rebecca_newberger_goldstein's picture
Philosopher, Novelist; Recipient, 2014 National Humanities Medal; Author, Plato at the Googleplex; 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

An Unresolved (And, Therefore, Unbeautiful) Reaction To The Edge Question

This year's Edge question sits uneasily on a deeper question: Where do we get the idea—a fantastic idea if you stop and think about it—that the beauty of an explanation has anything to do with the likelihood of its being true? What do beauty and truth have to do with each other? Is there any good explanation of why the central notion of aesthetics (fluffy) should be inserted into the central notion of science (rigorous)?

You might think that, rather than being a criterion for assessing explanations, the sense of beauty is a phenomenon to be explained away. Take, for example, our impression that symmetrical faces and bodies are beautiful. Symmetry, it turns out, is a good indicator of health and, consequently, of mate-worthiness. It's a significant challenge for an organism to coordinate the production of its billions of cells so that its two sides proceed to develop as perfect matches, warding off disease and escaping injury, mutation and malnutrition. Symmetrical female breasts, for example, are a good predictor of fertility. As our own lustful genes know, the achievement of symmetry is a sign of genetic robustness, and we find lopsidedness a turnoff. So, too, in regard to other components of human beauty—radiant skin, shining eyes, neotony (at least in women). The upshot is that we don't want to mate with people because they're beautiful, but rather they're beautiful because we want to mate with them, and we want to mate with them because our genes are betting on them as replicators.

So, too, you might think that beauty of every sort is to be similarly explained away, an attention-grabbing epiphenomenon with no substance of its own.  Which brings me to the Edge question concerning beautiful explanations. Is there anything to this notion of explanatory beauty, a guide to choosing between explanatory alternatives, or it just that any explanation that's satisfactory will, for that very reason and no other, strike us as beautiful, beautifully explanatory, so that the reference to beauty is once again without any substance? That would be an explanation for the mysterious injection of aesthetics into science. The upshot would be that explanations aren't satisfying because they're beautiful, but rather they're beautiful because they're satisfying: they strip the phenomenon bare of all mystery, and maybe, as a bonus, pull in further phenomena which can be rendered non-mysterious using the same sort of explanation. Can explanatory beauty be explained away, summarily dismissed by way of an eliminative explanation? (Eliminative explanations are beautiful.)

I'd like to stop here, with a beautiful explanation for explaining away explanatory beauty, but somebody is whispering in my ear. It's that damned Plato. Plato is going on about how there is more in the idea of explanatory beauty than is acknowledged in the eliminative explanation. In particular, he's insisting, as he does in his Timaeus, that the beauty of symmetry, especially as it's expressed in the mathematics of physical laws, cannot be explained away with the legerdemain of the preceding paragraph. He's reproaching the eliminative explanation of explanatory beauty with ignoring the many examples in history when the insistence on the beauty of symmetry led to substantive scientific progress. What was it that led James Clerk Maxwell to his four equations of electromagnetism but his trying to impose mathematical symmetry on the domains of electricity and magnetism? What was it that led Einstein to his equations of gravity but an insistence on beautiful mathematics?

Eliminative explanations are beautiful, but only when they truly and thoroughly explain. So instead of offering an answer to this year's Edge question I offer instead an unresolved (and, therefore, unbeautiful) reaction to the deep question on which it rests.