Roger Penrose on Beauty and the Transcendentals

In our new book Customer Experiences with Soul we describe being in relation to Plato’s Ideas, or which others have referred to as the trascendentals. These include beauty, truth and goodness. It was therefore extremely interesting to watch a new interview with Sir Roger Penrose, one of the world’s greatest living mathematical physicists whose more recent work has focused on understanding the nature of human consciousness, discuss Plato’s notion of beauty. 

His interview is part of the four-part documentary Why Are We Here? in which Oxford physicist Ard Louis and film-maker David Malone meet scientists, philosophers and writers to discuss questions about meaning and the nature of the universe.

The interview starts with the question “If you’re willing, as both of you do, say, look there’s some kind of ideas, truths, in this case mathematical ones, which are woven into the fabric of the universe, could there be other kinds of truths? Like moral truths or aesthetic truths?”

Penrose answers “Other kinds of truths? Well there certainly could be, yes, I’m not saying that mathematical truth is the whole of truth. That would be too arrogant a statement to make. We don’t know of any other area which is so successful in describing the physical world.”

The interview continues with a discussion about the relationship between beauty, truth and goodness:

Ard: Could there be other kinds of truths that you in effect discover rather than create?

RP: Well you might say… You see, I’m not against, I mean we’re going to get sort of Platonism in some form. You see, the Platonic ideals, truth is only one of them, and you would say truth, beauty, if you like, and morality.

Ard: And goodness?

RP: The true, the good and the beautiful. Now I would be quite happy to give some kind of reality to all these things. Now the only thing that mathematics has to say in a clear way, I suppose, is the truth part, and it’s talking about necessary truths. Well it’s not talking contingent truths. We’re not talking about something which might be here or might be there. We’re talking about things which by their very nature are true or false.

It’s also clear that there are inter-relations between, in particular, beauty and mathematics, and people very often talk in terms of a beautiful result. And it’s certainly the case that if you have two alternatives where you worry about which is true, it’s a better bet to think that the one which is more beautiful is more likely to be true. But this is always a very subtle issue. You might find there’s a deeper reason that you hadn’t realised before which makes the other one actually beautiful in a deep sense that you hadn’t appreciated before.

Ard: So beauty is a guide to truth?

RP: I think beauty is a clear guide to truth.

Towards the end of the interview Penrose remarks “Let me put it like this: I am definitely sympathetic to all three of the Platonic ideals. I think beauty is a clear guide to truth. And then the moral I would see even more so, probably.”

It is a wonderful interview which you can watch in full here.

Image credit: Wikipedia commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s