Why is the World Beautiful?
The Strange Order of Things
Antonio Damasio, 2018
The question why the world has any aesthetic qualities whatsoever may seem deceptively simple: what features of the perceived world do human beings (or most human beings) experience as beautiful, ugly, pleasing or displeasing? This question, however, presupposes another more basic question: how is it that the human brain/mind is incapable of experiencing the world in any way other than beautiful, ugly, etc., e.g., as purely instrumental in the struggle for survival, safety and security, advantage or pursuit of personal goals? Clearly, beauty or ugliness(at the extremes) and other aesthetic qualities, which may be highly nuanced, are not intrinsic features of the objects of sense perception. Rather, the human mind perceives the world of the senses in a way that reflects its structure and interests. The first requirement of a theory of beauty is to describe the characteristics of mind/ brain that shape all sensory experiences and other types of experiences as well.
In his book, The Strange Order of Things (2018), the neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, describes the enmeshment of sensory experiences and affect, i.e., feelings and emotional states, in organisms with central nervous systems:
“Most every image in the main procession we call mind, from the moment the item enters a mental spotlight of attention until it leaves, has a feeling by its side. … the ground zero of being corresponds to a deceptively continuous and endless feeling state, a more or less intense mental choir underscoring everything else mental. … The complete absence of feeling would spell a suspension of being, but even a less radical removal of feeling would compromise human nature. Hypothetically, if you would reduce the feeling “tracks” of your mind, you would be left with desiccated chains of sensory images of the external world …sights, sounds, touches, smells, tastes, more or less concrete or abstract … Once feeling would had been removed you would have become unable to classify images as beautiful or ugly, pleasurable or painful, tasteful or vulgar, spiritual or earthy. If no feelings were available, you might still be trained, at great effort, to make aesthetic or moral classifications of objects or events. So might a robot, of course.” (pp. 100-101)
In Damasio’s formulation, sensory experiences (which he describes as images) have aesthetic qualities because they are infused with feelings, which always have valence, i.e., experienced as positive or negative. There is no affect free sensory experience in the mind of animals or humans from this perspective, with which I concur. Feelings, in turn, “represent mentally the state of life within the organism.” (p.30)And: “Feelings portray the organism’s interior – the state of internal organs and of internal operations. … Valence translates the condition of life directly in mental terms, moment to moment. It inevitably reveals the condition as good, bad, or somewhere in between. … Valence is the defining element of feeling and, by extension, of affect.” (p. 102)
Every sensory perception of humans, and by implication animals as well, has aesthetic qualities because perception has an affective component that reflects how the organism feels about every element of its experience. The foundation of mind in animals and humans is affect which shapes cognition, not the other way around. For this reason, every human experience is value laden. Aesthetic qualities are one of those values.
The conflicted dynamic of beauty
The enmeshment of perception and feeling explains why sensory experiences have aesthetic qualities, but not the different ways in which feelings affect sense perception, or the language through which beauty and ugliness (and other aesthetic qualities) are described. Concretely, objects of desire are often described as beautiful, e.g., a beautiful woman or man, car, home, meal, etc.; but some objects, sights, sounds, smells are beautiful because we do not desire them. The experience of art is no stranger to acquisitive instincts, but it’s possible, even common, to admire art, music, sculpture, drama, etc. without wanting to acquire it. Furthermore, in dramatic art it’s possible to view with fascination and pleasure repugnant actions and scenes, morally objectionable behavior of all kinds and yet admire the play, movie, novel, story, etc. Affect is a part of every perception of beauty, but seemingly not the same type of affect. How can this striking difference in experiences and descriptions of beauty be explained?
My view is that consciousness has four main modalities, i.e., “settings” which fundamentally alter the relationship of perception and feeling. These modes are:
Instrumental – perception is goal driven, purposive, e.g., oriented to the fulfillment of needs and desires. Instrumental consciousness is impressed with the beauty of desirable persons, possessions, food, interpersonal relationships, etc., and often repulsed by persons or things viewed as undesirable.
