Beauty, mystery and science

By Ken Perrott 28/03/2011 25


Here’s a cartoon aimed at demolishing the claim that science destroys the wonder and mystery of things.

via xkcd: Beauty. Thanks to Prof. Abel Méndez (@ProfAbelMendez).

How many times have I found the person in the street is more often turned off by what the scientists finds beautiful. Think small organisms, waste, bugs, soils, clay minerals, etc.

Richard Dawkins wrote about the fallacy of science destroying beauty in his book Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder.

Brian Green demonstrates this scientific enthusiasm in the recent interview on the Guardian Science Weekly podcast (Science Weekly podcast: Just how many universes are there?). he basically discusses ideas in his new book  The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.

I have a copy and am looking forward to reading it.

Similar articles


25 Responses to “Beauty, mystery and science”

  • The problem for me is that beauty is subjective, something that science is not supposed to be; unless beauty is really objective (which I personally believe – I also think it is a moral term).

  • Ken, you may also be interested in another book on the same topic, which is :

    “Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions” by Havarad particle physicist Prof. Lisa Randall.

    Randall’s theory, the “Randall–Sundrum” model (co-developed with her colleague Raman Sundrum) is similar to the one that Brian Green (& other String theorists) are working on. Lisa Randall (a former classmate of Brian Green) has some skepticism about String theory but time will tell whether her theory is just a different version of the same one that Brian Green & others are working on or only one of them is correct and the other is wrong. Her theory proposes some particles called “Kaluza-Klein” (KK) which she’s hoping that future experiments at the Large Hadron Collider will give some experimental tell-tale sign of KK particles.

    Here is her being interviewed on Charlie Rose’s program about her book.

    Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMm38apPNUs

    Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tdVyRn8GsU&feature=related

    Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msZ2nQOP-LI&feature=related

  • Sam,

    I think the confusion in your remark lies with science .v scientists: you’ve used ‘science’ where others would use ‘scientists’.

    Science might want to be only objective, but scientists—when not immediately working—are free to step back and enjoy whatever beauty is on offer.

    Also, there is no need to limit beauty to the immediate at-a-human-scale level as Feynman pointed out—see the video I put up last night, a follow-on from presenting the same cartoon has it happens!

  • I should add neuroscientists/psychologists would point to some features characteristic of things most people find “beautiful”, e.g. symmetry in faces, bodies, etc.

  • Hi Ken, I’ve read a number of Richard Dawkins’ books and I do prefer the ones where he stresses the beauty, wonder and general awesomeness of the explanatory power of evolutionary theory to the ones where he attacks the stupidity of organised religion. Better to persuade than to shout down, methinks. ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ is one of my favourite books ever.
    Our book group read ‘the God Delusion’ last year and we were divided on its merits – it’s a while since I looked at it, but I seem to remember that I thought it was rather a pointless excercise trying to use logical arguments to persuade people that their religious beliefs are deluded. Who is going to react favourably to being told they are stupid and deluded? Much better to have a charm offensive.

  • Sam, science is meant to be objective in the sense that it is our attempt at an accurate reflection of reality. But scientists aren’t – they are human. Humans have feelings and emotions – its an important part of their makeup. Scientists certainly have feelings and emotions and these are a driving force for their enthusiams and awe at the existing reality and our understanding of it.

    it is difficult for an individual in isolation to develop an obhective picture of reality, precisely because we are not rational unemotional beings. But the scientific methodolgy, its interaction with reality via evidence and validation, and its social nature enables emotional prejudices to be reigned in. its what keeps us honest – mnuch of the time. And its what enables science to correct itself.

  • Carol, I also liked The Ancestors’ Tale and really liked his last one The Greatest Show. In these he demostrates his great literary skills as well as scientific ideas.

    Actually The God Delusion was the first of his I read. it was important to me, although I don’t value it as a scientific book. For 30 years I had a bad opinion of Dawkins – based on the politcal interpretations of the Selfish Gene – which offended my socialist beliefs! Shows you the danger of relying on titles and biased reviews. (And a lot of people do in the case of Dawkins).

    However, when I saw the God Delusion in the shop I hummed and hahad and eventually bought it. I had to get over my prejudice about Dawkins but I thought the idea of scientists writing about atheism was great – it was about time. So reading this book made me realise how wroing my prejudice against Dawkins was and encouraged me to read other books of his. Thats why I vlaue it.

    However, as a consciousness raising book I think The God Delusion has been valuable. it has encouraged a lot of atheists to be open about their beliefs. That has been important.

  • Ken, my post is held in moderation. I think it is because of the number of links in my post (3) that the filter thinks it is a spam.

  • Falafulu – there might be a lesson in this. Links present a problem.

    Unfortunately I don’t get notification of spam or comments held up. And currently I am having trouble with a computer trashed by a virus so may have lost passwords.

    You can always send your comment to my original blog as there aren’t the same problems there. (This us just a syndicated version).

