Week 5 Day 5 Truth

A final examination will be set at the end of term. All graduates will be awarded a diploma and the ten best results will receive a year's subscription to the Independent; THE CENTRAL FACTS FROM THE COURSES YOU ALWAYS MEANT TO TAKE, IN 25 LECTURES
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How true is everything you've learned in this course? I don't mean to suggest there's been a plot by the editors to make it all up. In any case, you can verify the facts directly: ballet dancers really do stand in a weird way, and the Independence Day soundtrack does have resonances of Elgar and Bruckner. The question rather is about the fields themselves: how much truth can they convey?

At first it seems obvious. The science items are true, for e really does equal mc2, and brain cells, if you examine them, do leak neuro-transmitters from their tips. It's the art items that are different: emotionally moving perhaps, but simply the products of one person's or one group's made-up views.

There's more to it than that though. Scientists until the late 19th century may have felt they were achieving complete truth, but after relativity and quantum mechanics so completely undercut their results, the more modest consensus now is simply that scientific results are just successive approximations to the truth. Recognising that there are neurotransmitters and other chemical floods in the brain is better than the 1920s view that it was all a bunch of telephone-like cabling, but there's no reason to think that view won't be superseded by even more accurate visions in the future. Thomas Kuhn, and others, have written at length on how scientists largely chug along in groups that share basic assumptions (paradigms) - the famous herds of independent minds.

The proviso - and this is what makes science so powerful - is that the herd travel is not random, and by objective checks it works, getting to its targets effectively. Evidence that's contrary to herd beliefs has an irritating way of pushing itself up until it's acted upon. There are segments of the DNA strand that control the action of other parts of the strand, and when that was realised you could understand a lot more about the way cancer genes might switch on.

The reason science can self-correct is not so much that it carries a magical method, but because it has greedily carved out a domain where repeatable things happen. This is why it can get away with discarding its historical tail. Physicists don't need to read Newton, for all the nutritious bits have already been digested, in the summary equations a bright undergraduate will learn - a trick which the not-quite-sciences, such as economics, dealing with complex, rushing human subjects, would not be wise to copy. Adam Smith wrote that merchants rarely get together without the intention of defrauding the people. But students encouraged to ignore foundation texts would never have learned that, at least not at the Chicago economics department when Thatcher's intellectual forebears held sway there.

The sociology of intellectual herds applies in the art world too, whence Kuhn's popularity even beyond historians of science. His analysis runs even deeper here, for the ideas that have been sustained by art - especially when it was more central in society and more linked to politics and religion - meant that it couldn't be easily changed, for it would undercut those institutions depending on it.

Yet art, too, was felt at various times to be logically progressive, in, for example, the way foreshortening was considered an obviously improved technique by many Florentine painters, or the self-confidence of modern architects that Jonathan Glancey described. But notions of uni-directional progress aren't as easy to sustain in art as in science. The young Tracey Chapman had only a dozen or so chords at her command, but her concerts were still more popular than those of Pierre Boulez, despite his years of training.

The issue clearly isn't technique, but an art's content. At the most direct level it's a matter of being true to events or personalities existing outside of the artist, which is why you can have discussions about the "accuracy" of Shakespeare vs, say, Bellow, in capturing different personalities. Or it might be aiming inward to an artist's own emotional or religious state, as in Bach's music, with its quiet assurance that we need not be isolated souls. Often, as with many architectural decisions or Hollywood films, there has been no central decision, but just an output by committee, which we still interpret for its effects or meaning as best we can. Even art that tries to avoid all possible referents and just aims for formal beauty can't escape: the romantic will be sure it's hinting at noumena, while the cynic knows it's just a structure to which his neural endorphin pathways respond.

The linking assumption for both art and science is that they're merely uncovering something that already exists. This is where whatever truths this DIY course has shown might lie. It is the domain where mathematics is discovered, not invented; where a sculptor knows her finished piece is resting inside the marble, eternally waiting, and she merely needs to get the chisel and uncover it, for everyone else, finally, to see.

Monday, Final Exam

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