Appreciative –attention without a goal changes the way events are experienced. Dramatic art captures appreciative consciousness because there is no need or opportunity to act, to intervene or do anything at all except pay careful attention, contemplate, and enjoy. Consciousness is freed from goal seeking. Appreciative consciousness recognizes and values details or fragments that contribute to the whole experience. At its best, dramatic art neutralizes desire and moralistic reactions that demand action. Great art captures and deepens attention, and it’s possible to employ appreciative consciousness outside artistic awareness by paying attention without a goal, a mode of attention Simone Weil once described as prayer.
Selfless –consciousness that is not organized around a subject and which moves outside the structure of time and spacehas been sought, or feared, throughout human history. The idea that consciousness is inextricably tied to subjectivity and to self is false. With rare exceptions, e.g., Sidarta Ribeiro, neuroscientists are clueless (and skeptical) regarding this mode of consciousness which can result from a large dose of a psychedelic drug, or from other ways of achieving mystical experiences. Selfless consciousness begins as an intensification of appreciative consciousness, but has a special feature that completely alters experience, i.e., the effacing of a boundary between subject and object. In selfless consciousness, mind merges with the object of perception, whether that be features of the external world, or the electrical activity of the brain. Furthermore, this experience is blissful beyond description. Persons who have never had this type of paradisal experience often view it as illusory, or a form of mental illness, or the product of poorly understood brain chemistry with no religious or metaphysical implications; while those who have been surprised by selfless awareness may view the world of conscious subjectivity as an illusion, i.e., as a collective dream as evanescent in a larger perspective as dreams that occur during sleep.
Dream states, including day dreaming, in which the mind, with a minimum of conscious intention, organizes itself around simulations of desires, fears and emotional concerns. Dream states are soaked in affect and employ dream logic in which sensory images represent both feelings, ideas and themes from the dreamer’s life. Sidarta Ribeiro’s, The Oracle of Night(2019) is an outstanding book on dreams and dreaming. According to Ribeiro, dreams and day dreaming are not appreciative states of mind. Rather, they are mental states that reflect the dreamer’s desires and/or fears and which employ simulations, in part to communicate a motivational message: “you (i.e., the dreamer) want x and you fear y, and here is what may occur if you act on these motivations, or fail to act,” without physical risk.
How a person experiences aesthetic qualities of sensory perception depends on the mode of consciousness dominant at a specific time. It is common to project the quality of one’s mind onto the world of sensory perception and interpersonal experience. For example, any statement of the form, “x is interesting, or fascinating or boring,” reflects the mental state of the speaker, not a feature of the world. Nothing in the world is intrinsically interesting or boring; rather the speaker is interested or bored in some experiences but not others. Much of what anyone says about any part of the world is frequently more about the speaker than whatever is being described, and this is especially true when using words that describe affective states of mind such as interesting or boring.
Some spiritual teachers emphasize the theme that self- absorbed instrumental consciousness reduces or virtually eliminates appreciative consciousness, much like wearing hearing plugs to a symphony performance or blinders to an art gallery. In The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodron states:“ Resenting what happens to you and complaining about your life are like refusing to smell the wild roses when you go for a morning walk, or like being so blind you don’t see a huge black raven when it lands in the tree you’re sitting under. We can get so caught up in our own personal pain or worries that we don’t notice that the wind has come up or that someone has put flowers on the dining room table … Resentment, bitterness and holding a grudge prevent us from seeing and hearing and tasting and delighting.” (p. 25)The same is true for any type of goal directed behavior, i.e., perception narrows to conditions or factors pertinent to goal achievement, usually meeting a need, fulfilling a desire, escaping or confronting a threat. Appreciative consciousness plays a minor role in awareness in which desire or fear shapes perception.
