Jacob Bronowski

[Reprinted from The Center Magazine, November-December 1984]

The ideal of science is (in principle) to present a model of nature as a closed system of laws or axioms, from which the phenomena of the real world could all be shown to derive. However, it has now become clear that this ideal cannot be attained, either in practice or in principle. Modern theorems in logic make it evident that any system of axioms which seeks to describe nature will always be found to be incomplete.

Thus the system of science at any tune is provisionally closed in the present, yet it necessarily remains open to the future. From time to tune, a great scientific mind becomes convinced that a new phenomenon cannot be derived by any rearrangement within the accepted system of laws; and he then enlarges (and modifies) the system by proposing an additional law or axiom. Modern logic shows that this step cannot be supported by any logical procedure. It is an act of imagination, which takes the mind beyond the action of any logical machine; and it can in fact be taken as a definition of imagination, both in the sciences and in the arts.

The mind is forced to go beyond logic because a logical machine is circumscribed by the contradictions that arise when it uses its language to describe its own actions. The human brain, of course, cannot escape these problems of self-reference, which are implied from the beginning in cogito, ergo sum. Science is a procedure for circumventing these problems by pushing them (as it were) into the future; that is, by always treating the present system as provisionally closed. But the arts cannot make this separation, even provisionally; the writer, for example, sets out to share his state of mind with the reader, and literature owes its power to this self-reference. This is why science can be treated as a machine for turning information into (provisional) instructions for action, and the arts cannot: through them we enter nature as a pure state of information.