Aesthetics of/and the Universe

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Aesthetics of/and the Universe

Reza Tavakol


Modern cosmology has revealed a Universe that is wholly unexpected; a defining feature is that its largest constituent parts are either dark or hidden behind the cosmological horizon, making them in principle unobservable.

These discoveries raise the important question of what constitutes an aesthetic appreciation of the Universe? By considering various modes of appreciation, I argue that a fuller aesthetic appreciation of the Universe would need to augment its visual forms of appreciation with conceptual and imaginative modes of appreciation informed by scientific knowledge.

This argument can have a direct bearing on the long-standing debate concerning the role of cognitive elements in aesthetic appreciation, by providing examples in the largest possible natural settings, where the cognitive element does not just enhance the aesthetic appreciation of that which is seen but crucially also enables additional modes of conceptual and imaginative appreciation of vast parts of the Universe that exist but are in principle invisible.

Finally, to have a glimpse of how profoundly radical, novel, and unique the modern Universe is aesthetically, I consider an imaginary installation as an earthy mimesis for the Universe that includes some radical gestures from modern conceptual art.

Key Words
aesthetics; scientific cognitivism; the Universe


1. Introduction

Sky, as our only window to the Universe, has been the ever-present companion of our species throughout its evolution; in all our wanderings it remains an all-encompassing mysterious ceiling,  a distant background installation, under which our lives, dreams, and struggles have unfolded. Historically, we have had a tense and yet fertile relationship with the Sky: with its ever presence, on the one hand, and its continuous absence due to its unreachability and unknown nature, on the other hand. This simultaneous presence-absence tension makes the Sky/Universe a continuous source of fascination, imagination, wonder, and fear.

In exploring the aesthetics of the modern Universe, it is instructive to briefly recall  the trajectory of aesthetic appreciation of the celestial phenomena and the Universe, as a whole, over time. Given our physical separation from the Sky/Universe and the fact that it only speaks to us through one of our senses — vision[1] — through the ages our aesthetic appreciation of the Universe has mainly involved two main modes of appreciation, mediated by visual observation and conceptual and imaginative experience. Clearly the forms of observation and the nature of the conceptualization of the Universe and the forms of imagination involved have radically changed over time. In earlier times, our appreciation of the Universe was mediated by naked-eye observation and a pre-scientific conception of the world. The discovery of the telescope in the early seventeenth century and the subsequent rise of Newtonian physics radically changed our perception of the Universe. Instrumentally aided observations extended and enhanced naked-eye observations of the sky and a concept of the Universe modeled on the developing Newtonian scientific framework replaced the pre-scientific conception of the world. However, the severely limited reach of the early telescopes and the absence of any clear scientific understanding of the nature and scales of the Universe meant that the conception of the Universe at that time was still more metaphysical than scientific.[2]

The modern developments of terrestrial and space-operated telescopes and imaging instruments capable of operating in different wavelength ranges both visible and invisible to human eyes have enormously increased the reach and the resolution of instrumentally mediated observations and imaging of the Universe. These impressive developments may give the impression that a full visual observation of the Universe is within reach, if not now, then in future, at least in principle.  This, however, turns out not to be the case, since, as we shall see below, modern theoretical cosmological discoveries unexpectedly indicate that by far the largest constituent parts of the Universe are dark or hidden behind the cosmological horizon and therefore in principle hidden from visual observation. These restrictions are not only due to the limitations of our vision, whether naked eye or instrumentally aided, but are more fundamental and due to the physical nature of the Universe itself.

The question I wish to address here is: given these fundamental limitations to its visual perception, how are we to aesthetically appreciate the modern Universe?

Before addressing this question in the Section 4, I shall give a brief summary of some of the main features of the modern Universe relevant to our discussion, and a short discussion of the fundamental barriers that the physical nature of the Universe imposes upon its direct visual perception.

2. The unexpected nature of the modern Universe

Theoretical and observational discoveries in recent decades have fundamentally altered our view of the Universe. In this section, I shall very briefly summarize some of the key discoveries about the modern Universe that are relevant to our discussion below:

Scales of space and time. The Universe possesses scales of space and time vastly larger than previously imagined and enormously larger than the scales of our commonsense experiences. To appreciate the enormity of these scales, it is helpful to recall that our Sun, despite its vastness relative to the size of the Earth, is just an average star on the edges of our local galaxy, the Milky Way, which is home to more than 100 billion stars. And the Milky Way itself is just an average galaxy among hundreds of billions of other galaxies that are known to populate the observable Universe.[3]

The discovery of finiteness of speed of light and its equal value for all observers led to the important discovery that space and time are intertwined and the real world is in fact four-dimensional, that is, spatiotemporal. An important consequence of this discovery is that it severely constrains our visual perception of the Universe. (See Section 3, below.)

