Science and the Truthfulness of Beauty

How the Personal Perspective Discovers Creation

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Robert Gilbert
Routledge Science and Religion Series
  • New York, NY: 
    , September
     172 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Picasso famously stated that “art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs.” Such is evidence of how Picasso resisted the application of any sort of classification or formula to the artistic endeavor. His statement also implies something else: the way art works and the way classification works are vastly different—even antagonistic—in their view of the world. In art, there is a subject who fashions what may (or may not) be beautiful and a subject who may (or may not) receive the beautiful. Getting to the possibility of beauty outside the experiences of these subjects may be impossible.

The sciences, however, try to classify and organize natural phenomena—phenomena independent of a subject who fashions or a subject who observes. What might the quality of beauty, an aesthetic category, have to do with such an undertaking? Such concerns the theme of Robert Gilbert’s Science and the Truthfulness of Beauty: How Personal Perspective Discovers Creation. In addition to being an Anglican priest, Gilbert is a structural biologist at the University of Oxford who researches bio-medically important cellular processes. Here he brings both occupations together to argue that the instinct for beauty, which for him has theistic implications, is essential to the scientific task because the beauty of a component of reality inspires the scientist to “fall in love” with observing it, researching it, and classifying it. The prospect of identifying subjective influences in science is not without detractors, however. The mathematician Sabine Hossenfelder recently argued in Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray (Basic Books, 2018) that the interest in finding scientific theories “beautiful” has been distracting and misguided rather than essential; theories that were originally understood as “ugly,” such as Kepler’s proposal that planets move in ellipses, are now understood to be true. Thus the problem: if there is nothing like beauty “out there,” outside the subject, but the subjective instinct for beauty is essential to the task of classification, would the scientist admit that even scientific observation and experimentation refer back to the perceptions of the subject? 

Defining “beauty” is important at the outset, and Gilbert does so succinctly: beauty fascinates and thrills us, while the “sublime” refers to a deeper, rarer experience. Taking a step further, Gilbert relates the quality of “beauty” to the quality of “play.” What makes things attractive to us, and therefore worthy of the designation “beauty,” is akin to what makes things “fun” in terms of play. Gilbert parallels the markers of “beauty”—such as symmetry and harmony—to the markers of “play.” Describing each pertains to assigning rules in the interest of setting patterns of order, pertaining to a mix of the rational and irrational. Gilbert argues that while the scientist is an observer of reality, constructing experiments in order to come to a conclusion about the status of something, the artist interacts with reality in a similar way. 

The pivotal chapters for Gilbert’s purposes are chapters 6 and 7, “Where Does Beauty Come From?” and “Understanding Beauty,” in which he proposes two guiding questions: “Why is there anything rather than nothing?” and “Why does what we say to each other mean anything at all?” Gilbert approaches the former question using stories of creation in Genesis, in which God does not act on the world but relationally loves the world into existence. The human being as imago Dei is central to Gilbert’s assessment of the conditions for recognizing and appreciating beauty. Gilbert carefully analyzes the possibility of an objective moral order evident from the continually evolving desire of human beings to make sense of the world and to improve their moral stance. Would we have no desire to improve and evolve a moral position, it would be easier to accept moral relativism as accurate. He asserts that “with morality, it is not the capacity to hold one view or another that matters, but the belief that there is something worth arguing about in the first place” (116). Such belief refers to the conditions by which we understand the limitations of language to capture experience, and by which his friend’s dislike for the music of Mozart reveals that even disagreements in aesthetic taste show that there is indeed an aesthetic sensibility essential to being human that governs taste. In short, that we have an instinct for morality is akin to the instinct for beauty, and such instincts are conditional to the particular manifestations of moral or aesthetic activity which occur.

The evolution of language and the recognition of an aesthetic sensibility also relies on social interaction, by which discourse in relationship leads to greater truth. Similarly, he notes, there is no such thing as a scientist working in isolation, not merely from peer scientists, but from the inheritance of scientific discoveries that stretch back in history. Art similarly relies not just on inherited ideas (or the interest to discard them), but on the audience—the subject who witnesses the art object—bringing it to presence. Scientists must also grapple with the subjective perception of beauty that makes a particular slice of reality so fascinating that they devotes themselves to investigating it, whether they are focused on the behavior of New Caledonian crows or an examination of protein molecules interacting with DNA. A relationship to reality, governed by an experience of beauty, is indispensable to the scientific task. Gilbert sometimes takes the reader into jargon-laden excursions in physics and biology that are so detailed as to become cumbersome for the non-specialist. Gilbert’s intention is presumably to appeal to the scientist as well as to the philosopher of aesthetics or the philosopher of religion. Such is the risk of placing such diverse and often sequestered fields in conversation; but this is a risk Gilbert takes on well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susie Paulik Babka is Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of San Diego.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Gilbert has worked in Oxford since 1999, in 2002 becoming fellow and tutor in biochemistry at Magdalen College. From 2004 to 2012 he held a Royal Society University Research Fellowship in the Division of Structural Biology, part of the Nuffield Department of Medicine where he is now Professor of Biophysics and Director of Graduate Studies alongside his Biochemistry Faculty and College teaching. From 2009 to 2011 Professor Gilbert trained for ordination as an Anglican priest before being made a deacon in 2011 and ordained priest in 2012. After completing his curacy in the parishes of Wolvercote and Wytham in North Oxford, he stayed on as an associate priest before taking up a similar role at Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry, in 2016. He is the author of more than eighty scientific articles, co-edited an international scientific monograph published in 2014 and is the Managing Editor of the European Biophysics Journal.



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