Miscellany: Truth in art, beauty in science, and other topics

Time and mind:

To the ordinary mind, time is a river that seems to rush past us from the future. And yet, a transcendent stillness of this current is also apprehensible—a simultaneity of its flow from source to delta. Time does not pass; it is the passage. The ordinary mind is the riverbank and time is experienced as the rushing past of ephemeral instants. The transcendental mind is the flow itself. Every moment is enfolded in eternity. The ordinary mind is experienced from beyond as something transient, like landmarks on the banks of a river.


Beauty and truth in art and science:

I think you hit on a very essential connection between beauty and value (i.e. the measure of what deserves our care): “In how every word matters to a poet, how every brushstroke matters to the artist, every observation matters to the scientist. Everything is put together, crafted to make an experience to present and share with the world.” I suggested that the conventional scientific approach methodologically abstracts fact from value. Though the degree to which it truly accomplishes this—or whether such a discrimination is even possible—is far from settled, I think the attempt has the inevitable effect of stifling the natural experience of beauty. That scientists nevertheless are frequently overcome by profound experiences of beauty testifies to the indominable nature of the human spirit in spite of the shackles in which it sometimes confines itself. 

***

I would like to suggest another way to conceptualize truth beyond thinking of it as mere replication of observation. If I have understood you correctly, this is what you had in mind by defining truth as “the facts of the matter,” and providing the example of

a realism painting of the night sky with every small detail accounted for. Imagine a painting so accurate that it portrayed near perfectly the placement of the celestial bodies in a particular moment in time – I would be hardpressed to disagree that such a work of art was anything but a true representation of the physical universe.

as an illustration of how art can convey truth.

You are working with a concept of art that is not adequate. I say this because, if this concept of art as replication were adequate, the art of painting would have ceased with the invention of the colour-photograph and so on. My main point, however, concerns not the concept of art that you are advancing, but the concept of truth. Imagine, if you would,  a work of photographic realism like the one that you described juxtaposed against Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night.” Can you see the way in which Van Gogh’s painting is closer to the truth? Does a perfectly detailed photograph suggest to you that all the physical elements above hydrogen were forged in the furnace of dying stars? Making sense of this will depend on allowing your concepts of “art” and “truth” and the like to transform in new, but not arbitrary, ways. A practical analogy will be ready at hand to you if you have ever availed yourself of different bird-books in an attempt to identify some unknown species. As a rule, photographic illustrations are comparatively useless because an artist’s rendering is able to intentionally emphasise the relevant and salient features of a given species. A photograph, by contrast, is “unintelligent” and merely reports whatever happened to be in front of it at the time of its capture.


On Goethe and the relation of science and art:

When old age shall this generation waste,

             Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

             Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

—John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Goethe is best-known as an artist. In spite of his express insistence on the value of his own scientific works, after his death they remained largely neglected for three-quarters of a century before the young Rudolf Steiner was commissioned to serve as the editor for them. The link below will take you to a short essay that Steiner composed by way of introducing readers to Goethe’s view of the relation between art and science. Steiner composed a number of short introductory essays of this sort ranging from the topics of colour-theory to plant morphology to epistemology which, together with the one I have linked below, were later collected into a single volume and published in 1883.

As you are reading this, keep in mind the understanding we have developed in respect to the word “idea.” Today, we ordinarily think of an idea as something like “a conjecture” or even “a figment” but in Germany at that time, the term still retained some of its original concreteness and vigor. Recall that “idea” derived from Plato’s use of the term eidos, which is often translated as “Form.” Other translations might be “reality,” “nature,” “essence,” or “meaning.” The basic contrast for thinkers in this tradition was that between what a thing is (i.e. its idea, form, reality, nature, essence, or meaning) and what it is made of (i.e. its matter, material cause, or the medium in which it is expressed). Recall that the latter lends itself to quantification while the former refuses this sort of reduction. In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the light of day is meant to symbolize the enlightened mind that is capable of perceiving the ideas themselves and not merely there shadows or simulacra. “Idea” is also cognate with the Latin “video” and “vision,” as well as the Anglo-Saxon “wisdom.” Here is the link: https://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA001/English/MP1988/GA001_c08.html

