Paper written for SCIO research internship by Kelly Thomas-Cutshaw under the direction of Dr. Amanda Nichols. Not all content discussed reflects the views of the author.
The Format of Aesthetic Dialogue
Instead of evaluating the questions of why something is aesthetic in science, it may be useful to first ask what objects or views, general observers consider aesthetically pleasing. My intention is not to presume that analytic questions of the causes of aestheticism lack merit, but rather that such questions might be grasped more readily if the question of “what” about “it” has been thoroughly examined. This paper attempts to analyze, compare, and categorize the “what” examples of objects and concepts in scientific fields that observers frequently consider beautiful, in order to form a conclusion about the possible symmetric nature (the “why”) of the aesthetically appealing. Stephen Wolfram, in A New Kind of Science, presents the idea of studying simple things in order to study more complex things. Though it would be presumptuous to say that a single simplified model of aesthetic observation explains beauty in its entirety, a simplified view of the workings of aesthetics may yield more fruitful conclusions. The use of models and limited variables in science to represent simplified situations in reality further underlines the importance and benefit of observing simplicity to comprehend complexity. As Gilbert states, “We observe and predict and build models of increasing accuracy and precision, but never entirely see or describe things as they are” (488). And so, this paper will observe a similar system regarding aesthetic notions in scientific inquiry.
Subjective and Objective Distinction Concerns
Along the same lines, aesthetic analysis requires human thought, and human thinking is rather complex. It is reasonable to consider the roles of subjective versus objective perceptions. Of course, discourse on the relationship between objective and subjective timelessly intersects scientific, philosophical, and religious disciplines trailing a plethora of theories behind the scholars who even briefly discuss the human mind. Proper Baconians historically prefer empirical explanations rather than intuitive (1). Countless religions practice traditions which intertwine the ethereal and the physical realms as codependent realities of existence. Something like this: A good intersection of the scientific and religious discourse on objective and subjective qualities lies in the philosophy of subjective and objective experiences.
A phenomenal link between subjective and objective experience is Jaspers’ Theory of Transcendence (Hunt). This theory provides a paradigm removed from the belief of a pre-existing Transcendence (for Christians, perhaps an essence of God, but also the experience of that essence) and a replaced belief in the the ability of people (scientists, according to Hunt) to intuitively postulate theories. Now, convincing those who believe in objective, observable data that Jaspers’ Ciphers — which, indeed, actually disintegrates when explained — is perhaps less probable than changing people’s existing paradigms from non-transcendent to transcendent. In effect, when Hunt presents a comparison of Inference to the Best Explanation to Jaspers’ Transcendence, it is possiblez1 to imagine a bridge between objective and subjective reality. However, the Theory of Transcendence opens too many other questions on the nature of human thinking and reality, and so we shall settle with a slightly less elevated philosophical approach in this paper, by admitting philosopher John Searle to the discussion. Searle believes human consciousness exists as a biologically explained phenomenon where subjectivity and objectivity are one in the same experience (2). His example of such an experience would be the intentional raising of one’s hand. It is both a thought that is not tangible, but also an observable action (when the arm moves). This paper will revisit this discussion of objective and subjective, but keep the idea that the objectivity and subjectivity of an event or experience may be one in the same.
A Premise for the Nature of Reality
Another frequent concern when studying aesthetics is the nature of reality, specifically: is one person’s, or even culture’s, assessment of that which is beautiful equivalent to another person’s or culture’s assessment? Berger and Luckman assist this paper’s discussion on aesthetics by assessing reality as a social standard of “everyday” life.
The world of everyday life is not only taken for granted as reality by the ordinary members of society in the subjectively meaningful conduct of their lives. It is a world that originates in their thoughts and actions, and is maintained as real by these (Berger and Luckman, The social Construction of Reality, p. 19 – 20).
