Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Beauty, Culture, and Science

Modern science is an artifact of history and culture, and the importance, meaning, and application of its findings must be interpreted in light of culture. More specifically, science is a specific and highly methodological art of incomplete storytelling. It is very good at telling very precise (and, hopefully, increasingly accurate) stories about physical and material interactions, and it tells these stories in very specific sets of vocabularies. Nevertheless, it remains storytelling, and when I say that it is incomplete storytelling I mean that it stands in need of a larger context. This context would provide not only the ethical boundaries for the practice of science, but also grant meaning to its typically amoral conclusions.

There are two particular examples of what I would consider science run amok: the nuclear testing which began in the 1940’s and which continues today in various parts of the world, as well as the various human experiments undertaken by Nazi scientists during the Third Reich. I choose especially the latter precisely because it is a caricature of science operating without the limitations of a morally responsible narrative. In fact, it is precisely because the culture of Nazi Germany operated with a particularly corrupt social narrative which condemned certain demographics, especially the Jewish people, that these scientists felt free to conduct heinous acts of torture under the justification of “scientific inquiry.” The case of nuclear testing is a far more subtle case of a similarly corrupt narrative which saw the unstoppable, inevitable march of scientific progress (along with the military might to be obtained through its triumph) as the justification for atmospheric tests which both directly or indirectly have contributed to the involuntary deaths and suffering of human beings.

Since the quality of a culture’s narrative has such a profound impact upon how science will proceed, what questions it will “answer,” and how those “answers” will be interpreted, the question might rightfully be asked: “what is the basis for accepting a narrative? How do we judge narratives? Can one culture’s story or stories really be superior to another’s?” One answer, which I believe has been thoroughly discredited, is the idea that it is possible to somehow dig “below the surface” or alternatively search for a vantage point above the plethora of narratives in order to either find a foundation or a perspective by which to judge all narratives. This is the answer of a particularly Enlightenment metaphysics, a project which (ironically) is itself the womb for modern scientific theory and which can often be found tainting the work of science even today. It is the search for a meta-narrative, a “view from nowhere” that somehow can escape the particularity of time and culture in order to find a measure against which these narratives might be judged.

It has been tempting for some to see science as precisely this sort of impartial eye, a bright light that dispels the ancient and medieval darkness of superstition and pierces the ignorant falsehoods of stories and fables, replacing them with the immanent certainty of its methodology and conclusions, and while this may be a hyperbolic portrait it nevertheless points to an attitude embedded in the scientific method in its inception. It is often labeled today as “scientism,” a particularly ironic narrative in which science dispels the myths of narratives and replaces them with, in vulgar terms, “the cold, hard facts,” those unimpeachable, irreproachable, and insidiously meaningless statements about some or another physical interaction in the cosmos.

But if a meta-narrative that serves as an unbounded view beyond all narratives is at the very least doomed to self-destruction in a fit of irony and at worst a self-deceiving dogma that blinds its followers to its own particularity and origin in time and space, what can be left besides the endless variety of narratives? How can any judgment not fall prey to its own particular source and be, in the end, any more than the merely specious and hypocritical judgment of one particular cultural narrative against another?

An answer can be found in the currently disregarded topic of beauty. I suspect that somebody just gave a derisive snicker. This is completely understandable given that the term “beauty” now commonly means the pretty, the pleasing, and is now governed by the arbitrary whims of taste. But as many of you know, the term once stood for something ontologically foundational, something substantial enough to be considered convertible with the term “truth.”

In order to understand how it might be possible to judge among narratives without reference to some unattainable, outside meta narrative it is necessary to rekindle this older concept of beauty and come to an understanding of the beauty of storytelling and its connection to truth. I will not pretend to define beauty. I will claim, however, that in its classical sense, beauty denotes a deep desire between a perceiver and what he or she perceives that is founded in some sort of holistic harmony existing between them. It is a sort of attraction or magnetism based not on capricious or superficial judgments but rather upon a genuine correspondence between man and the world. This aesthetic harmony is ultimately ontological in nature and consists of at least two factors which stand in fruitful tension with each other: first, the recognition of some similarity in being which piques man’s mimetic desire and which hints at the possibility of unity; second, the recognition of some irreducible difference which provides the grounds for attraction and, possibly, genuine charity.

