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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