Last time I expressed my dissatisfaction with the attempts Julia Galef made to understand the “other” in our lives, in this case Richard Feynman’s artist friend, who felt that scientific descriptions of things, to put words in the artist’s mouth, ruin them. What Richard reported his friend actually said, speaking about the beauty of a flower, is that “you, as a scientist, you take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.”
Richard at this point described his friend as “nutty.”
The core of my dissatisfaction with Julia’s attempts to understand the artist is that she undertook her efforts without wondering if the artist knew anything she didn’t. The resulting justifications given for the artist’s position were very weak: the artist we come to “understand” through her explanations prefers image to reality for reasons of pleasure, or… if we’re unconvinced, is more confusing to us than when we started. Or should have been, at any rate.
Julia makes sure to assert she wouldn’t want to be the artist she claims to have understood, which I think begs the question why anyone would. Here is where we might learn something, but Julia is not really curious about this, and is content with the portrayal of the artist she has given. It is this contentment that vexes me. Denial of the possibility that the artist may comprehend or feel something that Julia or Richard do not transforms the exercise from one of potentially discovering a legitimate basis for the artist’s position, into one which can only establish why the artist’s position is second-best. This is elitism—an unconscious form of it perhaps, but no less real or impactful by being unintended.
So now I want to suggest there are perfectly good reasons a person may say something like, “[you scientists] take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” Not because a person can’t handle the scientific truth alongside of their aesthetic sensibilities, but because some recapitulations of the scientific view are antagonistic to elements of reality that others directly experience and hold dear. Let’s leave Richard’s artist friend out of this for a moment and insert the accomplished mystic in his place. He might say, “The whole of the universe is contained in this flower. And yet it is perfectly unique. It is remarkable. Can you see it?” Or we could put the indigenous elder into the seat, and she might say, “This flower is my relative. We gather them by the river in summer. You can hear the ones ready to give of themselves for the people. In our ceremonies, we honor them and we pray their nation is strong.”
When Richard and Julia attempt to describe the artist’s position, they both define it as an aesthetic one. Aesthetics is subjective. I like blueberries and you prefer cherries. I like Ford and you prefer Chevy. What Richard and Julia are saying when they ascribe the artist’s position to aesthetics is that the appreciation of a flower’s beauty is sort of quirky–a fashion sense, a matter of personal taste. From their point of view, they must make this assertion because it is the most benevolent one of which they are capable that is consistent with their views. But one cannot assert the mystic and the indigenous elder are experiencing a fashion sense, so those positions must be denied altogether. These two are, in essence, delusional.
The mystic and the indigenous elder above, however, are not delusional: they are simply speaking about the flower from perspectives that lie outside of the perceptual lens of a subject-object orientation. They are speaking about wholeness, and further, about the vehicle of deep interconnectedness and relationship through which wholeness arises as a form of immediate sensation and knowledge. This profound sensation of relatedness is, I believe, universal. It is accessible to anyone, and to all life. It is not unique to our planet, our time and place, our culture, or even our species. But it can be conceptually denied.
I made the assertion last time that a great many of us are debating only partial views of the whole. What I meant is that we’re trying to explain things—both the artist and the scientist—as if wholeness is not real, and when we do this we’re missing the essence of one another’s experience as well as our own. We can deny the most fundamental sensations of life, or when they arise in our experience—as they inevitably do—we can insist they are something other than they are, but we can’t prevent the very basis of our existence from seeping into our lives. We have the freedom to label what is, but not to change its very nature.
When Richard says in the video, “First of all, the beauty that [my artist friend] sees is available to me and to other people, too,” he is noting, without realizing it, that we all possess the ability to be touched by beauty directly, and further, by wholeness, even if we don’t define it as such. Richard’s artist friend, on the other hand, when suggesting that the scientific view “takes things apart” and “makes them dull things” is speaking to the direct experience of what occurs when the reality of wholeness is denied. Unfortunately, in this exchange neither Richard nor the artist, at least from the reporting we have, can see that both of their positions can be true at once.
The artist may not realize in conceptual terms that he is defending the immediate and universal reality of wholeness, but he doesn’t need to. The artist can sense directly, without effort, when the sensation of relatedness that provides him joy and the direct knowledge of being has been interrupted. Richard can sense it, too, when to his dissatisfaction the artist suggests the scientific description of our world is superfluous to a profound appreciation of reality. For Richard, the artist is denying the essential nature of the very activity that, to him, provokes the sensation of joy and deep relatedness that he, too, seeks. The mistake is the failure of Richard and his artist friend to realize that as unique individuals, the specific triggers or vehicles that return the joy of being who they are, and which place them in contact with the tangible sensation of wholeness, are not the same for them. They further err by insisting that the joy of perceiving the flower’s shape, color and texture must be somehow different than the joy of understanding the cells, the molecular composition, and the quantum electrodynamic chicanery deployed in the chloroplasts. It’s not! Joy is not conceptual!
As individuals we have unique passions, curiosities, talents and predilections. But the joy that comes of the direct sensation of relatedness to the whole, of experiencing the particularities of our own existence as good and wonderful, is the same. And the wholeness from which every expression of life and existence has emerged is our common root, our common heritage, the ultimate identity we share. When this is understood, there is room for the unique perceptions of the artist, the scientist, the mystic, the indigenous elder, and all forms and conditions of life in between.
As my friend Lee Roetcisoender recently wrote me, in a statement I thought was perfect, “What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does no violence to either of these two kinds of understanding and actually unites them into one.” He was speaking about the artist and the scientist. And he’s exactly right. This way, I believe, will be rooted in acknowledgment of the underlying reality of profound unity, relationship, and interconnectedness through and upon which all of our unique vantages are realized. Such a reality is universal even as it is directly personal. It is felt as the uniqueness and joy of being who we are, and has nothing to do with intellectual capacity, refinement of aesthetic sensibilities, hours in the training room, value at which your paintings or sold, number of scientific papers you’ve written, or any other criteria one might assert to distinguish themselves and their tribe from the “others.”
Wholeness is simply the heart of what makes all of us, us. And without it, we are lost.