Happy Wesak Day

I just agreed as usual to do the facepainting at the primary school fair. I love doing this, and the fact that I am ok at it intrigues me, because I have always been crap at art. I need to get to the bottom of thoughts about Art, Science, Academia, and Buddhism. Yes I know I should be writing a blog post about the new Government’s attitude to space, but just bear with me.

I have sometimes been caught up in academic debates about “bridging the gap between art and science'”. I’ve never seen the issue. My impression is that artists and scientists instinctively get on, each recognising that the others are engaged in creative work. We tend to be mutually in awe. I watch my daughter with a paint brush; a flick of the hand and something magical and evocative appears. How does she do that ? Likewise, artists I know gawp at our mathematical skill, and the ability to conjure up exotic ideas – black holes, the ambiguity of time and space. So there is difference but respect. If anything, the sneering cultural gap is between both of us and the “humanities”, disputatious folk who do not create but who analyse, recycle, and judge ideas.

So what joins Art and Science is creativity, and an instinct that the most important thing in life is to seek truth. There is however something that profoundly divides science and the graphic arts. Why did I manage face painting when I am so awful at drawing ? I think the answer was that I didn’t try to be creative. I just took some examples and copied them. My arty friends said “Well of course. Anybody can draw. You intellectuals just mess it up because you are always trying to draw the idea in your head. Just open your eyes and draw what you can see. Easy.”

Cue mysticism. The aim of meditation is the removal of desire, and the removal of illusion. The reason many people misunderstand mysticism is the assumption that the idea is to reach some deep, mysterious, weird and foggy world. In fact the point is to strip out of our heads the pictures that we force onto our sense data, and just see the world as it is. Like an artist.

So thats a very appealing idea, from both an artistic point of view and from a spiritual point of view. Wow ! Do you mean I can get spiritual insight without having to believe in gods and monsters and the book and all that crap ? Where do I sign ?

But it still leaves a scientist uncomfortable. Those pictures of the world – those theories – are explanatory frameworks. They are why we are doing this. We want to explain, not just reflect. Of course we have to make sure we don’t get dogmatically attached to our theories. If they disagree with the facts, we chuck ’em out and get new ones. That process of sceptically converging on explanations, is what science is. Its not Art. Its not Academic Disputation. Its not Buddhism. Its a method for finding truth..

Mind you, reading the astronomical literature, you get a strong sense of how tangled up we are in the current fashions, how every set of “facts” is seen through a theoretical filter. That organised scepticism thing is really hard. How do we open the doors of perception ?

Happy Wesak Day.

5 Responses to Happy Wesak Day

  1. Sarah EB says:

    Similarly with cooking, it is something people who think they can’t do it marvel at. And yet all it takes to be a good cook is a) ability to follow directions and b) experience. When someone tells me they can’t cook, I can’t help but feel they just don’t want to.

    I really enjoyed this post because although I am not artistic – maybe I fall into more of the “mystic” category you mention? – working as I do in the scientific environment the differences and similarities in the worlds are apparent to me daily. I especially enjoy those of the Scientific nature who can step back out of the analysis framework and observe more simply too. Those are the *really* smart ones! 🙂

    I would love to see pictures of your face painting!

    • andyxl says:

      Sarah – next time I come to Caltech I will bring a recipe of my choice and insist you follow it. Will probably involve soufflé

  2. Brendan says:

    “In fact the point is to strip out of our heads the pictures that we force onto our sense data, and just see the world as it is. Like an artist.”

    Or, the mystics might say, like a child.

  3. martin E. says:

    While I wait to chat to our cable company (currently #56 in queue, started at #168), I have to object to your throwaway characterization of the humanities.
    [Having a daughter diving headlong into such things in no way influences my wise judgement.]
    But really, are all the astronomers you know really ‘creative’? are there no bullshit artists among them? among artists?
    Similarly, are all humanities folks 100% recyclers? I suspect you are “the slaves of some defunct economist”, as Keynes said. Economics doesn’t count? History perhaps? No, that’s serious re-examinationof our past – we wouldn’t want Victorian history – Imperialism and all that – we’ve got it clear now. Nah. We’re always re-interpreting history in light of our present concerns; a highly creative process. Is literary criticism futile? Read “Reading Lolita in Teheran” and get back to me. And so on.
    There’s a load of academics getting by on hot air, but it isn’t the special method of one domain of enquiry.
    … down to #11 in the queue now; better concentrate.

  4. andyxl says:

    Damn. Strawman rescued.

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