However, instrumental consciousness and appreciative consciousness may be combined in surprising, unexpected ways. For example, in War and Peace Tolstoy describes the awareness of a main character on the brink of battle as he observes the opposed armies:
“Pierre dressed hastily and ran out on the porch. Outside all was bright, fresh, dewy, and cheerful. The sun, just bursting forth from behind a cloud that had concealed it, was shining, with rays still half broken by the clouds, over the roofs of the street opposite on the dew sprinkled dust of the road, on the walls of the houses, on the windows, the fence, and on Pierre’s horses … Pierre went down the street to the knoll where he had looked at the field of battle the day before … Mounting the steps to the knoll Pierre looked at the scene before him, spellbound by beauty. … the slanting rays of the bright sun, … cast upon it through the clear morning air penetrating streaks of rosy, gold - tinted light and long dark shadows. The forest .. seemed carved in some precious stone of a yellowish – green color; … All this was vivid, majestic and unexpected… “ (Part Ten, XXX, p. 901)On the verge of a battle in which he and many thousands of other soldiers might die or be horribly maimed, Pierre is vividly aware of the beauty of the world of his senses and of the grandeur of the scene before him. He is not a disinterested observer, nor is he self-absorbed. His appreciative consciousness is a reminder of all that may be lost in the upcoming battle, but it does not detract from his ability to engage in combat."
The idea that instrumental consciousness shaped by a person’s internal narrative and appreciative consciousness are necessarily mutually exclusive is false, though this is often the case absent self-reflection and persistent effort. An initial indicator of spiritual growth is the increased capacity to appreciate the world perceived in instrumental consciousness. Curiosity and appreciation in interpersonal relationships are moral virtues that create the foundation for moral behavior that respects the rights and needs of others. Too much success at achieving one’s goals and fulfilling one’s desires can be spiritually ruinous if the capacity to appreciate the world, apart from success and social recognition, is reduced to a minimum or virtually eliminated in some individuals. One fruit of spiritual growth is an increased ability to appreciate both the external world revealed by the senses and the internal world of affect and introspection, i.e., the awareness of bodily states.
Desire and appreciation
It is common for appreciative unselfish awareness of the beauty of nature to lead to a strong desire to have more of these experiences. For example, unexpected pleasure in the sight and smell of beautiful flowers may lead to trips to famous gardens or the mountains, or anywhere where beautiful plants flourish. Any object, person, natural condition or social gathering can become an object of desire, and the strength of desire may heighten the experience of beauty when desires are fulfilled. Nevertheless, desire powerful enough to motivate persistent effort in the face of resistance shapes experience in predictable ways:
Desire is increased by resistance, e.g., romance feeds on longing and the seeming unavailability of the desired person.
The fulfillment of desire, after a brief period of satiety, leads to renewed desire; the mind set of “never enough” is characteristic of desire.
Desire has a selfish quality, and often leads to possessive behavior, i.e., a need to own, monopolize, reserve for oneself the object of desire.
Desire may enhance the beauty of desired objects, e.g., persons or natural wonders, while creating a narrowing of awareness such that the beauty of the rest of the world may be ignored. Desire creates tunnel vision.
The enhancement of beauty through the anticipated fulfillment of desire is undeniably real but comes with secondary effects that exact a high price. Instrumental consciousness converts appreciative awareness to its self -interested goals without the practice of mindfulness. Even then, it is difficult to control attention without becoming goal directed in the usual way. Spiritual seekers can become as acquisitive regarding spiritual goals as financial investors seeking to increase their assets.
What accounts for the universal access to appreciative consciousness? In The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodrin comments:
“ … each of us has in our heart a joy that’s accessible to us, … Joy is like a soft spring rain that allows us to lighten up, to enjoy ourselves, and therefore it’s a whole new way of looking at suffering. …That sense of wonder and delight is present in every moment, every step, every movement of our own ordinary lives, if we can connect with it.” (p. 24)Appreciative consciousness is a birthright as much as the unitary awareness of self and the capacity for goal directed behavior.