A short supplementary chapter that sets forth the same thesis is also available here: https://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA002/English/AP1985/GA002_c21.html


On formal and final cause in organisms:

You described how nature “preprograms” formal and final cause into organisms. Here is a question, meant more as a sort of koan than as a prompt to give a definitive answer. The notion of “programming” makes sense if we think of software engineers elaborating some technological interface. But what do you understand by “nature” in your example? Is the organism itself something other than nature? Or is the organism best thought of as an expression or activity of nature, in a similar manner to the way in which a wave is something the ocean is doing and not something the ocean acts upon from without? When we say “it is snowing on Easter,” does the “it” in this statement correspond to what you have in mind with the term “nature”? What does this suggest?


On physician-assisted suicide:

One aspect that I would like to add to the consideration of this matter is the way in which advances in technology have created a somewhat impossible ethical conundrum. These medical technologies have conferred the unnatural and even “divine” responsibility on human beings of meting out life and death, which before would have been reserved to so-called “Nature and Nature’s God,” to quote Thomas Jefferson from The Declaration of Independence. Obviously, before these developments within the last decades, a physician or healer would be summoned to do everything possible for a patient with the understanding that eventually death will claim us all. Today, however, artificial means of prolonging life are at once a temptation that is nearly impossible to refuse while also engendering a situation that it is perhaps impossible to think clearly about. How in the world can a person be asked to calculate the “payoffs” between keeping his loved one on life support and watching her suffer while he pawns his house and goes into bankruptcy? That already seems like the wrong way to think about a scenario like this but I am at a loss for what the right one might be.


On evolutionary theory:

To me, life seems to be just something like a “condensation of telos” into matter. That is how we differentiate living objects from inert ones in basic intuitive perception. Life is always doing something and what it is doing is its telos. So it seems like a kind of nonsense to dispute over whether teleology has any relevance to biology. We might as well pose the question of whether health has anything to do with medicine (forgive the irony, if it is present). That being said, the rejection of teleology has a comparatively straightforward etiology in the Scientific Revolution itself. I am thinking of Bacon’s delightfully explicit rejection of Formal Cause from the scope of scientific inquiry and Galileo, Descartes’, and Locke’s postulate that only “Primary (i.e. measurable, qualifiable) Qualities” are real and “Secondary Qualities” (i.e. what people sometimes call qualia) today, “are figments of the human mind.” To my mind, the result of this methodological proscription within the modern paradigm means that something like life can never be a true object of scientific study. Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying materialistic biology cannot teach us anything. Quite on the contrary. Still, the kind of things that it will teach us are best thought of as effects that life has on matter and not life itself, which is the cause of those effects. By analogy, we could hypothetically achieve an exhaustive description of all the bits and quanta that have been shuffled around in our exchange here and still have failed to grasp what is really going on and what was the cause of this “shuffling” to begin with.


On Odysseyus’ sojourn in Hades and his encounter with Achilles:

“Better to be a beggar in the Upper World, than a king in the Realm of Shades.”

The first thing that occurs to me is of course the injunction to the living to recognize the precious gift of existence. 

I wonder: do you think Achilles’ is unhappy because he spent his life ruled by the so-called “thumetikon” (Plato’s “emotional soul”) and not the logistikon (Plato’s “rational soul”? Or perhaps because the lives he took in battle weighed heavy on his soul in the afterlife? In the Christian mythos, there is a period of time between the Crucifixion of Jesu on Friday and his Resurrection on Sunday morning during which Christ descends into the inner Earth to undertake the “Harrowing of Hell” and liberate all of the souls in bondage to Hades. Some people might interpret Achilles’ fate as a provisional condition. 

You will forgive me that I have interpreted the question in an oblique way from how you posed it but that is because I don’t think the worlds that the myths describe lend themselves to the same kind of interpretation as scientific facts purportedly do. Instead I think they lend themselves to a sort of “virtue epistemology,” by which I mean that traits of character function like organs of cognition in those worlds. In other words, that world appears to Achilles’ according to how it must appear to someone who valued honor and martial prowess above all other goods. I look forward to hear from you on this. Please feel free to take it in a different direction than the one I have initiated.


