Science, Beauty and Contemplation

In order to address the question of the relationship between the natural sciences and Christian reflection, I would like to start by offering my assessment of what lies at the root of the whole scientific enterprise. I believe this question is best asked in concrete, existential terms: what is the impulse that motivates scientists in their work, what is the link between scientific research and the researcher’s human experience? Of course, one can easily identify many “ambiguous” factors at play (e.g. social prestige, technological applications, career etc.). However, based both on my professional experience and on the testimony of many great scientists, I am convinced that the ultimate motivation that has led to the triumphs of modern science is essentially aesthetic. Among many other similar statements, let me quote Henri Poincaré, who certainly ranks among the most creative and influential scientists of all times:

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living. Of course I do not speak here of that beauty that strikes the senses, the beauty of quality and appearances; not that I undervalue such beauty, far from it, but it has nothing to do with science; I mean that deeper beauty coming from the harmonious order of the parts, and that a pure intelligence can grasp.1

One can find countless declarations along these lines by the greatest mathematicians and physicists, such as Galileo, Newton, Gauss, Einstein, Hermann Weyl, Dirac, Chandrasekhar, Heisenberg, Dyson, Feynman.

Obviously, the notion of natural science as an essentially contemplative activity, as discernment of harmonious structures hidden in the workings of the cosmos, presupposes certain crucial metaphysical assumptions, many of which originated from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and in particular from the biblical doctrine of creation. There is no denying the important scientific breakthroughs that were achieved by the Greeks, by the Indians, by the Chinese and by other great ancient civilizations; nevertheless, it is also undeniable that no other culture started and sustained a systematic effort of scientific investigation of nature like that undertaken by the civilization of late medieval and early modern Europe. The connection between the birth of science and Christian theology is an important and difficult question, and I am not going to attempt to discuss it in detail here. I will just say, in very general terms, that many pre-Christian cultures experienced a deep ambiguity about the ultimate unity and rationality of the universe. Conversely, it is hard to imagine a conception of the universe more favorable to the birth of science than one in which the cosmos is brought out of nothingness by a loving Logos, who at the same time transcends the whole universe and is the immanent source of its being and rationality. I think a strong argument could be made that the birth of modern science was, to a large extent, the fruit of a Christian imagination of the cosmos, but I will leave this as a topic for a future essay.

I also would like to make the claim that for many scientists the awareness of what I called the “contemplative” nature of science provides some degree of immunization against the positivistic and reductionist mentality which is still common in many sectors of academia. It is a well-known fact that if you scratch a mathematician you will often find a Platonist. But in fact, many scientists are able to glimpse the inadequacy of dogmatic positivism, simply because the guiding light of their work is not just some set of raw experimental data (the notorious “facts”). Rather it is the discovery of unexpected and beautiful structures built in the fabric of nature, that seem to point to a deep, mysterious design which ultimately is always beyond the grasp of human intelligence. Poincaré himself observed that “Le faits ne parlent pas” (Facts do not speak), and Einstein would have agreed. In this connection, it is worth pointing out that if there has been one notable “philosophical” trend in physics over the last century, it has been towards geometrization and “dematerialization.” By this I mean that in the 18th and 19th centuries one could have argued that the role of mathematics in physics was just to describe the laws of motion of solid, “positive” material bodies, where materiality was taken to be a primitive, self-standing notion. But over the last century, that naive notion of “matter” has gradually dissolved into more and more “immaterial” mathematical structures. When a physicist is trained to identify elementary particles with complicated and abstract mathematical objects, he/she will easily start wondering what is ultimately real and will become open to the notion that there is an “ideal” side to reality.

So far I have (very briefly) argued that: (1) before anything else, science is born as the contemplation of harmonious mathematical/organizational structures that seem to be embedded in natural reality; (2) it is not coincidental that historically this endeavor started in cultures marked by Judeo-Christian ideas; and (3) even today true science in some ways rebels against its more reductionist interpretations, precisely because of the original aesthetic dimension of scientific research. This is not to deny that scientism and reductionism are common and dangerous temptations. This is certainly the case, not only among scientists but even more seriously in the broader cultural interpretation of science that is proposed in the mass media and in the educational system. My claim, however, is that these pathologies stem from certain philosophical attitudes (nominalism, rationalism, positivism) that are not intrinsically related to science, although they often accompany it in a parasitic fashion. There is a great need, therefore, for a good understanding of the relationships between the different spheres of knowledge, both to establish the limits of science and to protect it from the depredations of those who routinely exploit the prestige of the scientific method in order to support extra-scientific conclusions. It goes without saying that some of the worst offenders are often the scientists themselves, who can abuse their profession by advancing under the cover of “science” opinions and prejudices that actually have nothing to do with science per se.

