October 19, 2022

God, Natural Sciences, and Beauty

AMU Communications

Brett T. Feger, MS, MA

The study of the natural sciences, especially those of physics and biology, reveal man as one who naturally desires to know, which is not natural to any other animal. Additionally, the objects of these sciences reveal the transcendental reality of beauty to the scientists who study them.

According to an August 2022 publication by Christopher Jacobi, Peter J. Varga, and Brandon Vaidyanathan of Catholic University of America, physicists and biologists who encounter beauty, wonder, and awe experience greater well-being 1.  Over 3,000 scientists from four countries were surveyed. Most scientists find beauty in the phenomena they study. They described that beauty with the following features: hidden order or patterns, inner logic of systems, simplicity, and elegance. Asymmetry was noted as the least beautiful feature. For the Thomistic tradition, these responses are not surprising.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that beauty belongs to the nature of a formal cause. A formal cause, or essence, is an intrinsic principle of determination that makes a thing to be what it is. For example, the form of a fish, regardless of type, causes it to be fully aquatic with a backbone, gills, and fins. Anything that has existence has a formal cause and, therefore, contains some degree of beauty.

Further, Aquinas teaches beauty to contain three foundational conditions: wholeness or integrity, proportion or harmony, and splendor or clarity. Beauty is a property of being that emerges from each condition but unites to reveal the whole. The way in which physicists and biologists encounter beauty, along with wonder and awe, is no different.

Importantly, anything that exists has its being from God, who is Being itself. God is the cause of all that exists and, as such, is beauty itself in which all created beauty participates. Therefore, because created beauty is a participation in the beauty of God, beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder; rather, there are objective criteria at the foundation of beauty.

Regarding beauty, most of the scientists surveyed responded they felt a sense of clarity upon seeing how things fit together. They also experienced awe in the thrill of a new insight and wonder in the gratitude for learning something new. A new insight is due to greater clarity or experiencing splendor from something once unknown or unobserved. For an example, let’s stretch the application of the conditions of beauty to the Everglades system.

I see the emergence of clarity most directly on field trips while explaining to students the dynamism of the Everglades system with its wet and dry seasons. Wading bird migration is synchronized with the transition from wet season into the dry season beginning in October. In the wet season, wading birds arrive after fish populations increase. As the dry season begins, the water drains and evaporates from the marshes, which allows for easier hunting of fish, crawfish, and snails. This food is vital to wading birds as they enter their breeding season in November. Things fit together: the system is logical; wading birds do not arrive randomly.

After considering this natural dynamism, students move from a state of not understanding how the Everglades functions to understanding both water as the lifeblood of the Everglades and the effects of hydrology on the interplay of many different life forms. Each part has integrity–indeed, every abiotic and biotic component, as they live according to a particular nature and fulfill their roles in the system. The system has harmony. The Everglades no longer appears as a Shrekish swamp. Instead, beauty emerges from the clarity students derive in recognizing the integrity of the parts and the harmony of the whole. Students begin to see the beauty and goodness at every level of creation. The surveyed scientists precisely reveal this experience.

The most important finding of the survey was the effect of experiencing beauty in scientific work. Such aesthetic experiences are most strongly linked to providing meaning in life. Experiencing beauty cannot produce any other effect precisely because, through beauty, we come to know something more about the created thing being observed and, therefore, something about the Creator. This is the role of natural science: to reveal more deeply the beauty, goodness, and truth of God’s created effects. Biology and physics provide a unique and powerful way for people to perceive God’s invisible nature in the things that have been made.

LEARN MORE ABOUT GOD AND BEAUTY AT THE HAIL MARY LECTURE SERIES


[1] Christopher Jacobi, Peter J. Varga, Brandon Vaidyanathan, “Aesthetic Experiences and Flourishing in Science: A Four-Country Study,” Frontiers in Psychology 13 (August 2022), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.923940.

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