On authenticity:

Is Nozick’s so-called “experience machine” the paradigm of inauthenticity? Maybe, but the scenario has always raised a more compelling question for me. To wit, isn’t it likely that the “experience,” to be convincing, would have to simulate being more than an experience? I then picture the thought experiment as a sort of cautionary tale for us not to make decisions we may later wish to rescind but may no longer find ourselves in a position from which this is possible. It makes me wonder about the Christian concept of “eternal damnation” as well: are the souls consigned to Hades no longer able to “repent” (a translation from the Greek metanoia which means literally “a conversion of the mind”) because they have been so taken in by their own lies that they believe them to be the truth? I suppose this is comparable to a form of diabolical gaslighting in which the victims unknowingly experience the disintegration of their very faculty of judgement. But at the same time, the victims of this gaslighting must bear a substantial portion of the responsibility for exposing themselves to the Devil’s overtures and allowing themselves to be enticed by his promises. There is an iconic scene in the Gospels when Satan presents Jesus with three different representative temptations. For instance:

Satan sheweth him [Jesus] all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.

And Jesus says “Get thee hence, Satan.” I worry that I would be tempted and lack the conviction to resist, especially at my weakest moments. Then I would sell my soul to the experience machine forever. 

You wrote that you “think when a lot of people say someone is authentic, they mean that the way the person presents themself seems real, true, and honest.” I was intrigued by this formulation because, while I understand what you are saying, it also strikes me that inauthentic people indeed often seem “real, true, and honest” but we call them “inauthentic” because we perceive it to be a pretense or a ruse. If I were straightforward about being a phony, a liar, and a cheat, at least no one could call me “inauthentic.” What do you think of this? It reminds me of Hamlet’s first lines in that most eminent of tragedies.

***

I think you have suggested an immensely profound connection between beauty and authenticity. Forgive me that I do not follow your example and say “pulchritude,” but that word is hateful to me because of the discrepancy between its form and its meaning. If it meant “nausea,” or “wretchedness,” or something, I might actually find it beautiful for its “phonetic intensity” (i.e. its harmony between sound and meaning). Perhaps this is an idiosyncrasy of my own taste, but it points to what Plato suggested and which I believe you did as well: viz., that if our souls are properly attuned, our sense for beauty will serve at the same time as a sense for truth. Beauty is the essence of things made manifest to the senses. In this way, beauty is not the same thing as merely being “pleasant” or “agreeable.”  This is why I am repelled by the term “pulchritude”: it seems to dissemble its essence.

Did you look into the etymology of authenticity? The word combines the root autos (αὐτός), which is the Greek word for “self.” The next portion of the word can be interpreted as “doer” or “being” (entes, ἑντης), or perhaps as “oneness” or “unity” (enotes, ἑνότης). In either case, I think that the origins of the term lend further dimension to its meaning. To me, they both seem to point to a sort of identity between a being and its elements or expressions (or so-called “energies,” in the sense of Saint Gregory of Palamas). I wonder if you have further thoughts on this.

The connection between beauty and authenticity reminds me of Saint Thomas’s threefold characterization of the latter. To wit, beauty displays integritas, consonantio, and claritas. Integritas refers to completeness and perfection—nothing essential is lacking; nothing superfluous is present. Consonantia is the quality of proportion relative to the proper end or telos of that thing. Claritas, is the power of an object to reveal its essence—to proclaim its truth—through its appearance (in which manner “pulchritude” is deficient, in my perhaps capricious opinion).  

Vincent van Gogh painted Starry Night in 1889 during his stay at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

2 Comments Add yours

  1. theburningheart says:

    One of the reasons we mainly dream on images, and even words on the dream may convey, a symbolic meaning, rather than a literal one, like once after breaking with my girlfriend at the time, I was trying hard to win her back, she said to me in a dream, just one word: “Connecticut!”
    When I woke up the word baffled me at first, what the hell it meant?
    Never before I had being in such a State, of the US, or remember her mention it, however after thinking for a while and writing the word, it strike me how clear, and literal it was the message, but yet somewhat symbolic, considering the word it’s not even English, but Mohegan-Pequot… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Thank you for the comment. Yes I know what you mean. There is a certain “archetypal eye” that one can sometimes exercise to perceive the subtle isomorphisms.

      Like

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