Dynamism and transience. The Universe as a whole is expanding and therefore is transient. This amounts to an enormous conceptual break from the idea, held for millennia, of a static unchanging Universe. An important consequence of this expansion is that the Universe was much smaller in the past, having a finite age since its initial epoch at the big bang.

Dark sectors. Perhaps the most puzzling of modern discoveries about the Universe has been that about 95 percent of its constituent parts, which include dark matter and dark energy, are dark in the sense that they do not interact with electromagnetic waves and therefore cannot be seen and detected visually.[4]

Horizon. A fundamental discovery about the Universe is that it possesses a so-called cosmological horizon. This is defined as the boundary of the causally connected region of the Universe that at any given epoch is determined by the maximum distance that the initial light from the big bang has traveled during the finite lifetime of the Universe.

Black holes. A prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity is the existence of black holes, that is, objects that allow no light/radiation to escape from them and hence cannot be directly observed visually.[5]

Chaos, randomness, and chance. A key discovery of the twentieth century was that nonlinear deterministic laws can produce extremely complicated and chaotic behavior. Cosmological examples of such behavior range from the motions of terrestrial and cosmic clouds to the dynamics of galaxies. Also important, all macroscopic structures in the Universe, such as galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and so on, are thought to have been seeded by the random quantum fluctuations in the very early history of the Universe. Thus, chaos, randomness, and chance can be said to be key features of our Universe.

3. Barriers to visual perception of the Universe

As opposed to the well-known limitations of human vision that can be transcended by modern instrumental devices, the physical features of the Universe summarized above pose barriers that in principle limit our ability to visually access by far the largest parts of the Universe and cannot be transcended. These include:

Parts of the Universe that are in principle invisible. These include the above-mentioned dark energy and dark matter comprising 95 percent of the contents of the Universe, plus parts of the Universe lying outside the cosmological horizon — regions that are physically barred from visual or causal communication with us, thus preventing us from knowing whether or not they have similar properties to the observable parts of the Universe and, crucially, whether they are finite or infinite in extent. This gives a measure of the potential degree of uncertainty and unknown regarding these unseeable parts of the Universe.

Impossibility of simultaneous observation of the Universe. This is because of the finite speed of the propagation of light and the enormous spatial scales of the cosmological objects and environments, which have the combined consequence that cosmological objects/environments can only be seen in the past, since the light emanated from them takes time to arrive at the observer — a manifestation of the spatiotemporally of the world. And, depending on their distances from us, some cosmological objects could have evolved significantly by now or even perished. Thus, when we look at the sky, we are looking at a spatiotemporal tapestry, every point of which is not only at a different distance from us but also at a different time. This is also the case when looking at an image of a single extended cosmological object or environment, as different parts of such bodies are at different distances from the observer.[6] The important consequence of these effects for our discussion here is that cosmological images have complex multiple temporalities and, as observers, we can never be visually or causally co-present with cosmological sources and environments.

Inability to directly perceive cosmic dynamism. This is due to the severe mismatch between the time and space scales of our lives as observers and the far larger scales associated with the cosmic environments and the Universe as a whole.[7] This mismatch has the consequence of hiding from instantaneous direct observation one of the most spectacular discoveries about the Universe, namely that it is expanding (in fact, presently accelerating) and hence transient. This dynamism was indirectly discovered through multiple instrumentally aided observations of the redshifts of a number of distant galaxies by employing scientific knowledge. Similarly, direct observations do not immediately portray the presence of chaos and irregular dynamical behaviors on very large scales of space and time. Again, to establish their presence requires long-term, instrumentally aided observations and scientific knowledge.

4. Aesthetic appreciation of the Universe

             “What we see changes what we know, what we know changes what we see.”[8]

Given the above fundamental limitations to its visual perception, how are we to aesthetically appreciate the modern Universe? Clearly the Universe is unlike any other terrestrial object whose aesthetics may be explored, in that even though it is partially given to our senses (directly or instrumentally), on still larger scales it needs to be conceptually constructed through our scientific understanding of the Universe and its associated imagination. Despite this difference, our ability to scientifically conceptualize the Universe allows it to be treated as a real object whose aesthetics can be explored.

