Is science a belief? The sculpture of the 20th century

In this article the modern sculpture and it’s development through 20th and 21th century is summarized based on the exhibition of British sculpture from Tate Modern in Palais Populaire. On the basis of these works the question whether science can be seen as a new religion is discussed.

How much?







The topic of this article will be modern sculpture on the example of the exhibition in PalaisPopulaire. This art space by Deutsche Bank had several collaborations with Tate gallery in London, UK. However this was the first one, which was specially conceptualized for the new building of the gallery.

In this exhibition several dozens of the modern British sculptures from the beginning of the 20th century till the present are shown. I strongly recommend to get at least an audio guide or maybe to join a tour through exhibition. Because, as so often with modern art, the exhibition is hard to grasp by visualization only.

The tour through the exhibition gives you a very strong impression of how the interdependence of history, sociological culture and the scientific development influenced and changed art. Your tour starts automatically in the first room, where older sculptures are presented. This pieces were created after a war – either WW I or WW II. H. Moore’s sculpture Four-Piece Composition: Reclining Sculpture from 1934 looks like a woman body from one perspective, but this body becomes more and more scattered, and ultimately breaks down to 4 loose pieces, which play with negative (empty) room. The negative space is the main motive in the Sculpture with Colour: Deep Blue and Red by B. Hepworth from 1940. All the pieces in this first room experiment with materials and forms, which also include twisted historical experiences and tries to explore new possibilities as e.g. in Crab by B. Meadows from 1953.

During the Second World War new materials and new experiences emerged. To process this a different access by the artists was used. In the next room you can see the different ways to grasp with this new world – a hanging wheel hovering over your head, where you first see the shadow on the wall and realize the presence of the art work only later or a sculpture made of bright painted iron standing on the ground, which brings art on the same level with the viewer – down from the pedestal. Not only do the artists work with shadow, but also with empty space, light, geometrical forms and the viewer himself, as in the Lovers – a sculpture,which is supposed to be rearranged by the contemplator.

The museum stretches over three floors. In the basement you start with two pieces, which were only possible to make, because electricity was invented at some point. Cloud Canyons by D. Medalla use electric motors to stir up foam and to produce bubbles, which add up to various forms resembling clouds. On the other hand S. Willats uses electric lights with color filters in from of them to create just another light sculpture, called Visual Field Automatic No. 1, where the light switches from one part of piece to another one in a programmed order. Also upstairs on the first floor a neon light is used by Tracey Emin in the sculpture “Is Legal Sex Anal?”

Farther in the basement you have a possibility to encounter pieces of art using metallurgy, photography and TV, making the artist a part of a piece and even stating that the whole life is a sculpture like Gilbert&George. Heading to the first floor it is impossible to miss a kinetic sculpture by M. Boyce Suspended Fall 2005, made out of chairs with 1967 design. On the first floor an acoustic sculpture places your on the stage and separates your from the crowd with it.

In general as you pass through the exhibition you can view how history ripped through the life of the human beings with its wars, immigration, imperialism and more and how that brought new technologies, which worked soothing, but sometimes even more damaging. And this technologies were again included in the art, as it tried to deal with the changes of the day-to-day life by including this new materials, political and cultural changes, people and artists into the pieces themselves. A central piece on the first floor is a triptych by D. Hirst Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology, which asks a question if science is somewhat similar to a religious belief and which we want to discuss further below.


Let’s talk about the sculpture first – it consists of three medical cabinets with glass doors. The large cabinet in the center flanked by two small cabinets. The form of a triptych defers to an altarpiece in a church, so does the title Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology, which connects the holy trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to the trinity of studies of drugs, the body and deceases. The artists connects science with religion and asks a question – is science a modern-days-religion?

He is not the only one to raise this question as the science versus faith debates are very popular. But before we go into the details of how scientific method works and what religions are, I want to answer a question: “How do justify the scientific method?” or put it differently: “As the scientific method requires evidence and logical arguments, where is the evidence, which supports the scientific method?” The answer is simple as R. Dawkings gave it in the interview at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on 15th of February 2013: “It works. The cars drive, the planes fly and the rockets land on the moon… Bitches!”