In my opinion, the simple but crucial point that must be understood is that human reason is capable of looking at reality according to different modes of abstraction. The word abstraction derives from the Latin root abs-trahere, which literally means “to pull from” or “to take out.” Thus, in front of any object, reason is capable of “taking out” certain aspects by applying to experience appropriate “categorical selections”. For instance, physics abstracts from real existing beings one very specific aspect: spatial and temporal extension, and only to the extent that it can be measured by comparison with appropriate measuring instruments. The physicist then proceeds to discover mysterious and beautiful mathematical structures hidden in the physical data, which reveal a deeper order immanent within reality which was not immediately evident to the mind. As Richard Feynman often repeated, this only adds to the perception of the beauty of the object, it never subtracts. The important point, however, is that the object is, so to speak, greater than the abstraction. This is quite evident in physics. There is an interesting passage in Feynman’s famous undergraduate lectures2 where he compares looking at a rainbow with looking at a set of plots of the angular intensity of light for different frequencies. Not only the mathematical description of the phenomenon does not “see” the rainbow, it even presupposes that the rainbow has been seen, that the mind has been “informed” by reality, where I use the word “inform” to stress that every object always comes to us with a “form,” which makes it recognizable to intelligence and is the starting point for every further analysis. There is no matter without form, and the process of abstracting the manifold, harmonious structures that can be discovered in nature is completely contingent on the preliminary perception (or imagination) of a world of forms that offer themselves to our intelligence “gratis,” prior to our constructions. Science offers a mathematical/mechanical description of nature but, as Pierre Duhem said, “science does not explain,” i.e. it does not address the metaphysical question of how the object can be and be formed. Rather, in scholastic terminology, science only knows the object “qua” a certain aspect of its being. This is where trouble can begin, if the abstraction is not recognized as such and if it claims to exhaust the intelligibility of the object. This is, of course, a common phenomenon in all fields of knowledge, including philosophy where temptations like logicism and mathematicism were the subject of a famous book by Gilson.3 In the sciences, it is a root cause of scientism (the presumption that rationality coincides with empirical sciences) and reductionism (the ideology that every aspect of reality can be ”analyzed down” to physical mechanisms).

I would like to emphasize that what we are facing is a philosophical failure and should be treated as such and not imputed to science per se. In this sense, I am ambivalent about the notion that is often proposed that science has to “change the philosophical presuppositions from which it operates.” Whereas science does rest on certain basic metaphysical assumptions, many of the “presuppositions” that have been associated with science (e.g. nominalism, materialism, reductionism) are not at all intrinsic to its inner workings. I would argue that most of the so-called a priori presuppositions are actually a posteriori interpretations that do not need to be presupposed, because at the core of science lies a method “dictated by the object” (as Fr. Luigi Giussani liked to say4) that has an inner necessity in the context of the type of abstraction being considered. From this point of view, philosophical interpretations are just ... philosophical interpretations! By that I mean they can and must be changed, but this change will not necessarily impact what scientists do as scientists. In some cases, it will impact the general direction of future research. And, of course, it will impact very much what scientists do as amateur philosophers, wannabe social reformers, high priests of secular humanism and other similar side-activities in which scientists like to engage from time to time.

Now, going back to the necessity of addressing what I called the “philosophical failure” that leads to scientism and reductionism, I am not so naive as to think that all is needed is a philosophical effort to bring epistemological clarity to our confused culture. As Giussani also used to say4, there is always a moral dimension to the dynamics of knowledge. In the case at hand, replacing reality with an abstraction, like many other philosophical mistakes, can also be used as a device in order to gain social and cultural power. This is the well-known phenomenon of ideology: the organization of reality based on some partial truth, that gets logically developed into a universal instrument of interpretation and domination, as scientism certainly is today for large segments of the Western intellectual elite. Because of their ideological power, scientism and reductionism cannot be overcome just by sound epistemological reasoning. What is needed is the only thing that ultimately can break through the wall of ideology: that the human heart be “wounded” again by the beauty of the cosmos, which endlessly calls reason not to close upon itself, but to open itself up the infinite mystery of Being. This is the rebirth of reason in its full breadth that Pope Benedict XVI called for in Regensburg: a return to the original position of openness and wonder in front of Being in all its dimensions. However, it has been the Christian experience that this “redemption” of reason happens as a fruit of the encounter with the beauty of Christ. The dramatic encounter with the Word incarnate brings reason back to its truth: that its very being is “to be touched by Being,” just like the faculty of sight exists by being struck by light. Otherwise, history provides ample evidence that reason suffers from the general human malaise that Catholic theology associates with the doctrine of original sin, of which ideologies like scientism and reductionism are prime examples.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the task of the Christian imagination in front of science is not to try and replace it with some kind of “different” science, but to bring it back to its original contemplative and aesthetic impulse. In my experience, whenever this happens not only science is purified of the incrustations of ideology, but it is also revitalized and re-energized as science. In fact, when science is no longer rooted in reason’s original attitude, i.e. wonder in front of the harmonious forms of creation, science immediately suffers. It succumbs to technical formalism, sociological trends, external pressure for technological returns, etc. Conversely, the great scientific revolutions were started by people whose imaginations were fired up, in one way or another, by beauty. Thus, the simple way in which Christian scientists can help science is by witnessing in their work that the human attraction to the beauty of the cosmos is not a delusion, but rather a prophecy of the incarnation of the Word through whom the cosmos was created. Needless to say, nowadays this kind of testimony is sorely needed, in science but also in many other aspects of our civilization.

[This article is adapted from a talk given at the 2006 Lilly Fellows Program National Research Conference at Baylor University.]

References

1… Cited by Jean Mawhin in “Henri Poincaré. A life in the service of science,” Notices of the AMS Vol. 52, pp. 1036-1044 2006.

2… Richard Feynman, Robert Leighton and Matt Sands, “The Feynman Lectures on Physics” Vol. II, Addison-Wesley, New York (1970).

3… Etienne Gilson, “The unity of philosophical experience,” Charles Scribner’s & Sons, New York (1937).

4… Luigi Giussani, “The Religious Sense,” McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal (1997).