Many scientists and philosophers have performed intellectual cartwheels attempting to confine the evolution of mind within Darwinian principles in which the survival of genes is ground zero that does not require explanation. In The Strange Orderof Things, Damasio offers a different perspective:
“Homeostasis has guided, non- consciously and non- deliberately, without prior design, the selection of biological structures and mechanisms capable not only of maintaining life but also advancing the evolution of species to be found in varied branches of the evolutionary tree. This conception of homeostasis, which conforms most closely to the physical, chemical and biological evidence, is remarkably different from the conventional and impoverished conception of homeostasis that confines itself to the “balanced” regulation of life’s operations. … the unshakable imperative of homeostasis has been the pervasive governor of life in all its guises. Homeostasis has been the basis for the value behind natural selection, which in turn favors the genes … The development of the genetic apparatus, which helps regulate optimally and transmit to descendants, is not conceivable without homeostasis.” (p. 26)
Stated plainly: homeostatic requirements led to the creation of genes, not the other way around. Damasio asserts: “ … even at the earliest long vanished point , the physical and chemical conditions of the life process were responsible for establishing homeostasis in the ample sense of the term and everything else flowed from that fact, including the machinery of genes.” (p. 30)
Homeostasis, per Damasio, is about flourishing, not just about survival: “life is regulated within a range that is not just compatible with survival but also conducive to flourishing … (p. 25)Furthermore, “feelings are the mental deputies of homeostasis.” (p. 25)”Suffering and flourishing, at the polar ends of the spectrum, would have been prime motivators of the creative intelligence that produced cultures. But so would experiences of affects related to fundamental desires –hunger, lust, social fellowship, or to fear, anger and the desire for power and prestige … Other powerful motivators included the experience of the elevation, awe, and transcendence that arise from the contemplation of beauty …” (p. 17) In Damasio’s account, the appreciative awareness of beauty was a type of homeostatic flourishing that led to the creation of human cultures, rather than an accidental by-product of big brains essential for physical survival. Genes are the agents of homeostasis, not its master.
The psychology of beauty
The perception of beauty is a signal of homeostatic flourishing that often reflects the congruence between biological needs and natural conditions, e.g., beautiful days, weather, flowers, vivid colors, natural wonders that are not threatening. There is also evidence that features of the world such as symmetry are aesthetically pleasing cross culturally. In the article, “Symmetry preferences in shapes, faces, flowers and landscapes,” Bertamini, et al, (2019) state:
“Several studies have demonstrated that observers tend to prefer the more symmetrical version of a given stimulus, using both familiar and abstract patterns … Some evidence for symmetry as a general aesthetic principle comes from cross cultural studies … In addition to explicit measures, implicit measures have confirmed an association between symmetry and positive valence.”
Experiences of flourishing are powerfully influenced by learning and by culture. Damasio asserts:
“We humans, along with the creatures from whom we descend biologically, inhabit a universe in which objects and events are not affectively neutral. … any object or event is naturally favorable or unfavorable to the life of the individual experiencer. Objects and events influence homeostasis positively or negatively and, as a result, yield positive or negative feelings. … the separate features of objects and events – their sounds, shapes, colors, textures, motions, time structures, … become associated by learning with the positive or negative emotions/ feelings linked to the whole object or event.”(p. 180) And “We draw on long established associations –many of which preceded the appearance of humans and are now part of our standard neural equipment – in order to classify musical sounds in affective terms.”