To view reality in such a way frees the discussion of aesthetics from the questions of subjective realities enough to address the physical and semi-psychological aspects of aesthetics. “The fact that things which we can express in language and agree to be the best way our logic suggests they could be, in fact turns out to be the way the world is” (Gilbert 486). The position of this paper, on the nature of reality, is that “reality” is nuanced relative to each individual present, but, due to the social nature of humanity, not so nuanced as to disallow a general discussion of “reality” of the world that clearly seems to exist.
I apprehend the reality of everyday life as an ordered reality. Its phenomena are arranged in patterns that seem to be independent of my apprehension of them and that impose themselves upon the latter. The reality of everyday life appears already objectified, that is, constituted by an order of objects that have been designated as objects before my appearance on the scene.The language used in everyday life continuously provides me with the necessary objectifications and posits the order within which these make sense and within which everyday life has meaning to me. (Berger, Luckman, P. 22, 23)
One final concern of aesthetics according to observer realities that I would like to address lies in differences of opinion within the context of a shared experience in general, or “everyday” reality. For this, I would like to employ a narrative example. Suppose that two people look at a pug (puppy). One reacts in adoration of the pup, exclaiming its “cute” nature. The other reacts in repulsion, critiquing the first person’s inability to understand beauty, because the pug is clearly “ugly.” If the first person is one of the many people that believe a pug is adorable, then that person will likely exclaim that the pug is, “So ugly, it’s cute.” It is the position of this paper that the different responses of the two people is not a differing assessment of the pug’s beauty, but rather, a difference in emotional conditioning in response to similar experiences. While the nature of emotional responses and the nature of reality are inextricably linked in almost all human experiences, this paper will use a simplistic model and address the two as separate, in order to reduce the density of the discussion, and focus more on the previously mentioned “what” examples of aesthetics in science.
The Role of Symmetry in Scientific Inquiry
With the above assumptions, this paper will proceed to address the relationship of symmetry to aesthetics in scientific fields. I believe that an assessment of aesthetic beauty depends on an observer’s cognizance of symmetry, as well as some element of symmetric form within the observed. Thus, frequently, the elements of symmetric form within the observed lie beyond immediate sensory perception, but nonetheless, recognizable on a subconscious level. Many scientists cite beauty, symmetry, elegance, and simplicity as reasons for their intuitions and theories. As a Christian scientist, the significance of aesthetic qualities in scientific symmetries is that the nature of God is observed, conferred, and evidenced by aesthetic beauty, but, even still, requires faith.
Perhaps the most obvious disciplines open to aesthetic discourse are the visual arts, music, and language. Perhaps less considered, but equally important in the discussion of symmetry in aesthetics are the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. With the previous suppositions on the relationship between objective and subjective experience, Kant’s idea of absolutes (predominantly, truth) encompassed “the world as we experience it, not the world as it is” (Trudeau 115). Though, Kant did believe that some beauty was objective and universal. There are, then, metaphysical reasons why a viewer determines something to be beautiful. This perception of aesthetics, I would argue, is a more subjective perception, due to dependence on observer assessment. Certainly though, such an experiencer-oriented view is at odds with our previous suppositions. To address this discrepancy, let us turn to a possible link offered up by Plato, and a more objectively aligned philosophy proposed by Aristotle.
Plato’s Theory of Forms, while far from objective, offers the idea that people already know intuitively that there is an absolute idea of something because it exists in perfect form somewhere removed from Earth (Artz 23). This is much like Kant’s belief that true beauty exists, but Plato removed the “ideal beauty” from any realm of human observation. It would stand in a platonic understanding of Kant’s aesthetics, that there is an absolute idea of beauty instilled in humans so that, though they experience individual perceptions, they generally agree on beauty when it is observed. I suggest that variants of symmetry alert human minds to the presence of beauty. As we see with Aristotle, though, a more refined concept of beauty, however, would require multiple observations of beauty.