We should note, however, that the fact that the Universe is mostly invisible and needs to be conceptually constructed does not imply that its aesthetic mode of appreciation is in fact the same as that of purely conceptual constructs such as Mathematics. What fundamentally distinguishes the Universe from such constructs is that it is a real material entity that is partially visible to us and, as opposed to such pure conceptual constructs, is not of our creation (and we are a small part of it). In that sense, it possesses multiple modes of aesthetics appreciation, both perceptual and conceptual, unlike the aesthetics that can be associated with purely conceptual constructs.

In principle, we can consider four different modes of appreciation of the celestial phenomena and the Universe as a whole, mediated by naked-eye observation, instrumentally aided observation, astronomical imaging, and conceptual and imaginative experience. To explore the potential role each of these modes of appreciation can play, it is important to briefly recall the nature and the domain of each in turn. It should however be borne in mind that the relationship between seeing and knowing is bound to be highly nonlinear and far from one-sided, as are the relationships between and impacts of various modes of appreciation discussed above upon one another, and upon our overall aesthetic appreciation.

4.1 Aesthetic appreciation of the perceptible Universe

The perceptible experience of the Universe clearly has great aesthetic potency. This can be accessed through the direct naked eye or instrumentally assisted observations.

Appreciation through naked-eye observations. Naked-eye observations provide our only direct sense experience of the Universe and perhaps its deepest direct aesthetic appreciation. This is supported by the profound impact that the experience of the clear night Sky has on most of us. In fact, as was evocatively described by Kant, Sky could be said to be “the noblest spectacle that was ever placed before the human senses.”[9]  In this sense we could say that the visually diminished sky for most inhabitants of the Earth from modern-day light and air pollution is perhaps one of the greatest of our modern losses, at least aesthetically.

Despite its crucial importance in providing a direct sensual experience of the Universe, naked-eye observations are nevertheless extremely limited, allowing access only to a miniscule portion of the Universe.[10]

Appreciation through instrumentally aided observations and astronomical images. The great advances in observational instrumentation have vastly extended the human vision, in depth, resolution, and range of wavelengths, and shall no doubt continue to do so. In parallel, there have also been enormous advances in the development of dedicated specialized digital cameras sensitive to both visible and other ranges of wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation and capable of producing very high-resolution astronomical images. For example, the Hubble Sky Telescope,[11] with vision ranging from ultraviolet through the visible to near-infrared, has produced an enormous number of high-resolution images of a range of extraterrestrial sources. And the more recent James Web Telescope,[12] with vision in the infrared range of wavelengths, has in principle the ability to reach the furthest reaches of the Universe.

To explore the nature of such observations and resulting images, it is important to recall that, as opposed to small optical telescopes that allow direct viewing by naked eyes, these modern space operated instruments produce digital data. Furthermore, given that they often operate in wavelengths outside the visible range, the process of translating such data into visible forms by necessity must involve arbitrary manipulations and the employment of “false coloring.”[13] The result has been the production of high-resolution, colorful images of novel and exotic structures and phenomena in the Universe that are claimed by their producers to be scientifically valid and also aesthetically appealing.[14] Despite their interest and potential aesthetic value, such images do not accurately reflect what our naked eyes would see, which therefore raises interesting questions concerning their representational and aesthetic nature. It has been argued, for example, that it is the presence of the manipulations and decisions involved in the production of such astronomical images that play a major role in bestowing aesthetic properties to them.[15] What is clear is that the production of such images and their aesthetic appreciation must necessarily involve conceptual and imaginative inputs informed by scientific knowledge.

4.2 Aesthetic appreciation of the (in principle) invisible Universe

Despite the undoubted importance of the above visual modes of appreciation of the Universe, with their ever-increasing range, they can only ever relate to at most 5 percent of the contents of the Universe. This limitation raises a fundamental question as to how can the remaining major contents of the Universe that cannot be accessed observationally be appreciated?

