Art, Science & Truth: Jonah Lehrer

Reading Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist is something like watching Jacoby Ellsbury in the Red Sox outfield. Reflexively one stammers what Emerson wrote to Walt Whitman on reading Leaves of Grass in 1855: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career…”

jonah lehrer

Lehrer is preposterously young (26) to be standing so confidently at the intersection of art and science. Reviews have tended to credit him as a child prodigy, which is less than a real authority. But there he is — science journalist and lab assistant, omnivorous reader, sometime line cook at Le Cirque, philosophy student and blogger — with a marvelous modesty and calm. He’s the boy preacher among the contentious elders, setting a terrific example for all of us who’d get our heads in tune with the mysteries of consciousness and art, and the claims of beauty and truth.

Lehrer’s stylish little book is a brief for art in an age of science. He stands with artists, for starters, because as he argues in eight signal lives, they hit the target first, about brain science in particular: poet Walt Whitman’s intuition of “the body electric,” for example; or novelist George Eliot’s confrontation with systems thinking (Herbert Spencer, in person, and the invented Casaubon in Middlemarch) and her elevation of the indeterminacy of real life; or Paul Cezanne’s methodical discovery of our eye’s part (and our imagination’s) in completing the experience of a painting. (“If I hadn’t believed it, I wouldn’t have seen it,” as a talk-radio caller once said to me.)

Lehrer tilts toward artists as the great teachers, furthermore, because their stories, songs and images come out of the stuff of our shared experience.

Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details; they say we are nothing but a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn’t how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.

Jonah Lehrer, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, page xii.

In the nearly 50-year-old gap between C. P. Snow’s famous Two Cultures, Jonah Lehrer sees a stale “third culture” crying now for the corrective of a fourth. Giants of the third culture — Lehrer credits Richard Dawkins, Brian Greene, Steven Pinker and E. O. Wilson — brought the truths of science to the literate masses, but always with a reductionist method; with the view as Professor Wilson has written that “all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.” Lehrer’s push for a “fourth culture” applies William James’s broad wisdom that there are other ways of describing reality and defining truth.

…the sciences must recognize that their truths are not the only truths. No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge. That simple idea will be the starting premise of any fourth culture. As Karl Popper, an eminent defender of science, wrote, “It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism.”

Jonah Lehrer, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, page 197.

We had a quick, intense conversation last week, that linked back to my session with, and his own review of Oliver Sacks. I began with a question from Marjorie Garber, the prolific authority on Shakespeare and much else at Harvard: is this a two-way street that links artistic and scientific inspiration? That is, is there a companion volume to be considered (and could it get published?) entitled Watson and Crick were Poets?

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  • Zeke

    Can these arguments be seen as another iteration of the Transcendentalists’ response to Lokean “sensuality,” the notion that everything “true’ is percieved by one of our five senses?

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    If you compartmentalize your life, you may live a largely fragmented, yet comfortable life. If you don’t compartmentalize your life, you may live a defragmented, yet comfortable life. Specializations inform the market place, a contemporary metaphor for social organization, and at times specializations are a sensible response to personal needs, but it is not required to serve one approach for every aspect of being. There is an element of choice here, IMO.

    For the inquisitive spirit, for the healthy skeptic, for the naturally curious seeker, questions often inform answers, often leading to ever more questions. But one reply, what informs this necessity? Moreover, why does this little tango inform the cultural manifestation of specializations? It would be agreeable to suggest, the efficacy and successful application of this method over a wide and deep swatch of terrain. But perhaps, it’s also belief and its favorite handmaiden, hegemony. And this becomes a crossroad where the inquisitive spirit meets up with the unencumbered, non-curious, non-skeptical being; a duality which may implode upon self-recognition. Belief and hegemony quarry coherence and the eternal when netting either the second law of thermodynamics or the apocalyptic, revelatory condition. The unprovable assertion, the convenient, inherited axioms, the perpetually sustainable agreeable propositions, the conventional or unconventional truths, are the merest oxygen, the meager sustenance required for the conviction of certainty, even in a description about the inherently uncertain, or inherently unknowable.

    Cezanne’s ideas and expressions are beautiful bubbling around inside my cranial mass and apparently to all the optical means I possess, as are the quantum description or the ponderings of the infinite from Georg Cantor to Rumi, but no more or no less beautiful than the reality from which they came, for which they share, mutually serve, and co-create. Perhaps these reflections are a passing glimpse at a kind of unity, a completeness, a wholeness in the ever becoming variation. My pantheon, my sacrificial alter of belief, my gods and goddesses of hegemonic necessity, which I impose most fervently upon this being, the cage I manifest as myself.

    Thank you Chris and guest Jonah, for another pearl of wonder.

  • armadillo

    Oliver Sacks is “squeamish” about issues of soul and transcendence? Perhaps “polite” would be more accurate.

  • Rational_G

    Sorry to differ, but I think the arguments of Jonah Lehrer are weak and a bit of a stretch. Consider these reviews:

    I’m all for integrating art & science but I smell cultural relativism here. “Other ways of describing reality and defining truth”? Sounds sloppy to me.

  • dud

    Although reductionism is the working tool of science there are many aspects of brain neuroscience which elude analysis by looking for the bits and pieces. Seeking the NCC, the neural correlates of consciousness, by the many painstaking lab techniques has been enormously fruitful even though they fail to answer deep questions: the nature of Qualia, the redness of red, the blueness of blue, the awesomeness of awe (vide Longinus on the Sublime), possibly the umaminess of umami. These seem to be gestalt problems. Proust’s brain may have established dendritic flow of channel and halorhodopsin in recollecting the madelaine but his pleasure in eating it may lie beyond the amygdala or limbic system or cortical binding; just so with Cezanne’s apples, and the I ness of me.

  • McFawn

    Lehrer’s newest article: “The Future of Science…is Art?” (at SEED magazine) is a fascinating extension of his Proust argument. The only problem is that he begins to tread into the realm of language philosophies…Wittgenstein etc…when he talks about the importance of metaphor to science. The metaphors used to describe scientific discoveries (I.e. string theory’s garden hose) are alternatively described by Lehrer as translations of scientific truths and the very substance of that truth. Does the metaphor describe or constitute a truth? I responded to this point, and Lehrer’s article, at .

  • Rational_G

    The future of science…… more science. Why must we declare, a priori, that the nature of consciousness for example is beyond scientific analysis? This is an intellectual retreat. To tackle these issues does nothing to diminish, beauty, awe, and wonder. That is just silly. And to characterize Dawkins et al as cold reductionists is inaccurate. Please see for example Dawkins’ Unweaving The Rainbow where he addresses these very issues.