I am close to finishing an interesting book by Frank Wilczek, A Beautiful Question . He along with some colleagues won the Nobel Prize in physics for, I think, understanding the ideas of quark confinement by the strong force and asymptotic freedom (an interesting idea, that the closer the particles, the less force binding them together). His book provides a review of the development of the standard model in physics and work towards a unified theory with an eye towards the beauty of the mathematical formulas and our clear understanding of nature. He writes for a general audience so I did understand a good bit here but also lost the thread several times, understandable given my last educational exposure to physics and calculus was 1968 in college.
Mr. Wilczek brings in some interesting philosophical notions as he endeavors to explain some esoteric material to us non-mathematically inclined and I appreciate it. One notion is the principle of complementarity: in a relativistic universe many ways to conceptualize a phenomenon exist, some of which are mutually exclusive. Take his example that light can be conceptualized and measured as either a particle or a wave but not both at the same time. This principle strikes me as analogous to gestalt principles, e.g., the face-vase picture, and applicable to the mystic-positivistic event horizons with which I am working.
Considering the epistemological biases in how religion and science handle error and change, it is difficult to understand how they could be seen in a unified view (and so must be dealt with dialectically). When religious laws are broken, well, that is a sin and the person is in error. Some people say they know of the corrective consequences in the next world, but meanwhile the earth continues to spin around the sun and people keep on behaving naturally. When scientific laws are broken, we understand that the law itself is faulty because our knowledge is faulty and so work to understand the world better and thereby modify the law. Errors and change are important in both perspectives but handled very differently.
So is there a guide to help find a dialectical path connecting between the mystic and positivistic? Intuitive connections certainly occur frequently enough to suggest so. I have written before about how the chemist August Kekule, who was trying with others to understand the chemistry of the benzene ring, dreamed of the ourobouros, the mythic snake circled around to grasp its own tail, and so understood the ring structure of the benzene molecule. Many scientists tell similar tales of inspiration when taking a walk (Wilczek), watching a movie with his wife (Francois Jacob), or daydreaming on a streetcar (Einstein).
But return to Wilczek’s notion of finding beauty in theoretical formulations for understanding reality. This is dear to my heart because it brings the idea of aesthetics to the forefront of our humanity. I believe it is our sense of beauty that best guides our dialectical path. Art, being a creative and symbolic rendition of some vitally felt form, does not observe the process of error and change except in its composition as the artist seeks to construct a whole, coherent, and vital form congruent with his or her artistic vision. We are gifted patterners; neuroscientists tell us that we are excellent at finding patterns and creating them. And some patterns are constructed aesthetically guided by some features of symbolic creation, say, along the lines of Thomas Acquinas’s 3 principles (as expressed by a young Stephen Dedalus aka James Joyce), unity (unitas), coherence (harnonius) and vitality (luminas). Wiczek’s presentation of beautiful equations, e.g., Paul Dirac’s mentioned here before, is again an esoteric, highly intellectual view of rare aesthetic, and while it may not be artistic vision, it is vision, one of humanity’s better ones.
Daniel Dennett posed the question of what to save if you have a choice between saving a scientific document, say Newton’s Principia Mathematica or Einstein’s E=MC2, or a work of art, say Michelangelo’s Pieta or Picasso’s Guernica, and answers that he would save the art because it is unique and irreplaceable and we will always recover some increased understanding of nature’s patterns and rules.
In one direction we find the aesthetic spectrum from mathematical beauty and in another orthogonal direction is the beauty we find in nature, not in understanding its orderliness, but in its connection to the mystic. Again, what guides us to explore the space between is art. A couple of posts ago I wondered when in our evolution we began to apprehend the divine, say in the landscape where Stonehenge or Glastonbury were built. An even more basic question would be when did we begin to see beauty in the view?
Do other animals, other primates look at the land and light and weather and sigh with romantic satisfaction? I am pretty sure they do not feel religious, but . . .? Is this the precursor to seeing the divine as we transition from luminous to the numinous?