem, and perhaps claim Snow’s mantle, Lehrer proposes a fourth culture, one that will “ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking to blur the lines that separate.” As an example of this — his only example — Lehrer cites Ian McEwan’s “Saturday,” which has the merit of providing a neurosurgeon as narrator.

There is nothing wrong with McEwan, or with “Saturday,” but by pointing to this novel as an ideal, Lehrer condemns us to a future resembling his revisionist past. Having spent 200 pages arbitrarily and often inaccurately illustrating the sciences with works by artists, he wants artists to become self-conscious illustrators in their own right.

Artists can learn from the sciences, as McEwan has done in researching neurosurgery, and as a latter-day Stravinsky could do by rigorously undermining neuroplasticity. Science is material for the arts and art is material for the sciences, yet each must maintain its own integrity. After all, each has its own virtue: The sciences lift us outside of experience, so that we can more clearly survey it. The arts immerse us in experience, so that we can more fully encounter it. The true third culture is to be found in an educated and interested public, able to embrace each endeavor on its own terms. Enslaving the arts to the sciences, as Lehrer wishes done, will merely diminish two cultures to one.

First of all, I think Keats is willfully misinterpreting the book. I have no idea why he thinks I want to “enslave the arts to the sciences”. Here is the concluding paragraph of my book:

Both art and science can be useful, and both can be true. In our own time, art is a necessary counterbalance to the glories and excesses of scientific reductionism, especially as they are applied to human experience. This is the artist’s purpose: to keep our reality, with all its frailties and question marks, on the agenda. The world is large, as Whitman once remarked. It contains multitudes.

Does that sound like I want “to diminish our two cultures to one”? I don’t know how to say it more clearly than I do in the Introduction:

The moral of this book is that we are made of art and science. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we are also just stuff…Science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that not everything is a mystery. Neither truth is our solution, for our reality exists in plural.

I think I’m pretty consistent throughout the book in arguing that each culture deserves its own “integrity” and epistemological space. I’m certainly not interested in explaining art away, in reducing a Cezanne canvas to some fluttering of electricity in the visual cortex or saying that Virginia Woolf is nothing but her thoughts on the brain. I dare Keats to find any example in the book where I use neuroscience to diminish art. What I tried to do in the book was use neuroscience to elevate art, to show that our fictions are not merely pretty or entertaining, but actually contain a lot of wisdom about the inner workings of the brain. By investigating their own experience, by contemplating the mind from the inside, artists are able to intuit how the mind works. I fail to see how that simple observation diminishes the majesty of a Whitman metaphor or detracts from the prose of To the Lighthouse. I hope it merely adds another layer of richness to the art. Critical appreciation isn’t a zero-sum game: to see art through the prism of science doesn’t keep us from seeing art through the prism of art.

I think the final point of disagreement between me and Keats is his belief that any attempt to draw connections between art and science is to somehow not see each culture on “its own terms”. I think that’s a ridiculous claim. It’s easy to forget that the stark separation of our two cultures is itself a recent invention, and not a necessary (or inevitable) state of affairs. One of the things that surprised me while researching the book was just how often these artists described their work in a language we now associate purely with science. George Eliot famously said that her art was “simply a set of experiments in life.” Virginia Woolf, before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, wrote in her diary that in her new novel the “psychology should be done very realistically.” Whitman thought he was expressing deep “truths about the body and soul” that the science of his time had yet to understand. Proust was confident that every reader, once they read his novel, would “recognize in his own self what the book says…This will be the proof of its veracity.” In other words, these artists were eager to collapse our cultural categories, to show that art could also be true. To fetishize this cultural breach, as Keats does, is to not only constrain the artistic imagination but to handicap our future attempts to understand the mind.


  1. #1 Mark
    November 20, 2007

    You should google this Keats fellow. His conceptual art sounds god-awful.

  2. #2 Malcolm
    November 20, 2007

    “After all, each has its own virtue: The sciences lift us outside of experience, so that we can more clearly survey it. The arts immerse us in experience, so that we can more fully encounter it.”

    Keats writes that as a criticism of the book, and yet it seems like a pretty good argument in favor of taking the approach that the book does. He seems to not understand what you’re up to.

  3. #3 Jennifer Ouellette
    November 20, 2007

    It’s always distressing when a reviewing misunderstands or willfully misrepresents the point of one’s book, isn’t it? In this case, the reviewer has clearly accepted that the divide between science and art is unbridgeable — a viewpoint you rightly point out is not supported by history, when the two were far more closely connected.

    At least it was just a review in SALON. 🙂 I just received your book from Amazon and am hoping to read it over the holidays…

  4. #4 ancientTechie
    November 20, 2007

    Several years ago, I was selected to manage a university’s fine arts computer graphics lab and, before I even had a chance to begin, was summarily notified by a fine arts faculty member that neither I nor anyone else involved in technology could possibly understand the “artistic temperament.” In fact, at the time, I had already earned a Master’s degree in Fine Arts and had several one-man shows to my credit: that was part of the reason I had been selected for the job. Some artists are rather smugly convinced that their particular fields of specialization are beyond the comprehension of lesser mortals. Don’t sweat it.

  5. #5 Pawlie Kokonuts
    November 20, 2007

    Thoroughly enjoying your book, which I actually bought. Plus, you have a cool blog. (I referred to your book and blog in a post at my blog today.) Carry on.

  6. #6 Katy
    November 20, 2007

    One of the most memorable anecdotes from my undergraduate education occurred my sophomore year, at the beginning of a poetry writing class. My professor began by talking about the contemporary decline in interest and perceived importance of poetry. He then said something I will always remember: “What people hear don’t realize is that all they do, all day, everyday, from Carnegie Science to their economics classes, is make poetry: making metaphors, defining one thing in terms of another thing.”

    It was not until I read your introduction in your book at the bookstore that I found a unified, equally represented depiction of both science and art, and to argue that you skewed one for the purposes of the other is, in my opinion, dead wrong. I think you did a fantastic job and were anything BUT reductionist (did he even read your chapter on George Eliot??)

  7. #7 Katy
    November 20, 2007

    Okay, by “hear” clearly I mean “here”….[me fail english? unpossible!]

  8. #8 Jonah
    November 21, 2007

    Thanks for the moral support, guys. You really cheered me up.

  9. #9 Mark
    November 21, 2007

    Jonathan is clearly no relation to John. Nevertheless, thank him for stirring the pot. ALL positive reviews would make the book suspect! The next thing would be for you to get Oprah to invite you on the show so she could give you a good dressing down. That would put sales over the top.

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