The perceptual and cognitive modes of aesthetic appreciation are clearly different and context-dependent. In the case of the Universe, the unseen parts fall into separate categories: parts that consist of ordinary matter, such as stars and galaxies, that are in principle observable (though not necessarily in practice and at the present epoch), and parts that are in principle unobservable, like the dark sector of the Universe and the parts that are behind the cosmological horizon. The former components, even when unseen by naked eyes or even instrumentally, can be visualized as the extension of parts that are seen, and in that sense can be said to possess a similar range of aesthetic qualities, although on much larger scales. The aesthetic appreciation of the latter parts, on the other hand, would need to rely wholly on imagined conceptual construction informed by scientific knowledge.

Imagination has been used in a variety of ways in the study of aesthetics; for example, Stevenson lists twelve such variants.[16] But what type of imagination is relevant in this case and which forms can it take? I suggest the most relevant types of imagination here are ones that are related to the visualization of the conceptual experience and informed by our latest scientific knowledge. Given the diverse nature of the constituent parts of the Universe, such imagination can take very different forms, which include:

Imagination involved in visualizing aspects of what we can see with naked eyes or through instrumentally aided observations and photographic images. An important example of this is involved in the conceptual interpretation of the instrumentally obtained images of cosmological objects that, as was discussed above, cannot be observed simultaneously with the moment of observation because of their distance from us, or at a single time due to their large scales. Extensive scientific knowledge and imagination are required to have any hope of, for example, visualizing what such images would look like now.

Imagination involved in visualizing those parts of the Universe that we know are there and are in principle visible but are not visible to us. This is the case with some of the about 1023 stars that are thought to populate the observable Universe, but we cannot hope to see them all because of their enormous distances and insufficient brightness.

Imagination involved in visualizing those components of the Universe that we theoretically think must be there and know their magnitude, even though we do not know their precise natures at present, but that are in principle invisible. Important examples aredark matter and dark energy.[17]

Imagination involved in visualizing those regions of the Universe (spacetime) that we theoretically know must exist but cannot know their precise nature or their extent. This is the case with the parts of the Universe that must lie behind the cosmological horizon, which could be finite or infinite.

Thus, it is through the above different types of imagination informed by scientific knowledge that we can visualize by far the largest parts of the Universe.  We should note, however, that the separation of the imaginative appreciation into the above forms is not meant to imply that they act in total isolation without affecting one another.

4.3. The role of cognitive element in appreciation of the Universe

The role played by scientific knowledge in the various modes of the appreciation of the Universe discussed above makes it clear that our aesthetic appreciation of the Universe is radically changed by augmenting its visual appearances with conceptual and imaginative experiences informed by science.

In considering the role of scientific knowledge in aesthetic appreciation of the Universe, it is interesting to recall that there has been a long-standing debate concerning what can constitute as a source of aesthetic appreciation and in particular whether scientific knowledge about the world should play a role in informing its aesthetic appreciation. There are a range of positions regarding this question. On one end are the so called “extreme formalists,” who argue that only the perceived appearances are crucial in aesthetic appreciation and that scientific knowledge is aesthetically irrelevant. In the words of one its proponents, Zangwill: “to properly appreciate the beauty of inorganic things we need only an awareness of their perceivable appearances and we need not know their history, context, or deeper nature.”[18] On the other end are the “scientific cognitivists,” who believe that the aesthetic appreciation of nature is incomplete without scientific knowledge about it.[19]

These debates have often concentrated on natural environments in terrestrial settings, where the objects of appreciation are in principle visible/knowable and the role of scientific knowledge is often to enhance their visual appreciation. In the case of the Universe, on the other hand, the role of the scientific knowledge is not just to increase our detailed knowledge of the parts that are perceptible or to add to our appreciation of their “grace, majesty, elegance, charm, cuteness, delicacy, or disturbing weirdness,” to quote Carlson,[20] which it certainly does. But also important, it brings to our attention aspects of the Universe that are closed to our direct perception, including its largest constituent features that we know scientifically must be there but are in principle invisible, and by so doing enormously extends and enriches our conception of the Universe. In other words, in the case of the Universe, scientific knowledge exposes the extent to which mere visual appearances (naked eye or instrumentally assisted) are in principle deficient. Furthermore, given that our common sense plays a role in organizing our sense perceptions and hence is likely to inform our aesthetic appreciation, scientific knowledge, by showing how non-commonsensical the Universe is, can potentially impact our aesthetic appreciation of the Universe by extending and enriching our common sense.

