Beautiful Things

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Good. True. And beautiful. Sometimes called the transcendental virtues, they are rooted in Greek philosophy and were taken up in Catholic thought, and they continue in a number of strands of theology and philosophy. Many of us were introduced to them in the writings of C.S. Lewis.

They are not as explicitly biblical as the virtues of faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13), but as descriptors of God and as principles we are to pursue, they remain powerful.

While truth is the one most often associated with logic and science, I want to build on our discussion of awe from last week. So we will turn to the beautiful this week. What in the world does beauty have to do with science?

Elegant Equations

Science does reveal to us many beautiful things, the kind that can stimulate awe. Think of those NASA Hubble images or a tangled web of neurons or a maze of lasers or a great landscape or wildlife photo. There are many collections of amazing science and nature images or videos. Just do a Google search.

But that’s not exactly the kind of beauty I had in mind. I’m thinking about the kind of beauty that theoretical physicist Richard Feynman saw in the laws of nature. He said, “You can always recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity. When you get it right, it is obvious that it is right—at least if you have any experience—because usually what happens is that more comes out than goes in.”

Feynman was not alone, especially among physicists, in this sentiment. In fact, beauty and simplicity became criteria for selecting one theory over another, or even determining which one is true. Paul Dirac once said, “A theory with mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data. God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe.”

This is why F=ma and E=mc^2 are among the two most famous equations of all time. They are elegant, simple, and in the eyes of any physics geek, among the most beautiful things ever known. Note the heavy theological overtones: the true theory is the simple one and the beautiful one. That sounds a lot like certain strands of philosophical God-talk.

Of course, we don’t know for sure if all of these physicists are correct. Perhaps our human minds simply grasp the simple and beautiful things first, but that some complicated and ugly ones are also needed to solve some of the outstanding riddles of modern physics.

Sabine Hossenfelder, a German physicist, wrote a book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray.  She argues forcibly that “relying on beauty as a guide to new laws of nature is not working.”

Here too, physics might mirror theology—we might aspire to the highest values of beauty, truth, and goodness, but as human creatures, we know we fall short. The world can be a messy and complicated place. Both beauty and disarray. Perhaps that is also true of the world described by physics.

More than Merely Truth

When we position faith and science as a discussion of truth claims, that is where we often encounter conflict. Now of course, if as a Christian I believe all truth is God’s truth and I believe science tells us something true about the world, then I am working with truth claims. And I am confident that all our perceived conflicts are resolvable, even if the resolution is not realized in my lifetime.

But it is important to take a break from operating solely in the “truth sphere.” Goodness and beauty are two other realms that are essential to humans (think ethics and aesthetics), and both tell us something important about God (the very essence of goodness and beauty). And in the case of beauty, I think we have a powerful point of connection between faith and science.

Beauty is something we all can appreciate. Some find it in art, some in nature, some in interpersonal relationships, some in Scripture, and some even in physics equations. It has been suggested that other animals also appreciate beauty.

Beauty is linked to that sense of awe and wonder we considered last week and, like awe, it might be a bridge between faith and science. Scientists often feel awe and sense the beautiful in doing science just as believers do in the journey of faith. You might say both view reality through a lens of beauty.

And as Christians, we know the Source of that beauty. We can agree with those who may not even be theists. Reread that Dirac quote above. Or Einstein when he wrote, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the Mysterious.”

The experience of beauty, like good worship music, lifts all of us and orients us toward the Maker of “Beautiful Things.” Or for those who like more traditional hymns, the One who makes “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”


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