The secret to marrying Art & Science was found 40 years ago
One creative writing teacher from Montana’s reinvention of Western thought, and why it’s undergoing a renaissance
I work in advertising, an industry that burns the candle at both ends trying to change the way you think and feel about the things you do (or don’t) buy. And for a band of people that spend all day thinking about trying to change your mind, we don’t have a very firm grasp on how those two things collide: the “thinking” and the “feeling.”
Agency after agency talks about the marriage of Art and Science to the point of it being marketed as a competitive advantage for clients, but how exactly do those two seemingly opposed ideas come together?
In 1974, a no-name professor wrote a book about his travels across the American West with his son in tow in search of a higher quality experience of life. In maintaining his motorcycle along the way, he reflects on the roots of our separation of Art and Science, and effects of our hyper-rationalized Western society that perpetuates it.
“At present, we’re snowed under with an irrational expansion of blind data-gathering in the sciences, because there’s no rational format for any understanding of scientific creativity. At present we are also snowed in with a lot of stylishness in the arts — thin art — because there’s very little assimilation or extension into underlying form. We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge, and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it’s ghastly. The time for real unification of art and technology is really long overdue.”
For anybody who has spent time in the agency world and has had to sit through a talk about the importance of “big data” or has sold a client into creative they hate but know will get bought off on, this passage will hit home – even though it was written before the first personal computer was made.
40 years ago, this then-no-name writer, one Robert M. Pirsig, laid the seeds for an all-new framework for the way we think and construct knowledge… one that exposes the role that art and aesthetic beauty play in search of truth and breaks down the dualistic thought we hold about Art and Science that’s holding us back from a true understanding of either.
The Flaws of Dualistic Thought
At present, we think about fact-driven thinking and feeling-driven thinking as separate worlds.
Art is for those “creative” folks, a subjective way of looking at things. It’s inspirational, imaginative, intuitive, but ultimately pleasure-seeking. Artists care about the immediate appearance.
Science is for those “factual” folks, an objective way of looking at things. It deals with reason and laws, and means to bring order out of chaos. Scientists care about the underlying form.
In our growing technocracy and the romanticized start-up culture, we find ourselves leaving it to Science to find the answers to social and economic challenges. But, this supposed divide of the subjective and objective poses some serious problems, particularly with how exactly the Scientific Method helps us find and select new information to analyze out of the endless stream of our own curiosity (not to mention all of the new data we’re inundated with).
Think about the last time you were working on something and got stuck. You know what you need to do. There’s the problem. There’s the situation. There’s what we know. But now what? Where do you begin looking for an answer?
“It’s obvious what’s wrong. What you need is a hypothesis… and the scientific method doesn’t supply any of these… It operates only after they’re around… It’s normal at this point for the fear-anger syndrome to take over” – Pirsig
We’ve all been there, slaving over another cup of coffee and a growing mound of eraser dust trying to let the answer find us by asking more questions and waiting it out. Whether it’s trying to figure out where to start on a project at work, or why for the fiftieth time your computer is freezing up.
It’s not like you aren’t smart enough to come up with an answer. Psychology has shown our minds are great at making up answers that fit with what we already know. But how do you begin to look for the right answer?
What is it that points innovative thinkers toward a solution to a problem when everyone has the same information at their disposal? How do they overcome the hole of infinite hypotheses?
Looking for Answers
“Just think about it. Deeply. Then forget it. And an idea will jump up in your face.”
Though uttered by a fictional (m)ad man and a TV favorite, the words ring true for anyone whose ever experienced the phenomenon of “insight” – a discovery of “brevity, suddenness, and immediate certainty.”
Pirsig argues that the mechanism that runs inside of us, the one that brings us insight, is the very same one that illuminates a mathematician to a new formula, or a motorcycle mechanic to just the right fix for his bike.
It’s an artistic sensibility, a subjective sense of rightness, ultimately guides our exploration of new information and uncharted knowledge.
