Aesthetics of science

Forthcoming. “Moving Targets and Models of Nothing: A New Sense of Abstraction for Philosophy of Science.” In J. Sánchez-Dorado and C. Ambrosio (eds.). Understanding through Abstraction in Science and Art. London: Routledge (with A. Kozlov).

As Nelson Goodman highlighted, there are two main senses of “abstract” that can be found in discussions about abstract art. On the one hand, a representation is abstract if it leaves out certain features of its target. On the other hand, something can be abstract to the extent that it does not represent a concrete subject. The first sense of “abstract” is well-known in philosophy of science. For example, philosophers discuss mathematical models of physical, biological, and economic systems as being abstract in this sense. However, it is the second sense that dominates discussions of abstract art in aesthetics. For example, abstract art was (and is) considered revolutionary precisely for being non-figurative. Through an analysis of artists including Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian, we develop a reading of this second sense, which we call “generative abstraction,” as opposed to “subtractive” abstraction. Generative abstraction is a process in which a new artifact is created which does not represent the initial concrete target system that inspired it (if there was one), where the artifact’s features are explored for their own sake, and where the “language” of the new artifact is in some way more “universal.” Focusing on this sense of abstraction is helpful in revealing the complexity of the process of crafting an abstract artifact, in problematizing the notion that abstraction can always be un-done (or concretized), as well as revealing new ways for abstractions to be epistemically (un)successful.

2023. “The future won’t be pretty: The nature and value of ugly, AI-designed experiments.” In M. Ivanova and A. Murphy (eds). The Aesthetics of Scientific Experiments. London: Routledge.

Can an ugly experiment be a good experiment? Philosophers have identified many beautiful experiments and explored ways in which their beauty might be connected to their epistemic value. In contrast, the present chapter seeks out (and celebrates) ugly experiments. Among the ugliest are those being designed by AI algorithms. Interestingly, in the contexts where such experiments tend to be deployed, low aesthetic value correlates with high epistemic value. In other words, ugly experiments can be good. Given this, we should conclude that beauty is not generally necessary or sufficient for epistemic value, and increasing beauty will not generally tend to increase epistemic value.