The Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) developed the underpinnings of his natural theology through the lens of the Peripatetic Axiom, "Nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu" (Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses). He passionately observed the physical universe shaping his sensory input into complex models of experience. Aquinas devoted much thinking to the very nature of inquiry and to the connections between observation and memory. He saw the senses adding to memory and memory itself contributing to the service of future reasoning. Aquinas scholars would clearly support a view that his ideas of science were not empirical but metaphysical in essence. Aquinas found wisdom in his emphasis on directly observing phenomena and what he called "the first principles of things.”
Two hundred and thirty-four years after Aquinas’ death, we find Leonardo (not the actor) sitting at the bedside of a hundred-year-old man. Alastair Sooke picks up the story in a Telegraph article from 2013: “...the old man in the Florentine hospital, Santa Maria Nuova, revealed nothing wrong other than weakness. Leonardo recorded ‘...and thus, when he passed from this life, I dissected him to see the cause of so sweet a death.’ It was not the first time Leonardo had sliced open a corpse, by 1508 he had conducted more than ten human dissections.” Da Vinci did this illegal work to understand the sub-dermal influence of muscular and other structural manifestations on the topology of the human form, something quite central to the accuracy of his artistic production.
One consequence of Da Vinci’s probing observational sensibility can still be witnessed today, and this is his intense looking. What clarifies as we view a drawing is his "experience of seeing," not an iconic rendering. He observes processes and structures in the body as well as those of water flowing, atmospheric changes, and the growth in plant structures. His drawings reveal the solutional similarities found in nature’s toolbox including concentric, bronchial and dendritic patterns at all scales. He draws plans for weapons of war, city fortifications, flying and diving contraptions, and the Vitruvian Man, always invoking the “first principles of things.” Leonardo’s visual mindset becomes the predictive root of what E. O. Wilson, the great naturalist of our time, calls "consilience,” a belief that knowledge from all disciplines is intrinsically woven together.
It is with E. O. Wilson’s vision that we begin to grasp the ambitious and complex nature of unification. We struggle with definitions. We illustrate scientific concepts. We develop scientifically driven explanations of art processes and describe how vision is constructed. We know multiple models of human experience can be valid at the same time and we seek to join the current disunity of the classical and the quantum. Art and science are collaboratively operable yet impossible to define. Yet in spite of our professional conundrums, on occasion we experience intense moments of connectivity.
When this convergent thinking occurs it happens in our internal processes of committing observational experience to memory. The observer effect allows our observations to become intimate knowledge. Collaborative work becomes a gateway to unity. On these points, the whole of Da Vinci and Aquinas speak loudly to me. Think of it this way: the chain of causal events that has led each of us to our privileged position of being matter able to observe other matter (if only for an instant) brings a powerful internal intimacy to the phenomenon being observed. Imaginative interpretations can see the universe in new ways. This is probity personified. E. O. Wilson’s consilience will not come from an external technique but from what lies within us.
Kimiko Hahan’s profound poem “Not Nothing” offers an example of this internally generated view.
“A map on tissue. A mass of wire. Electricity of the highest order.
Somewhere in this live tangle, scientists discovered—
Like shipmates on a suddenly rounded earth—
A new catalog of synaptic proteins
Presenting how memory is laid down:
At the side of the transmitting neuron
An electrical signal arrives and releases chemical packets.
What I had imagined as “nothing” are a bunch of conversing
remaking flat into intimate.”
ED KERNS is the Eugene and Mildred Clapp Professor of Art at Lafayette College in Easton, PA.