The Frontal Cortex

The Future of Science is Art

My recent article in Seed is now online. Here is the nut graf:

The current constraints of science make it clear that the breach between our two cultures is not merely an academic problem that stifles conversation at cocktail parties. Rather, it is a practical problem, and it holds back science’s theories. If we want answers to our most essential questions, then we will need to bridge our cultural divide. By heeding the wisdom of the arts, science can gain the kinds of new insights and perspectives that are the seeds of scientific progress.

The article was really an extension of the argument I make in the coda of my book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist.


  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    January 16, 2008

    Just as a general comment on the neuroscience bits of the article: I think you’re a bit over-focused on the role of neuroscience in understanding consciousness. It shouldn’t be surprising that a seemingly ambient phenomenon like subjective experience can’t be understood at the lowest feasible abstraction layer (the neural circuitry). It would also have to unite several other fields of inquiry, such as cognitive science and artificial intelligence, which help us understand higher abstraction layers.

    I generally liked the read though, good work!

  2. #2 Joseph Urban
    January 16, 2008

    As I’ve mentioned, I’m currently reading your book and enjoying it and am learning lots from it. Very glad for that.

    The article does recapitulate well the main thrust of Proust was a neuroscientist, but as in the book the questionable character of mathematics isn’t brought to the fore. Not even mentioned.

    I believe it must be in these types of considerations.

    I’m of the minority persuasion in believing mathematics is an invention and not a discovery. If that is so, then the whole enterprise founders here.

    In addition, I’m not at all convinced with arguments that the artists anticipated, etc… . I’d, or one would would have to dig widely and deeply into each period to see, if the preponderance of evidence does indeed lead one to this impression.

    Wonderful, though, that one’s discussing all this! It does very much need to be aired and bruited about…it seems to me.

  3. #3 Rachael
    January 16, 2008

    >While art cycles with the fashions, scientific knowledge is a linear ascent.

    I’m not sure I agree with that : ) Science cycles too. Remember phrenology? It’s only when we stand back and look from afar that these scientific trends become obvious, and I’m afraid we won’t fully recognize our trends for quite some time.

    >That’s why their novels have endured: because they feel true. And they feel true because they capture a layer of reality that reductionism cannot.

    Perhaps, also, they can be interpreted in less strict of a matter, and molded to accommodate what we wish to feel. Perhaps the true difference between a “science” and an “art” is that science is motivated by the creator’s wish to better understand a subject, and art is motivated by the creator’s wish to influence the perception of its object (onlooker). That is, science wishes to convince its human observer of a concrete truth, and art wishes to move its human observer to a new (and most often unknown) perceptive state.

    >The power of a metaphor is that it allows scientists imagine the abstract concept in concrete terms, so that they can grasp the implications of their mathematical equations.

    Hmm, I really like this. That statement is particularly important when one considers science education. So often we have removed concreteness from math and science, thus destroying any artistic and relevant interest to children/teens. Fortunately it’s a real trend in education lately to bring in tactile and visual stimuli, to make reference to real world problems, etc.

    >At the same time, the sciences must recognize that their truths are not the only truths.

    Aptly put. However, are artistic truths of the same brand as scientific truths?

  4. #4 This is Common Sense
    January 17, 2008

    Very interesting. Good article. But I’ve spent the last ten years of work and the last six months of blog showing that Marketing is a Science not an Art … and now you say the future of science is art 🙂

  5. #5 jon d. Sanford
    January 18, 2008

    I am a painter who reads a lot about science. I play with electronics as a hobby as scrounged parts are free.

    Following “Common Sense” I see Science & Art is first Marketing. Nothing happens until the sale is made! Investors, Institutions, Political interests, Religious & cultural sensitivities must be considered. The common people are convinced Price = Value.

    The consequence is Information about science & art is all too often a thinly disguised press release or in the style of grant request. I have to smile if they are appealing to me for funding the next Super Collider.

    The big difference is that everybody feels confident to judge art. If you like it and can afford it you buy it. If you don’t: say it is interesting or ‘Not my cup of tea’.
    Science takes a bite from my taxes no one asks what I like.

    In science only credentialed peers are entitled to opinions.

    I do believe that modern science needs the intuitive perspective an artists develops by practice. But both worlds are insanely competitive: It ain’t going to happen.

  6. #6 Scott Creel
    January 20, 2008

    “The future of science is art.”

    Well, yes and no.

    The future is science is going to be related to ideas that will be expressed by artists who observe the world, ponder it, and express their conclusions. So yes, the future of science is related to the art, just as its past was and its present is.

    Interesting ideas that suggest testable hypotheses will always come from many sources. One thing that emerges upon reading your book is that it sticks close to human perception, cognition, and the sense of self. In this context, it’s not highly surprising that a lot of interesting hypotheses are generated by people like Cezanne or Escoffier. But this represents a small wedge of scientific territory that lies right on the shores of art’s domain. The future of neuroscience is a small and nonrandom part of the future of science.

    It is also important to recognize that generating hypotheses is only part of the way that science works. In your book, you have many passages beginning “Woolf knew that…” or “Escoffier knew that…”. When I read them, my reaction is that, in a book that is attempting to bridge the cultural domains, it is important to distinguish between having an insight about how something probably works, as opposed to doing some work that comfirms the insight and rules out the alternatives.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is this: If we’re trying to take CP Snow up and reconcile ‘ways of knowing’, then we have to be clear about the distinction between knowing something and having an intuition about it.

  7. #7 tennischick
    January 24, 2008

    i think that you’re onto something but you did not articulate HOW the arts and sciences are supposed to influence each other. i felt that that was a critical lack. it is one thing to say that artists predated many scientific discoveries. it’s quite another to propose marriage between the 2 worlds.

  8. #8 McFawn
    January 30, 2008

    Your point about metaphor struck me as fascinating and a little problematic–do the metaphors in science describe a truth or constitute it? I wasn’t clear on your stance on meaning-making, given how you talk about metaphor. I have a long response on this point (and on other art science matters) at

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