Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The purpose of art and science

John O. Campbell

Einstein told us that it is the purpose of art and science to instill the cosmic religious experience in those who are receptive and to keep it alive (1).

Silly me, I should have been listening but I always took these words with a grain of salt. I could get behind the science part, but ‘art’ – really? Including ‘art’ seemed to tarnish an almost perfect quote, almost to the point of ruining it. Could we really compare the importance of art to that of science?

Einstein's cosmic religious experience occurs when you realize that God is equivalent to nature as understood by science. Einstein told us that most creative scientists are motivated by the cosmic religious experience. Whenever we encounter nature’s elegant beauty this feeling is difficult to escape.

For most people science is very unlikely to engender a spiritual feeling. If we commit to learning science in the classroom we must expose ourselves to a breakneck skim across huge bodies of detailed knowledge. We are usually baffled and often advised to forget about trying to understand it, rather just memorize the important bits, the ones that will be on the exam. No wonder so many of us hate math, no wonder so many are open to viewing scientists as arrogant fraudsters trying to impose conspiratorial misconceptions.

Science escorts only a few of us to the cosmic religious experience, for most it escorts us somewhere else. Einstein was a humanist and put a good deal of energy into trying to connect more of humanity with the cosmic religious experience. He does not appear to have had much success.

Yet, he told us the purpose of art and science is to instill the cosmic religious experience. It is not to connect us with cell phones, but with the cosmic religious experience. Imagine a science education with this focus in mind!

Although science, by itself, seems inept in realizing its purpose, we might consider that when presented artistically it steps up in a much more significant way. Without much thought, I had always considered art as a kind of cultural frill, something with a bit of surface flash but of little depth or significance. Now, perhaps, I get it – art is an important component of spiritual understanding.

Most of those few who have managed to present science to a wide audience in a manner that induces awe and wonder have done it through an artistic medium. I could point to science literature and authors like Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. Then there are the science shows and TV series and we must think of Richard Attenborough, Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson and, of course again, Carl Sagan. Even government science agencies sometimes get it; NASA seems to glory in providing beautiful photos of awe inspiring cosmic structures from the pale blue dot to the Hubble images of the Horsehead Nebula. These photographic works of art provide treasured background images for a host of our computers.

After many years of study I have come to understand that Einstein is a seer, that he is seldom wrong in those things he chooses to communicate to us. Sometimes, though, I lose faith, and doubts creep in, especially when things he tells us seem to fly in the face of my own prejudicial worldview. I must struggle with that and try to remain open to learning the wonderful new things he continues to teach us. I will try to be more receptive to the, sometimes mind bending, challenges he set for us.

Now I've begun forming an understanding of what this statement attempts to tell us: art, science and spirituality are one; they are merely different approaches to glimpsing the divine nature of our universe and they achieve their purpose most powerfully when acting in unison.


1. Einstein, Albert. Religion and Science. s.l. : New York Times magazine,, 1930.