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Feb 12, 2017
Art as a Bridge Between Science and Religion
I believe that to perceive art as a bridge between science and religion, one first has to define legitimate overlapping truths in each of these apparently incompatible cultural realms. Only then can one hope to see art as a connecting field of endeavor. Having spent most of my life around physical scientists, I am well aware that most are more than a little skeptical of important theological truths , especially the notion that at the deepest level the universe is sentient. Likewise, serious modern religious thinkers are wary of the tendency of many scientists to assert that meaningful truths are confined to what is discoverable through the scientific method. I obviously cannot resolve these issues in my lifetime. I hope only to stimulate you to try to bridge the gap between these two very different systems of thought. My thesis is that all three fields of human thought have in common the notion that it is a crucial task of humanity to uncover what is hidden in the world.
Not long ago I had a friendly dispute with my cousin Professor Lewis Pyenson. We are both children of a vanished community of Jewish chicken farmers in central New Jersey. Despite our agricultural roots, but true to our cultural heritage, we both gravitated to science early in our youth. I stayed with it, while he chose academia as a distinguished historian of science. In telling him about this event, I explained that my life as both a physical biologist and a mathematical artist had brought me to the attention of the organizers; although the connection between art and mathematics and mysticism in my work was the prime focus. "But", he replied emphatically, "mathematics isn't science!" "Why not,?” I exclaimed. I added “You know that its nickname is the Queen of the Sciences." He retorted "It does not attempt to falsify tentative truths from analysis of experimental data. It's not even, strictly speaking, about the physical world at all." I pointed out that mathematical conjectures are often disproved by discovering exceptions, a decidedly experimental effort. For example, most mathematicians think that there are no odd perfect numbers. A perfect number is one that is the sum of all of its integral divisors smaller than itself. The smallest is 6=1+2+3. All known perfect numbers are even. Mathematicians have recently proven that the smallest such odd number, if it exists at all, must be larger than a google to the 15th power. However, there are an infinite number of integers greater than a google to the 15th power, so there very well could be at least one very large exception. Of course, we don't know if a proof that there are no such exceptions will ever be discovered. Nor do we know if clever filters will be discovered that will allow us to use the computer to search the universe of very large numbers very efficiently, giving us a better chance to come across such an exception. Which brings me back to the question of mathematic's place in the pantheon of human inquiry. I would differ from my cousin in this way: to me mathematics is the science of absolute truths. For example, in the arithmetic of integers 2+2 is always exactly 4, never 4±ε. But in physical science it is always ±ε. Does this mean that mathematics offers us a way to discover the purest or deepest truths? My answer is unequivocally no, but that is the real subject of this short presentation.
Biologists deal with the most complex physical systems known. As a result, there is far more we don't know about living things than what we do know. In addition, some of the most fascinating aspects of what we don't know share an interesting property with the mysteries of religion. Here I am alluding to those things which are so beyond our ability to discover that we are likely to never know the answer. A few examples. How did life first emerge from nonliving material? How can we be sure it was not brought here on cosmic debris, or even by extraterrestrials? How many kinds of information storage molecules can evolve to be "non-repeating crystals" of a genetic code as suggested by the great physicist Erwin Schrodinger just before Crick and Watson played with their tinker toys? How many other amino acids could serve as the building blocks of proteins? Ammonia has a very steep liquid-gas phase curve such that at 62 atmospheres, which is the pressure in the ocean at a depth of 2000 feet-easily tolerated by creatures with advanced nervous systems like whales, ammonia melts at -106°F and boils, like water at 1 atmosphere, at 212°F. Thus oceans of ammonia or ammonia/water mixtures are likely on some planets. What is the full range of life that could evolve in such a chemistry? What was the music of prehistoric humans? What were the sounds of the first human language? While the list is endless, what is shared is that these are questions that we believe have definitive answers, but which we are extremely unlikely to ever answer with the tools of science. So Inaccessible Truths abound even in science.
