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.