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  • Guenter Koch

Art as a driver in progressing science

Expressing ideas for which “normal” language is not sufficient!



The very first sentence of the self-presentation of GRASP says: “GRASP is a research and communication display to bring forth new forms of generation of meaning and knowledge in the ever-changing contemporary context through artful thinking and artistic expression”.

Expressions can be produced by whatever medium is suitable in order to make them “graspable” for human beings through their proper senses. In art we have the liberty to use any medium and any mode of expression, such as texts, recitations, drawings, paintings, sculptures, architectural design, musical melody, video – the list seems infinite. As an abstract definition we may call all of these media instantiations of “the” language we use for mediating the semantics of what we want to express.

Paula K. Eubanks from the University of Northern Iowa in an article published in 1997 claimed that “Art is a Visual Language”, and, amongst many references, mentions the philosopher Nelson Goodman who, in 1976, speculated on “art languages” to constitute a “Theory of Symbols”. By "languages" Goodman means "symbol systems" in general.

Neither being a linguist nor willing to immediately agree with this definition, the unanswered question of GRASP thus far is whether art and “artistic thinking” would lead us beyond attempts to overcome the limitations of verbal language. In an earlier blog contribution, I took the position that art would fill the “Wittgenstein Hole”, by which I meant that art offers an extension beyond the limitations set by language in use.

As the current head of an institution called “Humboldt Cosmos Multiversity”, I sense a strong intellectual affinity to its namesakes, the two Humboldt brothers Alexander and Wilhelm, of whom Wilhelm is profiled as one of the first linguists who tried to develop a theory about the origins of languages. His approach was to study languages – most prominently the Basque language – by tracing words from their origins and following their wandering pathways through different regions and cultures. (The graph displayed with this blog shows such “Wanderwörter” or “Wandering Words” as, in this presentation, they moved along historic trade routes).

One of the most prominent theoreticians on languages is Noam Chomsky, who developed a system of classification of so-called formal languages. Chomsky started his work in the late 1950s and early 1960s admitting that he was influenced by Wilhelm Humboldt, who lived more than 100 years earlier. Humboldt is credited with being the first European linguist to identify human language as a rule-governed system, rather than just a collection of words and phrases paired with meanings. This idea is one of the foundations of Noam Chomsky's theory of language. Chomsky frequently quotes Humboldt's description of language as a system which "makes infinite use of finite means", meaning that an infinite number of sentences can be created using a finite number of grammatical rules.

This insight, which today is not shared by all linguists, took on great importance, since Chomsky developed the definitions of classes of so-called formal languages by defining the grammars by which such languages are ruled, themselves called “formal grammars”. These grammars correspond to “automata”, which are primitive computers which can be implemented by paper and pen following the rules the grammar prescribes. Without going into the theory (which is an algorithmic one and therefore is math-based), such grammars allow for “sentences” constituting deliberate texts limited in their expressions by the rules of the governing grammar. Since we talk about languages following formal rules, in their practical application we can express this much more simply and call such languages programming languages, since they are designed to be executed on a computer.

In the early days of computer science, new concepts to be programmed needed the expressive power of newly invented languages, which lead to a Tower of Babel of all kinds of computer languages, each one designed for a best fit for a class of problems to be solved using a computer. For people like myself, the proof for being a master in computer science was to invent a formal language and to build software (called a compiler) which made it “executable” on a computer. (From own experience, once having defined a language for the purpose of capturing user requirements specifications for software, I must admit that designing a new language is a first-class intellectual challenge because it forces you to capture the “sense” of what must be expressed. In my case, since I had to deal with so-called real-time systems, the biggest struggle I had involved the terms related to time – for example, absolute versus relative time, durations, conditional timings etc. – because some of the concepts needed were counterintuitive).

Once challenged to find “best expressions” you will find that every statement which has to be made explicit needs its specific means to be expressed, i.e. a best-fitting language for its expression. E.g. in architecture - see John Favaro’s GRASP blog on architectural design – the Californian architect Christopher Alexander created a language not following the strict rules of a Chomsky-type grammar. Rather, it was a systematic collection of architectural construction elements, called “patterns”, which he collected at large and on all levels of refinement in a catalogue. His idea to construct artefacts by composing them through combining patterns from this collection repository led to his claim that he had invented a “pattern language”. It was a new idea that subsequently was picked up by computer scientists and formalised as a method for software construction.

On the occasion of a visit at the end of the 1990s at the Santa Fé Institute, which is specialized in complexity research, I met Walter Fontana who had the idea to model chemical reactions by means of a language description. His ultimate intention was to describe chains of self-organizing chemical reactions. For this purpose, he designed and used a simple but powerful recursive language – one of those languages which Chomsky had classified – in order to map character strings into algorithms that then symbolically manipulate strings. The interaction between algorithms, i.e., functions, can be defined in a natural way within the language which Fontana had developed for this purpose.

One of the most active disciplines today using the language paradigm for describing its methodology is synthetic biology. A breakthrough in targeted replacement of sections in DNA strings has been invented in Vienna by Emmanuelle Charpentier and colleagues: “biological scissors” which allow cutting out gene sections from a DNA string and then replacing them by another string portion. This methodology is called CRISPR/Cas 9, and for practical purpose has been named as “gene editing”, supporting the perception that genes can be manipulated like a text stored in a computer can be edited by an editing program. In other words, a DNA string is modelled and operated as an expression formulated in a “biosynthesis language”.

We may find many more examples of languages suitable for the description of new, complex, and little-understood phenomena. One of the most advanced areas in which new languages are needed for new scientific descriptions is quantum physics: the (math) formulas which describe “spooky phenomena” (as Einstein described quantum effects) can be perceived as strings of mathematical formulae, whose subjects are subatomic reactions which cannot be “seen” directly, but can be explained in such a language. Anton Zeilinger, a leading quantum physicist and President of the Academy of Science in Vienna, puts it this way in philosophical discussions on the nature of our material existence: in the end, physical elements are information and all processes made by quantum elements are information processes. Once we accept such a concept, we come back to the assertion that “the world” can be described by means of a language that has not yet been completely defined.

What does this mean for GRASP and our conviction that art is one form of expressing things which are not tangible? To my understanding art, artful thinking, artistic expression and the infinity of art languages open perspectives and allow for “thinking the unthinkable”. Art per se may not solve the open questions in science and society; however its proper role is to open our minds to finding unconventional, “irrational”, and mind-boggling new solutions; thus, it serves the advancement of science.


<Short Info: Parts of this text has been used for the "dissertaion speech" given on occasion of the ceremony having been granted Dr.h.c of Aurel Vlaciu University in Arad, Romania>

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