Scientific Icons


A couple of years ago, I was poking around in a European art museum and came across an exhibit of exquisitely beautiful Eastern Orthodox religious paintings, "icons." Beyond being visually striking -- they have an austere, hieratic, distant quality -- they are also, I realized at the time, in a way, scientific.

Alright, I know, that's a wild statement. But hear me out.

A religious icon is more than a painting. It has a semiotic value that's highly codified, a language and practical purpose of its own that sets it apart from all the other representational art preceding our modern era of abstraction. This is partly because it's such an ancient form of art, one dating back to a time when making images at all was a relatively rare gesture. It's also because it's a devotional form, a way of representing something believed to transcendent and beyond human understanding. This last point is what interests me.

An icon is somewhat fraught: it's not entirely intended to be an object of its own. Rather, its purpose is to be a likeness, a tangible object that stands for an idea by signifying or representing it. In Christian theology, to worship an icon itself (remember the golden calf?) is blasphemous, and yet religious icon paintings date back to the 3rd century and are a major part of both Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism. This is because of a subtle semantic distinction: while worshiping an idol is frowned upon, worshiping via an idol is different.

St. Basil the Great, an influential 4th century Christian theologian and monastic, explained this concept by noting that "the honor shown the image passes over to the archetype," that is to say the entity or object which it represents. He also illustrated further, "If I point to a statue of Caesar and ask you 'Who is that?', your answer would properly be, 'It is Caesar.' When you say such you do not mean that the stone itself is Caesar, but rather, the name and honor you ascribe to the statue passes over to the original, the archetype, Caesar himself." In a sense, an icon of Caesar, or Jesus, is a two-dimensional window into the sublime, a conduit by which we can make tangible and understood something which is by definition transcendent and beyond the limited scope of human understanding.


Now let's look to the definition of the word "diagram:" according to Wikipedia, a diagram "is a two-dimensional geometric symbolic representation of information according to some visualization technique." Often, a scientific diagram -- or a mathematical equation, for that matter -- is not only a two-dimensional representation of something three-dimensional, but a representation of something that is without form. A relationship, a quality. That is to say, by definition something that's transcendent, or beyond the limits of ordinary experience.

I think it's safe to say that in the case of mathematics, or scientific diagrams, we also pass "the honor to the archetype." We work with diagrams and symbols because they are the only way for us to bat around massive, immaterial concepts with any dexterity, and the final results of our work -- which often appear as strings of numbers, symbols, and lines on paper -- can have implications which are massive, far-reaching, and, while I hesitate to use the word "spiritual" for obvious reasons, certainly philosophical.

Edward Tufte, the statistician and recent presidential appointee put this point quite elegantly in a 2004 interview with the Technical Communication Quarterly :

The commonality between science and art is in trying to see profoundly--to develop strategies of seeing and showing. This seeing is not about "Aren't these pictures of molecules beautiful?" Rather, the point is to recognize the tightness between seeing and thinking on an intellectual level not just a metaphorical level. That tightness is expressed in the very physiology of the eye: the retina is made from brain cells; the brain begins at the back of the eye. Seeing turns into thinking right there.

Both Orthodox icons and the symbolic language of scientific diagrams are placeholders, totems; their reality exists independently of their representation of it. Again, the same could be said about mathematics, a set of symbols which articulate a far more profound, invisible presence. As Tufte writes, these things serve to turn seeing into thinking. Aside from the obvious differences, the clear distinction between these religious icons and their secular, scientific equivalents is that they operate from different ideological bases: one is based on faith, and the other on knowledge. But the notion that these labors of mankind reach their apogee in what in the end are merely symbols, indicators, and arrows which point toward the actual, ineffable, unrepresentable reality of existence is an important thing which unifies spiritual "irrational" religious and "rational" scientific thought.

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The major difference would be the kind of knowledge being represented, or arrived at via the icon. Scientific diagrams are tools to understand the world we all live in better, so as to better our lives. Religious iconography gives pre-conditioned minds the warm fuzzies to help minimize the nagging feeling that they are only talking to and being forgiven by themselves, that they are giving good money to hucksters to coach those warm fuzzies along and that they're "way of knowing" is simple fantasy, which gets them no knowledge at all.

Some might say that transcendent contemplation helps them be better people, as science helps us make a better quality of life, and that this can be aided (exacerbated) by religious art. Really though, this can be done much more efficiently and reliably with the secular principles of philosophy and psychology and a dash of real appreciation for real creative expression rather than superstition and propaganda.

Faith and knowledge don't get to be the same thing because they both make use of symbolism.

(I hope this doesn't break the no-skeptics-allowed rule...Jesus...)

By Christopher (not verified) on 11 Mar 2010 #permalink

You're right, faith and knowledge aren't the same thing -- no one is saying that. But that doesn't mean that as humans, we don't organize and interpret information in similar ways.

I love this blog. It reminds me of algebra, or stranger still, the codes I use to form instructions. Especially those involving relative paths. This one gets me thinking.

Religion does of course not "serve to turn seeing into thinking." Rather to sillence critisism, just (make)believe and look no further for (more) accurate explanations..

By rijkswaanvijand (not verified) on 12 Mar 2010 #permalink

you'd think people so vehement in their defense of rationality would be better at reading comprehension and less inclined to pull sentences out of context in order to make completely unrelated criticism.

By onetwothreefour (not verified) on 14 Mar 2010 #permalink

Sometimes I amuse myself by wondering where the symbol ends and the thing that it stands for begins.

Our brains, where the manufacture of symbols is suspected to occur, are made of small bits of matter that were, before becoming our cerebral substance, part of the average, general distribution of matter. These bits originate in the natural processes that constitute the physical aspects of the universe. Like piles of bricks, bags of mortar, stacks of lumber.

By means that are increasingly understandable but by no means fully understood the bricks and mortar and wood have done something remarkable and apparently all by themselves; they have conspired to arrange themselves into that awesome thing that inhabits our skulls and in which we appear to exist.

Our brains have been busy for a long time modeling/symbolizing the observable universe and at present they are in possession of a picture of immense scale and detail. This model is wholly contained within the human brain which is made of small bits of the matter that the universe makes. The universe apprehends and comprehends itself by means of our brains. It knows itself.

The nagging question of the meaning of existence is thus clearly answered. As is usually the case, when one question is answered, others, at least as vexing, rush in to fill the vacuum. The one that occupies me lately is whether or not I am a symbol created by the universe to stand for something and if so, what? And may I safely ignore my symbolism and go about my own business? If my symbolism is critical will my inattention upset some ancient and delicate balance? Would I be in trouble for spoiling everything?

I do so enjoy Sunday afternoons. The little bits inside my skull loosen just a bit and jostle about in an off hand way and suddenly I imagine myself a symbol signifying the totality of the universe and its satisfaction in knowing of its own presence here, with me and you and all of us and everything else. And everything fits, symbolically, inside our brains, even mine.

I found your blog just today. Like it.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 21 Mar 2010 #permalink

Sometimes I amuse myself by wondering where the symbol ends and the thing that it stands for begins.

Our brains, where the manufacture of symbols is suspected to occur, are made of small bits of matter that were, before becoming our cerebral substance, part of the average, general distribution of matter. These bits originate in the natural processes that constitute the physical aspects of the universe. Like piles of bricks, bags of mortar, stacks of lumber.

yhank youa dminn

Thank you for this blog entry. I'm an iconographer & I really like the connection you've made between the way we read icons and the way we read scientific notations. It makes a lot of sense! I'm going to bookmark your blog & share it! Thank you!