What makes science beautiful?

Discuss

38 Responses to “What makes science beautiful?”

  1. crenquis says:

    My wife is a chemist.
    Chemistry is a science.
    Implies my wife is in Science.
    Therefore Science is beautiful.
    QED

  2. ebiii says:

    Truth!  This one was easy.

    • Dan Hibiki says:

       well that’s out of the way. Let’s try a hard one:
      What was the first thing said by native Americans to the pilgrims arriving on the mayflower?

      • wysinwyg says:

         Well it was Squanto who had been enslaved by the Spaniards and only recently made his way back to North America so I imagine it was something like, “Dammit, more of you assholes?!”

        • Dan Hibiki says:

           oh, so close!
          Though Squanto did help the pilgrims, their first contact was with Samoset who greeted them in fluent English with “Can I have some Beer?”.damn close though.

  3. GawainLavers says:

    <snoring noise>

  4. Casey Reeder says:

    I haven’t read any of his stuff yet, so I could be blown out of the water here, but from what seems to be the gist of his book White isn’t criticising scientists who just see something neat and call it beautiful but more specifically those like Dawkins, Dennet, et al who espouse philosophic reductionism and who often invoke the ‘beauty’ of science to support it.  The problem with doing this is that if their worldview were true the idea of beauty would be one without any content or meaning.  Thankfully they’re wrong and science does indeed often reveal a world that is very beautiful.

    • allenmcbride says:

      Apparently there are two books by this title (both recent and popular); you found the other one. It confused me too.

      • Mongrove_Moone says:

        No, that sounds like the right one:

        Excerpt from Kirkus Review:
        The author pays particular attention to the writings of Jonah Lehrer, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, all self-professed atheists whom White charges with having encroached on the “domain of philosophy, the arts, and humanities.” [...] While not denying the fascinating advances of modern science, the author stresses the importance of philosophy and other disciplines.

        Source: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/curtis-white/the-science-delusion/

      • Casey Reeder says:

        True, I edited before you posted.  Thankfully, my comment appears to apply to both!

        • teapot says:

           Maybe before we rush to adopt we should stop to
          consider the consequences of blithely giving this idea such a
          central position in our lives.

          • Casey Reeder says:

            Maybe, but don’t you think that it might then require rethinking human nature a bit ?  I think it would be hard to find any human culture where beauty and ritual weren’t given a central place.

    • scav says:

      Well that’s just a mental confusion on his part. Human minds can perceive beauty and individual neurons can’t, let alone individual atoms. That doesn’t mean human minds can’t find neurons and atoms, or even philosophic reductionism itself, beautiful.

      • Casey Reeder says:

        But what meaning does beauty have if we were only assemblages of neurons lacking intensionality?  What meaning does the word have in a world without meaning?

        • wysinwyg says:

           What is the meaning of “meaning”?

          Dennett argues that we do have intensionality (it’s the crux of his functionalist philosophy of mind) so once again you’re fighting straw men.

          • Casey Reeder says:

            Ok, but what is beauty in a world composed solely of atoms or electrons and lacking form or anything else above some basic substrate?

          • wysinwyg says:

            1. What is an apple in world composed solely of atoms or electrons and lacking form or anything or anything else above some basic substrate?
            2. Why do you insist that materialists don’t believe in form in the first place?

          • scav says:

            It’s an experience, a wonderful experience that stimulates and delights, that can be shared endlessly without devaluing it, that inspires artists, makers and mathematicians to explore further and express things in new ways.

            The fact that it is experienced by humans by means of a pattern of signals between neurons doesn’t alter what it feels like or diminish it in any way. 

            Rhetorical question fail, I think you’ll find.

            Also, D- for physics and philosophy.

    • wysinwyg says:

      who espouse philosophic reductionism and who often invoke the ‘beauty’ of science to support it.

      No they don’t.

      They espouse philosophical reductionism as a means of attaining knowledge.  They invoke the beauty (no scare quotes) of science to make the point that atheists are not boring, soulless automata who are blind to the beauty of the world we all share.

      Two completely different arguments.  Please bother to read the gentlemen in question before putting words in their mouths.

      The problem with doing this is that if their worldview were true the idea of beauty would be one without any real content or meaning.

      Please share with us the “content or meaning” of “the idea of beauty”.

      • Casey Reeder says:

        I don’t have an exact definition of beauty.  I prefer not to treat language so literally, not being a philosopher myself or very philosophically minded.  

