Aesthetics, Science and Foreknowledge

If you’ve ever done any reading in science and the history of science, then you know there is a definite aesthetic side to the process of scientific theorizing and discovery. From Ptolemy to Copernicus to Einstein, most if not all of the great, creative scientific discoveries had behind them an urge for elegance, simplicity, and beauty – and I want to think on that for a moment – the urge for beauty, or the aesthetic urge, let’s call it.

This urge can be thought of as a kind of a guide towards discovery, though by virtue of it being based on contingent reality, not a necessarily true guide – the universe may very well turn out to be not very elegant after all. The universe isn’t necessarily elegant or simple, and as such, an aesthetic urge isn’t necessarily a true guide. In fact, thinking of it as a guide may not be the most helpful image – perhaps thinking of it as an instinct is better.

Crucial, in my opinion, to such an instinct is the idea that there is a tacit contact with reality had by the mind – a knowledge where what is known is more than can be put into words:

‘What Polany proposes here is not any kind of preconceptuality, but something more like foresight, an intimation which a scientist derives from an intuitive grasp of reality which he is unable to specify, and which constitutes the clue  from which he takes his start, and by developing which he guides his probing inquiry into the structure of reality. It is essentially an intuitive insight, the insight of a mind informed by intuitive contact with reality, an inductive insight with a semantic or ontological reference which is objectively correlated to an aspect of nature seeking realization, as it were, in the mind of the inquirer.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’, p. 113-114)

This foreknowledge or foresight has been a major factor in the great creative scientific discoveries – you see it in Einstein (and really in all the early quantum mechanics), Clerk-Maxwell, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus. Of those, Einstein’s quest for a unified theory is the most well known – a quest on which he was driven by an almost supernatural urge that there simply had to be a more elegant solution to unify and simplify gravity and electromagnetism. You also see it in modern physics – string theory, cosmology, and the current quest to unify relativity and quantum mechanics. Where various theories (aspects of the Standard Model, for example) have some less refined features, physicists seek to simplify or unify such theories or uncover different aspects of reality that ‘smooth out’, as it were, the rough patches (string theory has impressive potential to be such a unifying theory, but its lack of predictive power and experimental evidence may keep that from ever being fully realized). The role that such an instinct and such intuitions play in science can hardly be overstated:

‘Behind all that people call ‘hunches’, ‘guesses’, ‘intuitions’, ‘surmises’, ‘conjectures’, it is an implicit integrative activity of the mind that is at work in the epistemic process of scientific discovery, on which we rely in discerning their ontological references or in judging their bearing on reality, and therefore in distinguishing right hunces, guesses, etc. from those that are merely random. That is no less an intellectual activity even if in the nature of the case it cannot be logicalised and no rules can account for its operations.’ (p. 117)

 

3 thoughts on “Aesthetics, Science and Foreknowledge

  1. Chris Falter September 1, 2014 / 2:03 pm

    Recently many scientific disciplines have been moving toward messier, more chaotic, more complex theories. While a bright high school calculus student can derive Einstein’s e=mc*2 formula, there are very few physicists today who understand the totality of supersymmetric string theory. Most get a general understanding of the numerous arcane mathematical domains inherent to it, and then specialize in one or two of those domains. The theory is so complex that the “specialists” have to split into working groups to make progress.

    We also see this trend in the “big data” approaches that have emerged in various disciplines. You can build unsupervised machine learning algorithms that provide useful predictions, for example regarding where to drill for oil or what the climate will be like a decade from now. But the solutions sometimes exist in billion-dimensional spaces with probabilistic approaches, which means a full understanding of how the dad-blame thing works is beyond human reach.

    The contemporary approach to science can be summed up in two quotes:

    “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” – Richard Feynmann

    “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George E.P. Box

    I suspect that philosophers, including T.F. Torrance, have some catching up to do. Where does that leave us, theologically speaking? I don’t have much time to explore the issue at the moment, but I think it has to start with a firm agreement with Paul’s statement to the Corinthian church:

    “Now we see in a mirror dimly.”

    We have often thought, in the age of the Enlightenment, that we would see the truth face-to-face this side of heaven. Now we are beginning to realize that this is an impossible dream, and that realization might not be so bad. Paul states that we won’t see face-to-face until the age to come. Come, Lord Jesus!

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  2. whitefrozen September 1, 2014 / 3:30 pm

    ‘Recently many scientific disciplines have been moving toward messier, more chaotic, more complex theories. While a bright high school calculus student can derive Einstein’s e=mc*2 formula, there are very few physicists today who understand the totality of supersymmetric string theory. Most get a general understanding of the numerous arcane mathematical domains inherent to it, and then specialize in one or two of those domains. The theory is so complex that the “specialists” have to split into working groups to make progress.’

    I agree – my point wasn’t that the mathematics of, say, physics are simple – I can’t do any of the math, for example, and some equations in physics run on for pages. Keplers math for his thoery of the planets orbits was over 500 pages. It’s certainly not simple in that sense – and as you point out, sometimes entire teams of specialists are required for work on one aspect of one theory. My point though was that *simplicity* is what’s aimed for overall – for example, the quest for unified theories or theories of everything are quests for a single, simple, elegant theory. Even the most chaotic, esoteric mathematics in physics (generally, there are always exceptions) serve this purpose – driving towards a more simple, elegant and aesthetic theory.

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