Creativity and curiosity: do we make stuff up or find it out?

Battle of Ideas festival 2011, Saturday 29 October, Royal College of Art, London


For many music lovers, it is the seeming inevitability of a musical sequence that makes it beautiful, as if it has always existed, waiting to be discovered by its ‘composer’. Typically, we value serious literature for the truths it tells about the human condition, rather than for mere flights of fancy. The proverbial Indian woodcarver, asked how he approached his work, answered that he simply cut away the wood that didn’t look like an elephant. Perhaps, as Oscar Wilde said, art really is ‘the science of beauty’, revealing the world to us rather than adding something new. Or is all this an illusion? Is it an aesthetic judgement rather than a scientific one that leads us to describe a work of art as ‘truthful’?

Historically, great artists were often employed by the Church to glorify God, and their work was seen as a mere reflection of His Creation. Early scientists like Isaac Newton also saw themselves as revealing the glory of Creation. For modern thinkers in the wake of the Enlightenment, however, man made God in his own image, not the other way round. The led to a more heroic conception of both artists and scientists. Looking back, the great medieval cathedrals could be seen as monuments to man’s own ingenuity. Artists came to be seen as ‘creative’ in their own right, while scientists seemed to be unravelling religious beliefs with their discoveries about the natural world. But the resulting scepticism also opened the door to new forms of fatalism, a process still unfolding today. As neuroscience advances, some think we will discover we are not much more than human ants, determined by natural laws. As for the mysteries of art, there are countless examples of scientific or mathematical explanations of the Mona Lisa’s beauty or the perfection of a symphony. At the same time, though, some doubt the objectivity even of mathematics. Some doubt that complex numbers really ‘exist’, for example, and suggest mathematicians are inventing theories rather than discovering eternal verities. Meanwhile, the romantic celebration of artists as special individuals has given way in many quarters to doubt about the value of ‘postmodern’ art that seems neither true nor beautiful.

Modern humanity exists in a vast cold universe, but (most of the time) we don’t feel crushed by its weight. Are we fooling ourselves with stories we tell each other, papering over the existential cracks? Should we be much more honest about our significance, given what scientific measurement might reveal to us? How far can art and creativity go in informing our understanding of the world? Does art just reflect reality? Is reality shaped by art? Do we find what we are looking for? Even create what we want to find? Are we human because we make ourselves so, or just animals putting on airs?

Dr Ken Arnold
head of public programmes, Wellcome Trust; author, Cabinets for the Curious

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Professor Colin Lawson
director, Royal College of Music; period clarinettist; author, Mozart: Clarinet Concerto and Brahms: Clarinet Quintet

Ruth Padel
poet and writer; author, The Mara Crossing and Darwin: a life in poems

Professor Raymond Tallis
fellow, Academy of Medical Sciences; author, philosopher, critic and poet; recent books include NHS SOS and Aping Mankind; chair, Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)