What makes a beautiful explanation?

This Explains Everything is a curation of essays that attempts to share ‘the most beautiful and elegant theories of how the world works’.

One of the contributors, a philosopher called Rebecca Newberger Goldstein examines the concept that ties the book together:

“Where do we get the idea that the beauty of an explanation has anything to do with the likelihood of its being true?”

An excellent question. We love pithy soundbites and neat sentences. But do these qualities unfairly give ideas greater weight? Goldstein reminds us of a genetic truth:

“As our lustful genes know, the achievement of symmetry is a sign of genetic robustness; we find lopsidedness a turnoff…we want to mate with them because our genes are betting on them as replicators.”

She offers a suggestion:

“is it just that any explanation that’s satisfactory will, for that very reason and no other, strike us as beautiful, beautifully explanatory. […] explanations aren’t satisfactory because they’re beautiful, rather they’re beautiful because they’re satisfying.”

When I land on an idea that feels important, I try to share it in a way that’s satisfying. It helps people to remember it. It helps people to repeat and share it. The danger is that you might trick people into thinking an unhelpful idea is useful because you made it sound poetic. It becomes a sales tool, intoxicating, but misleading.

All this reminds me of another important quote, by Einstein:

“If you can’t say it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Only when you strip an explanation right back, can you see whether it’s truly satisfying. Rather than an unformed thought hiding inside a poetic sentence. Oh, that brings me to a final quote, by Spiderman:

“With great power comes great responsibility”

1 comment tagged: ,
  • James Caig


    Beware the ‘deepity’, a trend spotted and articulated by Daniel Dennett:

    “A deepity (a term coined by the daughter of my late friend, computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum) is a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That’s a deepity.

    Richard Dawkins recently alerted me to a fine deepity by Rowan Williams, the then archbishop of Canterbury, who described his faith as “a silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark”.”

    Read the full article at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/19/daniel-dennett-intuition-pumps-thinking-extract#ixzz2UgJxxvC4