Chapter Fourteen – Why are Flowers Beautiful?

Deutsch asks a simple question, but as usual he’s not interested in a simple answer. Beneath the simple question about flowers is a much deeper one – can art, can beauty, like science, approach objective truth? My favorite line in the chapter is, “(I)s art truly creative, like science and mathematics?”

Deutsch is here clearly pressing the irony button, and he admits as much. Most people think that of course art is creative, where science and mathematics are practical drudgery. But if Deutsch is right about objective truth, and about how good explanations carry us ever closer to that truth, then science and math are truly creating explanations that did not exist before. Only if art is also moving us toward objective truth can it be said to be truly creative.

The picture I hold in my head is of Beethoven, but any artist would do. Maybe Mark Twain. Feynman said that all a theoretical physicist needs to work is paper, a pencil, and a wastepaper basket. The same could be said of a composer, or a writer. Did the papers in Beethoven’s or Twain’s wastepaper basket truly contain mistakes? Compared to what standard? In another time and place would Beethoven’s finished work be the mistake, while his discarded papers be the finished product? Deutsch doesn’t give answers, but only asks the questions. Could it be that art is moving toward objective truth?

And then to flowers. When I first encountered Deutsch’s argument, I disagreed with it. Flowers are beautiful first because of their striking colors, and that is surely linked to the similar striking colors of fruit. We are good at spotting ripe, colorful fruit, and that ability translates to spotting flowers. Yet, as Deutsch points out, we also think white flowers are beautiful.

Deutsch makes the argument that because plants needed to attract not other members of their own species but rather members of an entirely different species (namely insects) they moved toward objective beauty as the only possible criterion that could connect with an entirely different life form. Key to this idea is co-evolution of both plants and insects. It was advantageous for both species that insects notice flowers. And so both evolved toward objective beauty – plants to produce it, insects to notice it. Without objective beauty, how could they both have possibly found the same direction? As stated earlier, when there’s a right answer there are lots and lots of ways to be wrong, but only one way to be right.

Deutsch next extends the argument to humans. He argues that with our information-filled brains, humans are each like a separate species. In order to attract each other, we must produce objective beauty, strive toward objective truth. And we must be able to recognize objective beauty and truth in each other’s efforts. One consequence is that we find flowers beautiful.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that there is objective beauty, just as there is objective scientific truth. But I’m not sure we see flowers as beautiful because they move in that direction. I still think there’s something about liking ripe fruit in there. But I’m also not convinced that these ideas are mutually exclusive. Maybe our liking for ripe fruit was one of the key milestones in our evolution toward recognizing beauty. Maybe plants, in order to attract us (and other species) created beauty in fruit just as they created beauty in flowers. But perhaps it was only in humans, who alone among the animals became truly universal explainers, that the connection between these two kinds of beauty became evident.

So is there objective truth in art? I think this, maybe above all the other ideas Deutsch raises, is by the end of the book still very much an open question.