“The subliminal self looks at a large number of solutions to a problem, but only the interesting ones break into the domain of consciousness… Solutions are selected on the basis of classic beauty, which comes from the harmonious order of parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp, which gives structure to romantic beauty” – Pirsig
In this way, art and science aren’t just two different things, but fundamentally linked levels of looking at the same thing. Without a degree of science, life becomes little more than a fleeting dream. Without art, life becomes a soulless machine marching onward.
Under A Whole New Light
As advertising continues to evolve from the business of changing people’s perceptions to the business of changing people’s behavior, behavioral economics has graduated from the dusty bookshelves of academia to the front row of brand and experience planning.
In Daniel Kahneman’s near-official holy book on the subject, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he proposes that two sequential systems manage how we process new information.
System 1, our Intuition, “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control… effortlessly [and continuously] originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of explicit beliefs and deliberate choices”
System 2, our Intelligence, “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. Often associated with agency, choice, concentration… the conscious reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, decides what to think and do”
Sound familiar? That’s because, over the next few decades, Kahneman and other psychologists developing these two systems exposed the psychological complements for the aesthetic and rational lines of processing new ideas that Pirsig unearthed as the metaphysical “train of human experience” – the Art that inspires the Science.
Hunting for their own explanation for what guides our decision-making, Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky sought to overcome a similar cult of rationality — the modern myth of the purely rational human being.
“You believe you know what goes on in your mind, which often consists of one conscious thought leading in an orderly way to another. But that is not the only way the mind works, or indeed is that the typical way. Most impressions, and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they get there… The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our mind.” — Kahneman
From this central discovery, Kahneman and Tversky detail the complex dance between our intuitive and deliberative systems that are responsible for the expansion of knowledge and the guidance of our actions. Our immediate impressions and feelings generate complex patterns of ideas, and our conscious reflection constructs thought into an orderly picture. Statistician Nate Silver calls these two the fox and the hedgehog.
Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has shown this division of our intuitive and deliberative systems can be observed as physical differences in the brain’s right and left hemispheres. The right hemisphere is broadly vigilant, used to make connections with the world, sustained and alert, looks for things are defy our expectations, understands implicit meanings and metaphors, looks at the world as a unified thing, but is interested in the never fully graspable — it’s intuitive. The left hemisphere has a narrow focus, looks for what it already knows, operates in a simplified version of reality, wants to be precise, has a disposition for the mechanical, looks at things as an assemblage of parts, and is a closed system, perfect but empty — it’s intelligent.
A Unified Theory for the Marriage of Art & Science
With this new view in mind, we’re enlightened to a whole new framework for approaching how we expand our knowledge and pick what facts we’re going to study:
As an incoming idea, fact, or hypothesis enters our consciousness, it runs into our intuition first. It “offers a tacit interpretation of what happens to you and around you, linking the present with the recent past and with expectations about the future” [Kahneman]. Our intuition thinks quickly and aesthetically, looking for patterns and doing its best to create coherent stories out of what we see.
Sometimes, that desire for coherence results in the heuristics and biases in decision-making that psychologists like Kahneman detail throughout their careers. Edward Tufte, one of the world’s greatest professors of data visualization, warns of the dangerous nature of “what you see is all there is.” Or as Pirsig put more eloquently, “The past cannot remember the past. The future cannot generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less than the totality of everything there is.”
But more often than not, our intuition guides us through everyday life. We’re pulled to and driven by what we find interesting and emotionally compelling. We’re feelers before we’re thinkers.
Once this new idea makes it past this “pre-intellectual awareness,” it’s subjected to the systematic machine that is rational thought. Starting up this machine requires a bit of work, because it seeks to do as little work as possible and let our intuition run on autopilot. In that vain, rationality is aptly defined by psychologist Keith Stanovich as being “alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers, more skeptical about their intuitions.”
The interweaving of inductive and deductive logic conducted by the Scientific Method subjects new ideas to a reasonable assessment in order to validate (or invalidate) them against one’s existing body of knowledge, and in doing so, make a rational assessment about what is “known.” Using logical arguments to navigate and expand what we know (aka, being “reasonable”) is a lot of work, and in that way, intelligence can be understood as being able to effectively deal with slow-thinking and demanding computations.
