Thursday, September 10, 2015



D. R. Khashaba

I have been repeatedly and insistently saying that questions of meaning and value and purpose fall completely outside the range of science. The following notes were triggered by a thoughtful essay by Alva Noë titled “How Art Reveals the Limits of Neuroscience”: The first paragraph below was prompted by the title of Noë’s paper; the remainng notes were written as I read through the essay. If the reader finds my remarks somewhat hyperbolical and paradoxical, let her or him put that to the impatience of an octogenarian whose plain words have been falling on dead ears.

The failure of science to determine the essence of beauty in the beautiful object or to explain the aesthetic experience, is inseparable of the inescapable failure of science (or the scientifically oriented ‘philosophy of mind’) to explain the mind, which failure in its turn comes from the failure of science to understand its limits. These limits were clearly set more than twenty-five centuries ago by Socrates. The investigation of things outside the mind, the investigation of nature and the things of nature, cannot disclose the what or the why of things, On the other hand, the investigation of the ideas in the mind, which alone finds the what and the why in the objects of thought can give us no factual knowledge about the objects of the natural world. More than two centuries ago Kant also arrived at the same insight. Yet we persist in trying to make objective investigation reveal the what and the why and to make logic (pure reason) yield factual knowledge.

The aesthetic experience is a subjective reality. Like all subjective reality it is undefinable. It is a pulse of life: but what is a pulse of life? Art critics and philosophers can extract from it innumerable images, patterns, relatednesses, intimations: these enhance, deepen, illumine our experience, But they explain nothing. The experience remains unfathomable, inexhaustible, ineffable. Because the experience is a moment of life, a moment of intelligent life otherwise called mind, and these are ultimate mysteries that will always remain unfathomable mysteries. In creative activity, in love, and in the enjoyment of beauty we know and do not know those subjective realities. We know because we ourselves are those realities, and we do not know because those realities cannot be reduced to things that may be known.

Neuroscientists want to find everything in the brain. My brain is a tool of my mind, my mind being my total intelligent being; but my brain is not my mind, just as my heart is a tool of the living organism that is my physical being (my body), but my heart is not itself that living organism. Or let us say that it is not the brain that baffles the expectations of neuroscientists but their approach to the brain. I fancy the brain mocking them and saying: You seek in vain to find my secret by studying my cadaver, for in my living activity I am more than I, or, just to tease you let me use a word you don’t like: in life I transcend my physicality.

To my mind, the expression “cognitive science” is as nonsensical as a square circle. Cognition is a subjective reality that is not amenable to the objective approach of science.

I just can’t resist quoting in full the following paragraph from Noë’s thoughtful paper:

“But art is an elusive quarry, and it leaves its clumsy predator flailing in the dust. In vain will you find art, or our experience of art, illuminated in these empirical investigations. This points out not just the limits of the neural approach to the arts, but also the limits of neural approaches to human experience in general.”

Aesthetic experience as response to a work of creativity – a poem, a sonata, a philosophical statement – is not a ‘finished’ thing that can be subjected to objective examination or analysis. The aesthetic response, like the grasping of a philosophical insight, initiates a creative dialogue with the source, giving birth to creative expression and interpretation. Understanding is never passive, aesthetic experience is never passive, but is always creative interpretation. In Plato’s inspired phrase, it is tokos en kalôi, giving birth in beauty. As Noë has well put it, “Aesthetic responses … are modes of participation. They are moments of conversation.”

Sixth-October City, Egypt,

September 10, 2015.


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