A Fearful Symmetry


by Mark Anthony Signorelli (March 2013)

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

              – Blake, “The Tyger”

Suppose we were watching a tiger hunting in “the forests of the night.” Suppose we were observing – from a safe distance, of course – his deliberate course through the brush and the undergrowth as he stalked his prey. What is it that we would see? In a certain sense, there are two scenes we would be watching.

In the first scene, we would observe the animal’s slow propulsion as its elongated hind legs transferred force down through the muscles to the powerful ligaments in its feet, to the soft padding underneath, and ultimately to the floor of the forest itself. We would catch the unique glow in the beast’s eye, caused by a reflective retinal layer which allows it to see in the dark especially well. And of course, we couldn’t miss the tiger’s famous stripes, the effect of certain genetic combinations which evolved over time because they increased the animal’s camouflaging potential and therefore increased its odds for predatory success and survival.

Watching the second scene, we would marvel at the tiger’s lithe form moving through the florid vegetation with its unique combination of grace and muscularity. The balanced symmetry of his body, which makes his impressive locomotion possible, would captivate our attention. So too would the slight fragments of moonlight which made their way through the canopy, casting a unifying glimmer over the palm branches, the twisted roots of the mangrove, and of course, the banded flank of the animal in its passage. The entirety of the scene, its barely illuminated placidity mixed with an unmistakable aura of danger, would be certain to affect us in the most powerful way.

In the first scene, what we are looking at is a world of analyzed parts, indefinitely divisible, each related to the others in a purely causal fashion. The chain of these mechanical causes may extend from very small parts to very large (as in the genetic processes which cause the stripes to appear in the pelage of the tiger), and may extend very far into the past (as in the evolutionary events which have preserved and modified those processes). But all that is to be observed there in the first scene are the various parts, and the sum of their effects when they act upon one another.

The second scene reveals to us a composition, a unified picture. There the parts are not related to one another in a causal fashion, but rather according to a harmony or appositeness that we can perceive running through them all. Those parts, moreover, are not indefinitely divisible, but display an unmistakable unity in and of themselves, a delimited nature which constitutes each thing as what it is, and not some other thing. The composition before us is a composition of forms. Its appearance is an affective as well as a perceptive experience, most palpably manifesting in a desire to remain in the presence of the appearance. It is a vision of beauty that we see here.

The world as it was described in the first scene is the world apprehended by the scientific mind; it is the reality discovered by the methods and standards of verification proper to science. The world as it was described in the second scene is the aesthetic world, the world we apprehend according to our sense of beauty. The first thing to notice about the relationship between these two visions is that neither is reducible or convertible to the other, because the concepts used to build up each vision are not in any way translatable, one into the other, without remainder. We often hear scientists talk of their findings as beautiful, but in fact, “beauty” is a perfectly unscientific concept, and has no place in science’s authentic theoretical structure. Science can speak of no other relationship among parts than mechanistic causality; it perceives no reality besides a network of causally related parts. As we observed, the elements of a beautiful composition are not related to one another in any causal fashion. Yet they are certainly related in a very important way, since one cannot remove any element without changing the effect of the whole dramatically, and thus the remaining parts. Moreover, the concept of form, which must lie at the foundation of any proper understanding of beauty (since there can be no harmony or proportion among things that are not truly things) has been entirely banished from the precincts of scientific discourse, which admits no limits to the process of analysis necessary to carry out its inquiries. All science sees is an endless network of causally related parts, some of which may be isolable for the purposes of experimentation, but none of which cohere in any real or necessary fashion. Indeed, the more strictly one applies the scientific vision to the scene, the more impossible it becomes to tell exactly where the tiger ends and the rest of the world begins.

I have written here of two separate scenes, of two distinct visions of the world. But of course, in the world we live in there is only one scene, only one reality appearing before us, and it encompasses the mechanistic interactions of part with part, as well as the harmonious composition obtaining between whole forms. It is a realm of motion and loveliness both, a sphere in which our scientific and aesthetic inquiries both discover their proper subjects. The basic point to make here is simply that the scientific and the aesthetic vision are each visions of real things; efficiency and beauty are both really there in the world before us. To assert that either one is false or illusory is to perform the most radical and unwarranted violence upon the universal experience of the human race. 

