The torrential rains at the summer resort in the Catskills, where my dad was a weekend bass player, entitling us to the use of a free if leaky bungalow, drove all us campers into the cavernous dance hall for an impromptu game of trivia. I was 5 years old, and the first up. “Where are you from?” the head counselor asked when I had climbed onto the stage.
I was so intently focused on my private, newfound passion that I hardly registered the question. “Math!” I answered, only to be baffled when everyone around me erupted in laughter.
Mathematics is a universal language of pattern. Equations articulate relationships. They speak to unassailable truths that stand beyond the vagaries of perception and interpretation. Every flat, right-angled triangle drawn before Pythagoras, and every one after, until eternity, satisfies the famous theorem that bears the ancient Greek philosopher’s name. There are no exceptions. That’s the nature of mathematical insight. And through its terse, pristine delineation of inflexible truth, mathematics offers us the comfort of reliability and the beauty of precision. Since my earliest introduction, I have felt the deep allure of these unchanging patterns. Patterns that are impervious to authority. Patterns that transcend all things personal.
It is a perspective I have found to be widely shared among those who practice mathematics or physics as a profession.
All the same, many more of us are drawn to patterns of a different sort, patterns conveyed through particular combinations of sounds and colors and shapes and textures and movements, yielding works of music or dance or film or painting or sculpture — patterns, that is, which emerge as creative human expression. These are patterns we value because of, not in spite of, their capacity to reflect thoroughly personal, deeply subjective responses to the infinite spectrum of human experience. As cave paintings, ancient figurines and archaic musical instruments attest, since the earliest glimmers of thought our species has intensely pursued and consumed such expression.
And that presents a puzzle.
I have little doubt that should we ever make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, they will understand our mathematics, especially the equations we have developed to explain the regularities of reality. After all, recognizing the patterns inherent in physical phenomena is central to survival. We have prevailed because we can sense and respond to the rhythms of the world. Every tomorrow will be different from today, but beneath the myriad comings and goings we rely on enduring qualities.
The sun will rise, rocks will fall, water will flow. The vast collection of allied patterns we encounter from one moment to the next profoundly influence our behavior. Instincts are essential, and memory matters, because patterns persist. While the specific environment of a distant intelligence may differ significantly from our own, it is likely that it, too, prevailed by developing a refined sense of pattern described with precision through some version of mathematics.
Yet when it comes to our artistic yearnings, there’s a chance that the extraterrestrials will be thoroughly perplexed. Why would any species spend time and energy on creative works that seemingly have no survival value? In a precarious world with limited resources, the puzzle is thus to understand why we are drawn to activities that relate so obliquely to the goals of securing food, or a mate, or shelter.
Charles Darwin himself took up this question, and wondered if the goals might not be as oblique as they seem. Perhaps, he suggested, the art impulse originated as a type of mating call, drawing various of our forebears together and thus steering the propagation of the species. Other researchers have suggested that the creation and consumption of artistic works may provide an intellectual playground, where ingenuity and imaginative problem-solving skills are brought forth and refined in a safe environment. According to this view, the sorts of minds that can summon forth everything from “The Starry Night” to “Guernica,” from the “David” to “The Burghers of Calais,” from the “Goldberg Variations” to the “Ode to Joy” finale, are minds that have creatively imagined their way out of one potentially devastating challenge after another. Perhaps, then, art matters because it primed our very capacity to survive.
Among those who think carefully about the relationship between art and evolutionary selection, there is as much controversy as there is consensus. Establishing an irrefutable Darwinian basis for art is no small challenge. Moreover, in considering why art matters today, not just in our ancestral past, the adaptive role may give us insight but at best would provide only a partial accounting. To fill in that account, we must focus on the many nuances of truth.
Mathematics and science seek objective truth. Physicists approach it through their analyses of fundamental particles and the mathematical laws that govern them. Chemists illuminate it by invoking collections of these particles, organized into atoms and molecules. Biologists consider higher levels of organization, amalgamating atoms and molecules into the fantastic complexity evident to us within cells and life forms. Psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers add further layers still, examining the workings of the mind and the questions minds can pose about themselves and their experiences. No single story tells it all. Only by blending insights from each of these accounts can we gain the fullest understanding.
Art is a critical component of this project, a pathway toward a yet broader variety of truths that encompasses subjective experience and celebrates our distinctly human response to the world. This is vital. There are truths that stand beyond articulation, whether in the language of mathematics or that of human discourse. There are truths we can sense, truths we can feel, that would be diminished by translation from inner expression. Art is our most refined means for accessing such truths. There is no universal summary of art, no definition that unambiguously delineates it. Our reactions to art are uniquely our own. But it is this very flexibility, this dependence on the individual, this reliance on the subjective, that makes art essential for grasping our all-too-human place in the cosmic order.
Whereas the patterns of math and science matter because they speak to qualities of reality that exist beyond us, the patterns of art matter because they speak to qualities of reality that exist within us.
Brian Greene is the director of Columbia University’s Center for Theoretical Physics and a co-founder of the World Science Festival. Portions of this essay were adapted from his latest book, Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe.