in Life Optimization

Art vs Science: Subjective and Objective Value

This piece is an extension of the fundamental Subjective Now/Objective Future duality I proposed earlier. That was a universal framework, but here I will attempt to apply it to the familiar concepts of art and science. Sorry for all the amateur philosophy, but this makes a lot of sense to me, and by sharing it I hope to subject it to other critical eyes and make sure it isn’t just the musings of a crazy person. Here we go:

Subjective Art, Objective Science

Taken down a level of abstraction, the subjective/objective duality becomes rephrased as between Art and Science. Beauty and Truth. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but truth is that which corresponds to reality, which is non-negotiable. (For all intents and purposes, at least -I’m not going to get into epistemology here, that’s a different piece.)

There’s always been debate about what does or does not constitute art, but I’ll go with the Google definition for now – “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”  

The key words there are “beauty or emotional power” – art does not hold value intrinsically. Without a viewer to appreciate it, it is just a shaped stone, or oil on canvas. But great art speaks to the viewer, in capturing some aspect of the human condition, appearing pretty, or evoking an emotion. However, all of those reactions depend on the viewer. One man’s masterpiece is another’s trash. While there are universal rules for what humans find pretty (rule of thirds in photography, big eyes, smooth lines, etc) art does not have to hew to them (post modernism, cubism), and even following those rules will not guarantee you a masterpiece, because art holds no value except in the eyes of the viewer, and viewers are fickle. Think of Vincent Van Gogh, who died poor, alone, and unappreciated – his art has not changed since, but our sensibilities have.

Meanwhile, science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” Basically, the study of the real world. Great science is that which authentically describes some aspect of the world around us, the world that exists with or without humans in it. (Contrast that to great art capturing an aspect of the human condition). Like art, science has no intrinsic worth or meaning, but unlike art, it exists without a viewer to view it. As Neil Degrasse Tyson says: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Think of an alternate world on another planet, populated with a distinct sentient race. It is unlikely they would come up with the works of Shakespeare. It’s not even a question of applying enough monkeys to the task on typewriters, because this race does not speak English, does not think like monkeys, and does not possess typewriters. They have an entirely different perspective on reality, and even if they had an artist as creative as Shakespeare, he would do things in his own way, in his own language, in his own meter. His stories would be about that planet, not about England. Shakespeare was a great artist to us, but his achievements are not universal.

Now imagine the likelihood of this same race discovering the laws of thermodynamics. Given enough time, sentience, and curiosity, it is undoubtable that they will. It will be in their own language and completely indecipherable to us, but it will describe the same thing that our laws of thermodynamics do. Science is truth. Science is invulnerable to any force of reason, while art crumbles before it, but remains invulnerable to criticism – you can’t tell someone they don’t like something, they just do.

Where Value Fits In

So, just like the subjective/objective duality, a life lived well requires both art and science. Living on either extreme will not lead to fulfillment. And neither one is helpful on its own – it is only once we apply them to our lives that they gain significance. We only care about them for the value they give us. What’s value? Google says “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.”

In short, value is desire fulfillment. Something valuable is something that facilitates a desire. Assuming we want to fulfill desires, then value is the best way to do so, by definition. Which brings us back to the now/future duality.

Something valuable only to me, now, is art. Something valuable now or in the future, to anyone, is science (once applied). Remember Van Gogh and the laws of thermodynamics. They’re only valuable if someone wants to view a pleasurable combination of colors, or build an engine. Starry Night is useless for the aspiring mechanic, just as Newton’s musings are useless to the romantic. It all depends on what consequences you want to bring about. Things hold value if they bring about desirable consequences, whether it’s serotonin or nuclear fusion.

To a nihilist, value is nothing – why bother with fulfilling desires if there is no meaning? But to a humanist like me, value is the only thing that matters, for humans are the only thing that matter, and by extension it is in our interests to fulfill our desires. Therefore anything that facilitates human wish fulfillment holds value (in this humanistic framework). What, then, facilitates human wish fulfillment?

Art and science do. If you want to enjoy the moment, find some art. If you want to make someone else enjoy the moment, make them some art. Just make sure their subjective opinion of beauty lines up with yours. If you want to enjoy the future, well then that’s a goal. To get to that goal you will need a tool, something to carry out a function. How do you make a tool? Use technology. What is technology? Applied science. Literally! Google again – “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.”

 This is why Subjective/Objective is the fundamental dichotomy. It shows up everywhere. The more immediate and localized the value, the more artistic is is. The more repeatable and universal the value, the more it looks like science. And a life lived well will need both. Pure science is without a soul, while pure art is without function. Any human looking to fulfill desires now or later must address both.

Think about your favorite art (music, painting, movie, whatever), and then think about the most awe-inspiring, advanced technology you can (nanobots, the SR71 Blackbird, graphene, whatever floats your boat). Don’t they both elicit something, some indescribable awe in your person at their beauty, utility, or power? Speaking personally, both give my goosebumps, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

 Am I crazy? Find holes in my reasoning!