In another blogging heads interview (and in a related blog), John Horgan explores with David Rothenberg the significance of beauty in scientific thinking. Rothenberg’s new book Survival of the Beautiful, is the subject of much of their discussion. While the conversation centers on questions of beauty (how biology does or does not take it into account) for me, the value of work like this lies in how it promotes the view that the many of the facets of human culture are aspects of nature itself. Drawing a similar portrait of mathematics is one of the motivations for this blog. And so I find work like Rothenberg’s exciting. He’s a musician, and a philosopher with very productive curiosity.
One of the points made in the interview is that a purely functional view of creative activity can miss the significance of what may be happening. In other words, if one takes the view that bird song functions to defend territory or to attract mates, there is little reason to consider the wide variety among different bird songs, from short calls to complex melodies. They become equivalent by virtue of our decision to think in terms of function. Rothenberg also makes the point that we may be missing an opportunity to better appreciate the significance of human creativity and culture by failing to see its counterparts in the rest of the natural world.
The discussion is interesting and Rothenberg’s approach to the art of nature’s creatures is enlightening. It points, again, to the limits of purely functional, reductionist approaches and raises the question of how science might profit from, even a subtle, reorientation of what it expects to see.
For me, the heart of the matter rests in the idea that the essence of all life is to occupy its world by engaging it, expressing it and creating it. As John O’Donohue said so well in Anam Cara “Essentially, we belong to nature. The body knows this belonging and desires it.”
There were two questions Horgan raised, that were interesting to me, but I don’t think Rothenberg adequately considered them (at least not in the interview). The first was given the tendency in biology to overlook the significance of the beauty of things (like peacock tails and bird songs) and our habit of viewing them functionally (as mating strategies) Horgan wondered about the predisposition of physicists to use beauty and elegance as guides in their investigations. As Wilczek once said, symmetry is not so much an aesthetic choice as it is a strategy. Rothenberg addressed the contrast by first taking note of the way biological models of life contain an inherent arbitrariness, inconsistent with the more predictive nature of physics. (I think that’s what he was saying). But he also went on to characterize the patterns and forms for which (or with which) physicists search as “basic forms” and “rules” that could prejudice our view, because life can actually be very messy. I think this view of physics is common and mistaken. A more interesting way to look at it is that physicists trust something that they don’t necessarily understand. They let something that has no particular function, something whose value is that it pleases, something one might call instinctive, direct them.
Horgan also asked him about Semir Zeki’s thoughts on art. And Rothenberg suggested that Zeki was engaged more in looking at what was happening in the brain when we looked at a work of art. But Zeki has suggested some things that are much more interesting than what Rothenberg described. In particular, Zeki has suggested that the visual arts may be extending the function of the visual brain – that is to see, to get information about the world, to find the essence of things. This is a fresh way of bringing art and science together. I have a blog discussing both Wilczek and Zeki here.
I think Zeki’s ideas about art and Horgan’s hunch about physics are related. They both address what may be less than conscious, but fairly complex strategies. I am of the mind that mathematics itself can be viewed in this way, as a living part of us, doing what living things do – engaging, playing, expressing and creating. I see it as one of the actions of our searching, instinctual will.
While I may have been hoping to hear Rothenberg say something more about math, physics and Zeki, his own work with music, art and biology most certainly opens up some very important doors and windows, and I look forward to reading it.