Food for thought



Science is a cumulative process of acquiring greater and more accurate knowledge about the world. It is probably safe to say that the average scientist of today knows more about the world than did Galileo or Newton. Richard Dawkins certainly knows more about evolution than Charles Darwin did, simply by dint of coming after him and ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.

Unlike science, art, literature and music are not cumulative. Today’s art is no better than earlier art. Tracey Emin is not better than Michaelangelo, Alan Bennett is not better than Shakespeare and One Direction is not better than Mozart. Richard Dawkins built on the earlier work of Darwin, Mendel and others to create a more exact picture of how evolution works. Art, literature and music don’t build on what has gone before, though it may be true that innovations such as perspective in art, narrative techniques in literature and the use of harmony in music have enriched those fields.

When someone says that one scientific theory being better than a rival theory he means that it describes the world more accurately or truthfully. Yet art, literature and music don’t deal in accuracy and truth. Instead they try to excite human nervous systems in pleasant or interesting ways.

Most people I know are not interested in science but instead want their nervous systems excited. They want to watch a movie, a football match, a TV program or hear a pop song. They want to be entertained rather than informed.

I used to be the same. I had no interest in whether trade unions had too much power; which side was destroying Beirut, or even who the sides were; whether Margaret Thatcher was right about the miners strike; what the IRA wanted; what Muslims believed; whether free markets are a better than central planning; what tariffs are and whether they are good or bad for an economy; whether Che Guevara was hero or a villain; who the Sandinista were and what the National Front wanted for Britain. I just wanted to be entertained until I died: I wanted football, pop music, movies, TV programs and novels.

Then around the age of 30 I became restless with all that and instead found I wanted to understand things better. So I started reading pop science books and watching documentaries, which is how things have continued until now, 25 years later. I now know a lot more than I did and I generally understand most news items and have some opinions about most of them. Today I feel less confused and bored by the world of current affairs.

Even so, recently I have started watching movies and reading novels again. Accumulating knowledge is all very well but humans are not knowledge machines and there is something cold about simply amassing knowledge. Being entertained feels enough for me again and besides, films, a books, music or even cartoons can provide plenty of food for thought if your mind is curious enough.