Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cooperation through opposition

"Joints are and are not parts of the body. They cooperate through opposition, and make a harmony of separate forces. Wholeness arises from distinct particulars; distinct particulars occur in wholeness."

- Herakleitos, circa 500 B.C.E.
I announced last week that biologist, writer and artist Jessica Palmer contributed a short essay about one of my 2008 drawings to SEED Magazine's Culture Section. In her article, "Seeing Antlers, Feeling Dendrites," Palmer asserts that good art acts as a vehicle of consilience.

Palmer has a more recent, related post on her tremendous blog Bioephemera. In it, she riffs on the complementary relationship of art and science.
"Basically, I think that good art prompts the viewer to find meaningful connections between things that seem unrelated, to draw parallels that previously went unnoticed. Art can be a springboard to insight. Science, which can so easily become insular and near-sighted, needs that springboard, even if - like a shared birthday - it's just a hook to get the story started.

It's worth noting that Darwin was a great scientist precisely because he could make meticulous, minute observations of a single species - he wrote a whole book about earthworm digestion, for heaven's sake! - while also seeing the grand, universal, far-reaching forces that shape finch beaks, beetle shells, poodles and pigeons. It's not easy to make those linkages, in history or in science; sometimes art, literature, or music can give the roving mind a nudge in the right direction. As Gopnik notes in his book, 'there is no struggle between science and art': both are ways of understanding the world, and their strengths are complementary."
I agree heartily, though I would widen the scope of such "linkages" further.

There need not be struggle between science and any of the humanities, including - and this is the controversial inclusion - imaginative theology. The x-factor in these relationships is dogmatism. A rigid mindset stultifies ideology, and when science, philosophy or religion become dogmatic, they retard the human imagination and, with it, possibility.


Andy said...

I am very excited your work is highlighted in Seed Magazine. Seed is a fantastic magazine and your work circumvents the familiar art and science characterizations.

One concern, Jessica does not explicitly suggest this is an example of consilience. Although she writes of Synesthesia #1, that it "help[s] us make those leaps so we can reach across disciplines and find commonalities," I would be wary to place that within the 'unity of knowledge' pursuit. Linkages, yes. What these linkages suggest? No idea. I've been meaning to do this for a while, but it may be time for me to check out Wendell Berry's 'Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition'. Written in response to Wilson's 'Consilience', perhaps this can shed some light on the theological dimension you are interested in as well.

Related, the sociologist Andrew Pickering has been doing some fascinating research on 'Brains, Selves and Spirituality in the History of Cybernetics.' He Focuses on the early cybernetic investigations of Ross Ashby's Homeostats, Gordon Pask and his Musicolour machine, and Stafford Beer's Hylozoism -- proving that these folks were truly madmen. I love it. It is a challenging, but fantastic read. Also, Pickering's 1995 book 'Mangle of Practice' offers one potential alternative to a convergence or unity of relations. Although, I have trouble selling that one to the non-convinced -- mangle doesn't have the same appeal to it as consilience -- I find it more compelling and dare I say realistic.

Perhaps synthesis is a better word to describe these linkages?


Josh Dooley said...

Congrats on the Seed shoutout, Hungry!

I take your point on the possibility of Scientific and theological convergence and synthesis. Dogma is an issue, but it is only the last gasp defense mechanism of a dying idea. When dogma runs up against empirical evidence, it strains to hold back the flood of proof that will eventually drown it. In some ways this is beneficial, as it supplies science with more questions to ask until all have been answered and yet another layer of theological obstruction is removed.. After all, Science was designed with God very much in mind. Theoretically, when there are no more questions to ask, we will know the truth of God. He/she/it and science will be one.
Also, I like your point about Darwin... But perhaps he was so good at both minutiae and grand ideas because.. we.. he was an artist, as well..

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thanks for the compliment. Art is subjective, of course, and I feel that a viewer's experience and interpretation of an artwork is as informative and vital as the intention and creation of the artist. It's a conversation.

