Say You Want a Revolution: Jared Vaughan Davis, Karl Popper, and the Irreconcilable

Artists draw their inspiration from a wide range of sources, often combining them in ways that exacerbate, exalt, and examine the contrasts. Some are personal, others intellectual, still others aesthetic. In the process, they breathe air into tropes and symbols that might otherwise have become stilted and creates space for the resurrection of more pliable signs.

Karl Popper’s influence pervades Jared Vaughan Davis’ work. It provides the framework for his exploration of a variety of topics ranging from cosmology and physics to mythology and metaphysics. He set aside some studio time to discuss his work with the Scientific Inquirer.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Let’s start at the beginning. How did Art and Science come together in your work?

JARED VAUGHAN DAVIS: Like most of us, I’m constantly grappling with life’s biggest questions – e.g. Where do we come from? How do we fit into the grand narrative of the cosmos? What are the deeper meanings of concepts like “truth” and “beauty” and “nothingness” and “infinity”? How do we best promote human flourishing? What happens when we die? For an overwhelming majority of people on the planet, the answers to these profound questions and others like them lie in the ancient texts and folk “wisdom” of religious and spiritual traditions. I hold that modern science has rendered these traditions both false and obsolete, so I look to what one could think of as the “modern Trinity” of Art, Philosophy, and Science as my sources of consolation and knowledge. It only follows then that as a fine artist with an acute interest in philosophy and science and the dialectical negotiation of the tensions between them, these topics would ultimately be drawn into the focus of my work.

SI: What are you trying to explore?

JVD: One of my favorite contemporary philosophers, John Searle, claims that the most pressing intellectual question of our time is, ‘How do we reconcile the conception that we have of ourselves as rational, free, conscious, mindful agents with the scientific description of reality as composed entirely of mindless, meaningless physical particles?’ In other words, how do we resolve the inescapable disunity between our traditional self-representations and the facts of modern science? In some form or another, this is the question at the heart of my art practice and research, as well as my broader intellectual explorations.

SI: Why do you say that an “irreconcilable tension” exists between fine arts and the natural sciences?

JVD: Here I’m speaking about the epistemological and ontological divides between the arts and sciences. Despite the fact that it’s still fashionable amongst postmodernists to conceive of the humanities and sciences as being on the same plane in terms of their inherent “truth value,” the creation and interpretation of any work of art is undeniably of a parochial and subjective nature, whereas the built-in aim of science is to abandon local subjectivity in search of empirical, objective, universal truths. In crude terms, whereas the arts are defined by judgement, intuition, and interpretation, the sciences are conversely defined by falsifiability, reason, and explanation. So, while I acknowledge that there are indeed many points of intersection between these extensive branches of study, I also recognize the inexorable polarities of their elemental natures, aims, and methodologies.

SI: Tell me about your installation, “Illusion of the Self.” Where did it originate?

JD: At the human (as opposed to cosmic or subatomic) level, no modern field of study has challenged humanity’s self-conceptions as radically as that of neuroscience. When we accept the scientific evidence that everything we think and feel arises not from a “soul” or some spooky, disembodied “spirit,” but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains, we are forced to confront the notion of “the self” in a wholly new way. This confrontation with the implications of neuroscience is called, to no surprise, neurophilosophy, and my research into the contemporary discourse on this subject is what informed my initial concept for this piece.

SI: You employ a variety of mediums and techniques in your work as a whole. Can you walk me through creating “Illusion of the Self” after its inception? How did you settle on a subject and medium?

JVD: Since, artistically, I come from a graphic design background, much of my work is two-dimensional, however, to address what I considered to be this incredibly grand and elegant concept – the “illusion” of a unified “self” as described by our present understanding of the brain – I wanted to scale up this piece and make multiplicity, dimensionality, and form integral parts of the work. Once I began collaborating with Dr. Sarah Jolly, a neuroscientist at Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research – University College London, and learning more about the significance of her research into the function of the brain’s glial cells, I decided to incorporate a collage of her sublime lab imagery of the cells with my own mixed-media handwork into a fractured, three-dimensional form.