When the romantic quality of intuition and the classical quality of intelligence join each other in action, a whole new kind of thinking is created. Psychologists refer to it as flow:
“a state of effortless concentration so deep they lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems” — Kahneman
Our Montanan writer refers to it as peace of mind, the aspiration of all true craftsman:
“[In a craftsman], the material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time as the material is right… The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of a religious worshipper or love. The daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.” — Pirsig
Timeless Lessons from 1974
Though behavioral economics has taken the marketing world by storm, business publications like Forbes have only recently begun to have conversations about Pirsig’s impact on the way we approach our work, and those conversations often miss the point — they learn about the importance of sharing Art and Science in the products and organizations we create, but don’t realize how deeply interdependent these two processes are.
As a strategist, planner, and consultant for businesses and their brands, this new framework and the seeds for it that Pirsig planted have provided incredible clarity for some of the concepts we strategists grapple with every day.
Insight: a sudden, certain wave of “crystallization,” a.k.a. a series of several ideas connecting together at once upon the introduction of a new piece of information or a “lateral truth”
Lateral truth: “the kind of truth you see out of the corner of your eye… from a wholly unexpected direction, one that’s not even understood until knowledge forces it on [you].” These truths result from one network of thought intersecting with another to produce a combined picture unable to be seen separately.
Creativity: Breaking what you know back down into individual facts, reorganizing them, and re-assembling them into an all-new structure.
Audience analysis: Different communities and segments of people create their own answers to the everyday questions in their lives, and though they “have varied in the traits they’ve chosen to some questions, all of [them] can be thought of as true in their own context.”
Cultural truths: “What we ought to aim at is less the ascertainment of resemblances and differences than the recognition of likenesses hidden under apparent divergences.”
Creating peace of mind within user experience: “Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really. It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance. What we call the workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test is always your own serenity. The material object can’t be wrong. Molecules are molecules. The test of a machine is the satisfaction is gives you.”
Building beloved products: “The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to solve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is — not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both.”
Disruption and its hindsight bias: “You look back at the last three-thousand years with hindsight and you think you see neat patterns and chains of cause and effect that have made things the way they are. But if you go back to original sources, the literature of any particular era, you find these causes were never apparent at the time they were supposed to be operating. During periods of root-expansion, things always appeared as confused and topsy-turvy and purposeless as they do now.”
Going back in time: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Throughout human history, it has been our culture, our growing and expanding body of human knowledge that has carried us forward as a species.
“Each child is born as ignorant as any caveman. What keeps the world from reverting to the Neanderthal with each generation is the continuing, ongoing mythos” — Pirsig
For most of civilized human history, what was morally “good” and inherently “true” was left to this mythos, manifested in the form of religion.
Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, believes that our learned, artificial divide of art and science, or more existentially, our perceived divide of the subjective “us” and the objective “world,” is responsible for the existence of religion. “We perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls.”
As the technological advances of classical civilization freed people from their material preoccupations, they had time to construct abstract thought, relegating the old religious mythos to a paltry form of art. The newfound importance of abstraction enshrined ideas into permanence, like that of the ancient Gods, as truth. Science’s pursuit of the truth and its reign as the governing body of Western thought are the story we live in today.
A unified theory of art and science, of the romantic and the classical, of what comes intuitively and what is made intelligently — of what is “good” and what is “true” — presents us with a profound opportunity to embed that level of spiritual-like quality back into the things that we make.
What if instead of creating simply shinier objects to catch people’s eyes, we develop products that feel as good as they work?
What if we didn’t sell products that got the job done for the people that bought them, but instead cultivated in those people the spirit for solving all kinds of problems themselves?
What if, in our pursuit of raising the quality of the things we make, we discover that we invariably have to raise the quality of the world that we live in, and the people that we serve?
Changing your perspective on where the line is between “art” and “science” can change the way you work.
That sounds pretty wonderful to me.