Jessica Palmer's article, then, is an important part of the exchange. That is to say, "Synesthesia #1" circumvents "familiar art and science characterizations" only if the viewer brings an enthusiastic, open mind to the work.

With respect to your point about consilience, I agree; Jessica does not "explicitly suggest" that her read of my drawing is an example of consilience. I do think, however, that her "linkages" nod to consilience, or at least to the same syncretic aspiration.

That said, I have added Berry's "Life is a Miracle" to my reading list. Based on the few reviews I've just read, I assume that I'll land more in Berry's camp than Wilson's, but I still contend that Wilson's root impetus is not fundamentally divorced from Berry's, and that perhaps (I'll find out) the two books should be companions in conversation. What a great beginning to a foundational humanities syllabus!

Like you, I appreciate Pickering's choice of the word "mangle" to describe convergence. In fact, I label myself a "mongrel thinker," mostly because I characterize my mind as a collage artist, but also because of my catholic tastes.

Anyway, thanks for the feedback and great book suggestions.



I agree with you, essentially. As science peels more and more layers from the onion, its methodology and findings will provide more and more clues as to our beginnings and the beginnings of our universe.

But the universe - "one turning," literally translated - is just that, one breath, one round, one cycle. All that we know (and don't know) - that is to say, everything we can imagine - is an infinitesimal sliver of The All (or The Nothing).

Even Herakleitos, a great proponent of reason and science, was forced into poetics when he turned to ultimate meaning; "Nature loves to hide," he wrote. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for universe is olam. Olam is derived from the word alam, which means "to conceal." Jewish mystics - like their Hindu, Sufi Muslim, and Christian counterparts - believe that God is hidden in the universe, an ineffable force that pervades every universe and every dimension, known and unknown. (As a naturalistic pantheist with slight panentheistic leanings, this belief sits well with me.)

Anyway, I've gotten slightly sidetracked, but my question is this: if dogma is "the last gasp defense mechanism of a dying idea," would you argue that atheism or any wholesale dismissal of religious belief as superstitious, irrelevant nonsense is, therefore, dying? That would certainly make Freud spin in his grave!

Donald Frazell said...

We are all madmen. This is the beginning of wisdom. Or as Clint Eastwood put it, A mans gotta know his limitations. No one truly "Knows" anything, we have perceptions of reality, we find ways to function within it, we come up with theories to approach it, but it is beyond us, we are as Christopher said, all part of One turning thing. This is called living. Doing, not sitting and thinking about what one cannot ever fuly grasp. Thats just silly.

I have always viewed art as being the intersection of the three fields we are consumed with. Nature, Science being our current form of approaching it, meaning simply knowledge. Of what we can measure with our five senses. We gather data and try to make sense of it, with our tiny pea sized brains. A mans gotta know his limitations. If we are created in gods image, we are all in a lot of trouble. Obviously this isnt true, we must adapt or die to what is around us, this we as a species have done better than any other. But our time is not over yet to truly judge how well, we may have our own seeds of destruction within us.

Mankind is our second field of interest, our survival, who we are, what must we do to improve our species so we can flourish and prosper? We build and create things that make no sense logically, but yet they feel right and fulfill a need. These things are not measurable with the senses. But we use Science for this end.

The third is god, and this is Purpose. We all must have faith in some way, through science, religion, family, friends, even atheism, which still assumes we have meaning. Do we? We have babies, partially so we have someone to take care of us when we grow old, to propigate the species, but there are connections that lead to sacrifice for strangers, for our loved ones, for ideals, which no other animal does. What is this? each is a leap of faith, that life matters. Even when it means ending our own.

For me, Creative Art is when all three are rolled up together in a mass and we find structure within this chaos. We see, and even more importantly, feel truth in physical works. Things that define who we are, explore nature, as we search for god, for Purpose. energy is created by how the complex relationships are visualized through simplicity, and felt with mind, body and soul. Take one away, the other two become vacant and hollow, false fronts covering a lack of being, of substance, of passion.