Aristotle gives us some insight on the data collection and organization of the things which we consider beautiful. He “preferred to organize knowledge based on physical characteristics” (Artz 25). If we then, for example, observe all things that any given individual determines beautiful, and collect any common characteristics that each beautiful thing possesses, then Aristotle would tell us that those are the characteristics of beauty. Therefore, if things that are beautiful share common, observable characteristics of beauty, then it must be in the viewer’s perception of beauty that the ideal of beauty lies. In other words, the characteristics of beauty are objectively observable, but for a person to bestow things having those characteristics the title “beauty” some subjective idea of beauty must already be in place.
Examples of Symmetry and Beauty Recognition from Biology and Anthropology: Subjective Experiencer, Observable Data
Comparing Symmetry Preferences of Two Cultures
Such conclusions are all well, but examples in biology and anthropology of symmetry as a fundamental characteristic of beauty will serve us better as a model of the discourse. From one perspective, “ideas of beauty and symmetry turn out to be good ways for us to discover how the world is. There is no reason why they should have done” (Gilbert 486). A more simplified version of this statement is the way natural, observable aesthetic symmetry affects subjective responses to aesthetic symmetry. Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematical expert on symmetry, proposes that fundamental things are “symmetrical in their perfection” (Sautoy, TED). He further asserts that “symmetry is almost nature’s language… which can help to communicate genetic information” (Sautoy, TED). It would be natural then, for the sake of animalistic preservation of humans to seek what they perceive to be symmetrical, fundamentally sustainable, and perfect: what they perceive to be “beautiful”. The scientific evidence does seem in favor of Sautoy’s assertion. A sociopsychological study of the UK and the Hazda hunter-gatherer group of Tanzania conducted by Little, Apicella, and Marlowe, supported by further readings from psychologist Yehouda Harpaz suggest that humans have a higher subconscious preference for symmetry. The Hazda groups’ preference for symmetry manifested itself as an assessment of attractiveness in potential mates, among other preferences. This reflects a similar sentiment in the UK study participants.
Both cultures preferred symmetry indicating crosscultural agreement that symmetry is attractive as has been seen in prior studies… Such data are important as they suggest that preferences for symmetry are not arbitrary across cultures, which further highlights the importance of symmetrical appearance as an attractive trait in humans… The Hadza showed no difference in their preference between European and Hadza faces even though they have limited experience with European faces.
What we see in the Hazda and UK participants is the consistent assessment of some common — perhaps platonic — “ideal” of the qualities of an attractive mate. Additionally, a preference for symmetry in a mate makes natural, biological sense, as “symmetrical objects/pictures have ‘internal’ control, which gives the observer an impression of internal consistency. That would make them special for any observer, not only for humans” (Yehouda Harpaz). A subconscious, biological preference for symmetry means a preference for “genetic quality” and health (Apicella, Little, Marlowe).
Women who are pregnant have higher preferences for health in faces… While we examined preferences for Hadza women who were pregnant and/or nursing, the logic remains similar… Women who are pregnant/ nursing have the greatest need of investment in their offspring and a greater motivation to avoid disease. Alternatively, if more symmetrical men tend to be better hunters, women could be attracted to them for their provisioning potential. Provisioning is important among foragers as male contribution to diet. Cross-cultural preferences for symmetry positively correlated with female reproductive success… The individual differences shown here then are in line with the pattern seen in Western cultures for facial masculinity preferences. Such differences highlight strategic elements of symmetry preferences. (Apicella, Little, Marlowe)
Interestingly, the more closely invested in natural preservation a society is, it seems the more attracted to symmetry that culture is. Here we see evidence of a Kantian perception of beauty, where different observers evaluate beauty to a different degree. The Hazda groups subjectively prefered symmetrical mates for attractiveness. However, it does seem that symmetry attraction lies in the realm of “general reality” for assessing beauty, as both the UK and the Tanzania Hazda found symmetry attractive (A, L, M).