  • There is no confusion for me. I would say that a scientist is a person who “does” science and that when a scientist is recognising beauty they are simply being human. I’m certainly not saying that science destroys the beauty and wonder of the universe (it most definitely helps us perceive it better), but I am putting in a bit of a cheeky dig at atheistic scientists that talk about wonder and beauty. I just find it contradictory that someone can say that there is no God (or supernatural) but in talking in this sense about wonder, or more so beauty, they effectively admit to universal objective truth which is the first step to believing in “something more”.

    You may not think that is a fair link but I certainly do. The discussion about the relationship between science and morality that has been posted about recently has been interesting for the same reason.

  • they effectively admit to universal objective truth
    Sorry, what? I find Goldie’s paintings rather beautiful. Others can’t stand them & don’t feel that they even count as art. There are probably as many definitons of ‘beauty’ as there are beholders’ eyes, so for an individual to view something as beautiful is hardly a step to a universal objective truth.

  • Sam,

    I wrote “the confusion in your remark”, not you. I accept that you now clarify that you accept my point, as you have clarified. (But then why prefix it by opposing me? But, never mind.)

    I just find it contradictory that someone can say that there is no God (or supernatural) but in talking in this sense about wonder, or more so beauty, they effectively admit to universal objective truth which is the first step to believing in “something more”.

    Ignoring the conflation in the latter portion (“they effectively…”), the way you’ve written, you’re looking at the ‘link’ you want to see to satisfy your religious needs without looking at the other possibilities. (e.g. my second comment.)

  • Sam, reminds me of Douglas Adams’ comment on one can appreciate the beauty of a garden without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it.

    Beauty and it’s appreciation are what goes on in the human brain. I can’t imagine what you could possibly mean by this “universal objective truth” as applied to beauty and I suspect you don’t either.

    Or perhaps you could explain yourself?

    Similarly, your comments on our discussion of human morality. What has your “universal objective truth” got to do with that?

    These discussions have been honest and searching. It doesn’t help to make dogmatic pronouncements about “universal objective truth,” You should actually explain what you mean and contribute to the discussion.

    In my experience when people drag their god into discussion of morality it is used to justify a relative morality which can be quite obscene. Because this “objective morality” has no objective basis. It is just a religious justification for moral prejudice.

  • Beauty as a concept comes with language. It enables us to deal with all sorts of abstractions. No gods required – obviously.

  • In that case nothing is really beautiful and you’re all wasting your time talking about beauty.

    The reason that something can be called beautiful is because there is an implicit moral of good/bad tied up with understanding the concept. If this is a fair link (which I’m sure you’ll deny, perhaps with something vague or relativistic) then atheism isn’t really consistent with feelings of awe and wonder at the “beauty” of anything.

  • Sam, perhaps you haven’t the understanding to enable you to tell us what isn’t or is consistent with atheism. Not being one yourself.

    Best leave atheists to speak for themselves instead of trying to impose your own prejudice on them.

    Why not spend your time providing evidence and reason to support your own theistic understanding of beauty and morality. It certainly appears unjustified from what you have said so far.

  • “dig at atheistic scientists that talk about wonder and beauty. I just find it contradictory that someone can say that there is no God (or supernatural) but in talking in this sense about wonder, or more so beauty, they effectively admit to universal objective truth which is the first step to believing in “something more”

    Having a sense of wonder and beauty may have lead you to a need to believe in something more, however, it doesn’t doesn’t necessarily mean the same thought process will occur in others.

    As far as I am concerned there is no evidence that a god or gods exist so therefore I am happy to be classed as an atheist. This does not stop me from enjoying the beauty of the aurora borealis, a tree, or the way people pull together during a disaster. Nor does it prevent me from trying to learn as much about the world through science.
    And it certainly doesn’t stop me from behaving morally. The more I understand how good societies work, the more I see that science/rational thinking supports co-operation, respect for others and empathy.
    However, if someone can provide satisfactory evidence to prove the existence of god(s) I will quite happily change my point of view.

  • I don’t understand the implication that beauty must be connected to morality good/bad. Yes, obviously it is fair link, because of popular culture (in no small part) religious thought, but since when does that make something true?

    Because, of course, morality doesn’t equal beauty. It’s just a way we’ve all learned to act and to cooperate in get along in society and in a community and live our lives. We (the human race) would have killed ourselves off a long time ago if we hadn’t figured that out. It’s that simple.

    It completely doesn’t follow that atheism isn’t consistent with finding awe, wonder, and beauty in anything.

    For example, the Japanese tsunami wave, in my book, was beautiful and terrible.

    To me, the world is awe-inspiring. When I learn about the science behind things, it just makes it more so. Why, as an atheist, would I fail to find the beauty? And, I argue that I find the beauty in more of the universe around us because I’m trying to look at it through a scientific lens.

