I subscribe to a number of thick writing journals filled with short stories, essays, and poetry. I am generally behind in reading them, though once I sit down and do so I never regret it. Tin House's recent 50th anniversary issue devoted to "Beauty" falls in this category and is apropos of Wes' recent comments on philosophers and science envy.
Two of the essays reflect on the question of beauty and explicitly invoke science in the discussion -- Marilynne Robinson's "On 'Beauty'" and Michael Harris' "Unexpected, Economical, Inevitable: How Math and Beauty Add Up". Robinson's essay concerns the disappearance of beauty and the importance of narrative. She brings in logical positivism, intelligent design, religion, Neitzsche, Freud, Sophocles, and King Lear along the way and includes a sustained reflection on beauty and science. Here's a small excerpt:
There are those who believe we have outlived every beautiful notion about what human life must be because this is the age of science. These people must not have been paying attention. Science, being one of the unequivocally human undertakings, describes humanity to itself, for weal and woe, in everything it does. Mathematicians and physicists have a habit of using the words beautiful and elegant to endorse theories that are likelier to cleave to the nature of things because of their efficiency and soundness of structure.
There is really much more I should quote, but I'll leave it to you to read.
Michael Harris writes about one of my favorite books, G.H. Hardy's "A Mathematician's Apology. (We should actually read the book for PEL.) G.H. Hardy was a pre-eminent number theorist in the early 20th century. The book is a short, beautiful read reflecting on his life as a mathematician and the beauty of mathematics.
The originality of Hardy's undertaking lies in his attempt to identify criteria for the mathematically beautiful. He writes: "It may be very hard to define mathematical beauty, but that is just as true of beauty of any kind--we may not know quite what we mean by a beautiful poem, but that does not prevent us from recognizing one when we read it."
Again, you should just read the essay or even just read G.H. Hardy's book.
This concordance of finding beauty in truth and truth in beauty is one of the things that science holds in common with philosophy, at least the part of science that looks to understand the world and the part of philosophy that is the love of wisdom. These are the parts of each I myself love most, but they certainly aren't the whole of each. The sophists were philosophers, even if they aren't your favorite kind. In science, there is a thread (a rope really) that runs true to the characterization of a friend of mine who says "modern science sets aside the search for understanding in favor of inventions that relieve the estate of man." We continue to be blessed and cursed by Bacon and Descartes.
Part of this sort of fight is over who, in their supreme uselessness, is the most authentically human (and, not incidentally, the most humanly important) -- who does it for the love of it? Philosophy points toward itself (like a good liberal education) as being good (note, not useful) for you, your life, maybe even your soul (if they have the courage to use such a word). Science, particularly fundamental science, does the same thing in the "climbing the mountain because it is there" variety. (There is much both beautiful and wonderful in high energy particle physics, but finding the Higgs boson isn't going to be useful in any ordinary sense to anyone.) It's a funny kind of fight. There's a bit of nobility and honor to it, sticking to one's principles. Still, the image that comes to my mind is a couple of scraggly nerds circling each other in a sandy parking lot, shirts torn, sweat pouring down their noses, each pushing up their fat glasses before the next pathetic lunge at the other, all the while being encircled by a phalanx of onlookers coming by for a glance, but turning their backs murmuring to themselves "why don't you go get something done."
I confess that my hackles get up a bit when Science is cast off as being non-philosophical, just as much as my neck gets itchy when Philosophy is cut loose as being non-scientific. On the one hand, I am fully aware of important distinctions between the two, particularly for the professional scientist and philosopher (though, to the point, I think this is what Colin McGlinn's article ends up comparing more than anything else), but I still cling to the notion of science as really natural philosophy. From Thales to Archimedes to Newton to Maxwell to Dirac, the activity of science in trying to understand the world is the same as philosophy, despite a typically different direction of gaze. In this view I simply don't hold fast to my friend's (and Bacon's) characterization that science's main activity is the relief of man's estate any more than I hold fast that philosophy is properly characterized as self-help.