Vertical Symmetry Recognition
Harpaz would further this discussion with an analysis of preferences for certain types of symmetry over other types of symmetry. Indeed, almost all of the symmetry types of symmetry assessed in the Apicella, Little, and Marlowe study indicate vertical mirror symmetry preferences. As such, Aristotle might mark the higher preference for vertical symmetry as a key characteristic of assessing observed beautiful qualities. If vertical symmetry is preferable, it has third-party observable evidence for its higher preference.
We already know that all the neurons from the retinal converge in the optical chasm, and from there neurons from the left of the retina of both eyes continue to the left side of the brain (mostly the left LGN), and from the right side of the retina they to the right side of the brain. In more technical terms, nasal neurons cross to the contralateral optical tract, while temporal neurons continue to the ipsilateral tract. As a result, information from the left of the retina, which corresponds to the right visual field (the image is inverted in the when it passes the lens), reaches the left hemisphere of the cortex. The information is mapped in a topological way from the retina to the LGN and from the LGN to the cortex.
Neurons that ‘miss the turn’ in the optical chasm (i.e. either nasal neurons that continue to the ipsilateral tract or temporal neurons that do cross), but still connect correctly to the LGN, end up delivering the information to the wrong hemisphere, but in the right position. That means that the information is delivered to the mirror position of the correct place.
In most of the cases, this information is just noise, which blurs the picture. However, when the person focus on the axis of a mirror symmetric object/picture with a vertical axis, this wrong information is actually the same as the correct information. As a result, mirror objects/pictures, with vertical axis, are clearer than any other objects/pictures, and hence easier to perceive. (Hazda, Web.)
Symmetry preference can be a chemical, biological and psychological phenomenon. Symmetry seems to be a reliable, operable paradigm of life. Obviously, though, symmetry can also be “thought” of and duplicated by means of art, language, and music. As Gilbert synthetically states, “This starts to hint at a consonance between the human mind in terms of beauty, economy and mathematical logic, and the way the world is” (486). Furthermore, if symmetry recognition, which seems to have both subjective and objective aspects, can be credited as quantifiable in the Apicella, Little, and Marlowe studies, and the conclusions of Harpaz, then the cognitive recognition of beauty discussed in aesthetics could be considered a methodologically credible observation and assessment. It is equivalent because beauty recognition depends on symmetry recognition the way beauty depends, in great part, on symmetry. Obtaining a perception of “what something is” depends on what something in general reality is.
Examples of Intuited Symmetry from Chemistry and Physics: Subjective Experience, Objectively Productive Result
The Physical Properties of Spheres
Stephen Barr in Modern Physics, Ancient Faith allows us a look at physical symmetries, especially in chemistry. He describes the derivation of “order from higher order” in science. Whether it is marbles, or atoms, a spherically shaped object follows the physical laws of a spherically shaped object. When shaken, a box of marbles align themselves in an orderly and symmetrical pattern. This seems randomized, but the orderly nature of the marbles in relation to one another is due to the spherical symmetry of each individual marble (Barr 77 – 80). Barr follows this example with descriptions of the structured nature of crystals, and order in planetary rotation.
Prediction of the SU(3)
Atoms, when bonded into molecules, find symmetrical configurations that modern chemists can identify and predict through Group Theory. Not only can the configurations of molecules be predicted, but many of their functions can also be predicted by their “group”. Not only does the miraculous nature of groups attest to the beauty of mathematics -a fundamental field where symmetry abounds — but it also assigns an element of beauty to even the smallest aspects of the physical world. A truly remarkable example of intuitive symmetry Barr presents is the discovery of the Ω- particle. physicist Murray Gell-Mann predicted the existence of this particle to “fill out the ‘decuplet’ of the SU(3) group” in 1962 (Barr 98, 99).