Damasio refers to music’s “multipronged homeostatic effects … beginning with layer upon layer of feelings and ending in ideas.” He comments:
“Music’s universality and remarkable endurance seem to come from this uncanny ability to blend with every mood and circumstance, anywhere on earth, in love and war, involving single individuals, small groups, or large groups suddenly made cohesive by the power of music. Music serves all masters …” (p. 181)
Music and the other arts perform an additional astonishing alchemy, i.e., they give feelings concrete sensory form and, in so doing, convert them into objects of appreciative awareness. The arts give powerful half conscious (or often unconscious) feelings a concrete sensory form which can be held in conscious awareness and become objects of contemplation and reflection as often as a person or group wants to re-experience the art object. Art that contains a wealth of carefully crafted detail is more likely to reward repeated viewing or listening. Art reflects and creates culture by giving expression to the flourishing of groups, communities and societies.
Beauty and flourishing
The biology of humans has a powerful influence on experiences of beauty, and so do cultural influences. Various tribes, communities and societies have very different ideas regarding the meaning of “to flourish.” The core symbol of Christianity, the Cross, was for the Romans an instrument of torture and execution which in Christian belief represents triumph over death. The visual/emotional impact of religious symbols is shaped by religious beliefs and aspirations. The aesthetic response to national symbols such as flags, pictures of military valor or statutes (Statue of Liberty) are shaped by group membership and/ or beliefs regarding the country or group in question. Nevertheless, all experiences of beauty, whether grounded in biology or culture, signal a person’s or group’s conception of flourishing in a specific time and place. Just about anyone can appreciate the Pyramids, temples, or extraordinary churches, but this does not mean that modern humans can experience these structures in the same way as ancient Egyptians or 15th century Christians. Still, the flourishing embodied in the experience of beauty has been a universal human capacity for at least the past 40,000 years, and probably much longer. The increased brain power that led to technological improvements among early human groups also led to cave art. The experience of beauty and the creation of powerful symbols (e.g., paintings of large animals) motivated by both desire and appreciative awareness reflected a growth in imaginative capacity which created human cultures. Human cultures are collective imaginative constructions shaped by the struggle for survival, the related need to develop cohesive groups, large and small, by the experience of beauty, and by experience of the sacred. All these activities have a genetic basis, and all depend on the flowering of imagination.
Artistic beauty and cosmic creation
Several months ago, I wrote and disseminated an article, “Four Patterns in Cosmic Creation,” based (in part) on Guido Tonelli’s book, Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began (2019). Tonelli identifies four patterns present in the first instant of cosmic creation, i.e., in the first billionth of a second, which reappear in the early phases of cosmic creation: a) the unity of creation/destruction, b) the power of polarities, c) symmetry breaking, and d) transformation at a tipping point, most commonly the reduction in the temperature of the early universe following the Big Bang.
Remarkably, artistic creation commonly utilizes three of these patterns while attempting (with rare exceptions) to reverse the most important pattern of all: the unity of creation/ destruction. Tonelli writes:
“For the Greeks and Romans, for a work to be beautiful, it must necessarily contain symmetry, with elements and volumes in mathematical relationship with each other. Central symmetry, of the kind determining the regular distribution of the segments of an orange, or the arms of a starfish, was used widely in the classical world.”(p. 69)And “The modern notion of symmetry has made possible a mathematical formulation that has found many applications in the sciences. For physics in particular, symmetry is not just a concept that implies constancy and elegance of relations. It is a real tool of investigation that has enabled the construction of new laws of nature,”(p. 70)for example the Standard Model of quantum physics. Tonelli asserts that in the Standard Model, “everything emerges from asymmetry.”(p. 72) However, Tonelli maintains that “The appeal of ‘broken symmetry’ can be found in many works of art. The orderly rhythm of perfect symmetry tends to pacify and reassure, but it risks ultimate blandness: it does not elicit emotion, because it fails to surprise. The effect of the break is unsettling, but also intriguing; it pushes us beyond the limits of our certainties … For an instant we seem to hesitate, we are overcome by trepidation generated by the unexpected innovation and the risks that accompany it; then the artist reassures us and returns us to familiar territory. … These are techniques used with great mastery by eminent painters and by composers of genius such as Bach and Mozart. …”(p.77)
“If in the field of art, dismantling symmetry is a deliberate act that provokes fascination and astonishment, how should we explain the fact that nature seems distinctly inclined to resist succumbing to the same process? The universe that emerges after the phase of inflation is in a state of perfection. The laws of physics that regulate it are perfectly symmetrical. Why does such a perfect mechanism shatter? ”Tonelli’s answer is that the symmetry of the early universe was unstable; “as it cools down, it loses symmetry but acquires stability.”(p. 78)
According to Tonelli, symmetry in art is pleasing and comfortable, but eventually loses the power to command careful appreciative attention. In cosmic creation, it is the broken symmetry of matter/antimatter that allows matter to stabilize its existence, rather than being instantly destroyed.