Art makes sense of these three modes of our reality. When we are strong and vital as a culture, art flourishes, when stagnant and self absorbed, as in the era which has just ended, we worhip ourselves above all, imagining us to the the alpha and omega of existence, that we are lord of our universe. And so inevitably, collapse in our self deluded tower of cards. A mans gotta know his limitations.

art collegia delenda est

Hungry Hyaena said...


Amen, brother. Now let's get to the doing.

Bill Gusky said...

Congratulations, Christopher! Awesome coverage!

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thanks very much!

Josh Dooley said...


I like the question:) Very tricksy. It requires some interesting confessions from the Aetheist, though. There is, for example the ever-thorny question, "Is aethism a religious belief?" It certainly is a belief about religion.. But, can it be a religion in itself while denying the existence of a higher being?

And, if not, can an aetheist's stance be considered "Dogma," or is it merely "dogmatic?"

Additionally, does the destruction of actual Dogma, through empirical evidence count as proof toward the aetheist's theory that God does not exist, or is religion eventually forced to conceed that on case-by-case basis, "Dogma" is merely dogmatic, after all... and therefore useless each time another piece of Dogma is knocked down?

And, if that is the case... then what good is Dogma? And, if Dogma is no good, whither structured religion? And, if structured religion is no good, then... Well, then God is left as a theory without evidence.

Of course, if aetheism is actually "Aetheism." Then your argument holds up, and the irony is pretty crushing. But, does a central tenet of non-belief qualify as a religion?

Hungry Hyaena said...


Well, this is a long-winded reply, but I hope it makes sense.

You ask, "Is atheism a religious belief?"

That depends on one's definition of "religion." I tend to favor a definition suggested by the word's etymological roots.

Religare is Latin for "to bind" or "to tie." Believers and non-believers alike weigh in on the significance this connotation of the word.

- Non-believers argue that religion binds us to primitive superstition and to patriarchal, authoritarian, and sexist systems of belief.

- Believers in religious orthodoxy argue that religion binds us to the belief itself; if you're Muslim, for example, you must believe that Mohammed and the angel Gabriel ascended from Al-Aqsa mosque into heaven and then descended into hell.

- Believers in religious orthopraxy argue that religion binds us to the faith practice, to the stipulated ritual; if you're a Protestant Christian, for example, you should receive the Eucharist in church on Sunday.

- Outlying believers like myself (though I hesitate to use the word "believer" since I believe in an infinite and ineffable vitalizing force that bears little in common with Allah, Yahweh or the incarnate God of Christianity) can argue that religion binds us to the Golden Rule and to the rest of it, to the Everything and to the Nothing.

Atheists are non-believers, but they might also be fairly lumped in with the religious orthodox. Atheism is the flip side of the coin. Orthodox believers insist on the existence of a Creator; atheists insist on the non-existence of the same. The believers have no proof of this supreme being's existence; atheists have no proof of the being's non-existence. This being the case, the atheist's stance is no less dogmatic than the religious fundamentalist. (And both embrace dogma.)

Agnosticism is different. For years I insisted on calling myself an atheist because I viewed the agnostic as being too wishy-washy, too uncertain. In fact, it is the agnostic's very willingness to reside in the question, to remain uncertain, that is praiseworthy. It took me many years to get here, but I consider myself a believing pantheistic agnostic today. (It's a good thing I don't often have describe my beliefs! ;))

At any rate, the God of the Abrahamic traditions is no theory. Nor are the countless Gods of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism or any other system of belief. Gravity is a theory. A theory is not mere conjecture; it requires scientific consensus based on ample evidence. Believers in a supernatural Jesus or divine revelation at Sinai have neither. Religious literalists are, at best, swearing by a hypothesis...and a rather hubristic hypothesis that flies in the face of observation, at that.

Yet you are make a mistake in assuming that religion necessitates strict belief. Imaginative theologians, rabbis, ministers and imams often do not hold true to the tenets of their faith, and the more progressive among them readily admit as much. That may sound surprising, but religion necessitates only community and practice (especially charity and justice).

