I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything…
– Richard Feynman
One of my psychology professors this fall semester, with humor, flourish — a savoir-faire that crystallized in his not-quite-tangential ambles into anecdotes of: psychological history, his obesity-stricken dog, and the meaning of life… and back again — spoke on two types of hormones that differentially affect monogamous behavior in male and female prairie voles. Eager to take in the conclusions that he appeared to be paving a discussion toward, we dug into the research papers that, with the structure and vernacular that is so characteristic of efforts of scientific rigor, elegantly allowed certain “rules” between brain and behavior to be teased out of the daunting complexity of the nervous system. After all, grant money thrown at the altar of science is for the express purpose of generating results, is it not? It’s in this scientific process, in cleverly controlled laboratory conditions that we can begin the ambitious endeavor of chipping away at the monolith of The Unknown for some shape of the truth. Taken together, the two papers, each on a neurohormone for a particular sex in Microtus ochrogaster, appeared to strengthen the male/female dichotomy – oxytocin facilitates pair-bonding in the girl voles, vasopressin in boys. Ok. I wrote it in my summary and reiterated it in my notes, scribbled definitive-sounding descriptors like “social” and “asocial”, underlined them for good measure.
And then, with an abruptness that was so well executed that its own spontaneity was somewhat suspect, he declared, “But, people love to oversimplify.”
Surely, this thought has crossed our minds before, but that day during that class was one of those moments where that axiom (which in itself is problematic for its meta-simplification) was thrown into sharp relief. The inclination for simplification to become ossified and dogmatic over time is apparent in every aspect of our lives. Headlines, for one, to no fault of their own since they inherently must simplify for constraints of space, are especially prone to pare off complexity in order to offer a good, coherent story. We eat facts up, we love a one trajectory narration and graspable and workable principles so day-to-day living can bear onwards to whatever we like without too much hindrance. Solid anchors of knowledge that we can reliably expect to exist offer traction for our interactions with the world to persist; we must cut the Gordian knot. It’s with no invective that this professor brought up the subject, just a moment set aside to appreciate one more quality, for better or worse, that identifies us as Homo sapiens. He merely cautioned the class to differentiate pragmatic, useful simplifications from the more reckless sort (the line between the two is not as crisp and unwavering as one would like), causing the 30 of us to begin wondering what the take home message was or if we had fallen into a recursive loop that the take home message was that take home messages are no good.
This inevitably brought forth a branching chain of thoughts, some more panicked than others, and terminated quietly on a memory of this video:
Ray Carney, in a very similar vein says, “Art is not about making gorgeous images, but about revealing things that matter. Don’t confuse beauty and prettiness. Real beauty is not pretty. It is scary or disorienting, because it threatens everything we think we know.” And truly, Feynman felt utter reverence for the complexity of the world, going as far as asserting that complexity was in fact, unadulterated beauty. And perhaps it’s at this juncture of “complexity,” rather than the familiar simplicity that we are biased towards, that the humanities and the sciences can brush shoulders and see eye to eye. Why science and theory in any humanities field is challenging is the utter depth of it – at that many fathoms down, at the threshold of what is known and unknown, nothing is certain and knowledge is not intuitive. There isn’t one answer to a query without adequate context and qualifications. Consider how difficult it is to pass a course in a subject versus actually being a productive member of the field; one requires you to memorize facts, the other asks you to challenge or affirm their validity. Beauty, art, and the brain is as complex as the electron is small, as the universe is large.
The big, hot mess of the world might be the greatest art of them all.