Thursday, June 02, 2011

Jottings on C. S. Lewis, Science, and the Argument from Beauty

C. S. Lewis’s famous apologetic argument from desire is simple, yet powerful:
We have a desire for something that cannot be satisfied by this world. But our hunger demonstrates that we need something beyond this world. The object of that desire is God.
(This argument can be found throughout his writing, but he summarizes it in his profound sermon, “The Weight of Glory." Lewis himself finds the resolution of this desire most poignantly in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.)
Another way to describe this apologetic approach is that it is an argument from beauty. We all desire beauty, and beauty, I contend, has been a motivating force for all human endeavors. It is, for example, a point of common interest for scientists and theologians. Here’s how my argument from beauty goes.
Beauty occurs when we perceive reality rightly. It arises for both theologians and scientists through rightly grasping and theorizing about their objects of study. Beauty thus leads to truth, and beauty provides a lure for study. In this sense, it is telic, leading human beings toward a preferred future. For theologians, it means grasping God’s true nature, God’s creation, and our ethical life. For scientists, it is rightly perceiving, and theorizing about, nature. When this perception is made there is discovery, which is accompanied by a sense of completeness. Therefore, the disciplines and vocations of theology and of science can be particularly beautiful. In these and other ways, beauty represents a common value for scientists and theologians.

In this post, I will highlight science. The great early 20th century physicist, Werner Heisenberg, reflected ont the connection between discovering the nature of quantum reality and its beauty. One should note the relationship between beauty and Heisenberg’s “coherence,” which is parallel to my formulation of rightly perceiving nature. Beauty for Heisenberg is surprising and objective. As he describes it, he did not impose beauty, but discovered—or perhaps better, un-covered—this beauty in the midst of looking at energy at the quantum level:
The energy principle had held for all the terms, and I could no longer doubt the mathematical consistency and coherence of the kind of quantum mechanics to which my calculations pointed. At first, I was deeply alarmed. I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a strangely beautiful interior, and felt almost giddy at the thought that I now had to probe this wealth of mathematical structure nature had so generously spread out before me.
This pursuit and discovery of beauty has certainly motivated key scientists. I could multiply quotes, but will simply note Einstein’s use of beauty in formulating both the special and general theories of relativity. Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann summarized Einstein’s work: “The essence of Einstein’s profundity lay in his simplicity; and the essence of his science lay in his artistry—his phenomenal sense of beauty.” It was that sense of beauty that led him to reformulate our understanding of the cosmos.

I close with a summary from Lewis on this quest for the beautiful. In his sermon, "The Weight of Glory," he reflected on glory, and the related value of beauty, as the goal of human life:
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else that can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
Because I'm working on these topics right now, there will be more on this, I hope, in future postings...


M Fitzpatrick said...

Greg, I know that you and I have fundamentally different conceptions of beauty, and I will not regurgitate that conversation here. I just would like to see a couple clarifications in this project, which one might consider your major project as a thinker.

The first is laying out a clear explication of what 'beauty' means. You say that beauty is "a motivating force for all human endeavors", and further suggest that "beauty occurs when we perceive reality rightly." But these are not notions of beauty, but rather descriptions about what beauty does or where we can find it. Perhaps in one of your next posts, you can include an explication on your definition of beauty with an argument for your sense of it?

The other concern I have is that it seems you want to make beauty an end goal, and yet you imply beauty is a means to an end. "Beauty leads to truth," implying truth is where we want to get, to grasp" God's true nature, God's creation, and our ethical life." These comments suggest beauty is worthwhile only in that it provides an incentive for pursuing truth. One might make the analogy from evolutionary biology about pleasure during sex - by making sex enjoyable, animals desire to have sex and reproduce. But on this model, reproduction is the goal, not the pleasure of sex. Looking at it from the perspective of our culture and more honest Christian traditions, however, the pleasure of sex is valuable for its own sake. In other words, couples enjoy sex for the enjoyment, not just to reproduce. Likewise, I think you want to say that beauty has its own value. In fact, you do say this when you write "we all desire beauty." Notice you didn't say, "we all desire truth, and beauty helps with that." Nor did you say, "We all should desire truth, but since we don't, beauty creates in us a desire for truth." You said we desire beauty.

Therefore, I think you need to say something about why beauty is valuable for its own sake, and not just as a means to an end in getting us to pursue truth.

Otherwise, I find your post a very well-written and clear distillation of your most recent professional article. Good work!

GCootsona said...

Michael, It's good that we have different conceptions of beauty because that's what leads to healthy dialogue or debate. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

I find your assertion challenging that beauty is a means to an end because that's exactly what I don't want. In fact, an evolutionary thinker might well be looking for a way to describe beauty simply within the framework of reproduction. I.e., we find people (and therefore things) beautiful if they are more fit to survive. My proposal is antithetical to this: beauty is what makes reproduction worthwhile. Because the world is beautiful, therefore we want to live in it. I think the problem in this post is that I'm linking truth and beauty, not giving a full description of the latter. But beauty is what makes the pursuit of truth worthwhile.

So what is beauty? Last summer, when I worked on a paper for the Venice Summer School for Science and Religion (link is to the right), I finally had to concede that indeed beauty might be a transcendental, like truth and goodness, and therefore undefinable. But I still struggle with conclusion because I'd like to have a better definition. Can you suggest one?

GCootsona said...

P.S. The paper I mentioned on beauty and sustainability in science and theology was just accepted for publication by Theology and Science Journal, which I find exciting.

Anonymous said...

Just my thoughts at the moment. Beauty cannot be an end in itself because it is not any one thing. By definition (etymologically both English & Greek to some extent) , it is a seduction towards a potential goodness, or perceived goodness. It is evocative. Whereas art may be provocative and stimulate us directly on many levels for its own sake and not necessarily be beautiful, beauty lures toward something because it calls to and forth something within us. While there are classical structures that tend to evoke from us the labeling of beauty, these structures are never really the end we have in mind to begin with.- Bill Jackson, Oroville CA

M Fitzpatrick said...


Very intriguing. It's fascinating to me how we end up orienting the classic trivium of truth, beauty and goodness. Plato wanted to subordinate both truth and beauty to the Good, which he saw as the epitome of all values. In my own work, I've sought to subordinate beauty and goodness to the truth, placing it as the fundamental value. But your statements seem to suggest that for you, "beauty is what makes the pursuit of truth worthwhile." Does this mean that beauty is the fundamental value? Is truth valuable only in that it leads to beauty, or is truth valuable for its own sake?

The problem, as you seem keenly aware, of making beauty (and truth and goodness for that matter) a transcendental is it becomes hard to believe in 1) the meaningfulness of its reality, and 2) to persuade others to believe in it. Are truth and goodness transcendental? Many philosophers have thought so, but I'm not so sure. Truth seems to be very much about understanding how we ought to think of the nature of reality, and goodness seems very much about how we ought to live our lives, making these two at least in principle intelligible. What about beauty? Again, I'm checking my own suspicions of beauty at the door since they're radically different from yours. But to play Greg for a moment, I think beauty for you would have to be the intrinsic worth each element of reality has been given by God. 'Beauty' is the meaning each element of reality has to God. Beauty thus makes the pursuit of truth worthwhile, because when we discover truth, we discover the worth things have to God, who is their creator and thus the source of their worth. As their creator, their worth as designated by him is their true worth. So the pursuit of truth is necessary prerequisite to discovering the ultimate value of everything in reality.

Am I hitting anywhere near your intuitions?

P.S. Congrats on the publication! Seems this is the time for everyone to make publication. Andrew just got a paper accepted into a journal as well. I expect a copy, Greg. :-)