Back to the sandlot.
thanks for the readings, see what you think of:
Dylan Casey says
Thanks for posting this lecture, dmf. (And the other one as well.) I’d never heard of the Van Dyck case, nor the ‘slow science’ movement. Quite interesting overall. I need to formulate my thoughts about it a bit, though I have two initial reactions.
First, underlying the notion of ‘slow science’ (and, directly related, ‘slow food’) is a critique of capitalism broadly speaking, which amounts to a critique of the criteria of decision-making, both publicly and privately. For me, it resonates in the notion of efficiency. Too often we privilege a constrained, stunted notion of efficiency in our value judgments. Most often that efficiency is tightly tied to money. Thus, we prefer mega-farming because it is “more efficient” which only means it produces “food” more cheaply. The same sort of forces are at work (and always have been, I think) in the partnerships between research universities and industry. Part of what has changed is the money. The universities rely on the money more than ever and are simply beholden to industry in ways they haven’t been in the past. Not knowing much about the details of Van Dyck’s case (yet), I suspect something like that is at work there.
Second, I most appreciated the comments on professionalism that were rooted in an essay by Whitehead. (Do you know which one? The reference doesn’t seem to be in the file.) We really are laboring under misguided notions of professionalism in so many aspects of our lives. Whether it be athletics, cooking, home repair, or philosophy, there’s a heavy weight of accusation that one isn’t “being serious” if one isn’t a professional at the task. (Note that all the equipment and materials sold to those who are “serious” about such things are extolled as “professional-grade.”) The notion of an authentic amateur is essentially missing — one who can be serious about something without being a professional, and, importantly, that authentic amateur is not merely a novice. There is also a contrast to be made between an “expert” and a “professional” along these lines in which the expert is, in the end, more broad minded than the professional, open to being an authentic amateur in some facets of life and a genuine novice in others.
Anyway, thanks for the links.
David Buchanan says
Somebody touched on this issue during episode 50.
Pirsig in chapter 22 of Zen and the Art: “Mathematical solutions are selected by the subliminal self on the basis of ‘mathematical beauty,’ of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance. ‘This is a true esthetic feeling which all mathematicians know,’ Poincaré said, ‘but of which the profane are so ignorant as often to be tempted to smile.’ But it is this harmony, this beauty, that is at the center of it all. […] It is this harmony, this quality if you will, that is the sole basis for the only reality we can ever know.”
David Buchanan says
Open Culture has posted a 3.5 minute video of Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining the “most astounding fact” about the universe. It’s interesting the way he talks about physical facts with a kind of religious awe. (He was on the last episode of Bill Maher’s show and after an impassioned defense of scientific exploration, which drew wild cheers from the audience, Bill called him “Reverend” deGrasse Tyson.)
lest we forget why scientific methods of verification are so prominent:
How do the atoms that deGrasse Tyson sp[eaks of as connecting us to everything fit in to pure experience? Do they also have experiences of themselves?
folks of a pragmatist bent might be interested in Mark Johnson’s (of Lakoff&Johnson fame) paper @:
Kevin Grizzard says
Thanks for these reflections. I loved the structuralism episode and have been following with interest the posts since. I love (a kind of) philosophy and I love (a kind of) science, but I think philosophy is often least true to itself and at its worst when it tries to make itself into a science. There are plenty of pressing issues relevant to the experience of being human that science will almost certainly never be able to address. By their very nature they seem unable to be pinned down and codified the way we do to the objective physical world. Even the most ardent materialist can’t deny me my experience of subjectivity and the qualities and inflections that decorate it. Given that, I think there will always be questions science can’t answer but that need to be thought about; and this is where I think philosophy has legitimate rule. To try to make it a science demeans its true value – and I say that as a scientist. It also tends to appear ridiculous and fall flat. Anyway, I’ve been hearing a lot about Marilyn Robinson lately and it sounds like she expresses my feelings better than I am able so I look forward to reading her work. Is this essay from her new book? And the Hardy sounds fantastic and is totally new to me. I’d love to hear an episode on it! Thanks for the food for thought, guys!
there is much that exceeds our grasp (“unable to be pinned down and codified”) but than I’m not sure that philosophy can do more than draw our attention to it (showing) rather than tell us how to handle it (saying). This would probably leave ethics/politics outside of either philo or science which would be fine by me.