The impact of scientific knowledge on aesthetic appreciation has another important consequence. The fact that scientific knowledge is by its nature open to further developments would in turn endow an openness to cognitively informed aesthetic appreciation.[21] This is interesting in connection with a criticism sometimes raised against scientific cognitivism that it “leaves no space for the necessity of the unknowable.”[22] Given this inevitable openness of scientific knowledge, there will clearly always be an element of the unknown in our knowing of the Universe and hence our appreciation of its aesthetics. Current examples of such openness include the true natures of dark energy and dark matter; what lies beyond the cosmological horizon, whether the Universe is finite or infinite; and what its ultimate fate will be.

In general, however, the degree to which the cognitive element is important in aesthetic appreciation in any given setting is likely to be context-dependent. A possible criterion to ascertain its importance could be the extent to which the addition of scientific knowledge qualitatively changes the way we perceive the object/setting under consideration and hence impacts its aesthetic appreciation. This could be formulated in terms of the robustness of our perception of a setting with respect to the addition of scientific knowledge.[23]

As an example of how scientific knowledge can potentially radically impact our aesthetic appreciation of the Universe, let us consider a thought experiment. Imagine standing with the philosopher Kant under a clear moonless night Sky, informed only with the knowledge he had at the time when he described the Sky as “the noblest spectacle that was ever placed before the human.” Now imagine standing under the same Sky, but this time in possession of the knowledge we have of the Universe at present. As we look at this magnificent Sky, let us begin by recalling that the darkness that defines the night sky is itself due to our blindness to wavelengths of electromagnetic waves outside the visible range — and in this case to the remnants of the first light emanating from the earliest phases of the Universe after the big bang that are known to fill the Universe today and whose wavelengths have been stretched into the microwave range by the expanding Universe.  Clearly, if our vision was sensitive to a wider range of wavelengths, including the microwave range, the sky would no longer appear as dark to our eyes.[24]

Let us also recall that what we can see with naked eyes is a miniscule proportion of the contents of the Universe and even our instrumentally aided observations and images are only capable of deciphering a very small proportion of the contents of the Universe. And the sources we can observe are not only at different distances from us but also at different times, without us ever being able either optically or causally to be co-present with any of them. Hauntingly, we could be observing images from times that not only predate our species but even that of the birth of the Earth and the solar system.  And finally, recall that despite its seemingly unchanging overall appearance, the Universe is in fact expanding and transient, which in time, long after we are gone, shall pass.

Clearly viewing the night sky armed with such knowledge is bound to conceptually reveal a Universe that is far richer than its mere appearances and hence opens vast additional vistas for various modes of appreciation, including conceptual and imaginative appreciation, informed by scientific knowledge.

In this connection, it is interesting to recall that some earlier thinkers, despite their restricted scientific view of the Universe, nevertheless imagined, without any scientific justification, the Universe to be infinite or even imagined the existence of multiple Universes. This raises the question of how the aesthetics of such an imagined infinite Universe compares with that of the modern scientifically conceived Universe. In principle, such comparison is not meaningful, as the former concerns the aesthetic appreciation of a Universe that is to a large extent pre-scientific in character and which is informed by imagination mostly unconstrained by science, whereas the latter concerns the aesthetic appreciation of a scientific Universe informed by imagination constrained by modern instrumentally aided observations and modern scientific knowledge. This is, of course, not meant to argue against other forms of the aesthetic appreciation of the Universe, including imaginary, poetic, or mythical. The aim here, however, has been to explore the aesthetic appreciation of the Universe as a materially existing entity only a small part of which is given to our senses, while its other parts are constructed conceptually through imagination that is informed and constrained by science.

To end the discussion of the aesthetics of the Universe, it is instructive, as a way of appreciating how profoundly radical, novel, and unique the modern Universe aesthetically is, to take the metaphor of the sky as an installation a step further by asking how such an installation compares with possible terrestrial installations and what are their similarities and differences.

