beauty contemplation

Beauty and Science

3:00:00 PMAlexander S. Anderson

We can see the beauty here, but science cannot show it.
Science cannot see beauty. Or, at the very least, science’s current incarnation and methods cannot see it.

It was not always so. The ancients and the medievals studied nature, but their work was a lot more like art criticism than modern science. They studied and appreciated the beauty, harmony, and interconnectedness of nature. For the medievals especially, the study of nature was an appreciation of the work of God, and the beauty of nature was meant to lead the mind upwards to the divine. Thinkers like Aristotle, Ibn Sina, Albert the Great, Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste contemplated the ends inherent in nature and how they interconnected. The method was something like art criticism, with the whole of creation being the piece assessed for its beauty.

As the philosophical underpinnings of the study of nature shifted in the Early Modern Era, the goals of science shifted and its ability to contemplate the beauty nature got lost. Beauty, like color, odor and other so-called subjective qualities, were pushed from nature into the mind. Some thinkers went so far as to deny that beauty had any real existence altogether.

What changed? How did the study of nature move from the contemplation of beauty to the marginalization of it, and even the denial of it? Beginning with thinkers like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, the primary goal of science became the control and utilization of nature for man’s own ends. Science seeks to understand nature, yes, but primarily as a means to use nature, and create useful technologies. As Francis Bacon put it in The Masculine Birth of Time:

Francis Bacon
“I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave. …  [S]o may I succeed in my only earthly wish, namely to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man's dominion over the universe to their promised bounds.” (1)

Because this new paradigm sought to control nature, it saw nature primarily or solely as the measurable, quantifiable, and controllable aspects of nature. Beauty, which cannot be controlled, nearly disappears because many who became steeped in this modern scientific paradigm start to question whether the beauty was really there at all. The utilitarian focus of modern science made the beauty of nature all but invisible.

This shift from studying nature in itself to studying nature for the purpose of controlling it obscured the beauty which was previously thought to be an essential part of it. For Hildebrand, an essential part of beauty is its “superabundance.” He asks, “Is God not lavish in his creation?” (2) And when we look at nature on these terms, we cannot deny that it is lavishly made. But Hildebrand also points out that an essential part of the superabundance of beauty is that it is radically non-utilitarian. It is an end of itself, and cannot truly be utilized as a tool to other ends.

Under the hegemony of the Baconian and Cartesian scientific philosophy, nature was transformed from an honest good into a useful good. Nature shifted from something good in itself to a set of tools with which we could achieve human ends. The scientific method is designed to isolate the useful parts of nature and find out how they can be controlled. If there is a beauty present in this method, it must be read into it.

xkcd demonstrating the usefulness of science.
It’s possible that this paradigm might be shifting. Many of the assumptions of modern science were forcibly shaken off during the scientific revolutions of the 20th century, and the belief that beauty in nature is all in our heads may go with them. However, such a change is not easily made. Even as theoretical and experimental science moves far ahead of its possible technological uses, their governmental and corporate funding sources still demand that the connection still be made to practical application. Whether scientists are studying the inner workings of atoms, undetected elemental particles, or how matter reacts at extremely low temperatures, they are still expected to explain their work in terms of practical (or marketable!) applications.

As it is, though, the modern scientific method is very good at finding ways to exploit and control nature, but it is not very good at finding the beauty in nature. At least not by itself. This is because beauty flees when you try to control it, that beauty’s uselessness is the point. Beauty has a splendor that goes beyond our usual utilitarian calculations, a meaningfulness that cannot be controlled. In the end, it is the superabundance of beauty in nature that makes it worthwhile.

(1) Francis Bacon, The Masculine Birth of Time, ch. 1. h/t The TOF Spot, “The Masque of Science”
(2) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Reconsiderations, page 82.
Image 1 (link)
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