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Beauty, Truth, and the Sciences

Beauty, Truth, and the Sciences

Bethany Sollereder on why beauty and truth may not be linked 26/01/23

I dislike beauty as a way to think about truth. In saying this, I put myself in opposition to the majority of the scientists in the new Theos report, but also in opposition to the majority of the theological tradition. In classical thought – and carried through to the foundational figures of the Christian tradition – goodness, truth, and beauty were seen as a powerful triad that worked together to signpost truth.

The Bible, I think, is not so optimistic about beauty as a whole. Yes, there are places where the beauty of God is seen as an attribute that is praiseworthy. The Psalmist seeks nothing more than to “gaze on the beauty of the Lord,” (Ps. 27:4) for example. But just as often, there are warnings. Some are against the attractions of beauty: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting” (Proverbs 31:30a, NIV). Others warn that the ugliness of the subject in question could mean people miss God’s messenger, like the suffering servant in Isaiah who “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isa 53:2b, NIV)Brandon Vaidyanathan’s study, on which the Theos report is based, helpfully divides beauty into three categories. The first, ‘simple beauty’, simply means people have an aesthetic response to the subject in question: the flash of fins through the water, the colours of a sunset, the crimson of a petal. These may attract our attention or inspire our efforts, but no one claims that they help us understand how a thing works. I would add that they may even cause problems to our understanding – they attract us into paying attention to one part of nature over another. To some extent, modern science has had its tremendous success precisely by ignoring what Galileo came to call the “secondary attributes” of things. Disregarding beauty, colour, scent, and other sensory attributes of nature may have impoverished physics when compared to reality, but it also made it powerful. 

Second, there is ‘useful beauty’. As I am neither a mathematician nor a physicist, I hesitate to comment on the majority of uses of this type of beauty, but it is the concept of beauty of which I am most skeptical. Take any disagreement in theoretical physics, say, string theory over against quantum loop gravity, and both sides will speak eloquently about the beauty and elegance of their competing views. Which side is right? Beauty will not reveal the right path. Historically, many beautiful, simple, and elegant ideas in science were wrong. Johannes Kepler thought the orbital distance of the six (known) planets were related to the Platonic solids. It is a lovely, attractive idea, but wrong. Up until Tycho Brahe’s extremely precise measurements of Mars’s orbit, everyone thought that planets moved in perfect circles. Again: a beautiful but ultimately erroneous notion.

There are mathematical examples too, like Borwein Integrals. Borwein Integrals are a pattern of equations that always comes out to π/2: a simple and elegant result. This lovely outcome is consistent for the first seven repetitions of the pattern. Then, with no warning, in the eighth step of the pattern, the predictable outcome breaks down and what was beautiful and elegant becomes clumsy and incomplete: the equation suddenly comes to π/2 – 2.3×10–21. The beauty turned out to be, as the Proverb warned, fleeting.

The same problem is evident amongst biologists. William Paley, whose 1802 classic Natural Theology argued that design was evident in the natural world, used beauty as evidence for design. After trying to show that the human body was designed with beauty in mind, he wrote, “we may refer, with a considerable degree of probability, other particulars to the same intention [of being divinely designed for beauty]; such as the teints of flowers, the plumage of birds, the furs of beasts, the bright scales of fishes, the painted wings of butterflies and beetles, the rich colours and spotted lustre of many tribes of insects.” But in 1859, Charles Darwin would argue that these same characteristics could come about without any purposeful design, but as a result of chance variation being acted upon by natural selection. Paley’s system was beautiful – it connected the living world together under a singular divine purpose. But it was wrong.

Some will argue that in all these cases the immediate breakdown of beauty points to a deeper, more universal order and beauty. Integrals and butterfly wings just need to be viewed from the proper perspective and beauty will be restored. But then, how do we know that the new perspective is any more truth–bearing than the old perspective? Another Darwin or another messy eighth step may be just around the corner.

If beauty points to truth, what should we think of discoveries that come from ugly or horrifying sources? The German chemist Friedrich Kekulé was trying to figure out the chemical structure of the benzene molecule. While daydreaming, he saw the image of a snake devouring its own tail, which inspired his discovery of benzene’s circular structure. Not many people would think of an autophagous reptile as something inherently beautiful, yet it led to truth despite the edge of horror.

Finally, there is the ‘beauty of understanding’. I cannot deny that I’ve had many experiences where I’ve trudged through book after book only suddenly to have a rushing sense that I’ve climbed to a summit of knowledge and seen a whole new landscape of thought open before me in vast array. It is thrilling. It is pleasurable. It is inspiring. But I’ve sometimes had that feeling when, upon further reflection, I’ve come to utterly reject the conclusions I drew from the experience. My examples are mostly theological: theological models that weave scripture verses and philosophy into complex, gorgeous, ethereal systems of beauty. But, like the fragile beauty of a snowflake, under the heat of scrutiny, these systems simply melt away. I still remember the thrill of an early foray into Dispensational theology, for example, but later discarded it wholesale. Maybe it is the sense of having been let down by the beauty and consilience of theological systems that makes me so suspicious of those who point to beauty as a key tool.

Lastly – most importantly – an overreaching focus on beauty could ultimately draw us away from crucial questions that are ugly, disconcerting, and discordant. The realities that climate change will bring, for example, are disturbing and uncomfortable. No one, I think, would find ‘beautiful’ the prospect of millions of species extinctions, billions of people displaced, and the untold suffering that famine, floods, and conflict will unleash. Yet, these are undoubtedly many of the most important questions we can be asking right now.

I want to be clear: it is not that I think beauty is unimportant as a source of motivation or pleasure in science or in theology (the first kind of beauty). But I do not accept that it is linked intrinsically to truth and as such I am inherently suspicious of its use as a heuristic signpost in science.

Bethany Sollereder is a Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh.


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1 My thanks to Brian Stewart for this example.

2 Wiliam Paley, Natural Theology; or, evidences of the existence and attributes of the Deity. 12th edition (London: J. Faulder, 1809), 198–99.

Bethany Sollereder

Bethany Sollereder

Bethany Sollereder is a Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. She received her PhD in Theology from the University of Exeter and an MCS in interdisciplinary studies from Regent College, Vancouver. She specialises in theology concerning evolution and the problem of suffering.

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Posted 26 January 2023

Beauty, Beauty and Truth, Belief, Faith, Science, Truth


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