The palette and the pipette

September 15, 2000

How has the relationship between art and science evolved?

Helen Haste finds that the philosophical debate between the 'two cultures' is still raging

Passion is running high about science - about its nature, its activities and its contribution to culture. Science is tweaking moral buttons, whether popular anxieties about things getting out of control, or popular myths about the hero-scientist who finds cures for disease or develops wonder technologies. These may be the trivial staples of science fiction, but they stimulate the kind of public debate that has surrounded, for example, the production of genetically modified food.

Is this heightened public awareness and the increased visibility of science evidence of a shift in the power balance of the "two cultures" -the subject of the Snow-Leavis confrontation of the early 1960s? That debate had a strong moral dimension and must be seen in the historical context of the contrast between old "high culture", based exclusively on the arts, and an emerging culture that recognised the role of science in society.

Snow accused the "arts people" of cultural and intellectual arrogance, while Leavis rejected the "utilitarian-Benthamite" values of Snow and denounced the value of progress through technology.

The two men disagreed over the fundamental principles of the basis for the pursuit of "truth" and, indeed, the form of truth itself. For Snow, truth (knowledge) was "useful", both morally and socially. For Leavis, the usefulness of truth was irrelevant.

While the idea of the two cultures persists today, the form of debate has changed. It is now a moral debate over how we should live and what should be our highest purposes. The battle for the moral high ground is about deeper issues than the responsibilities of scientists for the unintended or irresponsible consequences of their actions; it is about ways of knowing and the proper pursuit of "truth".

The moral underpinnings of the present debate are apparent in the way science and the scientist are represented in contemporary cultural iconography. The scientist as "good guy" reflects first the scientist as "fixer". The moral assumption is that all problems can be fixed; that progress is inherently good. It carries also a moral obligation for the scientist to take responsibility for maximising any "fixing".

Second, positive views of scientists depict science and the scientific way of thinking as the fulfilment of human potential - quite distinct from outcomes.

By contrast, in the "bad guy" image of the scientist we find the fear of things getting out of control, which translates into the moral question of whether scientists are ethically competent. The conviction that science is "value free" is regarded as a dangerous delusion.

So the Snow-Leavis division has evolved. Science's determined separation of reason and emotion has become morally suspect. It implies that there is only one truly valid form of knowing. Current challenges to the "hegemony" and "arrogance" of science arise from its presumption that we can have total knowledge, and control, of our universe. This excessively cognitive model of the human is being challenged by cognitive science itself, where we are seeing more efforts to integrate emotional experience and emotional processes into the working of mind.

Finally, there has been a curious development through the discovery of the "morality of wonder". We have moralised wonder in part because it gives us a perspective of our own place in a large and not necessarily anthropocentric universe, but also because we recognise that a sense of wonder is a powerful motive for the pursuit of knowledge. In the morality of wonder, both sides of the debate can join in celebrating not only what can be known, but what cannot.

Could this mean an end to the two cultures debate? Not necessarily. Even wonder is contentious. For some it comes from physical or biological understanding - in opposition to the "romantic" idea that understanding the rainbow destroys its beauty. For others the wonder must involve appreciating knowledge beyond what they can understand.

So while the debate has moved on and now suggests at least some common points of comprehension, the notion of two cultures will continue to excite the passions for a while yet.

Helen Haste is professor of psychology, University of Bath.

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