Aesthetics, Relative Beauty, and Perceived Reality

There is a tendency in philosophy to want to dissect properties of the world around us in absolute terms. That is to say, fields like ethics should be an absolute, rigorous, rational system. For the most part, I agree, especially regarding ethics. However, I cannot in good conscience conclude that aesthetics are absolute. Objects do not contain within themselves the property of being beautiful, the concept of beauty is wholly dependent upon the perception of the observer.

I am not saying that beauty is purely a matter of personal taste. The difference is that you as an observer are hard-wired to find beauty in a specific way. Moreover, you are hard-wired with a certain perceptual set which is very similar to the perceptual sets of other humans. Therefore, there is a great deal of agreement on exactly what constitutes beauty. I’ll proceed by degrees. A person whose senses are normal will find, let’s say, a landscape beautiful. Someone who is blind, on the other hand, does not perceive the landscape as beautiful. Backtracking, what about someone who is colorblind? Do they have the same perception of beauty as humans? Probably not- a flower which is made beautiful by brilliant colors but whose shape alone is ugly would just be ugly to a colorblind person. What about the other direction? Insects capable of perceiving different wavelengths of light than humans, how would they perceive flowers in ultraviolet? A bat “sees” textures as color-analogues because the world its mind constructs is derived from sonar data. Plus, it’s useful for a bat to be able to pick out tiny and obscure insects from the inky sky. We can see a candle on a mountain a hundred miles away, or instantly hone in on a small red dot on a sheet of paper. The bat can see a faraway mosquito on a dark night similar facility. After all, color period is purely a construct of our minds based on wavelength data. Color itself is not a property of the object. Texture and other observed properties such as temperature or weight are completely imaginary- but they represent real-world data about the surface matter distribution, thermal energy, and mass of objects, respectively. When you feel sandpaper, it feels rough. That’s because your nerves are detecting a slight tearing resistance when you touch it. And even that is because of the distribution of particles on the surface. The property of “roughness” has nothing to do with it- that is a label our minds ascribe to objects because it is more efficient and useful to think of discrete objects with internal properties.

Consider a sword. A sword has the property of being sharp, and therefore also has the property of being dangerous. Would you say that dangerousness is an intrinsic property of the sword? What if, instead of frail carbon-based humans, the earth was populated with hardy, golem-like men of stone? Sharp objects would be unable to harm such creatures, so it wouldn’t be useful for them to ascribe swords with the property of being dangerous. Well, sharpness is the same, albeit more rudimentary. Going back to our golems, let’s say that a sufficiently sharp object could indeed cut them. I would like to use a diamond drill as an example, but because that works in a fundamentally different manner than a sword it makes for a marginally confusing example. Instead, we’ll consider a neutron whip device. This as yet science-fiction weapon is basically a sword that is an invisibly thin, high-energy sword. When you wave it across something it can even sever the bond between atoms. Even edges significantly less sharp than that would be able to damage the golem creatures, and would be perceived as sharp and dangerous in a manner similar to our perception of swords. Swords would fall on the golem’s spectrum of sharpness about where a squashed butterknife does for us. Sharpness is not an intrinsic property, it’s a useful label we apply to appropriate objects in reality.

We can’t even define what a “thing” is without inappropriate abstraction. Where does the river end and the sea begin? Where do you end, and where does the rest of the world begin? The knee-jerk reaction is to say your skin represents a sort of shell that you are inside, and the rest of the world is “out there.” But this is clearly wrong because you are not a closed system. What about the inside of your lungs? That’s air in there- is that you, or is that the rest of the world? What about your gastrointestinal tract? The human body treats anything in the GI tract with similar caution and procedure to anything outside of your skin. At what point does the food you eat cease to be the world outside, and start being you? A skeptic would certainly believe it happens somewhere between when someone grows the food and when its atoms are actually running your cells. What I’m saying is that while it is currently the case that you control your own body, and while it is true that mind and body are deeply entwined, the body is not the relevant element. If the body’s influence on the mind could be minimized, duplicated, simulated, incorporated, whatever, then the mind could part ways with it and be unchanged. So you could, say, upload your mind to a computer and retain your identity in full.

On a related but tangential note, Seneca the Younger once said, “Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes.”

Essentially my first point is that while we can derive absolutes such as codes of ethics, and we can create meaning within our own minds, we cannot abstract reality beyond the physical. The universe is presented completely “as is”, with no disclaimer, warranty, or money-back guarantee. Objects are not even “objects”- it’s just a sea of particles. And because objects are a mental construction, ascribing properties to them is further construction. Grouping them together- you guessed it. More mental construction. That which is, in the purest, strictest physical sense “really real” is completely and utterly flat. All the depth to life comes from our minds and our perceptions. For example, a flower’s beauty is nothing more than our perception. However, to say that it is “nothing more” than our perception is misleading, for consciousness and perception together may be the most miraculously powerful force ever conceived of.


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