Unfortunately, the majority of contemporary religious individuals identify with the belief in God more than they do their congregation's role in the community. Abstracted and secularized, religion is rendered either impotent or poisoned (with reactionary fundamentalism and literalism).

Structured religion (of the liberal variety) is good for many reasons, but one of these is that it gives the morally imaginative members of its flock something to bang their heads against. Religion evolves through the resultant nudging.

Science works the same way. Fortunately, scientists rarely kill each other in the name of this or that theory. I dare say that if all humanity were as educated as the most poorly educated scientist, religious believers would less readily declare the righteousness of their sword.

peter.cowling said...

I completely agree with almost all that you say above, Christopher.

I would go further than you do when you write:

Unfortunately, the majority of contemporary religious individuals identify with the belief in God more than they do their congregation's role in the community.

I think it is often worse than this, in that people believe in a religious text i.e. the Bible. For me, this is the most literal/fundamental, least questioning and progressive stance, and is therefore the very worst of beliefs.

I would also argue that scientific theory can be viewed as being little better than conjecture. My reasoning is two-fold.

Firstly, a large amount of scientific theory is incorrect, and will be proved so over time. Why do I think that? Take physics. Physics theories are at best an approximation of reality. Until we get a complete understanding, we have no real understanding.

Secondly, science is really a combination of theory, observation, and inference. Every theory and observation is subject to inference. Rigor and impartiality exist, but have always gone hand-in-hand with ego, politics, and funding.

So I say the results of our scientific endeavours are very much closer to beliefs than is accepted by the majority of people. Acceptance, combined with a will to continue a search for enlightenment is surely the key – whether in science or religion.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Absolutely, I agree. I find nothing redeeming about Biblical literalists or any other religious believer who asserts that her faith's sacred texts are inviolable.

I also agree that science is a system of belief related (in some respects) to faith. As you suggest, most hypotheses and theories are replaced or overhauled in time. Within it's own sphere, however, I don't know that theories can be fairly called "incorrect." Certainly, more complete theories will replace the imperfect ones - such is the evolution of scientific knowledge - and later humans will chuckle at the simplistic conception of the universe once held by those primitive peoples of the early 21st century, but today's theories are the best we've got. It's not that they're incorrect...they're just incomplete, as is our ability to see and interpret.

peter.cowling said...

Well my belief(!) that the word 'incorrect' will apply to a large amount (not a large percent) of theories is just that.

Do I think we will find out the earth is flat? No. Do I think we will ever decide that 1 + 1 != 2? Again no, because I believe in the mathemtical axiom - and do not worry (too much) that there is absolutely no concensus on why that should be.

I will not find out whether that is the case, so it is not going to be a testable belief.

Further: It matters not, because every theory could be completely correct to the fullest extent of accuracy, and neither I nor any one person would be able to discern that for themselves.

So I think it is important to recognise this situation for what it really is, discern what we can for ourselves, and take on faith what it seems reasonable to trust.

bioephemera said...

As always, you and your readers here have such wonderful insights. I'll limit myself to simply saying that while I did not discuss consilience in the piece (blast word limits) I was indeed thinking of it in relation to your piece. I'm a skeptic when it comes to complete consilience of all fields of knowledge - I think EO Wilson overstated his case out of passion and optimism. But I do think that crosspollinations between science, art, theology, and history can only enhance the entirety of human understanding: the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

peter.cowling said...

@bioempherma: Just read your truly excellent piece

Hungry Hyaena said...


You write, "So I think it is important to recognise this situation for what it really is, discern what we can for ourselves, and take on faith what it seems reasonable to trust."

Fair enough.


Yes, Wilson may have been over enthusiastic, but his "complete consilience" remains a worthy goal (even if it's an unrealistic one). Our striving for his illusory goal will at least increase the likelihood of cross-pollination.

By the way, I second Peter's kudos for your terrific piece on science journalism. After I read it, I forwarded it to all my "sciencey" friends.

Andy said...

This is a fantastic conversation on many fronts, and I do not know exactly where to begin. So I'll start where this began: On Wilson's Consilience (intentionally capitalized).

