Another set of artistically-minded visitors this weekend, and another trip to our nearest Jurassic coast village and its small art galleries. For my wife and I another look at nice stuff we can’t afford, and probably wouldn’t if we could because we’d only come back next time and want something else. There aren’t enough walls in the house.
It never ceases to amaze me how much variety and ingenuity is on display in such places. There are dozens of different visions even of the local landscape, but beyond that a plethora of approaches to interpreting reality, to representing the human form or to abstract expression. Photographic realism, hazy impressionism, bold colour, subtle taste, quirkiness, humour, brooding solemnity… somebody’s putting all these and more into their art somewhere, and moreover producing a thrill of empathy when someone like me or you sees it.
I suddenly thought, “Isn’t it incredible to have a brain.” As has often been pointed out, the most complex object in the known Universe, by several orders of magnitude, is fitted as standard equipment to everyone reading this. Art, of course, is just a small part of what, without any controversy, we know to be human capability. We could equally have been visiting a library, the Science Museum, Exeter Cathedral or a hospital, and still have seen only a fraction of the human brain’s intellectual, aesthetic, social and spiritual capabilities.
Familiarity breeds contempt, certainly in this case. Most days we have a totally insufficient sense of wonder about ourselves, and more so about others. And lacking wonder, we also lack reverence. The human condition both causes that, and gives justification to it. The sublimity of the human brain is balanced by its frequent banality, self-interest and downright evil, as well as by the mystery of disease and injury. Blaise Pascal had some good quotes about man’s dual nature as angel and beast:
It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the beasts without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. Man must not think that he is on a level either with the beasts or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both. (Pensées, VI 418)
But I’m concentrating on the “angel” here, because in our coarse society it’s usually underrated.
The particular thing that captured my sense of awe was individual human creativity – though I was aware that it was equally wonderful that I could personally relate to such a range of creative activity. For the crowning glory of the human brain is its social capability – your brain can speak to mine, and yet remain itself. I’m reminded of the opening of Os Guinness’s excellent 1976 book on Doubt:
Sometimes I almost feel on fire with the immensity of this: each of us is a person, alive, growing and relating. From the moment we wake to the moment we fall asleep we think, we feel, we choose, we speak, we act, not as isolated individuals but as persons among people.
And underneath everything lies trust.
So much of this is far distant from the content, and often the tenor, of the science-faith discussion. It’s hard to keep it in mind when neuroscientists are trying to debunk human consciousness as an illusion, and evolutionary biologists to explain the brain in mundane adaptation terms. It just takes an art gallery to restore a bit of perspective – to open up the view of what’s actually going on inside us.
An equally unfrequented aspect, also more susceptible to direct insight than to analytic reductionism, occurs just a couple of paragraphs later in Guinness’s book:
God is a person too; and what is more, the person on whom personhood itself depends.