Category: .Bronowski, Jacob

Science and art: hidden likenesses

The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations—more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness. The dis­coverer or the artist presents in them two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art. But it is not therefore the monopoly of the man who wrote the poem or who made the discovery. On the contrary, I believe this view of the creative act to be right because it alone gives a meaning to the act of appreciation. The poem or the discovery exists in two moments of vision: the moment of appreciation as much as that of creation; for the appreciator must see the movement, wake to the echo which was started in the creation of the work. In the moment of appreciation we live again the moment when the creator saw and held the hidden likeness. When a simile takes us aback and persuades us together, when we find a juxtaposition in a picture both odd and intriguing, when a theory is at once fresh and convincing, we do not merely nod over someone else’s work. We re-enact the creative act, and we ourselves make the discovery again. At bottom, there is no unifying likeness there until we too have seized it, we too have made it for ourselves. [31]

What can be true?

No scientific theory is a collection of facts. It will not even do to call a theory true or false in the simple sense in which every fact is either so or not so. [24]

The spirit of science

Whether our work is art or science or the daily work of society, it is only the form in which we explore our experience which is different; the need to explore remains the same. This is why, at bottom, the society of scientists is more important than their discoveries. What science has to teach us here is not its techniques but its spirit: the irresistible need to explore. Perhaps the techniques of science may be practised for a time without its spirit, in secret establish­ments, as the Egyptians practised their priestcraft. But the inspiration of science for four hundred years has been opposite to this. It has created the values of our intellectual life and, with the arts, has taught them to our civilization. Science has nothing to be ashamed of even in the ruins of Nagasaki. The shame is theirs who appeal to other values than the human and imaginative values which science has evolved. The shame is ours if we do not make science part of our world, intellectually as much as physically, so that we may at last hold these halves of the world together by the same values. For it is the lesson of science that the concept is more profound than its laws, and the act of judging more critical than the judgment. [82-3]

The stable society of science

As a set of discoveries and devices, science has mastered nature; but it has been able to do so only because its values, which derive from its method, have formed those who practice it into a living, stable and incorruptible society. Here is a community where everyone has been free to enter, to speak his mind, to be heard and contradicted; and it has out­lasted the empires of Louis XIV and the Kaiser. Napoleon was angry when the Institute he had founded awarded his first scientific prize to Humphry Davy, for this was in 1807, when France was at war with England. Science survived then and since because it is less brittle than the rage of tyrants.

This is a stability which no dogmatic society can have. There is today almost no scientific theory which was held when, say, the Industrial Revolution began about 1760. Most often today’s theories flatly contradict those of 1760; many contradict those of 1900. In cosmology, in quantum mechanics, in genetics, in the social sciences, who now holds the beliefs that seemed firm sixty years ago? Yet the society of scientists has survived these changes without a revolution, and honors the men whose beliefs it no longer shares. No one has recanted abjectly at a trial before his colleagues. The whole structure of science has been changed, and no one has been either disgraced or deposed. Through all the changes of science, the society of scientists is flexible and single-minded together, and evolves and rights itself. [77]

The scientist’s morality

Theory and experiment alike become meaningless unless the scientist brings to them, and his fellows can assume in him, the respect of a lucid honesty with himself. The mathematician and philosopher W. K. Clifford said this forcibly at the end of his short life, nearly a hundred years ago.

If I steal money from any person, there may be no harm done by the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may even prevent him from using the money badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should lose its property, but that it should become a den of thieves; for then it must cease to be a society. This is why we ought not to do evil that good may come; for at any rate this great evil has come, that we have done evil and are made wicked thereby.

This is the scientist’s moral: that there is no distinction between ends and means. Clifford goes on to put this in terms of the scientist’s practice:

In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous.

And the passion in Clifford’s tone shows that to him the word credulous had the same emotional force as ‘a den of thieves’.

The fulcrum of Clifford’s ethic here, and mine, is the phrase ‘it may be true after all’. Others may allow this to justify their conduct; the practice of science wholly rejects it. It does not admit the word “true” can have this meaning. The test of truth is the known factual evidence, and no glib expediency nor reason of state can justify the smallest self-deception in that. Our work is of a piece, in the large and in the detail; so that if we silence one scruple about our means, we infect ourselves and our ends together. [74-5]

The values of science

Dissent is the mark of freedom. And as originality and independence are private needs for the existence of a science, so dissent and freedom are its public needs. No one can be a scientist, even in private, if he does not have inde­pendence of observation and of thought. But if in addition science is to become effective as a public practice, it must go further; it must protect independence. The safeguards which it must offer are patent: free inquiry, free thought, free speech, tolerance. These values are so familiar to us, yawning our way through political perorations, that they seem self-evident. But they are self-evident, that is, they are logical needs, only where men are committed to explore the truth: in a scientific society. [70-1]

The company of scholars

This is the light by which the working of society is to be examined. And in order to keep the study in a manageable field I will continue to choose a society in which the principle of truth rules. Therefore the society which I will examine is that formed by scientists themselves: it is the body of scientists.

It may seem strange to call this a society, and yet it is an obvious choice; for having said so much about the workings of science, I should be shirking all our unspoken questions if I did not ask how scientists work together. The dizzy progress of science, theoretical and practical, has depended on the existence of a fellowship of scientists which is free, uninhib­ited and communicative. It is not an upstart society; for it derives its traditions, both of scholarship and of service, from roots which reach through the Renaissance into the monastic communities and the first universities. The men and women who practice the sciences make a company of scholars which has been more lasting than any modern state, yet which has changed and evolved as no Church has. [67]

The social axiom at the heart of scientific societies

We OUGHT to act in such a way that what IS true can be verified to be so.[66]