Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Science, Beauty, and the Transcendentals

What is the nature of beauty, and what does it have to do with the day-to-day teaching and research activities of the scientist? These were the questions pursued by Notre Dame’s new Dean of Engineering, Dr. Peter Kilpatrick, in his Fall 2008 Schmitt Lecture, “Science, Beauty and the Transcendentals,” delivered to an appreciative audience in the main auditorium of McKenna Hall on Tuesday afternoon, December 2.

Drawing upon such thinkers as St. Thomas Aquinas, Josef Pieper, and Jacques Maritain, Dr. Kilpatrick articulated a conception of beauty as radiant form. As Maritain puts it, “form” is the proper principle of intelligibility, the proper clarity of everything… a vestige or ray of the creative intelligence at the heart of created being.” The beauty of something thus comes down to the clarity or splendor of its form, a clarity which images and beckons us toward the perfect clarity of God’s own being. The Greek word for beauty, in fact, is derived from the Greek verb “to call.”

With an inventive PowerPoint presentation, Dr. Kilpatrick then showed various images of physical nature which captivate us with their beauty.

All of which, however, led to the question: even if we take a moment to appreciate the beauty of physical nature, what does such an attitude have to do with the real work of a scientist? Dr. Kilpatrick’s reply was that the appreciation of beauty involves a particular act of the mind which the scientist too often neglects. That act of the mind is the intuitive act, the act by which the mind simply “drinks in” the intelligibility of reality. This understanding of mind as receptive of the intelligible forms of things guards the scientist from thinking that human thinking is exclusively analytical. The point is not to denigrate this activity of the mind, which is absolutely necessary to the pursuit of truth, and indeed to the full appreciation of beauty. Rather, Dr. Kilpatrick’s point was to remind his audience that truth is more about vision than critical analysis; more about receptivity than research. Truth is above all a gift, the gift of the mysterious intelligibility at the most intimate level of created reality, a mystery God delivers to us through the attractiveness of beauty.

After a public reception following Dr. Kilpatrick’s lecture, some thirty-five specially-invited guests, including many of the graduate students who are Schmitt Fellows in the Schools of Science and Engineering, joined Dr. Kilpatrick and Center director David Solomon at The Morris Inn for a dinner in Dr. Kilpatrick’s honor, where after dessert there was more spirited discussion of the themes of the day’s lecture.

The charge of the Schmitt Lecture Series is a broad but essential one: to reflect on the ethical, political and religious dimensions of science and technology. The Schmitt Fellows are the principal recipients of the generosity of the Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation to the University of Notre Dame. It was for the sake of honoring that generosity that the Schmitt Lecture Series was founded.

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