Over the last decade or so, a slough of recent research, articles, and arguments have attempted to quantify the subject of beauty, to understand what it means for something to be “beautiful” in the language of science — usually relating to the human face, sometimes beauty more generally.
But is this even theoretically possible? To say that science can speak on beauty, we have to look at what science is more closely, and we must also think about what it means for something to be “beautiful.”
Let me begin by offering a conceptualization of beauty.
When we say that something is “beautiful,” we are saying that the appearance of that thing elicits a particular kind of positive response in us. In a sense, “beauty” exists more in our evaluation of a thing than in the thing itself, though we ascribe the quality of “beauty” to the things which give us this sensation. We might describe something as “beautiful” for all kinds of reasons — sexual attraction, health, the promise of security, or something mysterious which we might be unable to name.
Now “science” is generally thought of as a method, but this method has changed across time. Even today, what is considered “scientific” in one domain may be thought of as methodologically unsound in another field, but this does not inherently make either the domain or the method “unscientific.” If we look at what unites all of these variations of the scientific method, which tend to emphasize isolating variables, quantification, and reproducibility, the commonality which unites them all is the pursuit of objectivity.
All good scientific methodology attempts to remove human subjectivity from the experiment as much as possible. To truly understand science, we must ask “why is it desirable to remove subjectivity?”
A few moments of contemplation takes us to the very heart of what science is. Science — fundamentally — is a theory of epistemology, which holds that things are “real” insofar as they are objective. That which cannot be demonstrated objectively (apart from individual human perception) cannot be relied upon to be “real.”
At first glance, it seems to follow that a science of beauty might then be possible, since we can simply find data on what most people find to be more or less beautiful and voila! — objectivity. It is from this angle that we get people claiming that symmetry — for instance — is objectively beautiful.
But let us return to the nature of beauty. Beauty is not a trait which exists in the object in any kind of physical space (to define it into existence on the basis of the quantitative metrics described above would be circular). If no one observed a “beautiful” object, it’s beauty would vanish… or, rather, would never have existed in the first place. Beauty exists by way of experience, which makes beauty inherently subjective.
When we say that “beauty is subjective,” this does not mean that all items are equally beautiful and ugly, and that such descriptions are totally arbitrary. But it does mean that the objectivity required by science might be impossible even in theory to achieve, and we can see this in the way that all of the “scientific” theories of beauty break down where the rubber meets the road.
When I was younger, I was small-scale bonsai enthusiast. Bonsai are small trees, first cultivated in China. The legend is that court scholars would often go up into the mountains to escape the city-life for some time. There, many were fascinated and inspired by the small, wind-swept trees, clinging to life in the high crags, often with very little soil. To them, these trees represented a peak of beauty, and they brought some home with them. Over time, they learned to train trees using pulleys, levers, pruning, pots, and copper wire, so as to resemble the rugged plants from the wild.
Scientific consensus tells us that of all the universal traits which we can describe as beautiful, symmetry is the most certain. But in the highly aesthetically-developed world of bonsai enthusiasts, this is not the case. In most cases, the ideal shape is actually an isosceles triangle.
The isosceles triangle achieves a balance of form, but the asymmetrical balance gives the sensation of motion and life, rather than the more stagnant feeling often left by perfect symmetry.
But this does not mean that balanced asymmetry is objectively, “scientifically” more beautiful than perfect symmetry. We see patterns of what is considered “beautiful” vary from trees to faces. Even in faces, perfect and complete symmetry can cross from beauty into the uncanny, even creepy. Faces that are “too perfect” can strike us as artificial, whereas true beauty in a face implies life.
The point is that the subjectivity inherent in the very nature of beauty being an experience makes the idea of a “science of beauty” a pointless endeavor.
This does not mean that we cannot learn patterns of what is more or less beautiful, and distinguish the attractive from the ugly. It just means that when we do so, we do not need the label of “science.” We are acting beneath the foundational assumption of science simply by admitting that this subjective experience that we call “beauty” is real at all.
As a final thought, it may be worth wondering if the value of science itself can be objectively quantified. Is science itself a kind of aesthetic inclination? Why is it good to believe that only that which is objective is real and reliable when our entire experience of the world is subjective? To say that it is “true” is — again — circular; we define truth as objectivity by way of words, not data.
In the end, I do not think we can really say that “beauty is scientific.” Maybe the better question is: is “science is beautiful?”
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NC20 Oct 2020
A very interesting and thought provoking post, thank you! I think that science itself has already arrived at a rather uncomfortable threshold where it has to accommodate the subjective factor somehow. Einstein proving that time is not an absolute constant and then the ‘weird’ observer’s effect in quantum physics are in my view some of the messengers of our inherent subjectivity knocking on science’s door.