        However, a philosopher like Dennet who espouses eliminative materialism is unable to even believe in the existence of beliefs, let alone the existence of any non-material ineffable experience of a thing we could called beauty.  By non-material in this sense I mean composed of something other than just atoms, I’m sympathetic to Aristotelianism so we could call it an appreciation of the form of a thing.They aren’t two separate arguments, you’ve just joined them together yourself.  Its perfectly legitimate to make an argument that science is best advanced through reductionism, this is a bit ignorant of the actual history but its an argument you can make.  You can then take this argument further and state that the beauty of science therefore justifies this reductionism.  But it is also therefore a perfectly relevant counterargument to state that the appreciation of beauty requires making a space for experiences that are irreducible to atoms.

        Also, I find your tone unnecessarily hostile.  Can’t we just have a civilized and friendly conversation?

        • wysinwyg says:

          However, a philosopher like Dennet who espouses eliminative materialism is unable to even believe in the existence of beliefs, let alone the existence of any non-material ineffable experience of a thing we could called beauty.

          This is completely false.  See: Real Patterns.  Dennett talks about beliefs all the time.  He clearly believes beliefs exist.  Again, try reading the gentlemen in question before putting words in their mouths.

          They aren’t two separate arguments, you’ve just joined them together yourself. 

          No I didn’t.  There’s an epistemological argument and an aesthetic argument.  I pointed out they are different arguments.  If you’re going to insist I ‘joined them together’ I’ll have to insist you quote the bit where I did that.

          Its perfectly legitimate to make an argument that science is best
          advanced through reductionism, this is a bit ignorant of the actual
          history but its an argument you can make.

          I never made any such argument though I would argue that reductionism has been essential to the advancement of science (as has its complement, synthesis).

          You can then take this argument further and state that the beauty of science therefore justifies this reductionism.

          I didn’t take this argument there because I don’t think that is the justification for reductionism.  Nothing I’ve read from either Dennett or Dawkins supports such a characterization either.

          Also, I find your tone unnecessarily hostile.  Can’t we just have a civilized and friendly conversation?

          Your predilection for misrepresenting the positions of your opponents also strikes me as unnecessarily hostile.  Stop doing so and we can indeed have a civilized and friendly conversation.

          • wysinwyg says:

             Also to assert that materialists don’t believe in form is so wildly off the mark I don’t know where to start with it.

          • Casey Reeder says:

            You do seem to be much more familiar with Dennett than I am.  I can’t take too much of his writing in one sitting.  But that may just be because I find his general way of looking at things so different than my own, not just his opinions but his general methods of approach.

            If you can’t see the hostility in your own writing I’m not going to take the time to point it out.  I think any objective person coming in here and seeing this would agree with me though.  Asking me in a confrontational way to point out where you’ve been hostile is kind of an ironic action.

            But, I come in peace.  I’m not interested in getting in a long back and forth that gets increasingly mean here, I used to do that enough on reddit.

            Perhaps Dennett has tried to square the circle and argue that beliefs are possible within an elliminative framework, so I would be wrong in that way.  But there are many good philosophical arguments for why this can’t actually be made to work.  I’m not saying that these arguments are definitely correct but they are ones that have been conceded by many in the eliminative camp in the past.

            I guess what I’m saying is that there is a rhetorical move commonly made by many in the ‘new atheist’ ‘elimitavist’ camps whereby they state that the beauty of science justifies their positions or makes them more interesting.  It is a perfectly legitimate countermove to point out that the word beauty would not have any real content if that worldview were correct.  Please explain why it is illegitimate to rebut this move in this way.

            Like I said, I’m really not interested in a long back and forth, especially a hostile one.  So this will probably be my last response.

          • wysinwyg says:

            I honestly don’t think I was being hostile.  Perhaps you honestly don’t think you’re misrepresenting materialism or being condescending.  I rather resent that you’re getting your back up so much simply because I’m rebutting your argument.  I do not see the hostility in my initial response.  If you can concede that perhaps you were mistaken about that hostility then we can proceed to argue without worrying about that stuff but I’m not particularly happy about you trying to rebuff me on this score, especially when you refuse to support your assertion.

            I guess what I’m saying is that there is a rhetorical move commonly made by many in the ‘new atheist’ ‘elimitavist’ camps whereby they state that the beauty of science justifies their positions or makes them more interesting.

            I suspect this is a misunderstanding on your part.  I think that the aesthetic argument is separate from the epistemological as I’ve already stated.  I don’t feel like defending arguments I’ve never or only rarely heard and don’t agree with myself.  Fair?

            It is a perfectly legitimate countermove to point out that the word beauty would not have any real content if that worldview were correct.  Please explain why it is illegitimate to rebut this move in this ay.

            From what I’ve seen so far I don’t believe you understand the worldview you’re criticizing in the first place which I think makes your criticisms rather poor.  The argument in question is not “illegitimate” but seems to be based on one or more misunderstandings.