Scientists Citing Beauty, Symmetry, and a Creator
Paul Dirac : Accidental Alignment
In an exploration of symmetry and beauty in science as indication of a “Creator,” Andrew Hunt mentions quite a few key examples of scientists who cited the intrinsic beauty and symmetry of science and math leading to discovery. Among those were Nicolaus Copernicus, Paul Dirac, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Hendrik Lorentz, Eugene Wigner, Steven Weinberg, and Frank Close. A few of these names — Newton, Kepler, Copernicus — recognizably span the pages of an ordinary high school physics textbook. Hunt quotes Paul Dirac as saying, “it was a ‘keen sense of beauty that enabled him to divine his equation for the electron…’” (613). This assertion would seem to mean that there is something underlying observable symmetry that human scientists could intuitively postulate. Dirac termed this something “beauty,” and Hunt, by way of Jaspers, labeled this intuitive thing “Transcendence.” However, in his 1933 Nobel Lecture, Dirac concluded his explanation of symmetry as the gateway to understanding by claiming, “If we accept the view of complete symmetry between positive and negative electric charge so far as concerns the fundamental laws of Nature, we must regard it rather as an accident that the Earth (and presumably the whole solar system) contains a preponderance of negative electrons and positive protons” (Dirac 325). For Dirac, beauty and elegance may be subjectively intuited and even objectively produce results, but there was no reason why this occurred beyond symmetry. The underlying symmetry of particles is just that, an accident, nothing more.
Johannes Kepler: Ordained by God
Another of Hunt’s examples, Johannes Kepler (Hunt, 613) sought an explanation for the curvature of planetary orbits, and, in his quest for mathematically beautiful and symmetrically sensible orbital paths, was “rewarded with the elegance of the ellipse” (Brooke Cantor, 226). A look into the life and research of Kepler suggests that he discovered the motion of planetary bodies (Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion — no big deal) as a result of his quest for God.
Strong theological convictions prompted him to find a connection between the physical and the spiritual, and his scientific discoveries led him to believe he had uncovered God’s geometrical plan for the universe. In Kepler’s view, the universe itself was an image of God, with the sun corresponding to the Father, the stellar sphere to the Son, and the intervening space to the Holy Spirit. (Dao)
In light of modern science, Kepler may have been a bit bold and overzealous in his assumptions that he had “uncovered God’s geometrical plan for the universe” (Dao, Web). Kepler, unlike Dirac, absolutely believed that the beauty of the planets further evidences a creator. Interestingly, it seems that both scientists believed that the symmetric beauty in their scientific discoveries could support their own beliefs, contrary though the beliefs are. The system of scientific knowledge is a social system of authority and apprenticeship, which imposes discipline and which values tradition, while teaching expert skills.
Polanyi on philosophy of science!!!! Much better use of his work… Use this to explain the dependence of Dirac, Kepler, and others on their existing ideas and point to the necessity of Faith to postulate a God. “In contrast to histories of science which emphasize the work of revolutionary heroes, most scientific work is accomplished within the framework of beliefs or dogmas that provide the problems and answers for ordinary scientific work” (Mary Jo Nye p. 125).
The Necessity of Faith
Hunt’s interest in the “how” and “why” of aesthetics poses an interesting question about the role of a creator where beauty is evident. If symmetry occurs in nature — indeed, is a fundamental aspect of nature — and beauty largely relies on symmetry, then questions of the nature of the universe, and questions of a creator and its purpose arise. The connection between physical symmetry and the meaning beauty seem to be no accident. For this, I believe Gilbert proposes appropriate dialogue. As stated previously in the paper, it is my belief that the nature of God is observable, informative, and evidenced by aesthetic beauty, but, even still, requires faith. This is not to say that modern science suggests there is no beauty or disproves a creator, as the citations of beauty and symmetry in this paper point to the contrary, but, as Ralph Walker more eloquently states, “nothing that could count as a reason… could ever, in principle, be found” (Walker from Hunt article.. need this!). Speaking toward the implications of aesthetic beauty in art and in science, Gilbert states:
There is the possible hidden assumption in [the] idea that the world’s reality is always asymptotically approaching its fullness by means of the response of imagination — the assumption of an ‘ideal’ fullness of perception in which things reach their destiny. Science too is always approaching, asymptotically, a description of how the world is. But never quite getting there. (495)
Perhaps, then, while the general reality of the world is perceivable and communicable by humanity, it is incomplete, just as any model is lacking in the complexity of the whole. We, humans may see symmetry, and we may believe unanimously in the beauty that symmetry creates, but we will not discern the nature or existence of God from those evidences alone, as we do not know them in their completed states.
