The Arts & The Sciences

Arts and sciences: oil and water of the academic world. We fight for funding. We fight for respect. Sometimes we fight for the right to exist. On a regular basis these two branches of study are pitted against one another, presented as diametrically opposing approaches to life itself. Here at OIST during the Futurewatch Symposium last year, a group of majority arts students were put on a panel with a number of OIST students and all were asked to predict their ideal future. Almost immediately the audience morphed the conversation into a simplified debate between brute scientific advancement and idealized human improvement. My question: why do we feel the need to choose a side? If we could take a step back from the dividing lines that are grant competitions, physical department walls, and egos, we might see these two branches of study essentially live much more closely together than we thought.

As early as the sixth century BCE, philosophy gave birth to science when the Milesian philosophers began to probe the nature of the universe. They saw themselves simply as “inquirers into many things” and spent as much time measuring the phenomena of the earth and the night sky as they did questioning they how and why of it all.1 At this point in the history of inquiry, philos, the academic study of anything, was only differentiated from mythos, or the art of storytelling—and both were used concurrently to try to explain the world. In fact, by the fourth century BCE, at both the Academy and the Lyceum, math, biology, physics, poetry, political science, and astronomy were all still considered to be branches of philosophy.

From these roots of academic inquiry, we can see the arts and sciences extend from the same basic human curiosity. Upon staring up at the stars illuminating the night sky, one can analyze data collected through controlled methods, or one can create a complex web of questions and even literary symbolism in order to further one’s sense of understanding; both rely upon an established body of human knowledge in order to create a new sense of meaning—it’s only a matter of method toward desired result. As time goes on each side of this apparent conflict becomes more entrenched, with science focusing more on a search for answers while the arts more closely examines the questions themselves. Both plow ahead with withering empathy for the seemingly narrow aim of the other, and the distance between the two grows wider.

As a person with an MA in English literature married to a someone currently pursuing a PhD in physics, I actually live this divide—though not unpleasantly. The other night as we were driving, my husband and I began talking about Young’s interference experiment and the subsequent research of the past two centuries. I, of course, asked him how in the world a physical building block of light or of the very atoms that make us up could be thought to exist in two states at once. Does it appear to behave as both a wave and a particle only because we currently have no better method of measurement? By changing our point of focus, how can our observation actually affect measured reality? He attempted to explain the nature of the electron to me (and Schrödinger came up, of course), then he said we should wait until we got home so he could draw me a diagram. Physicists love diagrams. However, this got me thinking about what I’d studied during my own time in grad school.

Through the study of semiotics we might come to the difficult conclusion that one cannot bring meaning—or complete existence, really—to any concept without the use of language. Try it. Stop reading and think of an object or even a concept, no matter how abstract and unreal, and try to form it concretely in your mind without using a single descriptive word. Not even “blob.” It’s seemingly impossible. And if it ever was possible, it would be relegated solely to the confines of one mind, unable to be communicated. So what does that say about the nature of our reality? Like the electrons in Claus Jönsson’s experiment, is it simply a wave of possibility until the structure of human language forces it to become defined into narrow existence? Due to the functionality of our brains, is it really so easily compartmentalized within Ferdinand de Saussure’s blueprint of signifier and signified? Does the structure of language alter the state of reality? How can we empirically prove anything exists outside of our linguistically-bound consciousness? Suddenly, in the beginning was the Word has a philosophical reach far beyond the book of John.

Philosophers have wrestled with this question for quite some time and have come up with concepts such as différance and the philosophical zombie in order to theoretically break and redefine this structure within our mind. Many graduate students of philosophy actually use the tools of mathematics in order to map this logic. On the other side of the divide, scientists tackle a piece of this same conundrum, trying to measure how much of language is innate and how much is learned (we even have our very own zebra finches here on campus). Unfortunately—or fortunately—we’ve yet to find a human completely devoid of linguistic ability in order to explore their construction of reality. So as of now, language shapes our consciousness, our consciousness shapes our perception of reality (and perhaps reality itself), and reality shapes our concept of what it means to exist. And as humans, there is nothing more basic and more essential than the act of existing. It is this single act that leads science to measure and the arts to question—Janus faced in ironic opposition.

For me, it all comes back to wonder. I’m reminded of a line from an article written by our friend Letizia Diamante in which Professor Nic Shannon is quoted as saying, “The more that we learn about water, the more we realize that it is one [of] the strangest and most beautiful things in the Universe.”2 This is what truly connects the arts and sciences: a mind filled with wonder. The poet may reminisce, the philosopher may question, and the scientist may measure, but the drive is the same, and so truly is the aim. Deep down we all just want to understand a little more about the world around us and our small existence within it.


1 Curd, Patricia, “Presocratic Philosophy,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: Stanford University, 2016), http://plato.

2 Letizia Diamante, “Dancing on Ice,” OIST News Center, last modified March 31, 2016,

Artwork by Virginia Houk, based on: Edward Poynter, Zodiac Ceiling, 1876, oil on canvas, Waltham Abbey Church, Essex

Born on the Texas Gulf Coast, then educated in the Canadian Maritimes, and now residing in the Ryukyus, Virginia Houk can’t seem to escape the pull of the ocean. She is a poet and a prosaist, a scholar of literature and nationalism, and the doting mother of Helen (a human) and Audrey (a cat).