Science is the Servant

Science and technology are only the means to an end, and that end is art.

By Phil Hall

Richard Serra’s response to the architecture of Frank Gehry was that it wasn’t art. Well, if we accept Serra’s statement then Oscar Wilde is right, art is useless. If we agree with Serra then there is no need for any further discussion. At least that’s what Oscar Wilde said according to Dan Pearce, author of the graphic novel, Oscar Wilde – the Second Coming.

But my definition of art is extremely broad and, in my view, intuitively more accurate. There are no qualifiers attached. One can have an emotional and aesthetic response to anything. The realm of art is subjectivity.

There was a trend a few years ago – atheism was in its pomp and the four horsemen (Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens and Harris) were riding high. The trend was for poets to write sotto voce, and venerate the wonders of science and scientific discovery. Poems marvelled at Darwin thinking great thoughts about evolution as he walked around Down House. Poets or pathetic sycophants? Science and technology are only the means to an end, and that end is art.

Science and technology are only the means to an end, and that end is art.

Vaccines weren’t developed because they are beautiful, they were developed because they help prevent people from falling ill; because they allow people to survive, experience life and enjoy art.

In war what is important is not the guns and the tanks, or who has the best bombs and drones. The really important thing about war is peace. We don’t fight wars in order to develop beautiful weapons. We fight it to achieve peace. Science is the great enabler, it enables the enhancement of life which means the enhancement of consciousness.

The really important thing about war is peace.

Being alive means having an emotional and aesthetic response to many things, to everything. It means living entirely in the world of metaphor, language, and the imagination. There is no other dimension to being alive other than the dimension of lived experience, of subjectivity. Even our perception of objectivity is subjective.

Using Eurocentric examples: you read Les Misérables, Oliver Twist, or  Crime and Punishment; you look at paintings by Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Picasso or Edward Hopper; you listen to Bach, Beethoven, The Beatles, or Bluegrass. When we are faced with any kind of art created by humans, good, or bad, execrable, or sublime, we all respond not objectively, but subjectively and our subjective experience of art is quickly and easily absorbed, and becomes a part of us.

The Internet is like the telephone. Who cares about how it works?

Few people have an emotional reaction to turning on the light and then the computer. Few people in Great Britain are brought to tears by central heating or the sight of water coming out of the taps.

Century piles on century, discovery piles on top of discovery; we have the Internet. What do we use the Internet for? The Internet is like the telephone. Who cares about how it works? Who cares about the wiring and the telephone exchanges? Only the telephone engineers. The purpose of the Internet is to share stories, to share photographs, to watch films and clips, to look at paintings and read poems and to experience art – even Richard Serra’s art. Scientists are enablers, and that’s it.

Feynman was wrong.

Feynman was wrong. Feynman in the BBC documentary made about him criticised an artist friend who suggested that the artist saw more in a flower than the scientist. Feynman claimed that the scientist noticed, in addition to the conventional beauty of the flower, the beauty of its biological structure. A scientist, according to Feynman, would see the beauty of the flower right down to the cell structure and beyond to the atoms.

But Feynman’s response is not a scientific one. His response is a subjective, aesthetic reaction to something that exists in nature – to what he perceives. His response is a subjective one, and so, according to my broad definition, not a scientific response, but an artistic one.

My brother is a pilot and he says that the most beautiful thing he has seen from the cockpit is the aurora borealis. Pilots get great views of the aurora borealis, but that doesn’t make the aurora borealis the preserve of pilots.

The Galapagos is no more a scientific place than the Lake District. Discoveries and new understandings of the way the world work enter into universal human knowledge and the science and technology become wallpaper, and then we respond artistically to the rings of Saturn.

the science and technology become wallpaper

It is true that scientists, especially cosmologists, physicists and biologists are discoverers. They are the first to see marvellous things with their instruments, and sometimes they are awed by what they find. You note I use the words: ‘find’ and ‘discover’. None of the things scientists find and discover are actually created by scientists.

They call her ‘nature’, a great, supine, objectified, greenish thing, lying anaesthetised on a table. Scientists are not protean, they are dissectors and reassemblers of nature.

But if you are the first to see something and have a subjective emotional response to it that doesn’t mean it belongs to you or your field. Perhaps Mount Fuji belongs to Basho, but Mount Olympus doesn’t belong to Carl Sagan. Just because scientists are the first to see something doesn’t mean they should pee on it. Despite the hyperbole of popular science, science doesn’t own nature.  

They call her ‘nature’, a great, supine, objectified, greenish thing, lying anaesthetized on a table.

We can respect and admire technology for its utility; the plumbers, electricians, surveyors technicians, architects, concrete truck drivers, recycling depots, construction workers, equipment manufacturers, gas suppliers and so on, all of the people who contributed towards making our lives more comfortable and our homes more functional, but we don’t need their advice on what to read, what to watch, how to behave, whether or not to believe in God and whom to marry.

There is a shared subjective experience galore for us all to enjoy – art.

Art is more important than science and technology. Science and technology are important because we need them in order to live well and create and appreciate art. Lean back in the sofa in your warm living room, everything is clean and tidy. Pick up a book of photographs by Cartier Bressons, watch a film, see a story about Lake Baikal on the box, research the Jet Stream using Google, or watch a documentary about the Himalayas on the digital TV: flick through screen after screen of social media on the World Wide Web. There are stories, photographs, poems, paintings, cartoons, clips. There is shared subjective experience galore for us all to enjoy – art.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.