Kevin Grizzard says
I recently discovered the term “zetetic skepticism,” which is apparently an attitude described by Stuart Umphrey (perhaps among others) that takes the position that knowledge of “the good” or any object transcendent in that sense may be impossible for us but that our lives are still enriched by striving after it. I’m sure I’m not doing the idea full justice but this is something like my position. I am also reminded of I think Wittgenstein’s suggestion that philosophy may not be a system to be completed but a practice to be done time and again (I think he compares it to sweeping the floor, although I could be imagining much of this – I think it’s in the Philosophical Investigations). I might also compare it to physical exercise – I don’t expect any regimen to deliver me everlasting fitness and yet it is not a worthless task either. All of which is to say that, sure, philosophy might not be able to tell us how to live or what the world is, but I think something is gained just by thinking about those questions, and I call that thinking “doing philosophy.” It can certainly at least help us to become clearer about our own ideas, to be consistent, etc.
I guess I don’t know where ethics/politics would fall if not either philosophy or science. Are you thinking they are just dead-ends? Or do you have some other form of investigation in mind?
Dylan Casey says
I don’t mean to rub out the distinction between philosophy and science. It’s certainly there. It’s also true that not everyone would agree with my aesthetic characterization of either one. If one thought of either science or philosophy (maybe even both) as not decisively linked with beauty, that would surely lead in a different direction.
It’s also true though that the sciences have much to say about the full extent of your subjectivity, and historically have always worked to rationally explicate stronger conditions and limits on its capacities. If there is some end humanity is progressing toward, it would seem to be doing away with these lingering “god of the gaps” kinds of explanation completely. Why do we continue to maintain that presupposed divide as psychology has drawn out what was once thought to be a god-ordained infinite free will invested in each person’s soul, in to what apparently consist in mostly objective, unconscious cognitive biases?
It also seems that currently what almost singularly potentiates a person’s subjectivity is not some academic, theoretical denial of the tenets of materialism, but rather the rampant fetishization of idealized capital. What is the common mantra of today? “You can do whatever you imagine, as long as it is financially viable,” and as far as that goes the critical materialist is the real defender of the ever dwindling human subject as being violated by its capitalist relations, as you only have to ask an experimental physicist how they believe the world functions non-anthropomorphically, despite that they are all now wage-laborers before anything else. So what important alternative story does the modern artist have to tell us, except that their paintings are being sold at the low, low price of $19.99?
Kevin Grizzard says
Oh, no! Somehow my reply ended way down at the bottom. Dated March 14, 2012 – 2:39 am if you are interested.
David Buchanan says
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to mention it until now but some fairly serious people got together in 1995 (Brussels) for a conference called “Einstein Meets Magritte: An Interdisciplinary Reflection”. (Magritte painted that famous pipe painting that says, in French, “this is not a pipe”.)
Robert Pirsig delivered a paper at that conference titled, “Subjects, Objects, Data and Values.” Pirsig opened his talk with a brief explanation of its general purpose. He said, “…after my second book Lila came out in 1991 a friend in Norway wrote me that there was some attention being paid to Lila in Copenhagen by followers of Niels Bohr. It was suggested that the Metaphysics of Quality was similar to the Copenhagen Interpretation of the Quantum Theory. That sounded like good news to me and something I should look into. When similarities of this sort exist, they can either be an odd coincidence or they can be evidence that both systems of thought are describing something that is true independently of either thinker. Where the approaches are very different each can sometimes throw new light on the other. So when the invitation came to speak here I decided to make it the topic of today’s paper. If the Copenhagen Interpretation, which is a dominant explanation of quantum theory today, agrees with the Metaphysics of Quality and if the Metaphysics of Quality is a correct theory of art, then there may be here a unified theory of art and science. Einstein will have met Magritte and the purpose of this conference will have been to some extent fulfilled.”
