Sunday, April 15, 2012

At the Boundary between Scientific and Imaginative Thinking

My interests have recently brought my attention to a new book by Luciano Chessa entitled Luigi Russolo, Futurist.  Since I know very little about the Italian Futurists, I figured this might be a good way to fill in a gap that might provide helpful perspective in my general thoughts about the creative arts.  Chessa’s first chapter is entitled “Futurism as a Metaphysical Science;”  and, by a happy coincidence, I started reading it shortly after having read Freeman Dyson’s recent review of Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe for The New York Review.  Dyson is a generous critic;  so he never lapses into suggesting that “on the fringe” is a euphemism for “crackpot.”  He is content to observe that there are certain propositions being investigated through methods that run contrary to the accepted practices of scientific method.  He admires both the propositions and their investigation for imaginative thinking, but he dismisses the possibility of anything of scientific value resulting.

When we talk about scientific methods, we are talking basically about how we gather and analyze objective data.  Thus, validity of method is something that can be held to objective standards.  Nevertheless, the data points are only a part of the “big picture” of scientific practice.  Most of the time is spent communicating about data and analyses, rather than collecting and analyzing;  and language is a far more slippery tool than any scientific instrument.  Furthermore, as we know from the research of George Lakoff, we are capable of lapsing into instances of what Giambattista Vico called “poetic wisdom,” often without explicitly recognizing them.  (Lakoff’s favorite example is that we use metaphorical language as if it were literal.)

In this context we should consider the following statement by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist movement:

Everybody can feel that sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste are modifications of a single, highly perceptive sense:  the sense of touch, which splits into different ways and organizes into different points.

Let us give Marinetti the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows the rudiments of the excitation of neurons and the fact that such excitations can pass from one neuron to another.  One might then say that neuronal excitation may be viewed as a generalization of touch, particularly since such excitation does not depend on direct physical contact.  That being the case, Marinetti’s reductive hypothesis is not as crackpot as it may seem at first glance.  This does not escalate him to the ranks of what society calls “serious scientists;”  but it means that, on a plane other than the simplest literal interpretation, he may have been on to something that we now recognize as a perfectly legitimate way to approach the processing of sensory signals.


jones said...

Marinetti was a raging fascist who thought we needed to "abandon the cowardly worship of the past" and embrace the new aesthetic of steel and concrete...

Stephen Smoliar said...

Yes, the Italian Futurists seem to have a strong affinity for fascism. By the same count, however, there have been any number of scientists whose "disciplined objectivity" also led to an embrace of fascism in some form or another. I tend to place such thinking in the "reckless mind" category, which I have discussed in earlier posts. My point (and Dyson's, if I read him correctly), however, was that the imaginative thinking of artists can sometime lead scientists down new paths to pursue, even if the artists are not particularly sound in their reasoning.