The aesthetics of science (ii). More on Goethe.On our point of view. On sunsets and 'the beautiful theory'.

Goethe was well known for objecting to Newtonian physics (especially his theory of colour), and tried to formulate a different view; one that was ultimately completely unsuccessful. Such a world-view was however formulated by Steiner and the anthroposophists. I am not at all recommending it as a way of doing science, even less as a way of spiritual enlightenment - clearly it is not a very good one - but it still tells us something about the world that the rest of science tends indeed to minimise.
Science in general wants to take apparently unconnected sets of observations - a sunset, the fall of an apple, the path of an arrow - and connect them all up into more general, abstracted theories. It almost always does this by removing the component that makes sets of events look less interconnected than they actually are; ie the human point of view. We could never have a science of gravity if we did not attempt to abstract what was common through all these events, as Newton did when he connected the fall of an apple to the motion of, say, the moon. Indeed, when such a movement away from the phenomena themselves is made, typically into a mathematical formulation, then the phenomena become of no interest. A sunset, considered qua sunset, tells us nothing about gravity after all; and may well mislead us. Another fine example is provided by electrical and magnetic phenomena: they were puzzlingly connected, yet so obviously different. It took more general electromagnetic theoretical developments that culminated in the work of Maxwell before this conundrum could be solved. This in turn laid the basis for relativity and the revolution in our world view that took place at the turn of the twentieth century. Indeed, the principle of relativity, that the laws of physics should be the same no matter what the frame of reference is, explicitly denies any special point of view of human observation.
Nevertheless, the human viewpoint is, as Kant pointed out, the only one we can possibly have. And because aesthetics is itself subjective, and thus to do exactly with the human standpoint, any aesthetics of science must return at some level to phenomenology. To abstract away from our own view allows us to make extremely powerful mathematical models; but at the same time it, in some way, diminishes our aesthetic experience of the world. Of course, as I suggested earlier, a reflective movement derived from experience is indeed part of what aesthetics is, and perhaps mathematical abstraction plays a similar role in science (of which more below). But it should not be at the expense of the experience itself, in the same way that the reflective movement caused by the sublime finale of the Marriage of Figaro is a complement and not a replacement to the music itself.
A quirky, even bizarre example of this is given by the anthroposophical work Movement and rhythms of the stars by Joachim Schultz. Rather than taking its stance on the Copernican heliocentric world-view of the planets, moon and sun, it rather develops in great detail what their movements look like to us. It thus goes into details of the patterns caused by the passages of eclipses, the slow loops of the planets in their normal and retrograde movements, and the shifting path of the moon through the years, all from our point of view. In doing so it reveals symmetries, patterns and beauties in planetary movements that are quite ignored by conventional science. I can recommend the book to anyone interested in naked eye astronomy, as long as you can overcome your queasiness caused by its blatantly geocentric stance.
The point is that we are on the Earth, and this is what things actually look like to us. Indeed, as long as we remember not to confuse the aesthetics of an experience - ie what the movements of the planets etc look like, with the abstraction we make from it, ie the development of the mathematical and physical model that explains it - we should feel no unease. Rather, such an approach brings out even further the intense beauty of our world, the world we see and live in. It should be encouraged, as part of a general programme of aesthetic restoration.
One further point seems worth mentioning. In science, the abstraction away from the phenomena leads to mathematical theories; and these themselves are often beautiful: indeed, it is their very beauty that famously attracts scientists and mathematicians. thus one has a sort of double reflection (to somewhat inappropriately borrow a phrase from Kierkegaard); a scientific one, away from the phenomena; and an aesthetic one, towards the 'right theory'. Perhaps by somehow preserving the phenomena in all this one might get another sort of aesthetics: the resonance between the beauty of the phenomenon and the beauty of the theory. This is the sort of abstraction that one perhaps gets in the Glass Bead Game of Hesse; more important, it may show some analogies to Kant's theory of aesthetics in terms of the resonance between internal and external ordering. Finally, I want to suggest that in all this, scientific endeavour, especially as construed here, is essentially an aesthetic one; it is the beauties of the regularities of the world that lead us to equally beautiful theories. But how does this aesthetic relate to that of nature (considered in its own right, not as an object of science), art, and indeed religion? Or are these all unrelated?


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