Saturday, 4 December 2010

Science and Beauty

I watched Professor Brian 'Smiler' Cox's assessment of the presentation of science on television given in the recent Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Lecture 2010: 'Science - a challenge to TV Orthodoxy'. In it the one time (and will again) D.Ream keyboard player claimed that scientific balance and television balance can clash. He started with a crack at the philosophy of science, and simply proposed the method of repeated experiment. Scientific balance on this basis as presented on television must therefore be dominated by peer reviewed outcomes.

That must be so, but with a number of reservations. The first is that the critical approach of science is still a method of falsifying, and thus can never wrap something up in finality. Secondly, interest groups still determine to some degree what scientists subject to falsifying and what they do not. Thirdly a great deal of science is becoming mathematical modelling which finds little possibility in testing. Fourthly whereas some science confirms and confirms, as in evolution, some is in need of huge overhaul, such as Cox's own astrophysics because some of the basics just do not add up. The overhaul will only come via science, but something is missing, or some assumptions are not so.

However, from time to time Brian Cox OBE himself used words like 'opinion', which seemed strange, and he did not mention why there might have been a scandal of the University of East Anglia fiddled statistics on climate change - where clearly some sort of interest was at work. After all, much of the green research dates from the Thatcher period in an intention of justifying nuclear power, and politics was there from the beginning.

It is when scientists talk about beauty and elegance that my ears start to prick. It is a quality of transcendence, for example, that makes the simple repetitive maths involving virtual numbers that produces fern and tree-like shapes. Our world is fractal shaped, and shows how simplicity of instruction can lead to variety with repetition.

We also know that subjectivity is at the heart of science, not just in its importance in making measurements at the quantum level, but in perception in general. For all Newton's work on colours, the reality there is about wavelengths and their fundamentals whereas our perception of those colours is our own. For example, we all have grey screen televisions and yet, watching them, we see every shade of colour including the deepest black. Anyone who paints and draws, like I do, knows that colour and shade is relational - if you want something to be bright, make sure something on the picture is dark. People use colours in paintings also to suggest depth, because of the brain's expectations of refraction, and so blue is distance and red is impact.

In religious terms, everything has qualities, and it is when scientists stray into the qualities of things that I start to say a 'yes but'. Like scientists do, I also think astrology is a load of rubbish, but this business of the stars of the zodiac still used isn't simple two dimensional mapping but also about the perceptual qualities of the human.

I also go on to say that so much of the Trinity, incarnation and the rest is equally rubbish, by the same logic, which is why I have so little time for the religion and science mix of someone like John Polkinghorne. So much that passes for revelation is human culture itself, and tradition handed down is much that is made up: a theologian like Karl Barth was one of limitations and a cop-out of solutions. When Radical Orthodoxy tries to describe sociology as 'secular theology' we have a duty to come back at this and remind such 'in the mind' empire builders that sociology depends on doing research, research that isn't quite scientific in dependability but does break down into qualitative validity and quantitative reliability. Against this, Radical Orthodoxy is so much hot air, just as its postliberal Protestant version (Lindbeck, Frei etc.) is a theatrics of group identity that depends on freezing theology as cultural performance.

For me, the ethical life is principally about the avoidance of pain of the other, and a seeking out a joy that has more about it than simple fleeting happiness - important as any happiness must be. It does involve developing a philosophy towards materialism - its positive uses and its sadnesses.

I have more time for something like our desire to grasp and keep when so much is transient is itself harmful to our psyches, and there is value in a spirituality which encourages the attitude of letting be and giving up such grasping. There is a joy there, once relationships with objects and others is trained into skillful handling. This all lies at the heart of Buddhism, where again much gets constructed on top. So there is a role for spirituality in the sense of encouraging a coming to terms with transience, at the same time as encouraging an attitude of marvel at this enormous science and the simple repeating heart of it.

History also has a rigour regarding reliability, and traditions do well to use it and to know when something is not historical by this stricter approach - allowing for the variations of historiography. Sometimes to get into the cultural 'mind' of a group of people requires the in depth and then essaying of a social anthropologist (again about validity in the small scale), but anthropologists cannot go back in time. We are limited to texts and what their primary source and purpose was, and what the secondary purposes have become.

All the above is why I am 'liberal' when it comes to religion, that is to say a highly critical user of traditions towards these basic possibilities of transcendent values. I see others inside traditional communities clearly being similarly careful in their assertions, though also using word constructions to claim being within them. There isn't an alternative history-future of the world as in the whole Christian construction, or alternative sciences of birth and death and presence in food and liquids, just as there isn't an alternative pseudo-science in astrology. But the traditions as works of art give insights into wonder and ethics, rather like a set of occasional signposts among lots of surrounding clutter. I think of religion like I think of doing music and making art, so that they draw on the maths and the science and then make something more of the reflection on these. What is portrait painting, for example, when it tries to look into by representing what we look out of?

Sometimes I have my own little arrogance, in that I listen to Rowan Williams and think here is a man of intense intelligence who has constructed the most incredible amount of logical junk together, just so it all maintains itself as a coherent whole - such as when he'll say the virgin birth of one individual that he used to dismiss is becoming more and more logical, like more and more logical to what - to those relationships he has with others who believe in magical births? What a waste of a brain, I sometimes think. It is about this time of year that journalists and radio presenters ask people like him the simpler questions that expose such castles in the sky.

Religion also reflects on and attempts to regulate for apparent human good the whole business of our reproductive urges and the sexual expressions of our relationships. It surely can tie itself in knots. Again, art - art of the human - can be sexy and expressive, as part of that going in to which with we come out: the something that stirs that becomes stirring paint.

We should get away from such alternative sciences and apparent histories and know what is just made up. As Professor Cox has said, numbers and belief in something counts for nothing (in such terms). But we should not dismiss culture, either, because our perceptions and consciousnesses and representations back are part of the patterns that we might just call beautiful.

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