5. An installation like no other

“Nature, we say, is beautiful if it also looks like art; and art can be called fine art only if we are conscious that it is art while yet it looks to us like nature.”[25]

Parallels have often been drawn between nature and works of art. But what kind of artwork could have any possible correspondence with the Universe? There are clearly many ways to approach this question. One could, for example, consider a range of art works visually or conceptually exploring different parts/aspects of the Universe. These could include literary, visual and conceptual works exploring various aspects or components of the Universe.  There are, of course, also other earlier works of art which predate our modern understanding of the Universe motivated by pre-scientific and mythical views of the Universe.[26]

Here, as a way of highlighting the fundamental limitations of any such art works and bearing in mind the multiple roles that the conceptual and imaginative play in aesthetic appreciation of the Universe, I shall consider an imaginary terrestrial installation as a possible candidate for such an artwork, by employing some of the key radical gestures that were involved in the developments of modern conceptual art over the last century. These included: (a) the elevation of the so-called ready-found objects as works of art,[27] (b) the introduction of elements of chance in the production of the works of art, for example as in the work of Duchamp,[28] and (c) the introduction of dynamism and kinesis into the works of art,[29] which at times are capable of chaotic behavior, self-destruction, and transience, as seen. for example, in the works of Tinguely and Metzger.[30]

Despite their differences, these gestures amounted to largely distancing the role of the artist from the production of the work of art and shifting the source of aesthetic appreciation from purely visual towards conceptual.  And importantly, in the context of our discussion here and irrespective of the original intentions of these artists, they can all be viewed in terms of a natural turn, in the sense that they all have parallels with some features of nature. In the cosmological context, these parallels include the fact that the cosmic bodies, environments, and the Universe as a whole came into being independently of us, and to the extent that they are known, were found by us. Furthermore, the Universe possesses dynamism (and transience) in addition to chaos and chance. And finally, the Universe is in parts in the process of giving birth to new structures and in other parts withering away or self-destructing — at times explosively, as in the case of exploding stars (supernovae) — or being transformed by collisions and gravitational interactions, for example, as is the case with colliding galaxies.

With the above parallels in mind, let us imagine the simplest imaginary conceptual “earthy mimesis” for the Universe that possesses elements of the above three gestures, in the form of a kinetic installation of ready-found objects capable of behaving chaotically in some parts, with the ability to self-destruct or self-generate by chance in other parts.

Clearly such an installation, however extended in dimensions and however complicated and rich in structure, would be an extremely poor caricature of the Universe. Nevertheless, comparing this simplistic imaginary mimesis with the Universe can provide a fuller appreciation of how unique and radically different the Universe aesthetically is, while at the same time providing a unified framework for viewing the major developments in conceptual art of the twentieth century as reflecting different aspects of the Universe.

Apart from the obvious differences between the Universe and the above imaginary installation, such as the enormous disparity between their spatial and temporal scales or the fact that the Universe was assembled through forces of nature independent of us and our intentions, such a comparison highlights important aspects of the Universe that are fundamentally different from and irreproducible by such an earthy installation. In particular, as opposed to an earthy installation that consists of a finite number of “found objects” that are in principle visible/knowable, the Universe is an all-encompassing open-ended installation,[31] which in its becoming has given and shall continue to give rise to vast spectra of physical, chemical, and biological structures, some by chance, on an enormously diverse range of spatial and temporal scales, including us as observers with our ability for aesthetic appreciation. And as opposed to any terrestrial installation, the Universe consists mostly of parts that are in principle invisible, like an immense evolving borderless installation consisting mostly of unseen/unfound objects/parts, and other unknown parts that will only appear in the future as time gradually pulls the cosmological horizon further and further away, extending the visible Universe during its overall expansion and exposing a Universe that becomes colder and eventually, very far in the future, devoid of the possibility of harboring any observers.[32]

Furthermore, unlike the terrestrial installation that can be viewed at present, the Universe, to the extent that it can be observed, can only be viewed in the past —in fact, over a vast multiplicity of pasts — and, depending upon their distances from us, some of the cosmic sources/environments that can be observed at present may no longer even exist. And fundamentally, as opposed to any terrestrial installation that will always be finite with a given shape, and in principle fully knowable, our knowledge of the Universe (which could be finite or infinite) shall always remain partial and open with its overall shape, and far-future fate,[33] presently unknown.

There is also an important difference between the nature of imagination involved in visualizing the two cases. Whereas the type of imagination involved in visualizing the terrestrial installation is of the first type discussed above, that is, imagination concerning a structure that we can in principle see and know fully, the imagination regarding the Universe on the other hand involves all the different types of imagination considered above.

And finally, there is a fundamental difference between the relation of observers with respect to each installation: Whereas observers of the terrestrial installation can choose to be outside it, the observers of the Universe are by necessity condemned to remain inside it and share its transience and passing. The Universe is in fact the only installation with no outside.