Polarities increased the power of forces in the early universe from the Big Bang, hypothesized to have arisen out of a singularity of infinite density (standard version), or through cosmic inflation resulting from a mysterious blockage of a random fluctuation of a tiny particle (Tonelli’s speculation), to the birth of stars out of dense gas clouds, to nuclear fusion in the interior of stars which depends on the balance between gravity and electromagnetism, to the death of stars in explosions following gravitational collapse.
The conflict of polarities increases the power of dramatic art in which interpersonal conflict and group conflict is life blood. The multifaceted relationships between good/evil, love/hate, kindness/cruelty, the sacred and the profane, broken spirits/ resilience, brotherhood, and fights to the death between brothers and comrades, sensuality/spirituality, life/death powers dramatic art. Any scene of happiness and social cohesion at the beginning of a drama can only be followed by tragedy, violence, or other types of conflict. Too much happiness in love, family life or community in dramatic art is a potentially fatal soporific!
The polarities of dramatic art are often intrapsychic as well as interpersonal, arguably because human character has bipolar features, i.e., any strong trait of character is complemented by its opposite, usually in a hidden or recessive way. No one, it seems, is all of a piece, and the discerning exploration of character in fiction, plays, movies and biographies draws out these contradictions. Human character is full of contradictory tendencies which are elicited in different environmental conditions and social contexts. One of these contradictions is the experience (illusion?) of a unitary self which is somehow created from a brain with 86 billion neurons and a body with more than 30 trillion cells. The unitary awareness of animals and humans (i.e., an injury to one part of the organism is an injury to the whole organism) is the most impressive early achievement of central nervous systems. Per Damasio, it is the product of affect.
Music and dramatic art point toward climatic finishes that transform earlier phases and scenes into an aesthetically pleasing whole. Popular movies commonly utilize happy endings in which admirable characters prevail, but occasionally moviemakers violate this expectation. Great directors, novelists and short story writers transform their characters and events in a way that at best is both surprising and seemingly organic. However, there is one feature of cosmic creation that artists (with rare exceptions) do not copy and struggle against: the unity of creation/destruction. As a rule, any type of art that creates an art object is an attempt to capture beauty, to make it timeless in a way that seems impossible. The art that violates this principle, e.g., Tibetan sand art, stands out. It is difficult to watch Tibetan monks who have labored for months in the creation of an exquisite mandala from sand destroy it in a few seconds. However, they do so for a reason, which is to model the cosmic unity of creation/destruction. The creator god, or gods -if there be such - do not cling to the beauty and magnificence of their creations, regardless of the loving attention devoted to them.
Bertamini, M., Rampone, G., Makin, A., Jessop, A., “Symmetry preference in shapes, faces, flowers, and landscapes(2019) OSF, published online, Jan. 8.
Chodron, P., The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving- Kindness (2001), Shambhala Books, Boston.
Damasio, A., The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures (2018), Vintage Books, New York City.
Ribeiro, S., The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams (2021), Pantheon, New York City.
Tolstoy, L., War and Peace (translated by Constance Garnet), 1994, The Modern Library, New York City.
Tonelli, G., Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began (2019), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York City.
-- Dee Wilson