Summation of Parts
To conclude, symmetry is fundamentally a part of nature. From the “what” examples of the Ω- particle to atoms, crystalline structures, to human genetics and health, symmetry indicates internal order and life, and is the essence of beauty. Not only can we observe a collection of symmetric things (as Aristotle would recommend) but we subconsciously prefer them, and find them beautiful when compared to our internal (platonic) ideals of beauty. At a place where objective meets Kantian individual subjective perspectives in the general reality where humans can communicate with each other, symmetry exists, and as such, beauty. After comparing the aesthetic experiences in science and finding symmetry in the midst, many wonder what causes such symmetry. Indeed, the puzzling perfection of symmetric beauty leads many to anticipate the handiwork of a Creator. Such expectations often lead to discovery and potential understanding, but even still, faith is required. No matter the magnitude of evidence, the nature of the Creator remains hidden, and to see a Creator in His work requires belief that it is indeed His work.
1. Lessl, Thomas M. “The Culture Of Science And The Rhetoric Of Scientism: From Francis Bacon To The Darwin Fish.” Quarterly Journal Of Speech 93.2 (2007): 123-149. ERIC. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.
2. Searle, John. “Our Shared Condition — Consciousness.” TEDxCERN. May 2013. TED.COM. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.
Brooke & Cantor, Reconstructing Nature, p. 226. (incorrect citation.)
Hunt, Andrew N. “Ciphers Of Transcendence: Cognitive Aesthetics In Science.” The Heythrop Journal Heythrop J 49.4 (2008): 603-19. Web.
Dao, C. 2008. Man of Science, Man of God: Johann Kepler. Acts & Facts. 37 (3): 8.
Dirac, Paul A. M. “Theory of Electrons and Positrons.” Nobel Lecture. 12 Dec. 1933. Lecture.
“The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” in Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. I (February 1960). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Copyright © 1960 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Bennett, Charles H. (2006). Information is Quantum [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from: http://researcher.watson.ibm.com/researcher/files/us-bennetc/QInfWeb.pdf
Einstein A, Podolsky B, Rosen N; Podolsky; Rosen (1935). “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”. Phys. Rev. 47(10): 777–780.
Marcus Du Sautoy TED, Oxford, 2009
Inside Language: Linguistic and Aesthetic Theory in Tolkien. Ross Smith. Berne and Zurich: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007. ISBN 978-3905703061.
Yehouda Harpaz — http://human-brain.org/mirror.html
Apicella, Little, Marlowe https://kebuokc.files.wordpress.com/2019/02/22e1e-preferences-for-symmetry-in-human-faces-intwocultures.pdf
Gilbert, Robert J. C. (Natural Aesthetics and grace: the Reality of the World and the Reality of God)
Stephen M. Barr Modern Physics, Ancient Faith
Eugene Wigner — https://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html
Polanyi — http://www.iucr.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/779/polanyi.pdf
Polanyi and S&R — Manno, Bruno V. “MICHAEL POLANYI ON THE PROBLEM OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION.” Zygon 9.1 (1974).
Symmetry “Bridging Two Cultures” — M., Hargittai. “Symmetry, crystallography, and art.” Applied Physics A: Materials Science Processing 89.4 (2007): 889-898.