For going on four centuries now, the western intellectual has been performing that violence with ever increasing regularity. Since the advent of modern science in the 17th century, and the steady insinuation of its habits of thought among thinkers in all disciplines, the modern materialist has become more and more convinced that what he sees when he looks at the world is nothing but a congeries of mechanistic causal chains. The beauty that is there to be seen he dismisses as an effusion of the emotions, purely subjective – ie, not real – in its nature, or else merely an epiphenomenon of certain neurological processes (thus presuming on the impossible reduction of harmonious proportion to mechanistic causes). Similarly, he denies any real existence to the forms evident throughout nature, which constitute every object as this kind of thing and not this other kind of thing. Not that it is easy to find words to adequately define the concept of a form, and beauty itself most certainly lies in the realms of the ineffable. But neither is it easy to state precisely what a cause is, and many philosophers have doubted the substantive content of this concept too, so to pretend that we have some reason to doubt the reality of the aesthetic vision on conceptual grounds, while admitting the reality of the scientific, is a matter of exercising a very selective skepticism. It is nothing but bias and irrationality that compels one to mutilate his own perception of the world in this way.

Insofar as science conducts its investigations into nature’s causal chains, it most certainly can and does state the truth about this aspect of nature. But insofar as science habituates the mind to perceive in the world nothing but these causal chains, insofar as it blinds perception to the totality of the world around us, science cannot and does not state the truth about nature itself. Everything hinges on our willingness to assert this point plainly and unapologetically, no matter how scandalous or risible it may sound to so many of our contemporaries: a strictly scientific vision of the world is one that is fundamentally distorted. It is simply not true to our experience of reality.

The relentless chatter about “science versus religion” conceals from us the fact that what is primarily at issue now is the proper way to think about nature, including human nature. Put theology aside for a moment; the scientific vision of things cannot adequately ground a sensible ethics, politics, or artistic theory, and this is more than enough reason to call its veracity into doubt. M.H. Abrams, for instance, points out the theoretical conundrum of trying to explain literary production in terms of science’s conceptual framework:

The problem was aggravated for the eighteenth-century psychologist of invention because, as I have said, his procedure was mainly to translate the existing theory of poetry into mental terms, and this theory incorporated two elements alien to elementarism and the mechanical categories of mind.  One of these elements was the central Aristotelian concept of ‘form’…The other was the rhetorical and Horatian concept of art as, basically, a purposeful procedure…1

That dozens of academics continue to try to square this circle should not blind us to the futility of the endeavor. The concepts and methods of science simply do not add up to a total, or even an adequate, picture of our experience.

I have said that what is primarily at issue here is the right understanding of nature, but of course, such an understanding certainly has ramifications for our thinking about the supernatural too. All the contemporary debate about so-called “design” arguments centers on whether various biological mechanisms do or do not provide evidence for God’s authorship of nature. The interesting point to note about these debates is how both theist and atheist restrict their vision of nature to only such chains of causal mechanism. But prior to the advent of modern science, purported “design” arguments were as likely to appeal to the beauty and harmony of nature, as evidence of its divine authorship, as to its various causal contrivances. Thus St. Bonaventure, in The Soul’s Journey into God, writes of the “pleasure” which we often take when observing various objects in the world: “The senses take delight in an object perceived through an abstracted likeness either because of its beauty, as in sight, or because of its sweetness, as in smell and hearing…” He claims that our experiences of such pleasure-affording objects are “vestiges in which we can see our God,” and goes on enthusiastically to pronounce,

In this way the species which delights as beautiful, pleasant, and wholesome suggests that there is primordial beauty, pleasure, and wholesomeness in that first Species, in which there is supreme proportion and equality with the generating Source, in which there is power flowing not from images of the imagination but from the truth of apprehension, in which there is an impression which preserves and satisfies and dispels all need in the one who apprehends.2

This is an argument that science obviously cannot evaluate, because it cannot even begin to state the initial premise concerning the beauty and harmonious composition of the world. But so much the worse for science!

Because the self-truncated vision of materialism emerges from prejudices more deeply rooted in the modern psyche than any other opinions, our appeal cannot be to arguments. It must be to experience. We must invite the unconvinced not to deduce or measure, but simply to observe. We must ask them to recognize that the encounters they have certainly had with the world’s beauty have been encounters with something real, that the harmony they have occasionally perceived among the world’s objects is a true, non-illusory relationship. The natural world is a place replete with “fearful symmetries,” and only when we acknowledge this reality will we begin to find evidence for the “immortal hand or eye” framing them all.

[1] Abrams, M.H., The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), 163.

[2] St. Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 71-73.

Mark Anthony Signorelli's first collection of poems, Distant Lands and Near, is now available.  His personal website can found at: markanthonysignorelli.com

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