Beauty Evades the Clutches of Materialism
Evolution News & Views
Evolutionary materialists must believe, at some level, that the experience of beauty can be reduced to actions of neurons in the brain. This would bring beauty into the purview of neuroscience — a subtopic known as neuroaesthetics — that could be probed and explained with the tools of science. If the materialists are right, the Prince doesn’t really love Cinderella because she is beautiful. She is beautiful to him because he loves her, and he loves her because certain neurons fire in response to a stimulus. Beauty is “merely” an experience in the physical brain, not an external reality.
Bevil R. Conway, a neurobiologist associated with Wellesley College and Harvard, and his colleague from Harvard’s Department of Music, Alexander Rehding, evaluated the pretensions of neuroaesthetics to bring beauty under scientific analysis. Their conclusions were published in PLoS Biology in an open-access paper, “Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty.” They wrote as proponents of neuroaesthetics, not critics of it; but in the end, they found materialism wanting.
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As with any good paper, they began with definitions and distinctions.
Here we consider what questions this new field is poised to answer. We underscore the importance of distinguishing between beauty, art, and perception — terms often conflated by “aesthetics” — and identify adjacent fields of neuroscience such as sensation, perception, attention, reward, learning, memory, emotions, and decision making, where discoveries will likely be informative. (Emphasis added.)
Conway and Rehding attempted to further clarify what is meant by beauty by providing a historical survey of attempts by various artists, poets and philosophers, beginning with Kant, to define beauty in its relation to the brain or mind. Gustav Fechner, an 18th-century psychophysicist, was one of the first to attempt building a science of beauty from the ground up by locating universal principles pleasure or displeasure elicited from art. “He would doubtless be interested by technological developments in neuroscience that have revealed the operations of neurons at cellular resolution and have enabled us to peer almost unnoticed into each other’s working brains,” the authors write. Whether those tools would lead to an understanding of beauty is another question…
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