As I have already mentioned, beauty classically held a close relationship with truth. The beautiful, in this conception, holds its attractive (one might say, persuasive) power precisely because of its truthfulness or its true correspondence with reality. One of course immediately sees that this relationship means an immediate rejection of the notion of beauty as mere aesthetic pleasure, if by aesthetic pleasure we means the whims of what appears pretty, quaint, precious, or even alluring, since these are subject to change with the latest fashions (are big sunglasses in now?). Instead, beauty is a much larger sort of desire which unifies both affective and intellectual apprehension into a single act of desire.

The apprehension of beauty occurs within time and space and is particular in nature. Yet in its apprehension of the correspondence or unity between perceived and perceiver it hints at an underlying (or, perhaps, transcendent) reality. This is, I believe, why the apprehension of beauty serves as an important starting point in the neo-platonic tradition vis-à-vis Plotinus. However, while the Platonic tradition attempts to trace this origin of this similarity to an abstract nowhere realm of ideas, it does provide us with an excellent starting place: beauty is consonance, and because this consonance is not an abstract “view from nowhere” it is precisely this consonance which can lead one to accept or reject a narrative.

This sort of beauty comes from an internal persuasive quality of the beautiful thing, not from some pretended "objective" standard; it is, I would argue, an ultimately peaceable persuasion that offers peace because of its harmony with man. The above sketch of beauty as persuasive is my own, but it is highly influenced by David Bentley Hart, whom I insist that you read if you want a much better understanding of the possible connection between beauty and truth.

Beauty then critiques science as it critiques all narratives: we are participants in narratives, and as participants we cannot help but be drawn in a fundamental way towards the beautiful and repulsed from the ugly. With a refined understanding of beauty, these holistic reactions can be understood as tools of truly peaceful persuasion; they really can draw us towards the truth. There are other questions to be answered; is our sense of beauty always and everywhere wholly integral, for instance.

This "answer" (which is, of course, merely a suggestion of where to start questing for an answer) will not be satisfying to anyone who is seeking a closed, complete, or foundationally-grounded system. Closed systems and "complete answers" are simplifications of reality that cut out the difficult bits and ease the strain of thought. I am not pretending that a critique of the narrative of modern science based on beauty is anything other than a cultural and historical undertaking. As a Christian, however, there is all the advantage of Christian narrative and the union of the transcendent with the imminent. The person of Christ offers the central point or crux of beauty as the gospel provides the narrative of peace. However, this advantage holds the infinite burden of the inexhuastability and mystery of Christ's beauty, a beauty which can be pointed to but never circumscribed. The Christian narrative both ennobles and humbles the projects of science, just as it both ennobles and humbles man: the search for knowledge is transformed under the purposes of charity. More specifically, the purposes of charity offers both meaning and limitation to science and demands that we "do unto others." It demands that the operations of science be exercised with caution and reverence which respects the human person as something more than the sum of his anatomical parts. It demands a respect of the cosmos as a world to be tended and cared for rather than a laboratory for exploitation and curiosity. As I have said before, I have no doubt that the world is filled with scientists who labor with precisely this respect, and who would chose to remain ignorant about something if the discovery would require splitting a live human being in half. Nevertheless, the lure of exploitation is a cultural, not merely scientific, temptation; beauty must be a guide not only within science, but within culture at large.


  1. Very interesting discussion of beauty. A much needed discussion, I might add.

  2. Perhaps you could consider a follow-up and extend this article to the science/art of architecture....and then send it to all bishops who are considering building new churches.....

  3. Dale, I think I'll make that my next post. A brilliant idea.

    I'd send it to the bishops if I thought they'd read it. Unfortunately in my diocese, the only time we ever hear from the bishop is when he asks for more money.

    It would be nice to hear from him in a pastoral role, occasionally.

  4. Sigh. Well, all you can do is your part. What they do is their responsibility. Just do what you can and pray that they be led by the Holy Spirit.