Mathematics uses the foundation of proof, which must show that the case is true for all possible conditions. E.g. in the inductive reasoning it has to be shown that a case is valid for any option (let’s say by substituting number n in a problem with a concrete number 2). In the next step you have to show that the case hold for any n and n+1 (usually not substituting anything). If both assumptions hold the case hold for any value of n (University of Sussex, 1994).

Of course not all the problems can be proven in that way. In that case the science makes an assumption – so called axiom, which was not shown wrong yet. This is widely known e.g. from physics, where at least the three Newtonian axioms are known to everyone. So if we say for the thrid law: “actio = reactio” we assume it is valid everywhere, however this only holds as long as not shown wrong for at least one case. For example the second law F = ma, doesn’t hold for speeds, which are significantly close to the speed of the light c. This discovery was a hint that there is another theory – a more general one – the theory of relativity, which includes Newtonian physics for low speeds (Gravitation et Cosmologie, 2018).

Scientific method (c) Encyclopædia Britannica

As the full mathematical proof is not possible in most sciences, the second way – the way of the axiom is usually taken and a hypothesis is used as axiom. The reasoning of the scientific process usually requires following steps:

  1. Make observations
  2. Formulate a hypothesis
  3. Design and conduct an experiment to validate the hypothesis
  4. Compare expected outcome of the experiment with the experimental results and draw a (preliminary) conclusion
  5. Report findings and compare them to the results of other independently conducted experiments
  6. Accept hypothesis
  7. Confirm additional experiments
  8. Try to find a mathematical proof of the theory

In general an experiment is also used to isolate the dependent variable (the variable, which we are interested in). The last step shouldn’t be skipped, but in many cases it is hard to access and to conduct complete mathematical reasoning for not ideal systems. Nonetheless it should be included everywhere – at least for an ideal model or as statistical access. Also as a rule of scientific conduct every step must be logged and made accessible together with the data, so anyone can test the result (EMBO reports, 2004).

This approach makes visible that scientific method is radically different from religion as it is founded on the measurable and provable facts. However, religion is a social construct with such important features as creation beliefs, afterlife beliefs, magical causation beliefs, rituals, sacred or non-negotiable values, etc (Current Anthropology, 2014).

All these are not parts of scientific method. In proper scientific conduct each thesis should be doubted and each axiom could be shown wrong. E.g. the law of gravitation could be different in other part of the universe. We assume however that it is homogeneous, as our observations do not contradict our theory, but experimentally we are extremely limited, which has to be kept in mind (University of Alberta, 1979).

Human brain has evolved to think about absent person and other abstract things. This place is easily filled with supernatural things to explain the environment around us. And if supernatural thinking seems wrong it’s place can be easily taken by the science or a human leader, which also explain the world and might might be thought about as supernatural (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2013).

Therefore I dare to state here that the scientific method itself is just a useful tool. However, the technology provided with help of this tool, might be seen by some – especially without proper mathematical and technical foundation – as supernatural and omnipotent. On the other hand if the principle of mathematical proof is forgotten and/or a hypothesis is considered as ultimately true, it turns to belief. So only a wrong use or misunderstanding of scientific method actually leads to comprehension of science and progress as religion. Nonetheless this phenomenon is present.


The sculptures in the exhibition in PalaisPopulaire raise among others the question, if science is a new religion. In the discussion we showed that science based on scientific method is something fundamentally different than religion. However, as human brain is strongly adept to assume supernatural thinking, the scientific method can subjectively turn into blind belief into “science” as abstract being.


  1. J. A. Bather, Mathematical Induction. University of Sussex (1994)

  2. L. Blanchet, G. Faye, S. Nissanke, On the structure of the post-Newtonian expansionin general relativity. Gravitation et Cosmologie, (2018)
  3. G. W. Kreutzberg, The rules of good science. EMBO reports, 5(4): 330-332 (2004)
  4. H. Whitehouse and J. A. Lanman, The Ties That Bind UsRitual, Fusion, and Identification. Current Anthropology, 55(6) (2014)
  5. G. F. R. Ellis, The Homogeneity of the Universe. University of Alberta (1979)
  6. M. Farias, A.-K. Newheiser, G. Kahane, Z. Toledo, Scientific faith: Belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxietyJournal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(6):1210-1213 (2013)

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