For he who would proceed aright in this matter … will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love and wisdom; until on that shore he grows and waxes strong, and at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere. ~Plato, Symposium
Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.~Michael Shermer, Scientific American
Why do we need a science of beauty? Haven’t science and art done just fine in their own domains over the last few millennia? Yes, but…
My attempt, in this and my previous column, to meld science, beauty, and art is prompted by thinking about the nature of mind. I’ve written a number of essays explaining my view of mind in nature, nature in mind. I highlighted what I view as fatal problems for the prevailing materialist conception of mind, in which mind is regarded as emerging somehow from what is generally viewed as entirely mindless. Mind is, in the alternative panpsychist philosophy that I support, ubiquitous because mind and matter are two aspects of the same thing. Where there is mind there is matter and where there is matter there is mind. As matter complexifies, so mind complexifies.
This vision of mind and matter has important ramifications also for biology and evolution because if mind is ubiquitous we realize that mind must have an important role (perhaps the starring role) in evolution, which is just another word for complexification – even though evolution can lead to simpler forms in some situations. “Sexual selection” was the term Darwin gave to the evolutionary effects of female choice in mate selection and male-male competition for mates. Many traits in the animal kingdom (and probably in other kingdoms also) stem from sexual selection, including the oft-mentioned peacock’s tail. This showy and overly large tail, it is thought, resulted not from its role in helping its owner to survive (its effect is the opposite in this regard), but to help it gain more mates and thus spread its genes to the next generation. If its role in producing more offspring outweighs any harm to its owner’s survival, it will spread as a trait.
But why would peahens find showy tails attractive? And by extension what is the basis for any female choice with respect to sexual selection? (It’s not just female choices, of course, because many species, including our own, exhibit female and male choices in mating; but throughout nature it’s generally female choices that make the difference.) I’ve realized in pondering these issues for some time now that a key to answering these questions is an understanding of aesthetics, of value – which are just different words for beauty.
Mind is, at its root, about information – perception/reception thereof – and a choice based on the information received. Choices are, in turn, about appreciation, likes, dislikes. In other words, all choices are aesthetic choices, a synonym for value, whether positive or negative. So if mind is ubiquitous, the experience of beauty, of aesthetic appreciation, is ubiquitous. Aesthetic appreciation becomes art, as discussed in Part I, when the observer imposes a frame on her experience, whether literal or metaphorical. Art is, in my framing (pardon the pun), all about beauty. Art doesn’t, however, have to be about traditional notions of anthropocentric beauty, and indeed much modern art has explicitly attempted to focus on subjects that are not traditionally beautiful (in the more narrow sense of this term). Again, beauty is for present purposes all about likes and dislikes, value, a process of discernment that is pervasive if mind is pervasive.
Beauty in a traditional sense is a completely arbitrary notion because there is generally no appeal to anything that is common to all observers. Rather, beauty becomes merely a matter of taste and nothing more. If mind, appreciation, and judgments about beauty exist at every level of nature, however, can we even then say anything about beauty and appreciation other than the bromide “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”?
It turns out that we can, if we accept that the structure, the form, the patterns that we see throughout nature are in fact the objective manifestation of appreciation, of beauty, by many levels (hierarchies) of non-human minds. Beauty results from a constant process of sensing and objective manifestation, for each little piece of the universe. Beauty is, then, potential art and art is beauty recognized. (What constitutes good art is another matter . . .) The recognition of beauty that results in art is necessarily recognition by an actual entity at a different level than the beauty being recognized. The entity recognizing beauty, and thus creating art, can itself be recognized as beauty by other entities at different levels, ad infinitum.
As we humans, who possess the most highly developed type of consciousness that we know of, developed our ability to create intentional art, this ubiquitous appreciation for beauty gained immense new levels of complexity. There is indeed no accounting for taste at the human level because of the awesome complexity made possible with our advanced minds, language, and tools – but we can still suggest and explore various principles of beauty that are generally applicable, even if not universally and always true.
The principles of beauty I proposed in Part I are broad principles for establishing what potential experiences are likely to be manifested as beauty and where we may create art through recognition of beauty. This kind of prediction is far easier at the non-human level because minds are so much simpler below the human level of complexity. Certain types of birds will almost always find shiny objects beautiful – and so do many humans, but humans are certainly less predictable in this and all other aspects of beauty because we are more complex and thus freer in our judgment and actions.
Fleshing Out a Science of Beauty
A developed science of beauty – deserving of the name “science” – will allow predictions about the types of structures/form/beauty we can expect to see at various levels of complexity in novel situations. Such predictions will, however, become more and more difficult as complexity increases. But over time, as additional data is collected in numerous situations involving the natural world, evolution, and intentional art, the principles of beauty may increasingly act as a basis for useful predictions in science and for artistic creativity. As with all science, the process of hypothesis, prediction, test, and adjustments will lead to an improved science – with no end in sight.
