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The Beauty of Seeing More Than We Can Understand

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Read an excerpt from Eric Dietrich's EXCELLENT BEAUTY: THE NATURALNESS OF RELIGION AND THE UNNATURALNESS OF THE WORLD. For more information about this title please visit:

Text of The Beauty of Seeing More Than We Can Understand

  • E X C E L L E N T

    B E A U T Y

    T H E N AT U R A L N E S S

    O F R E L I G I O N

    A N D T H E

    U N N AT U R A L N E S S

    O F T H E W O R L D



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    R E L I G I O N S A R E C O M P L E T E LY N AT U R A L I L L U S I O N S . All their al-leged depth and mystery are chimerical. We can nally set them aside as sources of mysteries not worth taking seriously. We are now free to embrace the real mysteries, the ones worth taking seriously, the ones science reveals, the ones that have excellent beauty .

    However, the reader might agree that the mysteries discussed in chapter 10 are indeed strange, yet disagree that they are beautiful. So, in this chapter, I make the case that chapter 10s mysteries and all the others like them indeed possess excellent beauty: they are beautiful, profound, and unnerving, pointing to deeper truths that we have yet to embrace.

    But rst, we need to note something. As luck would have it, the very genetic makeup that makes us religious is also what stands in the way of seeing the beauty in the mysteries, for as we saw in chapter 5 and its appendix and in the appendix to chapter 4, one crucial aspect of religion is our psychological need for producing explanations . The walk-ing tree from chapter 5, though strange, is meant to function, in part, as an explanation used by the Walking Tree Clan. How? Because of the not-so-simple reason that we humans, often by default, take intelligent agents, agents similar to us, to be the ultimate ground of explanation (this was a key point in chapter 4s appendix). Given some phenom-enon X, pointing out that X occurs because some intelligent agent wants it to occur or is responsible for doing it often fully explains X to

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    us. Our gods and goddesses are there to make our world less scary by supplying us with agent-based explanations. This is why, as discussed in chapter 5, we are so goodtoo good, in factat recognizing agents in the world around us. The long and slow march of human science is the march away from deploying agentssun gods, rain gods, thunder gods, crop-growing gods, love gods, war gods, and so onto explain things; it is the march toward unearthing mechanical processes and using them to explain things, where mechanical entails mindless. Our conclu-sion is that seeing the excellent beauties (the mysteries of chapter 10) as beautiful requires at least some measure of refusing to be a victim of the religion illusion, if only temporarily.

    I realize this could be dif cult. The need for explanations runs very deep in our species (for all we know, many of our fellow species, especially our fellow big-brained mammals, also deploy explanations of some sort to help them cope with a dangerous and probabilistic world). A beloved ideal from the Age of Enlightenment (roughly, the late sev-enteenth century to the late eighteenth) was that science and rationality would eventually explain everything. 1 With enough effort, ingenuity, and insight, humans, using science, could understand everything worth understanding. This ideal is still with us to this day, both within science and within our culture. 2 The war between science and religion dis-cussed in this book is not a war between those who are enamored with the Enlightenment ideal and those who are not. It is rather a war be-tween those who think science can explain everything and those who think science and religion together can explain everything. The ght, therefore, is over boundaries (we saw this in our discussion of Goulds alleged nonoverlapping magisteria). Sciences proper domain consists in explanations about how cancer works, why the moon creates tides, how the sun works, and so on. But science cannot explain where the universe came from or, currently, the origin of life or humans. Some divine intervention is needed to explain those things. But if we work separately or together with religion, the message is the same: everything is explainable, everything is understandableif not by us, exactly, then by us and some deity.

    Even though total understanding is an ideal, all scientists, and in-deed nearly all people, love a good mystery: The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! [I found it!] but Thats funny . . . 3 This is why, though it was a truly

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    great machine, the Tevatrons epitaph was so negative: it revealed no surprises. And everyone likes surprises . . . provided they dont upset things too much. The reason scientists love surprises, the reason murder mysteries are a billion-dollar-a-year business, is that everyone loves to have a mystery to solve . Told up front that this mystery has no solu-tion, most scientists, and most people, would be less than overjoyed. The Enlightenment ideal insists on solvable mysteries, mysteries that give way to understanding .

