Art and science

Aristotle’s four explanatory factors (aka four causes) provide a template for a full explanation of anything. However in attempting to explain the natural world (and many other things) it is impossible for us to know all the final causes involved. We may have an idea about some purpose or function of some aspect of things, but since we were not “present at the creation” and even the Bible gives only a general idea about such things, it is best for a science of nature to lay aside claim to final causes and focus on finding the rest of the explanation.

But an artist who “imitates nature” can take all four factors into account because they can know their purpose, their design, their means, and the matter used, as Aristotle showed with his example of the sculptor (in his Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2). But the artist constructs an alternate reality, not something from nothing as the Creator has done. So the artist is working with illusion rather than knowledge of reality.

Fine craft is closer to what Aristotle meant by art — techne is the Greek word for art or craft. The craftsman has a particular purpose in mind, for example, when making a bowl of pottery and can aim at the best quality with the other factors. This is the greatest fulfillment of art, that is, making things for a specific purpose. The ambiguous purposes of art in the modern world do not fit this as well.

So the artist has purpose but lacks reality and the scientist has reality but lacks purpose. As science expands, it can lose sight of what its purpose is, and as art expands it can lose sight of reality.

There is a parallel to the world of politics, too. The “Left” inclines toward the artist, having a vision of what the world should be but lacking a connection with reality. The “Right” inclines toward the scientist, having a vision of what the world is but lacking a connection with what the world should be. The political give and take can result in a joint effort toward a better world — or a lurching back and forth accomplishing nothing.

But is it not better to attempt to do the right thing rather than to do things right without the right goal?