The principles of beauty I proposed in Part I are meant as suggestions based on my own initial and admittedly far from comprehensive empirical analysis. We have good reasons, for example, to believe that symmetry is beautiful, that contrasting and complementary colors are beautiful, and that at higher levels of cognition the interpenetration of opposites is beautiful. These are commonalities of many objects commonly considered beautiful, such as human faces, birds’ tails, mathematical theories, or poetry. I am not suggesting that these principles of beauty hold necessarily in every instance. Rather, judgments at every level of reality are free to some degree and will often depart from any attempt to systematize judgments about beauty. This is the case – an important point – because each subject is to some degree beholden to history. Even at the simplest levels of reality, history exerts some pressure. No parts of our universe exist separate from history because all things are subject to a vast continuum of spatial and temporal causes that limit freedom to various degrees. As matter/mind complexifies, however, free will is in many ways enhanced because we gain the ability to transcend, at least in part, our history.
Getting a little more technical, Whitehead’s panpsychism posits that all actualities – “actual entities” – transition from potentiality to actuality by perceiving the universe around them, choosing what perceptions to internalize, and then becoming objective/actual based on those perceptions. This is an iterative process, moment to moment to moment … This process takes place in literally every part of the universe in perpetuity, from subatomic particles to humans to perhaps even more complex structures beyond our current understanding. It is a perpetual oscillation between potentiality and actuality that produces the universe in each moment. Thus potentiality produces perception produces experience produces actuality. Rinse and repeat for all of eternity. This is what I mean by “history” for each subject/actuality.
Beauty is, in the conception I advocate here, objective in the sense of the process of creation for each unit of the universe – all objectified experience is beauty because each entity has taken the potential experience available to it and manifested objectively in the most aesthetically appealing manner possible – but there is no objective basis for supposing that any particular thing is universally beautiful, that is, for all subjects. Beauty judgments, as with all judgments, are still entirely subjective in terms of the freedom of each subject to make an individual choice about beauty in each instance. The utility of this approach consists in its recognition that beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, but also that there are commonalities to every judgment of beauty and a universal process that leads to such judgments.
It is because of this all-encompassing panpsychist view of nature that I see all of nature as manifesting beauty, something that Whitehead merely hints at: “An actual fact is a fact of aesthetic experience. All aesthetic experience is a feeling arising out of the realization of contrast under identity.” (Process and Reality, p. 280).
I don’t have space to discuss in detail here all that Whitehead had to say about aesthetics and art. However, in order to queue up my future columns on the “Anatomy of God,” I’m going to sketch a few of Whitehead’s ideas about God in relation to beauty.
God and Beauty
Whitehead’s view of God is not traditional. He was not a Christian, nor was he much of a mystic. He does, however, find a strong role for God in his metaphysics. He states of God, using the male pronoun for convenience only, not due to any literal masculinization of God: “He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.” (Process and Reality, p. 346). Readers familiar with Plato will recognize truth, beauty, and goodness as the preeminent forms or archetypes that had a very prominent place in Plato’s metaphysics. Whitehead is well-known for his statement that Western philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato.” He didn’t mean by this statement that Plato had it all figured out. Rather, he meant only that Plato had been systematic in his identification of the issues.
In this particular instance, Whitehead follows Plato in believing that there is indeed a realm of forms, or “eternal objects,” which have an integral role in the ongoing and perpetual creation of each subject throughout the universe (I’ll describe my own thoughts on forms and eternal objects in later columns). God’s role is, for Whitehead, to inject an initial suggestion into each subject as it undergoes its transition from pure potentiality to actuality. Each subject may accept or reject this suggestion – and this is itself key to the ubiquitous free will discussed above. This process is itself what constitutes beauty for each subject, as it considers the full range of data it receives from the universe, and manifests objectively. We don’t have to accept Plato’s or Whitehead’s vision of God, however, to accept the notion of beauty as universal.
By bringing God into this discussion, I don’t mean to suggest a reflexive mystification of notions of beauty. There’s enough mystification already in this area! Rather, I bring up divinity because there is indeed a long tradition of equating strong appreciation, artistic rhapsody, with the divine. And I don’t think this is entirely wrong, as I’ll explain later…
What is the end result of this aesthetic vision, this story about art, mind, and the world that I have sketched here? The end result is a realization that there is beauty everywhere, at every level of existence – literally. As Ricky Fitts in American Beauty reminds us, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.” To those attuned to beauty and art in all its forms, every moment can be a moment of aesthetic appreciation.
This vision of beauty as ubiquitous may, I hope, bring us closer to Plato’s own vision “of a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere.”
This article has been amended since its original publication.