These fundamental differences, which are not given to direct visual appearances but can only be known conceptually and visualized through multiple forms of imagination informed by scientific knowledge, show how radically different the Universe viewed as an installation is, not only from our specific imagined terrestrial installation but crucially from any other possible terrestrial installation imaginable — not only at present but forever. In that sense, it is an installation like no other.[34]

6. Conclusion

Given that only a very small fraction of the Universe can in principle be observed, I have asked what constitutes an aesthetic appreciation of the Universe? I have argued that the aesthetic appreciation of the Universe is radically enhanced by augmenting its visual appreciation with conceptual appreciation visualized through multiple forms of imagination informed by scientific knowledge. Of course, the relationship between seeing and knowing is bound to be nonlinear, as are their impacts on our aesthetic appreciation.

I have also argued that the incompleteness of scientific knowledge and its open nature at any given epoch implies that a key feature of such cognitively enhanced aesthetic appreciation of the Universe is its openness.

Finally, by considering an imaginary installation as an earthy mimesis for the Universe, whose aesthetic appreciation cannot rely purely on the visual but requires also the cognitive, I have argued that any attempt at viewing the Universe as a work of art shows not only how fundamentally and irreproducibly unique it is, but importantly also how immensely more radical it is compared to all conceivable terrestrial works of art.


I would like to thank Dr. Nilza de Oliveira for her encouragement, Prof. Derek Matravers for very helpful suggestions, and the editor and the referees for helpful comments.



Reza Tavakol


Reza Tavakol is professor emeritus of mathematics and astronomy, and a member of the poetry group, at Queen Mary University of London. His current research/interests include art, philosophy, and cosmology. In science, he has had a large number of articles published in refereed international journals on cosmology, astrophysics, and nonlinear dynamics. He has also published a number of articles on philosophy of science. In art, his publications include a joint book of poems, as well as a number of essays, articles, and talks on art-science interface, photography, and aesthetics of the cosmic space. He has also had a number of joint and individual installations shown in the UK and Brazil.

Published on August 22, 2023.

Cite this article: Reza Travakol, “Aesthetics of/and the Universe,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] This is because, in contrast to our other senses, light as the carrier agent of vision can propagate in vacuum, and hence within intergalactic spaces, with very fast but finite speed, thus giving it a cosmic reach.

[2] See, for example: Stephen Snobelen, “The myth of the clockwork universe: Newton, Newtonianism, and the Enlightenment,” In The persistence of the sacred in modern thought, ed. Chris L. Firestone and Nathan Jacobs (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012): 149-84 and Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University, 1957).

[3] In cosmology, ‘observable Universe’ is the part of the Universe that lies within the cosmological horizon (see below), that is, the part that is in principle observable.

[4] Nabila Aghanim, Y. Akrami, M. Ashdown, J. Aumont, C. Baccigalupi, M. Ballardini, A. J. Banday, R. B. Barreiro, N. Bartolo et al. (172 more) “Planck 2018 results – VI. Cosmological parameters,” Astronomy & Astrophysics, 641 (2020), A6.

[5] Strictly speaking, black holes have been shown to radiate (Hawking, 1974) and therefore are not absolutely black. They can also be detected indirectly through the radiation of surrounding gasses as they fall into them.

[6] Reza Tavakol, “The time(s) of the photographed,” Philosophy of Photography, 10:2 (2019), 195-206.

[7] Such a mismatch also exists in the case of other dynamical processes within the Universe, such as the geological ones on Earth.

[8] Jean Piaget, The Language and Thought of the Child (Routledge, 2001).

[9] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis, 1956).

[10] To appreciate how small this proportion is, it helps to recall that of the enormous number of luminous stars and galaxies (numbering over 1023) that are known to populate the observable Universe, our unaided eyes can detect only about 4,500 sources in each hemisphere in a clear night. [See Yale Bright Star Catalog:].

[11] See, for example,

[12] For details and latest images, see

[13]  and

[14] See, for example, Elizabeth A. Kessler, “Translating Data Into Pretty Pictures,” in Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime (Minneapolis, MN, 2012; online edn, Minnesota Scholarship Online, 24 Aug. 2015),

[15] Stephen Chadwick, “Representation and Transparency in Artistic Astronomical Photographs,” Contemporary Aesthetics 17 (2019); Stephen Chadwick, “Imagination in the Stars: The Role of the Imagination in Artistic Astronomical Photography,” Contemporary Aesthetics 15 (2017).