SI: Do you find that certain mediums or artistic styles lend themselves to exploring SciArt?

JVD: Not particularly. Being the Social Media Manager for The SciArt Center (New York, NY), an organization that supports science-art connections globally via a variety of programs, I’ve been fortunate enough to see thousands of works of SciArt over the past several years, and I can’t say that any specific medium or aesthetic lends itself better to art-science collaborations. It’s difficult enough to distinguish what outwardly constitutes a work of SciArt from any other work of fine art, though I’m happy to see the growing number of artists that frame their work within the Art-and-Science discourse. Regardless of style or material, I find it encouraging that artists and scientists are increasingly choosing to become engaged with cross-disciplinary approaches and interactions.

SI: What do you feel science can bring to art and vice verse?

JVD: I believe that art and science have numerous things to offer one another in a variety of different contexts, but what I’m primarily concerned with are the ways that the arts and humanities are able to temper the excesses of science’s indifferent objectivity and cold biocentrism, whereas science is able to help us guard against the tyranny of our most egocentric passions and the ever-present menace of faith, unfettered emotionalism, and irrationalism.

SI: Can you explain how Karl Popper’s philosophy of science informs your work?

JVD: Aside from Popper’s notion of what constitutes the demarcation between science and non-science, I am heavily influenced by his interrelated concepts of “conjecture and refutation” and “permanent revolutions.” Although Popper uses these concepts to describe how knowledge is accumulated and how scientific progress is made (i.e. only through the constant process of hypothesizing and attempting to falsify those hypotheses are we able to winnow out the good ideas from the bad), I’ve appropriated these notions in service of my art practice. In doing so, not only do I aim to achieve “permanent revolutions” in the methodology, style, medium, and motifs of my artwork, I am also in a perpetual state of “testing out” different artistic approaches and “discarding” the means and ideas that I find to be less interesting or less fruitful.

SI: Who are your biggest influences?

JVD: It’s impossible to say exactly who my “biggest” influences are, as I’m inspired by so many artistic genres and different branches of knowledge. Together with my intellectual influences (e.g. philosophers like Russell, Popper, Hume, Spinoza, the Greek Atomists, Dennett, Grayling, and Searle, and scientists like Sagan, Feynman, Carroll, E.O. Wilson, Pinker, and Dawkins), my work is also shaped by my interests in history, film, literature, music, and fine art. I have a particular affinity for deep-thinking modernists like Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian, and I’m particularly enthralled by the work of contemporary artists like Olafur Eliasson and Anselm Kiefer (–what I would give to be able to afford to work at their grand scales!). I’m also just as heavily influenced by street art, illustration, and design, so on any given project that I’m working on, there may be any number of ideas, thinkers, or aesthetics that I’m questioning, referencing, or reacting to.

SI: What are you working on now?

JVD: Much of my time recently has been devoted to a comedic graphic novel series that I’ve written, which couldn’t be any more different from my fine art practice and research in terms of intellectual content, but is something that I have a lot of fun with and am very proud of. Aside from that and my job as a corporate art director, I’m always creating new work and have several digital and mixed media works in progress at all times. I recently contributed several pieces to a project by the SciArt Center called “Interesting Perspectives,” which “presents the current cultural and intellectual work of SciArt center community members,” and this spring I’ve also created a few pieces in response to a prompt from an upcoming exhibition questioning what our future might look like if “stem cells were the artistic medium by which we design our future.” I’m continually in search of collaborative projects to work on, and am hopeful that I might have a few artist/scientist partnerships coming together later in 2018.

For more information about Jared Vaughn Davis and to see more of his work, visit his website at

IMAGE SOURCE: Jared Vaughan Davis – The Moon Illusion; Ontological Completeness; Ionian Enchantment; Greek Gematria Series; Illusion of the Self; Illusion of the Self (alt view)

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