Art and the limits of science

There are people who argue that science should not investigate some issues. Sometimes they say these issues should be left to religion and philosophy. No doubt there are questions which don’t lend themselves to scientific inquiry – but then is there any evidence that religion is capable of handling those questions?

In the past, areas related to mind, consciousness, spirit, soul and the artistic realm have been ruled “out of bounds” to science – often by scientists themselves. But, in reality, religion has not been able to investigate these areas either. Their pronouncements on these issues have been based on dogma, not understanding.

However, modern science is now pushing against some of these limits. New technologies have enabled exciting progress in the areas of neuro- and cognition science. Some of those previously “out of bounds” area are now being investigated. And the findings from these investigations are far more enlightening than any of those tired old religious teachings.

In this lecture VS Ramachandran, director of University of California SanDiego’s Center for Brain and Cognition gives some idea of the progress being made in understanding human artistic ability and our response to art.

Neurology and the Passion for Art 89 min

Related Articles:
Questions science cannot answer?
Debating science and religion
Solution to climate change?
Putting Dawkins in his place
Limits of science or religious “fog”?
Can science enrich faith?
Miracles and the supernatural?
Should we teach creationism?
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Intelligent design/creationism: Postscript
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Limits of science, limits of religion

12 responses to “Art and the limits of science

  1. “But, in reality, religion has not been able to investigate these areas either. Their pronouncements on these issues have been based on dogma, not understanding.”

    And, of course, this is an objective position to take… (sarcasm implied)




  2. This position is my opinion – it’s meant to be provocative. I welcome any evidence that religion “understands’ these issues. My feeling is that while some religious spokespeople (like McGrath) call for ‘limits on science’ and imply that some questions (why questions?) should be left to religion they remain silent about how religion deals with these questions. To me their motive is to put boundaries on humanity’s use of evidence and reason, rather than provide answers.


  3. I wonder if your opinion might be influenced by the following observation:

    Being provocative is one thing, but you seem to continually highlight the worst kind of theism, and de-bunk it. Much like the way some theists continually highlight the worst (rudest, meanest, etc.) kind of atheism, and ‘de-bunk’ it.

    You might want to be more careful in the way you critique. As has been said, you become like what you’re against…

    You might want to consider (at least by way of cheap lip-service!) including in a few of your articles that not all theists are raving ‘anti-science’ nuts…



  4. My lecture “Science, Religion, Art and the Necessity of Freedom”, delivered at the University of Buckingham, England, on Aug 24 2004 may be of interest. It is available at

    Subroto Roy


  5. Enjoyed your site and it added to my understanding!

    (trying hard to unite “opposites”


  6. I’ve got another busy week ahead, giving three talks to impressionable young minds at a camp, so preparing for those…

    Dr. Roy and Kristina give quite a lot to sort through… more than I can at the moment… Cheers,



  7. What, I wonder, is the worst kind of theism? Could it be that form of theism in which a thing is denigrated if it might provide good empirical evidence on which to base better understanding? Of course, it certainly could be the form of fundamentalist religionism that advocates suppression of human rights or murder in the name of religion.

    Which kind did you mean, Dale? I doubt that it is loving tolerance and charity.

    I agree that the worst kind of atheism comprises calling theists rude names. Despite finger pointing at enforced atheism under Stalin, etc., I know of no organized atheistic violence against theists.


  8. Adeistic,

    The ‘worst kind of theism’ (in the context of this blog discussion) would be that of theists who degrade and downplay all types of science (physics, cosmology, biology, anthropology, etc.), especially when they disagree with their interpretations of their own beliefs.




  9. Thanks, Dale

    That’s what I thought you probably meant. The murderous theists are probably outside the topic of most blogs, at least in so far as discussion has no impact on their activities.

    Sadly, I do think that there is a connection between attitudes that exclude rationality and logic and those more dangerous extremes of illogic necessary for belief in violence on behalf of religiopolitical causes.


  10. Hey Ken,

    I meant to ask you about a point that Ramachandran makes. I’m no neuroscientist, but I think I have a valid disagreement… (and yes, I enjoyed the lecture. He’s funny and engaging.)

    He talks of the experiment with rats, saying that they started with a square shape where the rat was not fed, and a rectangle where the rat was fed. He describes them going to the rectangle one afterward. Then, when introduced to a more narrow rectangle, Ramachandran says that the rats went that way.

    Now, my point/question is this:
    Ramachandran says that the rats had come to ‘prefer’ the slimmer rectangular shape. I don’t see how Ramachandran can use the word ‘enjoy’. Have they not been conditioned to do so by the procedures of the experiment? In my admittedly un-educated view, this experiment demonstrates, not a rat’s preference, but rather the rat’s ability to recognise the shapes and distinguish them from each other – AND, the rat’s ability to associate food with the shape.

    I only press this question because it seemed quite substantial to his lecture. I would say the rat experiment had little or nothing to with the rat enjoying or preferring the shape, and much or everything to do with the rat enjoying or preferring the sensation of getting the food.

    Again, (to summarise) I see it not demonstrating the rat’s preference, but rather the rat’s ability to recognise, distinguish, and associate.

    Would you not agree?



  11. I’m probably in the same boat as you – I have no background in the discipline and a lot of this is very new anyway. But two comments:
    1: I have noticed that scientists discussing difficult concepts often speak metaphorically. Dawkins does this a lot in “The Selfish Gene” (even the title is metaphorical). He is very clear about what he is doing and does it only as an aid to comprehension. But it does make it easy to take things out of context, when read superficially, and end up misrepresenting him. (I refused to read any of Dawkins for about 30 years because of the misrepresentation – such a waste of time. I have only just now read this book). So Ramachandran may be using ‘prefer’ metaphorically.
    2: It must be very difficult to show preference rather than just recognition. But I suspect these are the sort of issues which we are now starting to grapple with. As humans we can understand preference and it may be possible to find corresponding neurological processes. Genetically we are not very different from rats so maybe there are similar processes in rats. Then again, the differences may preclude a similar process. Either way it’s interesting.
    Ramachandran has been a great populariser for his field. But it is a new area and popularisers inevitably have to simplify things. I wouldn’t be surprised if others in the field disagreed with his comments on issues like this. A proper appreciation would require reading the current scientific literature – very difficult for a layperson.


  12. Curious I ask, what is your opinion of psychiatry and psychology? To me, a liberal arts major, they don’t seem to fall into the category of physical sciences you usually talk about here.

    Do they objectively and empirically explain the human psyche, or do you consider them seperate from true science? Something that cannot be tested and verified?


Leave a Reply: please be polite to other commenters & no ad hominems.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s