Bioephemera & Hungry: Cross-pollination is critical, essential and necessary. And it is cross-pollination of people, places and ideas, that I am most interested in as an urban designer (which is neither science nor art, but itself a hybrid practice between planning and architecture, anthropology and geography).

Bioephemera: Agreed, that was a great post on science journalism. 'Filling the voids' and 'bridging the gaps' is exactly where this conversation is heading as well. In the world of urban design, Rem Koolhaas has eloquently referred to these as "Junkspace'. Peter Galison, a historian of science, offers a more fruitful description with a wonderful concept taken from anthropology of "trading zones". It is within trading zones between science, computation, design, art, history, economics, policy, etc that the most interesting ideas are searched for and found. Fortunately, for the many curious folks out there, we do not have to look far to get a conversation going.

Hungry: To get a good conversation going; however, we need not be waging wars, which is what EO Wilson partook in when he overstated his case in 'Consilience'. His optimistic passion was driven by the fear that the "Science Wars" were at risk of being misguided and lost (it should be noted this was in 1998). Never a fan of the so-called 'war' the book strikes a nerve and I apologize for taking it out on an artblog. I suppose, I feel safe here and in this particular, important conversation, so I thank you for that opportunity. I am not a scientist and I praise Wilsons' work in sociobiology and his optimism that CP Snow's two cultures should be bridged. His response was a fair concern as there was an remains a variety of the humanities that were (ab)using science to promote inaccuracies, under-generalizations and misrepresentations as good philosophy and social science.

I just wanted to point out that there is more than one bridge to cross, and that these bridges create trading zones that are rich, layered, dense and (ambiguous yes, but) orderly. I have yet to see Nicolas Bourriaud's Altermodern exhibit at the Tate Modern (and will probably not get a chance), but this is a welcome conversation that I have not been heard for about a decade without being chastised as post-modernist irony. Sadly, I think its taken the passing of many of the great minds such as Derrida, Rorty, Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace, and many more but the altermodern is here to stay (for now).

Consilience may be a worthy goal, but this is not what drives people to relate. As your writing and paintings well illustrate, many things -- objective and subjective -- drive our curiosities. Empathy and history are two that I greatly value.

: Honestly, I am agnostic towards consilience. Interactions of Things. That's where the fun can be found and it takes a 'mongrel thinker', or mutt critic as my dog prefers, to put the pieces together.


Hungry Hyaena said...


Thanks for the excellent follow-up and your suggestions.

Regarding Wilson's "waging war" in the late 1990s, you're right. It's been almost a decade since I read "Consilience," and I was then an atheist champion of science who dismissed offhand any whiff of non-rational thinking. This probably resulted in my "updating" Wilson's perspective as my own take on the question of cross-pollination matured. Interestingly, Wilson has himself come 'round on this front. His language in recent years is more inclusionary and generous (of all but the willfully ignorant). He's even spoken at events exploring ways to "bridge" the perceived science-religion divide.

Yours in the Interaction of Things!

Andy said...

It has been years since I read ‘Consilience’ and will have to give EO Wilson a second chance. Opposite of you, just out of undergrad with a degree in physics when I first encountered the book; I was an agnostic champion of contingency. Wilson’s newest book sounds tremendously fascinating:
The Superorganism

Thanks for the thoughtful (and quick) response.


peter.cowling said...

I can go along with most of Wilson's definition on page 8, particularly the words/phrasing 'linking', 'facts and fact-based theory', and 'common groundwork' make a lot of sense - although I like 'common framework' more.

However, 'jumping together' (as part of the same definition) signals a level of excitability which Andy rightly, IMO, points out was ultimately too much to sustain.

I re-read a Feynman essay earlier today, which you may enjoy Like there's plenty of room at the bottom it retains its value despite the passage of time.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Undoubtedly, Wilson is at his best when he writes about insects (ants, in particular) and biophilia.

Thank you for the thoughtful contributions to this thread.


Thanks for the recommended Feynman essay. I'll check that out soon.