Science, Nihilism, and the Artistry of Nature (by Ben Cain)

by rsbakker

nihilism image

Technologically-advanced societies may well destroy themselves, but there are two other reasons to worry that science rather than God will usher in the apocalypse, directly destroying us by destroying our will to live. The threat in question is nihilism, the loss of faith in our values and thus the wholesale humiliation of all of us, due to science’s tendency to falsify every belief that’s traditionally comforted the masses. The two reasons to suspect that science entails nihilism are that scientists find the world to be natural (fundamentally material, mechanical, and impersonal), whereas traditional values tend to have supernatural implications, and that scientific methods famously bypass intuitions and feelings to arrive at the objective truth.

These two features of science, being the content of scientific theories and the scientific methods of inquiry might seem redundant, since the point about methods is that science is methodologically naturalistic. Thus, the point about the theoretical content might seem to come as no surprise. By definition, a theory that posits something supernatural wouldn’t be scientific. While scientists may be open to learning that the world isn’t a natural place, making that discovery would amount to ending or at least transforming the scientific mode of inquiry. Nevertheless, naturalism, the worldview that explains everything in materialistic and mechanistic terms, isn’t just an artifact of scientific methods. What were once thought to be ghosts and gods and spirits really did turn out to be natural phenomena.

Moreover, scientific objectivity seems a separate cause of nihilism in that, by showing us how to be objective, paradigmatic scientists like Galileo, Newton, and Darwin showed us also how to at least temporarily give up on our commonsense values. After all, in the moment when we’re following scientific procedures, we’re ignoring our preferences and foiling our biases. Of course, scientists still have feelings and personal agendas while they’re doing science; for example, they may be highly motivated to prove their pet theory. But they also know that by participating in the scientific process they’re holding their feelings to the ultimate test. Scientific methods objectify not just the phenomenon but the scientist; as a functionary in the institution, she must follow strict procedures, recording the data accurately, thinking logically, and publishing the results, making her scientific work as impersonal as the rest of the natural world. In so far as nonscientists understand this source of science’s monumental success, we might come to question the worth of our subjectivity, of our private intuitions, wishes, and dreams which scientific methods brush aside as so many distortions.

Despite the imperative to take scientists as our model thinkers in the Age of Reason, we might choose to ignore these two threats to our naïve self-image. Nevertheless, the fear is that distraction, repression, and delusion might work only for so long before the truth outs. You might think, on the contrary, that science doesn’t entail nihilism, since science is a social enterprise and thus it has a normative basis. Scientists are pragmatic and so they evaluate their explanations in terms of rational values of simplicity, fruitfulness, elegance, utility, and so on. Still, the science-centered nihilist can reply, those values might turn out to be mechanisms, as scientists themselves would discover, in which case science would humiliate not just the superstitious masses but the pragmatic theorists and experimenters as well. That is, science would refute not only the supernaturalist’s presumptions but the elite instrumentalist’s view of scientific methods. Science would become just another mechanism in nature and scientific theories would have no special relationship with the facts since from this ultra-mechanistic “perspective,” not even scientific statements would consist of symbols that bear meaning. The scientific process would be seen as consisting entirely of meaningless, pointless, and amoral causal relations—just like any other natural system.

I think, then, this sort of nihilist can resist that pragmatic objection to the suspicion that science entails nihilism and thus poses a grave, still largely unappreciated threat to society. There’s another objection, though, which is harder to discount. The very cognitive approach which is indispensible to scientific discovery, the objectification of phenomena, which is to say the analysis of any pattern in impersonal terms of causal relations, is itself a source of certain values. When we objectify something we’re thereby well-positioned to treat that thing as having a special value, namely an aesthetic one. Objectification overlaps with the aesthetic attitude, which is the attitude we take up when we decide to evaluate something as a work of art, and thus objects, as such, are implicitly artworks.


Scientific Objectification and the Aesthetic Attitude


There’s a lot to unpack there, so I’ll begin by explaining what I mean by the “aesthetic attitude.” This attitude is explicated differently by Kant, Schopenhauer, and others, but the main idea is that something becomes an artwork when we adopt a certain attitude towards it. The attitude is a paradoxical one, because it involves a withholding of personal interest in the object and yet also a desire to experience the object for its own sake, based on the assumption that such an experience would be rewarding. When an observer is disinterested in experiencing something, but chooses to experience it because she’s replaced her instrumental or self-interested perspective with an object-oriented one so that she wishes to be absorbed by what the object has to offer, as it were, she’s treating the object as a work of art. And arguably, that’s all it means for something to be art.

