Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.Carl Sagan
I recently finished reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is one of the best post- (and pre!) apocalyptical novels I’ve read in a long time. I feel and think many things about it, but one of the things that it made me continue to think about long past its pages is the history and progression we see in science compared to the arts.
Within the field of science is a definite sense of progress. There is a general telos — that of seeing as much of the picture of reality as we humans are able, the obtaining of “new,” “bigger,” “broader,” “more nuanced” certainty about the world and universe. Humans undertake science to learn something new-to-us — to learn about something that already exists. Scientists discover. There may be an element of creating something truly new (new machines and technologies that allow us to best engage in scientific inquiry [CRISPR], artificial ways of inducing typical reactions [CERN], inventing new medicines [love you, Moderna vaccine!]), but at heart, science can only discover what already exists. Even new medicines aren’t creating new reactions, they are just discovering that existing chemicals arranged in this existing way and applied using this method has this kind of outcome. The outcomes are themselves, as far as we have been able to tell about the world, inevitable. In other words, we don’t create outcomes — we discover the pathways that lead to the outcomes we want. All outcomes are available to be known.
This is a long way of suggesting that whatever path a scientist chooses to pursue, the end already exists. She may not find that end, or she may discover a trail leading to a different, more enticing end, but hers is a job of discovery, not creation. Any discoveries she makes are, for lack of a better word, predetermined. Someone just needed to put one foot in front of the other and discover the steps and paths that lead to that end.
This way of framing science has the interesting consequence that if the progress of science is, somehow, inevitable, then it was inevitable that even if, say, Feynman had contracted tuberculosis from his wife Arline and died at a young age, his discoveries in quantum electrodynamics would still eventually have been made by someone else. There would have eventually been, perhaps not a Feynman, but a person or set of persons who would have made the discoveries that altogether made Feynman Feynman. Yes, it takes a special brain (intelligent and creative) to make scientific discoveries, but there are many such brains out there, and there will be many such brains working on science throughout history. The true progress of science only goes one direction — towards the real and the already existing. While this progress is inevitable, who makes each discovery is not. The discoveries of science do not depend on the existence of those who made them. There’s a sense in which they would most likely have happened anyway — just in a different time, a different place, with difference social, political, and religious consequences. (Again, read A Canticle to get a sense of where this idea came from! I don’t want to include any spoilers here.)
And that got me thinking about the arts. Just as science depends on both technical knowledge and creativity, so do the arts. However, while technical knowledge is the primary skill in science, one could argue that the creativity is the primary skill in the arts. (I’m willing to be wrong on both of these!) The “progress”, if we can call it that, of the arts is not inevitable. My favorite subject is piano. Mozart didn’t discover Requiem; he created it. Music isn’t discovered in the same way that scientific advances are discovered. Techniques are discovered — new abilities and capabilities of our physical body to manipulate sound — but the music itself is created anew. Every time a composer breaks away from his or her tradition, they create something that did not exist prior. Those creations, those compositions, were and are not inevitable. Only Mozart could have composed the Requiem.
I believe there would have been the discovery of quantum electrodynamic theory without a Feynman or a Schwinger or a Tomonaga. (The fact that they all share the Nobel Prize for it certainly suggests that the discovery did not depend on the workings and creativity of one particular mind!) Was Beethoven’s 9th inevitable? Was Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov inevitable? Rothko’s “Red, Black, White on Yellow”? Perhaps they are inevitable as soon as the path of the particular art is set, as soon as the rules are drawn that now exist to be broken and bent and reassembled. Perhaps there’s an evolutionary inevitability in that there are certain sounds and patterns that are inherently pleasing to us (don’t tell me you don’t long for the resolution into the I chord throughout the entirety of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde). But the inherent, constitutive creativity grounding the arts make artistic achievement appear almost more miraculous, or fantastic, in a way different from the awe-inspiring achievements of science.
There is just something rather miraculous about Handel’s Messiah, Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2… and too many more to list (Or should I say, LISZT?? RIM SHOT). When I listen to a work of musical genius, I feel like I’m transported out of the physical realm. Science reveals the myriad, unimaginable wonders of this physical web of which I am part and product. Music seems to take us both beyond and deeply into the physical. Both are thrilling. But I do have a very, very soft spot for the mysterious and miraculous beauty of the arts.