There are a series of books that present these conference papers. Apparently, Pirsig’s paper is published in Volume One. http://www.springer.com/philosophy/epistemology+and+philosophy+of+science/book/978-0-7923-5757-5
But there is also a free version of Pirsig’s paper. http://www.moq.org/forum/Pirsig/emmpaper.html
I think most any scientist would find it to be a very charming piece. Wrapping it up (Spoiler Alert!), Pirsig says, “one of the reasons I have spent so much time in this paper describing the personal relationship of Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr in the development of quantum theory is that although the world views science as a sort of plodding, logical methodical advancement of knowledge, what I saw here were two artists in the throes of creative discovery. They were at the cutting edge of knowledge plunging into the unknown trying to bring something out of that unknown into a static form that would be of value to everyone.”
Bruce Adam says
Thanks for this, David. I’m fascinated and about to read the Pirsig piece.
The mention of Bohr and Heisenberg makes me want to ask if you , or anyone else here, has seen Michael Frayn’s recent play “Copenhagen.” I’d love to hear opinions as I haven’t been able to see it.
Bruce Adam says
Please, please ,please do the episode on Hardy. One of my favourite books.
“Unexpected, economical,inevitable” seems like a paraphrase or alternate translation of “simple, inevitable, surprising” which were Hilbert’s (I think) criteria for beauty in a mathematical proof.
With regard to closing the gap between science and the humanities, I highly recommend the essays found on http://www.edge.org/
Kevin Grizzard says
What do you have in mind? I mean, neuroscience is amazing, and it’s doing amazing things, but I don’t think it’s come one inch closer to telling me what it’s like to see the color red or taste a gummy bear.
That’s a pretty huge “if,” one which I’m not inclined to grant. Why would we think that it is?
How would you make a person blind from birth understand color? That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about, the “gap” if you wish. We might not have free will. That’s fine. You also might be able to correlate precise brain states and chemistry with various states of consciousness and even show that they are predetermined. That’s fine. It still doesn’t make a blind person know what it is to see color. And seeing color is just one of the easiest, most concrete things to point to; far more important to me is that even if we know happiness is just brain state X and melancholy brain state Y, that does nothing to convey the phenomenology of living those states. Note that this doesn’t say anything about god (not sure how literally you meant that).
I don’t understand what you mean. You’re saying the suggestion in our society is that more money makes you… more… subjective? More of a subject (what would that mean?)? It sounds like you’re saying it is suggested that it gives you more ability to create the self you want? I would probably agree that that is a common implication and that as such it confuses the issue.
I think I disagree. Materialism and capitalism seem to go hand in hand. At least, materialism in the overenthusiastic sense. If all that matters is material then capitalism and especially access to capital/wealth may well be your ticket to happiness. To me the argument for a reevaluation of the ethos of capitalism is warranted more by a consideration of the undeniable importance of the intangible. An interesting thought experiment that occurred to me is the following: let’s say the proponents of free-market capitalism are right and that it is the quickest way to improve the material standards of living for all but that it also involves the kind of massive wealth inequality we see within our own country, much less the world. Then let’s say we have another system that improves the material standards of living for all on the whole more slowly but that it maintains more of an equilibrium. On a naive estimation, the kind of overenthusiastic materialist I’m talking about would presumably favor the former since by some time X in the future the average standard of living (by objective measurements such as life expectancy) would be higher than in the latter system. But what about subjectivity? What about the greater sense of community that seems natural in the latter system? I would argue that those unquantifiable benefits might make the second system preferable on the whole.
Mind you, I very well might be a materialist in the actual philosophical sense (I haven’t really thought about it in a while and tend to sympathize with the phenomenologists anyway); the point is that that doesn’t do a way with the subjective nature of my experience.
Kevin Grizzard says
I actually am curious what other people’s take on that thought experiment is. What would you choose?