This is an appropriate segue into religion, which deals heavily in unanswerable questions. Religion, like art, is highly personal and its essence is much harder to define than science. So, this is very much how I try to resolve this ambiguity. I believe that there are two essential foci of the Western religions. The first is communication with infinite intelligence, what we generally call God. The second is the definition of what the goal of human evolution is. As knowledge advances, these two aspects of religion tend to merge into the exploration of what is moral. This, in turn, is foundational in the struggle to find meaning in human life. The lack of palpable public interaction with any intelligence other than biologically based intelligence, the surety of death, and the pervasive lack of compassion in the exercise of power in human societies has deeply eroded religion's hold on the modern mind. Nevertheless, it is a widely held belief that without moral axioms civilization would rapidly fade away. This was summarized succinctly by Camus, who wrote "I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live as if there isn't and to die to find out that there is." This leads to a suggestion of a clearer definition of a fundamental difference between science and religion that art might bridge. Religion seeks to assert intrinsic meaning to human existence, i.e. to claim that we have the power to evolve ever so slowly into a more noble state. Science seeks to understand the quantitative reality of our existence without asserting that this leads in any particular direction for us to evolve in. This lack on the part of science of an internal linkage to a vision of human perfectibility can contribute to very dark behavior: evil weapons, industrial pollution, fantasies of going to other planets and abandoning the responsibility of caring for our own, fantasies of creating machines that will take the world away from us, to name just a few. Or science can, harnessed to an appropriate vision, be a crucial component in the battle to defeat the darkness in human existence. Art, by actualizing what lies hidden beneath the surface of our perception, sensitizes us to meaning. Even nihilistic art challenges us to push back against the darkness. Thus art is perhaps our most powerful way of challenging both science and religion to confront each of their limitations.
When I set out to make my form of mathematical art I had several goals in mind: First, I wanted to demonstrate that mathematical systems, properly crafted, could produce a much richer set of artistic images than the hyper-geometric, fractally generated images that typically characterize mathematical art. A crucial element of this first goal was to create textures and abstractions that are as “painterly” as possible. A second goal was to explore as wide a range of mathematical systems as I could, utilizing classic elementary functions, differential difference equations, numerical differential equations, numerical integral equations and recursion, to systematically broaden the range of images I can create. A third goal was the hybridization of real world images that are seemingly incompatible, e.g. flowers and printers, Dutch windmills and people, cafes and vases of silk flowers. Because the hybridization is part of the complex transformation process it often produces startlingly unexpected results. Finally I had an overarching goal of producing images that are compellingly beautiful while simultaneously exploring the limits of beauty as they relate to mathematically generated hybridizations and transformations. This last goal flows naturally from my love of both gardening and math. We know that many of the most precious things in our lives are the gifts of beauty bestowed by the natural world, e.g. flowers, trees, butterflies and birds. I try to explore the limits of that innate beauty using mathematics as my brushes and photographs as my paint. In addition, I am also anxious to explore the role of beauty in the mathematical transformation of synthetic objects, and, like Picasso in his cubist phase, in the mathematically driven melding of synthetic and organic images. As I delved into the creation of this painting system, gradually increasing the complexity of my equation sets, I began to see a connection between my approach and the idea that hidden in the structure of the world is an infinity of unimagined forms. The mathematical transformations seemed to me to be particularly effective at peeling back the layers of the mundane to reveal fascinating properties of the real world images captured by the raw focus of the camera. To me this reflects both the power of science to show the inner workings of the physical world and the power of religion to focus our minds on seeking and cherishing the hidden majesty of existence, with art an effective additional tool to pursue both of these goals.
