Ard: So in your book you ask the question, is the world a work of art? Or you phrased it differently: is the creator an artist? So is the creator an artist?
FW: Well, I’m a little bit hesitant to say that there is a creator because that gets all tied up with all kinds of issues with people having prejudices about what the creator is. We can talk about that, but let’s not start that way. But for purposes of elucidating this question of does the world embody beautiful ideas, I think it’s very useful to think about a case where beautiful ideas do get embodied: that’s what artists do; that’s sort of their characteristic activity they have. And so rephrasing the question, ‘Does the world embody beautiful ideas?’ Is, ‘Can the world be fruitfully considered as a work of art?’
Ard: And the answer is…?
FW: And then if it is a work of art, is it a good one? And I think the answer is yes. That’s how I try to think about it and make the case in the book that that is a fruitful way of thinking about it. If you think about it in that way, you are led to very interesting perspectives and ideas both on the world and an on art and perception and what beauty is. It’s a very fruitful question.
David: When you talked about beauty, you talked about it in terms of we have expectations, and if I understood you right, it’s something to do with… we develop theories, we don’t have enough data and so that leads us to have expectations. Would you explain that to us?
FW: I think one form of beauty that goes very deep, and is closely related to the kind of beauty that we find in the deep structure of the world, and the reason we find that beautiful, is the beauty of making successful predications.
I think beauty in general, plausibly, is the way humans describe things that they find rewarding and want to go back to, so it’s things that stimulate their reward system. And one important thing that evolution would want our reward system to reward is making successful predictions about how the world is going to work. There are many other things that beauty can be and that our reward systems respond to, but that’s one.
David: And you think it’s an important one for science?
FW: I think it’s the important one for science. The idea that you get rewarded and you find it beautiful to make successful predictions about how the world works, and the strategies for making successful predications match the way the world works, like they have to, that’s what they are.
So I think the most primitive version of that has to do with perception. We have to learn how to see when we’re children. So we have to learn how, if we see something from one vantage point, we have to be able to anticipate how it’s going to look from another vantage point. Just by solving problems like that, unconsciously, we get lessons in symmetry and geometry. In music when we sense harmonies, we are finding patterns in the tonal excitations, the vibrations that are arriving in our inner ear.
David: So you think harmony in music is like this as well? You get some sense of how you expect the music will unfold?
FW: Yes, very much so. The first great discovery in science, I believe, was Pythagoras’ discovery that the musical tones that sound good together are tones whose frequencies are in small whole number ratios. Those are the ones whose patterns of vibrations follow simple regularities and allow us to predict, knowing part of the signal, what the rest of it is going to look like, successfully.
David: Is that the one where he says that will give you one note, and then if I half it, it will give me another note and they will sound good together?
FW: Yes, that’s an octave. They will sound good together because they make a predictable pattern, and we can predict from seeing a little bit of it how it’s going to unfold. But, if it’s a little bit off, that’s the worst because then you make predictions, but they’re wrong.
David: Sometimes, a piece of music, you’re following it along, and part of your brain is thinking it will be like this; now you’re right, if it goes like this [makes a strange honking noise] and it’s sharp, that’s awful. But sometimes they do something which isn’t what I expected… so they break a rule, but somehow they do it…
FW: But they do it in a very special way, just a little bit, in a way that’s interesting, not an arbitrary way, not just hitting a sour note. And I think that is also consistent with these ideas, because what’s rewarding is not only making successful predications, but learning how to make successful predictions.
So once you’ve learned about simple harmonies, you’re not learning from that anymore; you’ve mastered that, so now you can add something that you would have thought was not harmonious before, but you’re ready for it, and you’re becoming more sophisticated in your predictive abilities. And you want that because you want not only to be making successful predictions, but making a wider expanse of one of them to learn how to make successful harmonies.
David: I can see that works both science in and music.
FW: In music and in art, generally. I think novelty is a very important part of any sophisticated experience of beauty.
In the advanced forms of physics now which applies to sub-atomic realms, super-duper cosmic scales, these are things very far removed from everyday life, and this evolutionary drive to understand our interaction with the world better doesn’t really apply. Nowadays we reverse the process: we guess on the basis of what would be a pretty description, what would be a beautiful description, what would bring things into orderly patterns.
And of course it’s science, so you have to derive consequences from these guesses and check them. But what we found in several remarkable cases over the course of the late 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries, is that that procedure works. It’s not a matter of wishful thinking: there are mountains of quantitative data with very precise experiments that show you that it does actually work – that beautiful concepts that we hope will work, sometimes actually do work.