            Since you won’t tell us the content of the word “beauty” in the first place I’m curious why the onus falls on me to do so.  Why can’t beauty exist without meaning?  As I already pointed out, your characterization of materialism rules out meaning for even simple, easily-understood terms such as “apple” let alone fuzzy, abstract concepts like “beauty”. 

            Personally, I think “beauty” can make sense as a relationship between entities — specifically, a relationship between perceiver and perceived.  “Perceiver” can, in turn, be understood (perhaps — this is a conjectural philosophical position, not an established fact) as a relationship between parts.  Incidentally, this is exactly what I mean by reductionism and synthesis as complements — to understand a “perceiver” (or “beauty” or “apple”) one must understand not just the component parts but their interrelations — how they are put together (“form” in your terminology).

          • Casey Reeder says:

            I seem to be unable to directly reply to your last comment, maybe they’re cutting us off, so I’ll just leave this here in case you see it.

            In an eliminative materialist ontology apples wouldn’t in any real sense exist except as objects of the mind.  Many materialist don’t always realize the extent to which their own positions require defying common sense and everyday experience.

            Hillary Putnam is a really good example of a philosopher who used to be in the materialist camp but who has since provided many excellent critiques of the actual philosophical consequences that would be required by adopting such a position.

            I suppose its possible to have a kind of materialism that believes in an ontology of forms, that’s a lot of what the ‘new materialism’ in continental philosophy flirts with.  But that’s not what Dennet and co are about.

            Exactly what is it about the particular relationship between perceiver and perceived in your formulation that makes it something that can be described as beautiful?  I suspect that you’re sneaking something non-material in the back door.

            Anyway, I’m glad that the tone in our conversation seems to be improving, but I think its smart to end it pretty soon, at least here since I think we’re cluttering up the space.  If you’d like to continue it elsewhere you can message me personally if you’d like.

          • wysinwyg says:

             Thanks.  Agree about taking up space here.  I responded to you directly but the response will be in your “Other” folder in FB rather than your inbox.

  5. markmca says:

    Feynman and the flower. End of argument. 

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSG9q_YKZLI

    • teapot says:

      That’s an amazing video, thanks.

      FWIW I think it’s a profoundly meaningless question because: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

      What makes _______ beautiful? Whatever it is that attracted you to it.

      • wysinwyg says:

         There seem to be many consistencies among what is found beautiful by different people, even across cultures (though there are also clearly many differences).

        Let’s start with a simple point.  Why is almost every musical system ever used by any culture based on pentatonic scales?  Just a coincidence?

        • teapot says:

          You are most definitely right but I tend to think of that as a result of our shared genealogy rather than some sort of universal sense of beauty.

          What I was thinking is what one person sees as beautiful can easily be seen by someone else as awful. Of course there will always be a dominant preference but I’ve seen it so many times as a graphics guy – I’ll often make 3 versions of the same thing and more often than you’d believe there is universal disagreement about which is best.

  6. Carl Maltby says:

    Sounds like a petulant nutbag throwing shit at science.

  7. spacedmonkey says:

    That’s easy.  It allows us to perceive the beauty and awesomeness of the world we’re in on a different, and in some ways, deeper, level.   I know a lot of scientists, and I’m sure most of them think about that, and many consider it a large part of their motivation for learning and practicing science. 

  8. Shane Horan says:

    You don’t know-oh-oh, that’s what makes you beautiful.

    Sorry.

  9. Colin Rosenthal says:

    Good storify – if I had to offer an answer it would have been something like Bora’s. I think though that beauty in science also has something to do with the complementarity of scientific and “normal” experience of the world – that one can simultaneously appreciate the night sky as “pretty lights” _and_ understand the true scale and complexity of what one is seeing. 

  10. scav says:

    Humility, honesty and the ability to admit mistakes are generally considered to be beautiful attributes in a person’s character.  Pride, dishonesty and stubbornness are ugly; Lord knows how ugly they can get.

    So science is a considerably more beautifying influence on character than the world views that oppose it.

  11. Humbabella says:

    Well, I haven’t figured out what beauty is yet, but I have a hypothesis that I’m eager to test.

  12. chgoliz says:

    Last night, after the last day of school, my youngest and her best friend were celebrating by roasting marshmallows for s’mores at our outdoor firepit and singing along to an iPod on shuffle. They kept reaching up and playing with the branches and leaves of the tree over their heads.  Then my kid says to her friend: now that I’ve learned about leaves in class, I look at them completely differently.  They’re so much more complex than I realized.

    That’s what makes it beautiful.

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