Beholden To Beauty

Andrew Sullivan —  Feb 15 2013 @ 8:38pm

Christopher Shea investigates the contrarian scientists questioning the connection between beauty and truth:

From Euclid and Pythagoras down to 20th-century physicists, many who explore the underlying laws of the natural world have seen truth and beauty as inextricably intertwined. “Beauty is a successful criterion for selecting the right theory,” the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann said in a much-quoted TED talk, in 2007. In their popular-philosophizing mode, physicists like to quote the poets Keats (“beauty is truth, truth beauty”) or Blake on the subject of nature’s “fearful symmetry.” Indeed, the theme of this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, next month in Boston, is “The Beauty and Benefits of Science.”

Unfortunately, [mathematician David] Orrell writes in his new book, Truth or Beauty: Science and the Quest for Order (Yale University Press), “It is easier to claim a theory is beautiful than to show that it actually works, or makes sense.” … Orrell also thinks it is more useful to study the behavior of complex systems rather than their constituent elements, a preference that’s perhaps not surprising given his academic and professional experience. At Oxford, his Ph.D. involved predictions involving “nonlinear” systems, including the weather.

Relatedly, Tim Hawkins, musing on Kant, sees the political and social value to our aesthetic instincts, especially as they relate to art:

Kant defines beauty as being judged through an aesthetic experience of taste. This experience must be devoid of any concept, emotion or any interest in the object we are describing as beautiful. Most of all, the experience of beauty is something that we feel. Whether you think this definition is too narrow, too wide or completely bat-shit crazy, you now have at least something to think about and come up with your own ideas. The most redeeming feature, I think, in Kant’s definition is that beauty is universal: It is the only experience on this earth that can be felt by all of us, without a need for communication. In this way it gives humanity a ‘sensus communis’ or a sense of harmony, because of common feelings that transcend race, religion or politics when we see something purely beautiful.