Many great scientists were interested in some form of art before, or simultaneous to, their interest in science. Many of the greatest among them also studied philosophy. In art, science, and philosophy, we experience a wonder at the aesthetics of both nature and that which humans imagine and produce. The beauty permeates our awareness and we are left with an unmistakable sense of awe. In each case we can be stopped in our tracks as we take in something that penetrates to such a deep and often inarticulable recognition of the sublime.
Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers studied nature to arrive at an intuited understanding, lacking the mathematics and instrumentation that science employs today. In a number of important ways, they weren’t far off at the level of granularity they were considering. For most of recorded human history, science was regarded as “natural philosophy” and the strict delineation of disciplines that we currently consider necessary did not exist. Today most philosophers and scientists do not see themselves as sharing a domain. For that matter, neither do biologists and physicists, not to mention artists and sociologists. This separation was compelled by the linear, individualistic perspectives of Newtonian physics, Cartesian philosophy, and even the Darwinian theory of evolution.
Today we understand that each of us are composed of the same particles found throughout the universe. But we experience ourselves as somehow more than those particles. We are the universe’s brain (though surely not its only one). We are the universe reflecting upon itself, its ability to come to understand all that it is, and its ability to gape in wonder at itself. Lest that sound like anthropomorphism, the universe is not like humankind; humankind is just one instance of the universe. But it is a remarkable instance.
Wolfgang Pauli, a Nobel prize winning physicist and one of the key figures at the inception of Quantum Mechanics, felt deeply that our understanding must be one of a psycho-physical reality, not just the understanding that could be acquired by physics alone. Of course, any understanding of the universe and the nature of reality itself, whether one centered in the world of physics or a true merging of the psycho-physical, is achieved through nature leading itself to discover itself. Here science believes it has the edge: it is through elegant mathematical formulas and incontestable data derived from directly nature that the human mind arrives at its understanding of the universe. But this was Pauli’s point- without the arts and philosophy and the essences that are not fact-based but derive from a deeper part of the psyche, our understanding is not complete. Mathematics and data are not the only inspirations for our imaginative minds. A whole is only encountered through union.
Before his death, Charles Darwin arrived at a similar conclusion when he wrote his famous lament as a recollection intended for his children.
“My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882
Like human history, philosophy, and just about everything else, science is made of stories that change with time and a belief in a new understanding. The stories generally build on each other, and sometimes they radically depart from previous stories. Across most dimensions of human thought and understanding, we currently are in a period of departure relative to our stories. As we radically revise our orientations to physics, biology, economics, communications, and even art, so we need to revamp our understanding of the psychological nature of our being. The difference here, however, is that we are not necessarily creating a new story. Rather, we are re-imagining, re-admitting even, a story that has been told across every conceivable culture, through the ages, and from every geographic corner of our world. The new understandings from these disciplines do not so much change our story as help to move it back to where it always has been. Many of us just haven’t been listening. And thus we have to radically revise what we believe as if a new story were being told to us; that’s how much undoing lies before us.
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One thought on “Science and Beauty- Reimagining and Undoing”
Wonderful Lynne, Thank you