Bridging the ‘two cultures’

Science and art together can capture the different dimensions of human experience.

Mark Lythgoe

Topics Science & Tech

From the moment we are born (and sometimes before) we place our blind faith in the scientific method. Whether it’s brushing your teeth or fastening your seatbelt ready for a long-haul flight, you trust in the scientific method.

Perhaps that’s why at Cheltenham Festival of Science in June 2003, the scientific method was pitted against other notions for the ‘the best idea in science ever’. The event was staged as a debate between Peter Atkins, professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford, and Peter Tallack, a former editor at Nature and editor of The Science Book. Atkins’s choices were evolution by natural selection, the expanding universe and the second law of thermodynamics, whereas Tallack plumped for the scientific method, the atomic hypothesis, and the equivalence of the mind and the brain (1).

Tallack claimed that of the ideas presented, the one that trumped them all was the scientific method: the idea that there is an objective world out there that can be probed by experimental investigation. None of the others, he claimed, would have been verifiable without it. I too believe that the scientific method is the best of the lot, but unfortunately the audience gave that accolade to natural selection. Although I’m sure that the lay public had a good grasp of the importance of the scientific method, it is likely that natural selection came out on top because there are more popular science books on evolution than on any other topic – as well as the fact that Darwin holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the British public.

It is easy to forget that we weren’t born with an intuitive understanding of the idea of the scientific method, and that it took several centuries for science itself to refine and properly appreciate it. It is this rigorous method that allows scientists to pose questions and resolve them in a way that critics, philosophers, historians cannot. Tallack suggests that this is why science, more than any other mode of knowledge – literary criticism, art, religion – yields durable, verifiable and reliable insights into the nature of things. ‘It gets us somewhere’, he says. Tallack concluded by saying ‘science is the most successful research strategy ever devised, the whole thing having taken only about 400 years, I see no reason why it won’t continue to explain the world, in all aspects and at every level’.

In the debate, I suggested that none of the ideas that had been presented were truly great ideas – and that understanding our scientific limitations, rather than simply extolling the virtues of the scientific approach, is actually the greatest notion in science today. It is this belief that I want to expand upon.

Some time ago I took a friend, who was having a few problems with his relationship, to a lecture titled ‘The neural basis of romantic love’, professing that he would find love in science even if he couldn’t find it at home (2). Towards the end of the lecture, the areas of the brain where ‘love’ resides were revealed. I asked the speaker: ‘Now that you have investigated and found love in the brain, how has this personally informed you of what is love?’. Of course, science hadn’t helped, nor could it help, nor will science ever help to answer such questions. It is the wrong tool for the job.

The limitations of language have always been all too apparent to me. As a child I was lucky enough to suffer from synaesthesia – I was able to taste shapes. Even though the scientific method can describe in detail why this happens, I can never explain to you the taste of the sharp pointed corners of a cube or a right-angled triangle, nor that of the flatness of a solid plane as it melts on the end of my tongue. Perhaps Nietzsche was on the right lines when he suggested that science describes the world in wondrous detail and complexity, yet disappointingly without ever really explaining anything.

In 1982, the scientist Frank Jackson argued that Mary, a neuroscientist with black-and-white vision might know all the physical facts about colour vision, but would still not know what it is like to experience seeing red (3). Similarly, science can describe the various functions of the brain associated with emotions such as fear or love, yet we are no closer to sharing them.

Over the past few decades, investigation into consciousness has finally been deemed worthy by the scientific community. Although artists might claim to have been manipulating our phenomenological experience of the world – via our central nervous system – for many hundreds of years, through artistic stimuli that thrill, question and captivate. In trying to unravel consciousness, neuropsychologist Richard Gregory proposes that the ‘…difference between hypothesis of science and the perceptual hypothesis is that only perceptions have consciousness – qualia – such as sensations of red, sound or pain’(4).

These vivid sensations, which are second nature to the artist, may be stimulated by qualia-like visual and emotional components of art, drama, music or literature. The shared universal experience of living and dying is embodied in Bill Viola’s Nantes Triptych (5), which couples the shadowy bay between birth and death. Here we can experience the immediacy of a full lived experience, it is here that we can communicate the phenomenological experience of our world and open a platform into consciousness – rather than through the understanding of microtubules, as the mathematician Roger Penrose suggests (6).

Working with artists and scientists for the past 10 years has demonstrated to me that great art constitutes an open investigation into the human condition – into experience, memory and love, subjects that are also common to scientific study. Moreover, scientists and artists can collaborate with different aims and objectives, while pursuing similar kinds of questions (7).

Today our understanding of the brain is being transformed by many new developments in science, not least the emergence of imaging technologies, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These technologies enable us to visualise the various structures of the brain in remarkably fine detail, and to see which structures are activated by particular tasks, such as moving the fingers or listing words beginning with ‘c’, or even just thinking about doing these things. MRI is also used extensively in neuroscience research, highlighting the parts of the brain that are activated when one feels elated, or angry, or scared.

But can the scientific method really explain what love or hatred is, even if it tells us which parts of the brain are associated with these emotions? Can it really tell us what consciousness is? To look fully inside the brain, to really know what someone is feeling, maybe we need something more than science can offer – and maybe combining science and art goes some way towards providing that something more.

Mark Lythgoe is lecturer in radiology and physics at University College London.

©Mark Lythgoe 2003

(1) Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, Peter Atkins, Oxford University Press, 2003; The Science Book, ed Peter Tallack, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001

(2) ‘The neural basis of romantic love’, Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki, Neuroreport 11: 3829-3833, 2000

(3)’Epiphenomenal Qualia’, Frank Jackson, Philosophical Quarterly 32, 1982, p127-136

(4) ‘Flagging the present with qualia’, Richard Gregory, in From Brains to Consciousness? Essays on the New Sciences of the Mind, ed Steven Rose), Penguin, 1998, p200

(5) Nantes Triptych, Bill Viola, 1992; Chappelle de l’Oratoire, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France

(6) ‘Can a computer understand?’ Roger Penrose, in From Brains to Consciousness? Essays on the New Sciences of the Mind, ed Steven Rose), Penguin, 1998, p154

(7) Mapping Perception, dir Andrew Kotting and Mark Lythgoe, 2002. Mapping Perception examines the limits of human perception through an investigation of impaired brain function, making visible the connections between scientific and artistic explorations of the human condition, probing the thin membrane between the able and the disabled.


Special thanks to Peter Tallack, who contributed extensively to the first draft of this article. Thanks also to Marion Kalmus (artist-in-residence in the RCS Unit of Biophysics, Institute of Child Health, University College London – see the strangebedfellows website) and Rachael Dobson, for their helpful comments and suggestions.

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Topics Science & Tech


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