    There was this fabulous photographic exhibit at Te Papa several years ago on nature and architecture – how we got ideas, both aesthetic and practical from say, a nautilus shell, or an insects wings, etc. I thought it was one of the best exhibits I’d ever seen.

    It’s not your right to tell me where and how I can find beauty in things.

    What I’d like to know is why someone would get behind the thought process that begets morality=beauty – an idea which is so flawed and damaging.

  • is an implicit moral of good/bad tied up with understanding the concept
    What eviltwit said. I fail to see that there is any ‘morality’ involved in an individual’s perceptions of what constitutes beauty.

  • Does a person have to be an atheist to be able to understand what actions are consistent with atheism? Does a person have to be a christian to be able to understand what actions are consistent with christianity? Of course not, otherwise all of the non-christians that cry “hypocrite”, when preachers swindle others out of money they can’t afford to lose, have no ability to accuse.

    Be that as it may, I’m not saying that an atheist can’t appreciate beauty or live according to morals. I’m saying that having morals or identifying something as beautiful is not consistent with atheism as a world-view. The reason for this is because atheism rejects any notion of absolute morals. If there are absolute morals, then atheism must find a source/cause for those morals (which historically has always pointed toward the existence of a god – hence the reluctance of atheists to admit this). If there are no absolute morals, then atheists who are consistent with their atheism must admit that there is no reason, except for personal gain in some form, to enforce moral values and judgements upon others. I can’t believe that this is not an argument you haven’t heard before as it’s been around as long as these debates have been happening.

    By even talking about behaving morally, we assume some form of common morality that we can appeal to to justify our actions or those of others. If we don’t do this then there is no defensible position for claiming that “might is right” is wrong.

    Beauty generally contains a judgement of something being good, hence the moral connection. Even something described as “horribly beautiful” contains this aspect. For the purposes of this discussion I’m happy for people to disagree and just stick to the purely moral part, e.g. being able to say that the deaths of so many in Christchurch and Japan is a bad thing, or Hitler being a bad person for his role in the Holocaust.

    I have no problem with people calling themselves atheists and making moral judgements. I do, however, object when these same people claim that atheism, as a world-view or philosophical position, logically arrives at morals of good and bad.

  • Sam your “argument” for “absolute morals” (which you haven’t presented in any specifics) ends up being a justification for the worst sort of moral relativity. There are plenty of examples to support that. Because the divine commands of a god end up to be the moral prejudices of the beleivers in that god. There is never any attempt to provide an objective basis of these “absolute morals” – just the word of one’s own god.

    That gets us nowhere.

    You may have noticed that there has been a lot of discussion of morality in the scientific media and amongst atheists lately. This discusion leaves your “absolute morals” and “divine commands” for dead.

    I have argued in many of my posts that there is an objective basis for human morality. This lies in the facts of situations and in our human nature. The fact that we are an intelligent, sentient, conscious, social and empathetic species. I believe there is a lot of scientific evidence for this postion.

    I don’t believe the argument for relativist morality, relgious or atheist, and Sam Harris’s recent book and lectures have made sure that this is being scrutinised. But noticeably – no one seems to think the relgious concept of “absoilute morality” has any place in this discussion.

    You might object to me claiming that as an atheist I have no trouble logically arriving at a moral position. But that is a fact. Live with it, even if you don’t understand it.

  • I’m saying that having morals or identifying something as beautiful is not consistent with atheism as a world-view.

    False, think about it. It would imply that “atheism as a world-view” is not consistent “identifying something as beautiful”, when self-evidentally many people do this without any conflict.

    (I do get what you’re trying to do by arguing ‘consistent with’ rather than ‘done’. It doesn’t work here, because that only works if the two things are actually in conflict. You’re effectively begging the question on that aspect by assuming that it must happen in order to assert that it does.)

    The reason for this is because atheism rejects any notion of absolute morals.

    ‘Absolute’ in the context you offer means ‘unqualified/unlimited by restraints.’ Religious morals are qualified and limited – by the ‘rulings’ of the religion and hence aren’t absolute in that sense, only in the narrower sense of ‘taken unquestioningly.’

    An irony here is that atheistically determining morals is free of this – a good thing. It lets you examine a moral from all aspects, without pre-empting examining aspects with a ‘rules’ from some religion.

    which historically has always pointed toward the existence of a god

    Because something is historically the case, doesn’t make it right. It just says that’s what people did in the past, nothing more. (While I’m on the subject: the ‘appeal to predecessors or ‘the ancients’’ is also a problem with some natural remedy practitioners, too.)

    we assume some form of common morality that we can appeal to to justify our actions or those of others

    You might be; not everyone else has to be. You only have to take a glance in history or other cultures to see different moral codes that differ from one-another.

    I do, however, object when these same people claim that atheism, as a world-view or philosophical position, logically arrives at morals of good and bad.

    Religions are made by men, not gods; it follows that the moral rules tied up with them are made by men, too.

Site Meter