    The existence of the excellent beauties destroys this ideal. Some things are not understandable. And some of these things are so central to being human that it is nearly impossible to conceive of us with-out themconsciousness, for example. In the appendix to this chapter, I discuss just how strongly the existence of mysteries with excellent beauty clashes with the Enlightenment ideal. If Im right about the excellent beauties, the Enlightenment ideal stands unmasked as overly optimistic; it should therefore be abandoned.

    I confess that the excellent beauties from chapter 10 strike me as obviously beautiful: once seen, they and their stark beauty are almost overwhelming. But the reader perhaps needs convincing. Of course, judgments of what is beautiful vary considerably from person to person, so arguments for this or that aesthetic are notoriously unconvincing. This is all the more true when it comes to arguments for an e nduring mystery aesthetic . Still, something positive can be said.

    First, even someone who denies that the mysteries are genuinely and permanently mysterious can come to see that the problems or in-sights they present are profound . And profundities are intrinsically beau-tiful. The great mathematician David Hilbert (18621943) once said of the perplexing in nity of in nities revealed by Georg Cantors work (see chapter 10), No one shall expel us from the paradise that Cantor has created for us. All paradises are beautiful, by de nition. Viewed this way, the mysteries can be seen to be more than problems to be solved. They add an aesthetic dimension to our lives.

    Second, the strange behavior of in nity, the intractable existence of consciousness, and the rarity of the commonplace challenge the idea that the universe in which we live is a place for humans. This is the heart of the clash between the excellent beauties and the Enlightenment ideal: the mysteries of chapter 10 reveal a world that is not mundane . The mysteries show us that this seemingly ordinary universe is not ordinary

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    at all. It is richer, deeper, more magni cent than it appears in the stan-dard coming and going of our daily lives. And this richness expresses possibility , open-endedness , opportunity . And, simply put, all this is beautiful.

    This point goes deeper. There is a sort of paradox here, for the universe is very much a place for humans since we evolved here. In human life, if something X ts inside of something else, Y, then X is smaller than Y. The even numbers clearly t inside the set of all the counting numbers. Ergo, the set of even numbers must be smaller than the set of counting numbers. But this is not true: there are, as we have seen, exactly as many even numbers as counting numbers, namely, there are 0 of both. So to some extent, the excellent beauties exist because of the kinds of beings we are. We are Earthlings, emerging on the scene just a tad under 13.7 billion years after the Big Bang. We are large mammals, with ve senses, big brains, and opposable thumbs. We are not made of dark matter (as far as we know); it is therefore strange to us. We live in the subin nite realm, not the trans nite realm, so the behavior of in nity is strange to us. Most of the numbers we use are garden-variety rational numbers. So it is strange to us that the rationals take up basically no space at all on the number line, which turns out to be composed primarily of the exotic transcendentals like . The excel-lent beauties again reveal our Janus-faced nature. We nd the behavior of in nity puzzling, but we unearthed the behavior of in nity . We built our modern world primarily using rational numbers, yet we can prove the existence of the transcendentals . We are not made of dark matter, yet we have solid cosmological evidence that it must exist . We can, therefore, see more than we can understand. And the universe stands revealed as a place that shows us more than we can understand. It is paradoxical to be human. And the excellent beauties show us this. And, I submit, this fact about us is deep and profound, and while perhaps unnerving, it is beautiful.

    But wont science (again, broadly construed) one day solve every question we have? No, it wont. This is precisely what our mysteries point toward: the world is full of surprises, or, better, our relationship with the world is full of surprises. Our knowledge of the universe and our place in it is robust and complex. But even with our knowledge, the world keeps surprising us not only with new surprises like dark energy, but with continuing surprises that result from crucial phenom

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