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Science and Culture: Beyond Two Cultures

2001

At the beginning of human history science and culture were inseparable. They were animated by the same questions, those about the meaning of the universe and the meaning of life.

In the Renaissance that tie was not yet broken. As its name indicates, the first university was dedicated to studying the universal. The universal was embodied in those who would make their stamp on the history of knowledge. Cardano, the inventor of imaginary numbers and of the suspension system that bears his name, was a mathematician, a doctor, and an astrologer; the same person who established the horoscope of Christ was the author of the first systematic exposition of the calculus of probabilities. Kepler was both an astronomer and an astrologer. Newton was simultaneously a physicist, a theologian, and an alchemist. He was as captivated by the Trinity as by geometry, and he spent more time in his alchemical laboratory than in the elaboration of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica . The founders of modern science had nothing in common with the stereotypical image of a scientist. In our day, Reality must conform to image in this sphere as well. Paradoxically, the scientist is forced, in spit of himself, to become a high priest of truth, an embodiment of rigor and objectivity. The complexity of the birth of modern science and of modersnity itself helps us to understand the subsequent complexity of our own time.

The germ of the split between science and meaning, between subject and object, was certainly present in the seventeenth century, when the methodology of modern science was formulated, but it did not become full-blown until the nineteenth century, when the big bang hypothesis took flight.

In our time, the split was consummated. Science and culture have nothing more in common; this is why one speaks of science and culture. Every self-respecting government has a minister of culture and a minister of science. Every self-respecting international institution of higher education has a department of culture and a department of sciences. Those who try to cross the frontiers discover the risks of such an adventure. Science does not have access to the nobility of culture, and culture does not have access to the prestige of science.

Within science one distinguishes the exact sciences from the human sciences, as if the exact sciences were inhuman (or subhuman) and the human sciences inexact (or nonexact). Anglo-Saxon terminology is still worse: one speaks of hard sciences and soft sciences. We will pass over the sexual connotation of these terms, in order to explore their meaning. What is at stake are the ideas of definition, rigor, objectivity, which convey the sense of exactitude (or of "hardness"). At base, according to classical thought, the only exact definition is a mathematical definition, the only rigor worthy of its name is mathematical rigor, and the only objectivity is that corresponding to a rigorous mathematical formalism. The "softness" of the human sciences attests to their lack of respect for these three key ideas, which formed a paradigm of simplicity over the course of several centuries. What could be softer, more complex, than the subject himself? The exclusion of the subject is therefore a logical consequence. "The death of man" coincides with the complete separation between science and culture.

One understands the indignant cries unleashed by the concept of two cultures - scientific and humanist culture - introduced some decades ago by C.P. Snow, a novelist and a scientist. The emperor wore no clothes. The comfort of the owners of the spheres of knowledge was threatened and their conscience was put to the test. Science is certainly part of culture, but this scientific culture is completely separated from humanist culture. The two cultures are perceived as antagonists. The split between the two cultures is first of all a split between values. The values of scientists are not the same as the values of humanists. Each world - the scientific world and the humanist world - his hermetically shut on itself.

The debate created by the concept of "two cultures" has been beneficial, because it has imparted a sense of danger to their split: it has exposed the extreme masculinization of our world, with all the dangers that brings to our individual and social life.

In recent times the signs of reconciliation between the two cultures are multiplying, above all in the dialogue between science and art, the fundamental axis of a dialogue between scientific culture and humanist culture.

The attempts at rapprochement between art and science have had a primarily multidisciplinary character. Innumerable colloquia have reunited poets and astrophysicists or mathematicians, artists and physicists or biologists. Multidisciplinary initiatives have appeared in secondary and university-level teaching. These attempts have the merit of revealing that dialogue between science and art is not only possible, but necessary.

One more stage has been passed through by the interdisciplinary rapprochement between science and art. Here too, the initiatives are numerous and fertile. The acceleration of this rapprochement has an unprecedented rhythm, which is produced before our eyes thanks to the information explosion: There is today a new kind of art that was born by transferring computer methods to the realm of art. The most spectacular example may be that of art that uses the incredible information circulating on the Internet as if it were new matter. Information rediscovers its original meaning of "in-formation": to create form, ceaselessly changing new forms, arising out of the collective imagination of artists. The interconnectivity of computer networks allows such connections between artists, who come together in real time on the Internet in order to create together, in song and image, a world that arises from somewhere else. This "somewhere else" is found in the inner worlds of artists trying to harmonize, to discover together whatever it is that connects them with creation. These experimental researches constitute the germ of a genuine transdisciplinary in action.

It is here that the transdisciplinary method is shown to be indispensable, because all creation encounters a wall of representation. Regardless of the nearly unlimited power of computer networks, images created by several artists at once inevitably run counter to the limits of individual representation, which obviously varies form one artists to another. The juxtaposition of these different degrees of representation can only engender a chaotic virtual reality, devoid of order, notwithstanding its apparent beauty.

The encounter between different levels of Reality and different levels of perception engenders different levels of representation. Images corresponding to a certain level of representation have a different quality than images associated with another level of representation, because each quality is associated with a certain level of Reality and with a certain level of perception. Each level of representation appears like a veritable wall, apparently unassailable because of its relation to the images engendered by another level of representation. These levels of representation of the sensible world are therefore connected with the levels of perception of the creator, the scientist, or the artist. True artistic creation arises at the moment of crossing several levels of representation simultaneously, engendering a transrepresentation. Transperception permits a global, non-differentiated understanding of the totality of levels of perception. The surprising similarities between moments of scientific and artistic creation are thus explained, as brilliantly demonstrated by the great mathematician Jacques Hadamard.

In the example of computer art that was cited above, the practically unlimited informational power of computers allows a global simulation of the totality of levels of representation, through the mediation of mathematical language. Thus, for the first time in history, the human-computer interface, which has been masterfully explored by René Berger, potentially allows an encounter between transrepresentation and transperception. This surprising and unexpected encounter will certainly enable the future actualization of a potential creativity unsuspected in the human being. Thus, the transdisciplinary attitude is truly present there.

If multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity reinforce the dialogue between the two cultures, transdisciplinarity permits us to envisage their open unification. Besides the example of art and science, the preceding considerations on levels of Reality, perception, and representation, offer a methodological basis for the reconciliation of the two artificially antagonistic cultures: the scientific culture and the humanist culture, by virtue of their overlapping within the open unity of transdisciplinary culture.

B. Nicolescu, Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, translated by K. Claire Voss (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), pp. 95-100.