[16] Leslie Stevenson, “Twelve Conceptions of Imagination,” The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 43, Issue 3 (2003), 238-259.,

[17] Black holes may also appear as candidates, but they can in principle be detected indirectly or through black hole radiation.

[18] Nick Zangwill, “Clouds of Illusion in the Aesthetics of Nature,” The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 252 (2013), 576-595. For a less categoric position regarding the role of cognitive element see, for example, Endre Szécsényi, “Remarks upon the Aesthetics of the Night Sky,” Espes Vol. 10 (2021), 51-63.

[19] See Allen Carlson, “Nature, Aesthetic Judgment, and Objectivity,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 40 (1981), 15-27; “Nature, Aesthetic Appreciation, and Knowledge,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 53, no. 4 (1995), 393-400; “Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature,” Art and Architecture (London: Routledge 2000); and Glenn Parsons, “Natural Function and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Inorganic Nature,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 44 (2004), 45-56; “Theory, Observation, and the Role of Scientific Understanding in the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature,Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 36, no. 2 (2006), 165-186.

[20] Allen Carlson, “Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature.”

[21] Reza Tavakol, Fabio Gironi, “The Infinite Turn and Speculative Explanations in Cosmology,” Foundations of Science, Vol. 22 (2017), 785-798.

[22] Stan Godlovitch, “Icebreakers: Environmentalism and Natural Aesthetics,” Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 11 (1994), 15-30.

[23] For a discussion of the concept of robustness, see: Harmke Kamminga, Reza Tavakol, “How Untidy is God’s Mind? A note on the Dynamical Implications of Nancy Cartwright’s Metaphysics,” British Journal of Philosophy of Science, Vol. 44 (1993), 549-553. See also: Patricia Matthews, “Scientific Knowledge and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 60, No.1 (2002), 37-48.

[24] For a more detailed discussion, see: Reza Tavakol, “Thinking Dark Anew,” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol. 18, No. 2 (2022), 467-485.

[25] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. Creed Meredith (Oxford University Press, 1952).

[26] Examples of such works include aboriginal art and a range of geometrical and minimal arts with mytho-cosmological connotations in early and modern art.

[27] For our discussion here, it is important to distinguish between the ready-found objects that are purely made by nature, such as rocks, fossils, pebbles, and so on, and the so-called ready-mades that were often wo(man)-made.

Interestingly, such works have a far older history and go back not only to the sixteenth-century curio boxes and the like, but far further back to the time of our ancestors with their choices of pebbles, shells, and so on.

[28] Michel Sanouillet, Elmer Peterson (Eds.), The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp – Salt Seller (Thames and Hudson, London 1975); Herbert Molderings, Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance, Art as Experiment, (Colombia University Press, 2010).

[29] Frank J. Malina, Kinetic Art, Theory and Practice (Dover Publications, Inc., New York 1974); Guang-Dah Chen, Ghih-Wei Lin, H-W Fan, “The History and Evolution of Kinetic Art,” International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, Vol. 5, No. 11 (2015), 922-930.

[30] Marina Isgro, “Modernism in Motion: Jean Tinguely’s Meta-Mechanical Reliefs,” 1954-59’, Art Journal, Vol. 79, Issue 2 (2020), 6-23; Matthieu Copeland ed., Gustav Metzger Writings (1953-2016) (JRP | Ringier, 2019).

[31] There is also a sense in which artworks too are open-ended and inexhaustible by being open to new interpretations. The crucial difference between such works of art and the Universe treated as a work of art is the latter’s immeasurably rich internal complexity, significant unknown parts, the fact that it contains all observers, and, importantly, its open-ended overall transience.

[32] Lawrence M. Krauss, Glenn D. Starkman, “Life, The Universe, and Nothing: Life and Death in an Ever-Expanding Universe,” Astrophys. J., Vol. 531 (2000), 22-30.

[33] Fred C. Adams, Gregory Laughlin, “A dying universe: The long-term fate and evolution of astrophysical objects,” Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 69 (1997), 337-372.

[34] The consideration of such an installation shows the fundamental limitation of any such analogy, while highlighting how profoundly rich the Universe is as a potential source of aesthetic appreciation.