Science vs. art

by PhilGoetz 2 min read16th Mar 200936 comments


In the comments on Soulless Morality, a few people mentioned contributing to humanity's knowledge as an ultimate value.  I used to place a high value on this myself.

Now, though, I doubt whether making scientific advances would give me satisfaction on my deathbed.  All you can do in science is discover something before someone else discovers it.  (It's a lot like the race to the north pole, which struck me as stupid when I was a child; yet I never transferred that judgement to scientific races.)  The short-term effects of your discovering something sooner might be good, and might not.  The long-term effects are likely to be to bring about apocalypse a little sooner.

Art is different.  There's not much downside to art.  There are some exceptions - romance novels perpetuate destructive views of love; 20th-century developments in orchestral music killed orchestral music; and Ender's Game has warped the psyches of many intelligent people.  But artists seldom worry that their art might destroy the world.  And if you write a great song, you've really contributed, because no one else would have written that song.

EDIT: What is above is instrumental talk.  I find that, as I get older, science fails to satisfy me as much.  I don't assign it the high intrinsic value I used to.  But it's hard for me to tell whether this is really an intrinsic valuation, or the result of diminishing faith in its instrumental value.

I think that people who value rationality tend to place an unusually high value on knowledge.  Rationality requires knowledge; but that gives knowledge only instrumental value.  It doesn't (can't, by definition) justify giving knowledge intrinsic value.

What do the rest of you think?  Is there a strong correlation between rationalism, giving knowledge high intrinsic value, and giving art low intrinsic value?  If so, why?  And which would you rather be - a great scientist, or a great artist of some type?  (Pretend that great scientists and great artists are equally well-paid and sexually attractive.)

(I originally wrote this as over-valuing knowledge and under-valuing art, but Roko pointed out that that's incoherent.)

Under a theory that intrinsic and instrumental values are separate things, there's no reason why giving science a high instrumental value should correlate with giving it a high intrinsic value, or vice-versa.  Yet the people here seem to be doing one of those things.

My theory is that we can't keep intrinsic and instrumental values separate from each other.  We attach positive valences to both, and then operate on the positive valences.  Or, we can't distinguish our intrinsic values from our instrumental values by introspection.  (You may have noticed that I started using examples that refer to both intrinsic and instrumental values.  I don't think I can separate them, except retrospectively; and with about as much accuracy as a courtroom witness asked to testify about an event that took place 20 years ago.)

It's tempting to mention friends and family in here too, as another competing fundamental value.  But that would demand solving the relationship between personal values that you yourself take, and the valuations you would want a society or a singleton AI to make.  That's too much to take on here.  I want to talk just about intrinsic value given to science vs. art.

Oh, and saying science is an art is a dodge.  You then have to say whether you value the knowledge, or the artistic endeavor.  Also, ignore the possibility that your scientific work can make a safe Singularity.  That would be science as instrumental value.  I'm asking about science vs. art as intrinsic values.

EDIT:  An obvious explanation:  I was assuming that people here want to be rational as an instrumental value, and that we should find the distribution of intrinsic values to be the same as in the general populace.  But of course some people are drawn here because rationality is an intrinsic value to them, and this heavily biases the distribution of intrinsic values found here.