For example, if I see a painting on a wall and I study it up close with a view to stealing it, because all the while I’m thinking of how economically valuable the painting is, I’m personally interested in the painting and thus I’m not treating it as art; instead, for me the painting is a commodity. Suppose I have no ulterior motive as I look at the painting, but I’m also bored by it and so I’m not passively letting the painting pour its content into me, as it were, which is to say that I have no respect for such an experience in this case, and so I’m not giving the painting a fair chance to captivate my attention, I’m likewise not treating the painting as art. I’m giving it only a cursory glance, because I lack the selfless interest in letting the painting hold all of my attention and so I don’t anticipate the peculiar pleasure from perceiving the painting that we associate with an aesthetic experience. Whether it’s a painting, a song, a poem, a novel, or a film, the object becomes an artwork when it’s regarded as such, which requires that the observer adopt this special attitude towards it.

Now, scientific objectivity plainly isn’t identical to the aesthetic attitude. After all, regardless of whether scientists think of nature as beautiful when they’re studying the evidence or performing experiments or formulating mechanistic explanations, they do have at least one ulterior motive. Some scientists may have an economic motive, others may be after prestige, but all scientists are interested in understanding how systems work. Their motive, then, is a cognitive one—which is why they follow scientific procedures, because they believe that scientific objectification (mechanistic analysis, careful collection of the data, testing of hypotheses with repeatable experiments, and so on) is the best means of achieving that goal.

However, this cognitive interest posits a virtual aesthetic stance as the means to achieve knowledge. Again, scientists trust that their personal interests are irrelevant to scientific truth and that regardless of how they prefer the world to be, the facts will emerge as long as the scientific methods of inquiry are applied with sufficient rigor. To achieve their cognitive goal, scientists must downplay their biases and personal feelings, and indeed they expect that the phenomenon will reveal its objective, real properties when it’s scientifically scrutinized. The point of science is for us to get out of the way, as much as possible, to let the world speak with its own voice, as opposed to projecting our fantasies and delusions onto the world. Granted, as Kant explained, we never hear that voice exactly—what Pythagoras called the music of the spheres—because in the act of listening to it or of understanding it, we apply our species-specific cognitive faculties and programs. Still, the point is that the institution of science is structured in such a way that the facts emerge because the scientific form of explanation circumvents the scientists’ personalities. This is the essence of scientific objectivity: in so far as they think logically and apply the other scientific principles, scientists depersonalize themselves, meaning that they remove their character from their interaction with some phenomenon and make themselves functionaries in a larger system. This system is just the one in which the natural phenomenon reveals its causal interrelations thanks to the elimination of our subjectivity which would otherwise personalize the phenomenon, adding imaginary and typically supernatural interpretations which blind us to the truth.

And when scientists depersonalize themselves, they open themselves up to the phenomenon: they study it carefully, taking copious notes, using powerful technologies to peer deeply into it, and isolating the variables by designing sterile environments to keep out background noise. This is very like taking up the aesthetic attitude, since the art appreciator too becomes captivated by the work itself, getting lost in its objective details as she sets aside any personal priority she may have. Both the art appreciator and the scientist are personally disinterested when they inspect some object, although the scientist is often just functionally or institutionally so, and both are interested in experiencing the thing for its own sake, although the artist does so for the aesthetic reward whereas the scientist expects a cognitive one. Both objectify what they perceive in that they intend to discern only the subtlest patterns in what’s actually there in front of them, whether on the stage, in the picture frame, or on the novel’s pages, in the case of fine art, or in the laboratory or the wild in the case of science. Thus, art appreciators speak of the patterns of balance and proportion, while scientists focus on causal relations. And the former are rewarded with the normative experience of beauty or are punished with a perception of ugliness, as the case may be, while the latter speak of cognitive progress, of science as the premier way of discovering the natural facts, and indeed of the universality of their successes.

