Post by Paul Woodward. First published at War in Context
Richard Feynman’s friend should have known better than to bait the scientist — yet Feynman’s response proves the point: an understanding of the flower’s cellular structure, its evolution, and the evolutionary function of its beauty are all steps away from the experience of beholding a flower’s beauty.
When Feynman says he might not be “quite as refined aesthetically” as his friend, he’s marginalizing the value of perception, yet a flower is irreducibly an object of perception.
Drill into the structure of a sunflower petal and you may discover the molecular form of the pigments which are the physical substrate of color but you won’t find the essence of yellow since this is only manifest as light, flower, eye, and sentient awareness intersect. Yellow is an experience.
What serves neither art nor science is to treat either as offering a superior method for the appreciation of nature. An artist can profit from a class in cellular biology and scientists can expand their awareness by finding out what it means to open the doors of perception — to be able to see as if seeing the world for the first time.
Science opens doors of exquisite conceptual detail and leads into fascinating fields of exploration, but it doesn’t embrace the full range of the human experience — an experience in which we can be invigorated by losing our selves.
That a scientist and an artist would even be having the argument Feynman describes, speaks above all to a failed educational system.
Who can look carefully at the photograph below and explain why art, poetry, geometry, and biology are not taught in the very same classroom?
We fragment our world into domains of expertise as though no one should be allowed the privilege of exploring the totality.