Bryan Caplan  

Arts, Sciences, and the Future

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My colleague Robin Hanson has repeatedly told me that during the next million years, we'll discover all useful science/technology; there's only so much to know, and by then, we'll have it all figured out.  But would Robin see art the same way?  By his logic, it seems like you could also say say: During the next million years, will we discover all interesting art; there's only so much art to create, and by then we'll have created it. 

You might object, "Science is about truth, art is about creativity, so science but not art has finite limits."  But is "useful" more like "true" or "interesting"?  So even given constant science, we might endlessly create novel applications.  Once you go down this route, though, it's hard to see why scientific questions - as opposed to answers - would be any less open-ended than artistic visions. 

Robin might blame my lack of a natural science background for my failure to assent to his prediction of the End of Science.  But will he bite the bullet of the End of Art?

Update: Robin responds.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Andy Wood writes:
...we might endlessly create novel applications.

But isn't part of Robin's argument essentially Darwinian? In the long run, those of our decendants who waste time and effort creating applications that do anything other than maximise their reproductive success will eventually be out-reproduced by those that don't.

So, there might be an infinite number of possible applications, but only a (possibly finite?) subset of them will be of interest.

Also, is the number of possible applications really infinite if you add the constraint that you only have a finite number of atoms to work with? My hunch is that it's not.

The same logic does appear to apply to art. I predict Robin will bite the bullet.

Lars P writes:

If study of art counts as science, it seems they both would have to have the same infiniteness.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Of the very little history of art that managed to get around my engineer's block into my brain, I remember reading that art is created according to reality as understood by the contemporary physics. Thus, the photo-realism of Constable when physics was deterministic, and the many branches of weirdism as physics became quantum and pseudo-random.

If this is true, art and science are joined at the hip.

Oswald Spengler develops this idea in Decline of the West, but in addition, he says that art, science, math etc are all joined and limited by Culture. During civilization's decline, there is still art, but it becomes derivative and boring.

Jaap writes:

that's all great and well, but Andy's comment made me think of Borges' Library of Babel; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Library_of_Babel
everything is there, but useless.

SB7 writes:

Library of Babel is one of my favorite short stories. Good call, Jaap.

As someone who got a science degree from an engineering college of my university, I'm compelled to expand on the distinction between Science and applications there of. Even if all the Science is known, the engineering based on that Science is still left to be done. And since engineering is more than a little bit Art, it has to be as open-ended as Art itself. It's one thing to design a bridge or write an algorithm, another thing entirely to design them or write them with elegance.

In fact you can say the same thing about proofs, leaving Science more open-ended. Even when everything that can be proven has been proven, it is still possible to create more beautiful proofs, ones that Erdos would say are "from The Book," to bring us back around to Borges.

Scott Wentland writes:

As we figure out more things (both in science and art), we find there's a lot more to know.

It seems like we figure out the "big" ideas early on (i.e. the low-hanging fruit that explains most things...gravity, relativity, germs, atoms, etc.). I say "early on" because we're talking another million years. And even though these things may constitute perhaps the most sizable chunk of our known universe, the discovery of the low-hanging fruit in science (and art) reveal even more mysteries and possibilities.

If you don't believe me, try thinking of any novel scientific or artistic discovery that has closed the book on something without reintroducing a host of new spin-off possibilities (and I don't just mean applications...but completely new questions and frontiers). The discovery of unknowns almost always creates more unknowns in other areas.

Chris T writes:

Whether art is infinite depends on what we ultimately define as 'art'. There are functionally infinite combinations of information, but only a subset is appealing to humans.

pandaemoni writes:

@ Andy Wood

The curious thing is that neither our technology, nor society as a whole, is geared towards enhanced reproductive success. We are geared towards the maximization of personal satisfaction (and that is also the ultimate goal of marginal utility theory and the economics that relies on it).

If Darwinian theory wins the day, then the strategies most of use to live our lives are doomed to be out-competed by those more focused on child rearing (and family matters).

Who knows? Technology may be the one hope we have of leveling that playing field.

Andy Wood writes:
The curious thing is that neither our technology, nor society as a whole, is geared towards enhanced reproductive success.

Agreed, but this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Can we seriously expect that to remain true if we're talking about timescales of millions of years in which natural selection has had a chance to play itself out?

guthrie writes:

Creativity, thus art, is a human trait and won't likely be 'evolved' out at anytime, even in our distant future.

While one may think 'making art' is 'a waste of time', just consider how often you watch TV, go to a movie, read a novel, watch/read a play, listen to the radio, read the comics section, choose a product based on advertising... all of these things are developed and driven by the directed creative impulse. Unless one lives a Spartan lifestyle out in the wilderness somewhere, I would find it hard to believe anyone would seriously and consciously avoid all such artistic outlets. Being an artist is no more a ‘waste’ than being an engineer.

And it’s doubtful that any of these forms of communication will go completely out of vogue, even after a million years have past. They will probably look at our arcane attempts as quaint at best, but I predict our progeny will have with them some form of live, some form of projected, and some form of print entertainment/advertisement/diversion… which will require that creative impulse.

And if you think that creativity does nothing to 'maximize reproductive value', then you have no idea how rock stars live. IOW, there will *always* be a market, both commercially and sexually, for artists of every stripe.

Andy Wood writes:

Guthrie,

I've got the impression that you've simply missed the point of the argument. I don't think I anywhere suggested that all creativity is a waste of time, and does nothing to enhance reproductive success.

My point is that after millions of years, our descendants will have explored a sufficiently large subset of all possible scientific and artistic creations that, combined with the influence of natural selection, they will have honed in on those creations which maximise reproductive success. Those creations which don't maximise reproductive success will eventually be ignored or forgotten.

Does that make it clearer?

Bruce T writes:

I don't judge the proposition from Robin Hanson to rise above the level of a faith argument: it is, for our purposes, an untestable claim. Bryan C. seems to be poking a bit of fun at the statement using "art" as the tool point.

For my part, I'll comment that science is not a quantity of things, but a process. Technologists apply found new knowledge constantly, but our framework for understanding the new knowledge is ever fluid (Newton didn't understand electricity, Maxwell didn't know how to describe a quantum view or relativity, and Einstein rejected a piece of his own description of the cosmos only for modern astronomers to discover that the tossed away cosmological constant is afterall useful). That science and technology (search/discovery and use) interact is not the same thing as the idea that they converge on a common final set of interactions (they don't appear to).

Considering Karl Popper, I take the view that what we do not know (or have not created) is infinitely vast - in consequence, a million years of creation, discovery and application fill up nothing, and we get no more closer to an "ending" in knowable / creatable things in the far future than as we are today. This may also be a faith argument, but I prefer my glass half-full!

guthrie writes:

Andy,

Thank you, that does help. My apologies if I posted a knee-jerk response due to being a 'sensitive artist'! :)

I have to admit it's difficult to wrap my head around quantifying 'Those creations which don't maximise reproductive success'... it's easier for me to understand an 'end of science', because it would seem there's a higher possibility of finding objective answers. But but with creatvie endevors, there always seem to be contrary artists who make careers out of 'recovering lost arts'. Perhaps I'm being too broad in applying the concept...

Troy Camplin writes:

If Robin is talking about physics as science and technology, then he is right. But if he is talking about organic chemistry or biology -- especially biology -- and even neural technology, then I would say he could not possibly be more wrong. The complexity of such sytsems and networks, and the fact that they are constantly evolving prevents us from completely knowing such systems/networks. Thus, we will never know everything about them, and technology will never stop evolving. It just won't resemble ours.

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