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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


Feynman's Flower

The Expansive View of Science,
Why Physics Complements Aesthetics

David Lane and Andrea Diem-Lane

The Beauty of Science

In my science and religion classes at California State University, Long Beach and Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, I often hear complaints from some of my more devout religious students (usually Christian and usually fundamentalist) that science takes the mystery away from the universe and tends to leave only a depressing and materialist residue, where the beauty and majesty of life is reduced to a Darwinian struggle over differential reproductive successes.

While at first glance this may seem to be a reasonable response to the tremendous progress science has made in explaining hitherto inexplicable phenomena, the truth is the opposite of what many fear. Science, due to its progressive and corrective nature, actually expands our aesthetic horizons and thereby exponentially increases our sense of wonder and mystery about the cosmos at large.

A good example of this is to juxtapose the latest findings in astronomy with the Hebrew description of creation as espoused in the first book of the Tanakh which was written down thousands of years ago. In Genesis Chapter 1, verses 14-19, it states, “God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.”

Forgetting for the moment that the moon (“the lesser light to govern the night”) receives its light primarily from the sun, the Genesis account, though poetic and beautiful, is hampered by a limited view of the cosmos. This is not surprising, of course, given that in those days there was no telescopes and no information about how planets and stars actually formed.

However, with the advent of astronomy, especially when it discarded some of its more superstitious elements (such as astrology), our understanding of the universe has undergone a radical expansion. As a quote from the movie, Little Things that Jiggle put it, “Astronomy is Genesis rewritten and expanded nightly.”

We are now keenly aware that there are over 100 thousand million stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone and almost daily we learn about newly discovered distant planets, black holes, and other stellar phenomena.

Astronomy’s view of the universe, like the big bang that formed it some 13.8 billion years ago, is expanding at an unimaginable rate and along with it so is our understanding of the vastness that surrounds us.

Conversely, with the advent of high powered microscopes, we have the ability to see hidden worlds buried deep inside living cells, providing us with intricate details about atomic worlds within.

Thus, I invariably explain to my religious minded students that science doesn’t take away the mystery and the sublimity of existence (even as it tries to explain much of it), but only enlarges our parochial perspectives by its ever increasing illuminations on what has erstwhile been kept dark and hidden.

This is why Richard Feynman, the renowned physicist and Nobel prize winner for his work on quantum electrodynamics, got a bit miffed by his artist friend who criticized him and other scientists for diminishing the beauty and charm of nature by dissecting it.

As Feynman famously recounted in a filmed interview,

“I have a friend who's an artist and he's some times taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say, "look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree, I think. And he says, "you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing." And I think he's kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower that he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean, it's not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure...also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting -- it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question -- does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that are...why is it aesthetic, all kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.”

Richard Feynman astutely points out that science doesn’t diminish our capacity for wonder or our appreciation for beauty, but only accentuates our aesthetic sense.

Those religions which believe only in sola scriptura are by their very definitions deductive systems of inquiry that continually look to reaffirm their a priori belief systems and disregard any inductive quest which could potentially upend or transform its core doctrines. This type of religion, in other words, kills the spirit of seeing knowledge by fearing the consequences of new information and thereby tragically (if unconsciously) snuffing out an appreciation for an unfolding mystery.

Feynman’s flower is a multi-leveled metaphor which reminds us that the wide eyed pursuit of science can only enrich our wonder of the multiverse in which we find ourselves. As Feynman himself said best,

“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?”

Rationality and Science


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