Here, then, is an explanation of what David Hume called the curious generalization that occurs in inductive reasoning, when we infer that because some regularity holds in some cases, therefore it likely holds in all cases. We take our inductive findings to have universal scope because when we reason in that way, we’re objectifying rather than personalizing the phenomenon, and when we objectify something we’re virtually taking up the aesthetic attitude towards it. Finally, when we take up such an attitude, we anticipate a reward, which is to say that we assume that objectification is worthwhile—not just for petty instrumental reasons, but for normative ones, which is to say that objectification functions as a standard for everyone. When you encounter a wonderful work of art, you think everyone ought to have the same experience and that someone who isn’t as moved by that artwork is failing in some way. Likewise, when you discover an objective fact of how some natural system operates, you think the fact is real and not just apparent, that it’s there universally for anyone on the planet to confirm.

Of course, inductive generalization is based also on metaphysical materialism, on the assumptions that the world is made of atoms and that a chunk of matter is just the sort of thing to hold its form and to behave in regular ways regardless of who’s observing it, since material things are impersonal and thus they lack any freedom to surprise. But scientists persist in speaking of their cognitive enterprise as progressive, not just because they assume that science is socially useful, but because scientific findings transcend our instrumental motives since they allow a natural system to speak mainly for itself. Moreover, scientists persist in calling those generalizations laws, despite the unfortunate personal (theistic) connotations, given the comparison with social laws. These facts indicate that inductive reasoning isn’t wholly rational, after all, and that the generalizations are implicitly normative (which isn’t to say moral), because the process of scientific discovery is structurally similar to the experience of art.


Natural Art and Science’s True Horror


Some obvious questions remain. Are natural phenomena exactly the same as fine artworks? No, since the latter are produced by minds whereas the former are generated by natural forces and elements, and by the processes of evolution and complexification. Does this mean that calling natural systems works of art is merely analogical? No, because the similarity in question isn’t accidental; rather, it’s due to the above theory of art, which says that art is nothing more than what we find when we adopt the aesthetic attitude towards it. According to this account, art is potentially everywhere and how the art is produced is irrelevant.

Does this mean, though, that aesthetic values are entirely subjective, that whether something is art is all in our heads since it depends on that perspective? The answer to this question is more complicated. Yes, the values of beauty and ugliness, for example, are subjective in that minds are required to discover and appreciate them. But notice that scientific truth is likewise just as subjective: minds are required to discover and to understand such truth. What’s objective in the case of scientific discoveries is the reality that corresponds to the best scientific conclusions. That reality is what it is regardless of whether we explain it or even encounter it. Likewise, what’s objective in the case of aesthetics is something’s potential to make the aesthetic appreciation of it worthwhile. That potential isn’t added entirely by the art appreciator, since that person opens herself up to being pleased or disappointed by the artwork. She hopes to be pleased, but the art’s quality is what it is and the truth will surface as long as she adopts the aesthetic attitude towards it, ignoring her prejudices and giving the art a chance to speak for itself, to show what it has to offer. Even if she loathes the artist, she may grudgingly come to admit that he’s produced a fine work, as long as she’s virtually objective in her appreciation of his work, which is to say as long as she treats it aesthetically and impersonally for the sake of the experience itself. Again, scientific objectivity differs slightly from aesthetic appreciation, since scientists are interested in knowledge, not in pleasant experience. But as I’ve explained, that difference is irrelevant since the cognitive agenda compels the scientist to subdue or to work around her personality and to think objectively—just like the art beholder.

So do beauty and ugliness exist as objective parts of the world? As potentials to reward or to punish the person who takes up anything like the aesthetic attitude, including a stance of scientific objectification, given the extent of the harmony or disharmony in the observed patterns, for example, I believe the answer is that those aesthetic properties are indeed as real as atoms and planets. The objective scientist is rewarded ultimately with knowledge of how nature works, while someone in the grip of the aesthetic attitude is rewarded (or punished) with an experience of the aesthetic dimension of any natural or artificial product. That dimension is found in the mechanical aspect of natural systems, since aesthetic harmony requires that the parts be related in certain ways to each other so that the whole system can be perceived as sublime or otherwise transcendent (mind-blowing). Traditional artworks are self-contained and science likewise deals largely with parts of the universe that are analyzed or reduced to systems within systems, each studied independently in artificial environments that are designed to isolate certain components of the system.

