Friday, March 6, 2009

The Two Towers

We are siloed. Those of us who live in the nations breadbasket might understand it best. Silos are towers in which grain is stored. Silos have high walls, walls so high that none may hope to peer over them into the outside world.

It is an evocative phrase and an apt metaphor for the state of the academic disciplines at the universities. Each of us is within our own world, perhaps a master of it, or desiring to give that appearance, at least, but most are blissfully unaware of the vast storehouse of knowledge that is available in the silos of the surrounding landscape.

This was brought most recently to my attention through a reading group in which I am involved. We’ve been reading a book entitled Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer. The basic premise of the book is that certain artists have anticipated discoveries by neuroscientists. He does this by proposing several putative examples of such, and whether he succeeds in any particular case I leave his readers to decide for themselves.

In my opinion, he has pointed to something much more important than what he believes he has.

Artists and scientists live in the same world and each of these groups attempts to describe that world in its own language. An illuminating example of this occurs in Lehrer’s chapter on Whitman, who had experienced the Civil War first hand. As a part of this, he took part in amputations and discovered that amputees often still feel the amputated limbs. This information, apparently, didn’t appear in scientific literature until much later.

I find it hard to believe this was unknown until Whitman’s day. Indeed, I can imagine a caveman having had an arm chewed off by a saber tooth tiger still feeling the arm and believing that its spirit still lingered.

It is instructive because it allows us to see what Whitman did. He raised the phenomenon into a higher level of conversation. He raised its talk among small groups of army surgeons, amputees, etc into the broader world. When scientists wrote on the subject, this is exactly what they did as well, but when they did it was in their own language.

The language of the arts is different from that of the sciences. The one thrives on ambiguity and multiplicity of interpretation, and the other on precision, but each is observing the same world and, as a result of these, both will stumble upon the same truths from time to time.

The book group to which I belong consists of two mathematicians, a psychiatrist, a historian, a political scientist, a physicist, a retire high school social science teacher, and a retired professor of Spanish. Proust was a Neuroscientist resulted in many fruitful conversations because of the topics it juxtaposed, not because of the information it offered.

Lehrer is a journalist, not a scholar, and members of the group are more comfortable with scholarly books which cite sources in a more scholarly way. He is also relatively young, so there are areas in which his reach far exceeds his grasp. Even at that, he is a writer who has the talent to convince the reader he knows what he is talking about even when this is, in fact, not true.
This is a talent much valued among journalists.

But even as I criticize the author, I have to ask whether such journalistic pidgin might be necessary when facilitating exchange between two groups with such different languages. To truly understand art as an artist does, does one need to be an artist? To grasp science in a full way does one need to be a scientist?

I believe the answer is no, but I also believe to deal well with both simultaneously would require something I call mileage. This is a quality I don’t see Lehrer possessing in spite of his talent as a writer.

No comments: