Truth or Beauty

By David Orrell

Scientific truth, due to the nature of the scientific enterprise itself, is always provisional, while beauty, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. Given these shifting sands, physicist David Orrell has taken on a tricky subject indeed with this treatise on how aesthetic paradigms have influenced the history and development of science.

In Orrell’s hands an “aesthetic” defines not just a philosophy of beauty but a mode of perception that is motivated by a set of values. And as he proceeds he shows how one particular aesthetic – a “reductionist” aesthetic characterized by “masculine,” “right-handed” properties such as elegence, harmony, symmetry, integrity, unity, and order – has dominated scientific thinking since the days of Pythagoras, leading to a misconception of the essential nature of the universe. Against this reductionist view Orrell proposes a “complexity approach,” involving a shift from a mechanical to a natural, organic paradigm, one that stresses the importance of emergent properties, valuing the whole over constituent parts, context over abstraction, and possibility over predictability.

This is an argument that casts a wide net both in terms of its historical scope and the range of disciplines involved (in the modern era, Orrell moves on from math and physics to include economics and sociology). But while such a broad approach may appeal to the general reader, it also has the effect of blurring the book’s focus somewhat as we are taken through a general history of major developments in the history of science that isn’t always strictly on topic. It is only in the final sections that Orrell addresses his main point, which is that the dominant mechanical aesthetic is showing itself to be less reliable, and indeed less grounded in reality and more in speculative aesthetic thinking (his major targets in this respect are string theory and deterministic economic modeling), as we enter the twenty-first century.

Orrell presents a fascinating and mostly coherent account of recent developments, though the shift he proposes may be less radical than it seems. A complexity aesthetic may just be the next step in a natural evolution in scientific thinking, a course adjustment made in order to deal with the development of new fields of scientific inquiry, and new evidence provided by new technologies. Furthermore, whether a delight in disorder, impermanence, and imperfection will provide aesthetic concepts as productive and “true” as the mechanical models of the past is a question yet to be answered. If they do, we may look back upon Truth or Beauty as an important manifesto of the new spirit of the age. But even if they don’t, Orrell has still provided an intriguing new way of thinking about how we got here.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2013.

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