Now, such reduction is futile in the case of chaotic systems, but the grandeur of such systems is hardly lessened when the scientist discovers how a system which is sensitive to initial conditions evolves unpredictably as defined by a mathematical formula. Indeed, chaotic systems are comparable to modern and postmodern art as opposed to the more traditional kind. Recent, highly conceptual art or the nonrepresentational kind that explores the limits of the medium is about as unpredictable as a chaotic system. So the aesthetic dimension is found not just in part-whole relations and thus in beauty in the sense of harmony, but in free creativity. Modern art and science are both institutions that idealize the freedom of thought. Freed from certain traditions, artists now create whatever they’re inspired to create; they’re free to experiment, not to learn the natural facts but to push the boundaries of human creativity. Likewise, modern scientists are free to study whatever they like (in theory). And just as such modernists renounce their personal autonomy for the sake of their work, giving themselves over to their muse, to their unconscious inclinations (somewhat like Zen Buddhists who abhor the illusion of rational self-control), or instead to the rigors of institutional science, nature reveals its mindless creativity when chaotic systems emerge in its midst.

But does the scientist actually posit aesthetic values while doing science, given that scientific objectification isn’t identical with the aesthetic attitude? Well, the scientist would generally be too busy doing science to attend to the aesthetic dimension. But it’s no accident that mathematicians are disproportionately Platonists, that early modern scientists saw the cosmic order as attesting to God’s greatness, or that postmodern scientists like Neal deGrasse Tyson, who hosts the rebooted television show Cosmos, labour to convince the average American that naturalism ought to be enough of a religion for them, because the natural facts are glorious if not technically miraculous. The question isn’t whether scientists supply the world with aesthetic properties, like beauty or ugliness, since those properties preexist science as objective probabilities of uplifting or depressing anyone who takes up the aesthetic attitude, which attitude is practically the same as objectivity. Instead, the question here might be whether scientific objectivity compels the scientist to behold a natural phenomenon as art. Assuming there are nihilistic scientists, the answer would have to be no. The reason for this would be the difference in social contexts, which accounts for the difference between the goals and rewards. Again, the artist wants a certain refined pleasure whereas the scientist wants knowledge. But the point is that the scientist is poised to behold natural systems as artworks, just in so far as she’s especially objective.

Finally, we should return to the question of how this relates to nihilism. The fear, raised above, was that because science entails nihilism, the loss of faith in our values and traditions, scientists threaten to undermine the social order even as they lay bare the natural one. I’ve questioned the premise, since objectivity entails instead the aesthetic attitude which compels us to behold nature not as arid and barren but as rife with aesthetic values. Science presents us with a self-shaping universe, with the mindless, brute facts of how natural systems work that scientists come to know with exquisite attention to detail, thanks to their cognitive methods which effectively reveal the potential of even such systems to reward or to punish someone with an aesthetic eye. For every indifferent natural system uncovered by science, we’re well-disposed to appreciating that system’s aesthetic quality—as long as we emulate the scientist and objectify the system, ignoring our personal interests and modeling its patterns, such as by reducing the system to mechanical part-whole relations. The more objective knowledge we have, the more grist for the aesthetic mill. This isn’t to say that science supports all of our values and traditions. Obviously science threatens some of them and has already made many of them untenable. But science won’t leave us without any value at all. The more objective scientists are and the more of physical reality they disclose, the more we can perceive the aesthetic dimension that permeates all things, just by asking for pleasure rather than knowledge from nature.

There is, however, another great fear that should fill in for the nihilistic one. Instead of worrying that science will show us why we shouldn’t believe there’s any such thing as value, we might wonder whether, given the above, science will ultimately present us with a horrible rather than a beautiful universe. The question, then, is whether nature will indeed tend to punish or to reward those of us with aesthetic sensibilities. What is the aesthetic quality of natural phenomena in so far as they’re appreciated as artworks, as aesthetically interpretable products of undead processes? Is the final aesthetic judgment of nature an encouraging, life-affirming one that justifies all the scientific work that’s divorced the facts from our mental projections or will that judgment terrorize us worse than any grim vision of the world’s fundamental neutrality? Optimists like Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and Tyson think the wonders of nature are uplifting, but perhaps they’re spinning matters to protect science’s mystique and the secular humanistic myth of the progress of modern, science-centered societies. Perhaps the world’s objectification curses us not just with knowledge of many unpleasant facts of life, but with an experience of the monstrousness of all natural facts.