Many people believe in a tight connection between truth and beauty. That belief rests on the existence of some truths with remarkable aesthetic appeal. This lecture will begin by considering a few examples that move people to celebrate “beautiful truths.” I’ll then point out how many truths, across a wide range of areas, are downright ugly.
It’s often thought that the blotches signal the limits of our knowledge. If only our inquiries were more advanced, people suppose, we would have a system of truths that would be beautiful throughout. Confidence in some aesthetically satisfying “final theory” rests on untenable views about the unity of the sciences (largely conceived). I shall argue for the inevitability of ugliness. Finally, turning from inquiry to the arts, I’ll explore ways in which literature and music enable us to come to terms with the absence of beauty in many aspects of the world and of our lives.
Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. His research interests lie in the ethical and political constraints on scientific research, the evolution of altruism and morality, and the seeming conflict between science and religion. Kitcher earned his BA from Christ’s College, Cambridge, in mathematics and philosophy of science, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002, and the American Philosophical Association awarded him its inaugural Prometheus Prize in 2006 for lifetime achievement in “expanding the frontiers of science and philosophy.” Kitcher has also received grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Library of Congress. Kitcher’s recent books include The Ethical Project (2011); Preludes to Pragmatism (2012); Deaths in Venice (2013); Life after Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism (2014) and The Seasons Alter: How to Save our Planet in Six Acts (with Evelyn Fox Keller, 2017).