Sunday, October 15, 2006

Science & beauty

I am the editor of the ISCAST Bulletin ( Here is my soon to be published editorial on science and beauty.

This issue’s cover picture is of a male Victoria’s Riflebird, a corvid (member of the crow family) from tropical north Queensland. The male was a wonderful iridescent sheen to its feathers, a blue tail and wonderful yellow gape. I took this photo at Chamber’s Wildlife Lodge near Lake Eacham. It was interesting to see how much damage the tropical cyclone had done. This is nothing compared to the damage we have done, both through land clearing, and in time, climate change.

The reason I show this image is the whole issue of beauty. To me, this bird it beautiful, elegant and captivating. Yet why should this be? His display is designed to capture a mate, to prove his fitness to provide semen for a female’s eggs. He won’t take part in the care of the chicks (birds that put time and effort into displaying are after multiple matings). There was no female present when I took the shot, it wasn’t even mating season. He was simply practising like a young man preening in the mirror before a night’s cruising.

So why do I find this bird beautiful? Why do we find beauty in anything in the natural world, or in an equation? Do we reduce the beauty when we understand it? John Keats wrote the following in response to Newton’s discovery of what gives rise to rainbows, in his poem entitled Lamia:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow

In the book by Richard Dawkins (no friend of faith of any kind, except in scientism) entitled Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusions and the Appetite for Wonder, he writes

My title is from Keats, who believed that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours. Keats could hardly have been more wrong, and my aim is to guide all who are tempted by a similar view, towards the opposite conclusion. Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry.

Whom are we to believe? The problem with the view of the former is that it greatly downplays the human mind, its ability to comprehend and understand, to explain and to wonder in the explanation. The problem with the later view is the exaltation of science and big “R” reason above all else. None of it answers what beauty is.

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder only? In Simply Christian by New Testament theologian N T Wright, he notes that natural beauty is only the echo of the voice of God, for the perspective of the beauty of a snow avalanche depends on how close to it you stand. Does the fact that avalanches are (or may) be the result of self-organized criticality add or subtract from the beauty. Such study invokes the beauty of simplicity and complexity—that complex behaviour may arise from very simple laws. Alain de Botton notes in his The Architecture of Happiness that beauty in buildings arise from order with variation. In the world of mathematics, the Mandlebrot set demonstrates this same principle, for many coffee table books on mathematics contain images of it.

However, if we view beauty from a purely reductionist stance, it disappears like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. George Ellis’ views on emergence here are helpful. Human beings find beauty in nature, in equations, in the stars and in each other because we are able to see the beauty that emerges. Unlike the female Riflebird, I do not see a potential mate but a creature of beauty. Whether we wish to argue for a Platonic realm of beauty, or simply the ability to recognise it when we see it, it is the imago dei, the image of God in us that allows us to do this. As a creationary evolutionist (to reclaim the concept of creation for we non-literalists), this ability itself is an emergent property, something that Simon Conway Morris hints at in his Life’s Solutions.

Yet, following Tom Wright, we must also acknowledge that nature is amoral and sometimes savage. Self-organized criticality tells us that the light rain shower and the flash flood, the minor tremor and the city destroying earthquake are on part of a continuum. The most violent events occur less often (thankfully). Beauty may be seen in those things we are not directly threatened by. One might say that fear and beauty are also part of a continuum. Do we find beautiful what we fear, or do we need to conquer the fear or the threat before we find something beautiful. It is easy to enjoy a rainforest when you are not lost in it, or fighting for survival within it. As created in God’s image, tending it in his name, do we not need to learn that something is beautiful even if we fear it. I know people who find snakes appealing, and although I have the primal fear of them, and yet need to learn that they too are beautiful in their own way. Beauty may be wonderful or savage.

It is true what Alfred Russell Wallace said about Birds of Paradise (commented upon in a David Attenborough documentary, Attenborough in Paradise) that these birds were there long before humans set eyes on them, and their beauty is not for our eyes. I might add that simply because sexual selection has resulted in such beauty, it does not then imply that as God’s vice regents on this Earth that it is not entirely not for us. It is also true that ultimately, such beauty is for God’s glory, as well as the creature’s good and our wonder.

This at last brings me to consider why it is some of us engage in the scientific endeavour. It is for the love of beauty! I can once recall being counselled by an ordained person (denomination and location withheld) that my desire to study science was simply due to my desire to seek my parent’s approval. Sin fed my interests! What rubbish, what arrogance, what theological blinkedness. Some Christians make a two-fold mistake.

Firstly, their doctrines of creation and salvation are so separated that nothing registers on their radar but evangelism, preaching and “Christian things” like prayer, tithing, and so on. The Earth is like space in Newtonian gravity instead of General Relativity, just a stage where things are played out. Secondly, sin and the fall have extinguished the image of God in people. Perhaps one might say, we are homo peccator and not homo sapiens, and certainly not homo scientia (forgive my pig Latin!)

ISCAST has a continuing role in pointing the church to the value and place of the scientific endeavour in the kingdom of God. I expect, since Jesus was raised from the dead to a physical body, and that there is a new heavens and earth, but so too a new heavens and earth, that some science will persist into the eschaton. What, I am not sure. Perhaps medicine and psychiatry will not be needed, but physics and astronomy will. Who can tell?

We can share how our faith is expressed in our science, as well as in the way we practice our science and relate to our colleagues. We can be the voice of reasoned and gracious Christian thought in the face of unreasoned and acrimonious debate. Likewise, we can continue to speak to the world, to declare that science does not disprove, disallow to make redundant a God who cares for all that is seen and unseen, has created all that is seen and is unseen, and will bring all that is seen and unseen to its telos or end.

1 comment:

Oddbjørn Nødland said...

You have many good and thoughtful insights here on this blog of yours. This entry is certainly no exception!