Further Thoughts on Digital Art and My Art
It seems odd to me that photography is widely and properly considered a legitimate art form, but digital art struggles for similar respect. I think part of the answer lies in the perception of the talent necessary to produce the image. Most of us who have taken many photographs in our time on this planet have come to deeply respect those folks who can habitually snatch remarkable photos from the ether. In contrast, using sophisticated filters such as those in Adobes Photoshop® and Corel's Painter® allows a skilled digital artist to turn mediocre photographs or even blank canvasses into wonderful digital paintings, but it can be argued that it also allows undistinguished talents to produce passable work. Thus, for many it is easy to dismiss the tools of digital art as some sort of giant kaleidoscope. I should elaborate in my particular case. The painting engine I have created is powerful enough to generate fascinating images from a wide range of numerical inputs. I cannot escape my belief that with a modest amount of training most educated people could rapidly learn to use it effectively. So, the skeptic might say, how artistically deep could such images be, if a huge number of people can master the process? My reply? How many people can master the technical aspects of painting? A very large number as we know, because society is now filled with a vast number of people who have learned how to paint. How many people have mastered the use of a camera? Again, a very large number of people create compelling photographs. So, to me the counter argument seems straightforward: an artist has every legitimate right to master as wide a range of tools as possible, then drive them with wisdom, imagination and originality to create compelling images previously unrealized. The final product is the proper measure of artistic validity-not which tools produced it. This argument requires that one believe that fine tools and no talent will almost always produce mediocre art, but better tools and talent will improve the art. All that being said, the prejudice against digital art is huge and very discouraging to those of us pursuing it with passion.
I reiterate that making compellingly beautiful images is a major goal for me. This is because I have a deep curiosity about what actually distinguishes one image as beautiful, and another as not. I do not believe that the answer is trivial, or even easily known. Let me elaborate. As I said in my opening remarks, I grew up on a chicken farm which early in my youth became a large nursery. Thus my involvement with plants and gardens is deeply rooted in my life. Most particularly I fell in love with old trees at a very young age. The community I grew up in, Toms River, NJ is very old by American standards, dating to the 17th century. It was a major supplier of bog iron to Washington's army and The British retaliated by burning the town to the ground. In the 1950's here and there along the rural roads through its farms and woods were centuries old white oaks, much like the venerable tree at Wisconsin Ave and the beltway near my home in Maryland. A whole forest of magnificent wetland centenarians gave White Oak Bottom Road, about a mile from our farm, its name. By the age of five I was in love with every one of those trees. Later in my life, for my PhD, I documented the discovery of a previously unknown way that arctic trees protect themselves from extremely low temperatures and the scientific papers that are derived from that work are still my most cited pieces. So, why do we consider old trees beautiful? They are generally not at all symmetric. Their colors, if present in a human, would be a cause for alarm. They are deaf, dumb and blind. The standards of beauty for the human face: extreme symmetry, healthy skin, eyes and hair are mostly absent from the image of a venerable old tree. I must retreat into my role as a biological scientist to even venture an answer. I believe that hard wired into our brains is a set of natural patterns that define well being in the world. It is a large set. Sunsets, puffy white clouds, colorful birds, trees, flowers, clear flowing water, and so on. These act as filters through which everything we encounter passes. Similarly, I believe we have a large set of hard wired ugliness filters, aspects of death generally being the most prominent. Even here the internal landscape is complex. Autumn leaves, old moss covered fallen trees on the forest floor and butterflies are beautiful, whereas extremely colorful venomous snakes and spiders are at once beautiful and menacing. As we have matured as a civilization and the ancient prophecy of Babel has overtaken us, the definition of beauty has fractured as the specialized languages of the intellect have proliferated. To a very few bright mathematicians Wile's proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, or Perelman and Hamilton's proof of The Poincareˊ Conjecture are extremely beautiful. To the rest of humanity they might as well be hieroglyphics from another planet. Is Finnegan's Wake great literary art, in the sense that Oedipus Rex, Hamlet and Moby Dick are? For over 75 years literary critics have wrangled over that question. Even if it is great, its beauty, like much of modern science, is essentially inaccessible to the vast majority of people.
These complications are major drivers of my mathematical exploration of beauty and meaning. This is especially because the addition of complex synthetic objects to my art injects a reality that cannot have been evolutionarily hard wired and is simultaneously an exploration of a class of things central to the advance of science. In terms of religion, my art is a celebration of sentience, the miracle, as Einstein put it, that we can understand anything at all. I am exploring the interaction of dynamic logic and images of the physical world. If nothing else, it is full of delightful surprises. I would liken it to wading into a field of wildflowers in an heretofore undiscovered prairie.
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