What is Beauty?


Have you ever thought of a thing, person or scene you consider beautiful? I am sure you have. I have too. You see Beauty is also a synthetic conception of human minds, but it grows from a different seed than the previous idea we considered: Perfection. Can beauty be a negative idea based on what is not ugly? I think not. That is a meaningless way to arrive at beauty. Clearly, to define what is not ugly, you need to know what is beautiful.So, what is it?

Beauty is again as I described in the essay on Perfection a synthetic human creation. It doesn't exist in reality. But, what is it that we human beings find beautiful objectively? Unlike Perfection this is much more difficult to explain. I don't claim to have the answer either.Nevertheless, I'll try to explain why I think there is no universal basis to our contrived concept of Beauty. But, I will go further and ask but not answer this question:

Why do we perceive and then conceptualize an idea of beauty? This question really begs for an answer.

I'll start with mathematical ideas to see beauty. Which should be no surprise to readers of my essays, as a mathematician, I must begin with what I know best. I've often listened to my mathematician colleagues describe their ideas of mathematical beauty. Here are a few:

Symmetry is often identified as being a state of beauty in math.So, a number system that has opposites that mirror one another is considered a balanced and complete system under some operations. For integers, take -1 it has +1 and all other integers have their counterparts the will equal 0 when operated upon by the binary +. This idea is considered a form of beauty. Any set that is embedded in itself and still yields elements within its set is another form of beauty in set theory math. In the reverse, any system that can create infinitely many output sets from its own set if we apply a new operation, e.g. √-1 and defining it as i. This spawned set is considered beautiful. So, real numbers can spawn complex numbers by adjustment of the rules, as an example. To take another look, self-same systems that create infinitely similar systems are considered beautiful. Here I am referring to Julia sets that create visually attractive images in fractal theory. Infinities at the small and large level are again considered beautiful constructions. Okay enough mathematics, how about beauty that involves unique things?

A football quarterback makes a pass from the 1 yard line of his team's goal line and a wide receiver catches it on the 1 yard line at the other end of the field and subsequently scores a touchdown.The crowd gasps and roars its approval. Commentators remark how this has never been done before. The next day the sportscasters are ranting about the beautiful pass reception that was made in the football game yesterday. It's beautiful precisely because it has never occurred before! Then again, a murderer that is the first to kill a large number of people certainly is not beautiful. This deviate is unique no doubt, but not hailed as the beautiful murderer. Thus, uniqueness is not always a source of our vision of Beauty. Then, there is our inclination to find beauty in the human form. We even have an industry dedicated to this pursuit: modeling. It too is as subjective and irrational as seeing beauty in uniqueness or symmetry. Yet, we do instinctively have a notion of beauty as a species. I know when I see a pretty woman the physical affect upon me is tremendous. Still, there is no objective basis to measure this reaction by. Could it be that we are genetically specified to acquire this sense from our evolutionary heritage?Let's look at this idea.

There is an argument that can be made from evolution. Those that have the elements of robust health and physical prowess are selected for. By which I mean they are the persons that can reproduce. Instead of those with weak bodies, disgured faces, overweight, sick, missing limbs, stupid, ad infinitum. The symmetrically well-formed bodies, with robust health not only survive and reproduce, they become sought after for these qualities. They become adored. They even become standards by which others are measured. But, is this really true? Human beings have in some ways transcended the shackles of evolutionary Darwinism. The ugly marry the beautiful, and even same sexes fall in love. All of this is counter to Darwinian evolution, I remind you. This argument doesn't explain our proclivity for a conception of beauty in general. It may well explain why it occurred in our species while we became modern humans, but not its objective truth. It can't because no such objective truth exists. It really doesn't account for it within evolutionary theory. Ugly animals have predominated and flourished like vultures, sloths, various insects, and my present boss (okay scratch that one). Hideous forms of crawling creatures are all not beautiful, we must remember. But they are prolific in nature. Nature doesn't necessarily select for beautiful creatures.

With these reflections, I again ask: What is Beauty? It is clear no such thing exists in the world outside our minds. It is another constructed concept made real only by our cultures and the notions that accrue from them.

The larger question is: Why do we have this concept at all? While beauty doesn't exist as say atmosphere does, we can't deny it exists as an object of our minds. Beauty can be applied to music, art, natural landscapes, galaxial formations, concepts, even death. It is a construction of our minds and non-existent in reality. It is an almost indefinable result of our mental evolution. In this respect beauty is a notion that exists for us. The desire to attain it, or experience it, or become a part of it is misdirecting our energies in a fruitless pursuit. This is a saddening thought too, since so many try so hard to be beautiful as it's conceived in their cultures. This is especially true of women. I've seen women primp and adorn themselves in odd ways from clothing to makeup all in an attempt appear beautiful to who else: men.

In the end, I can find no definitive way to explain why this concept has grown up in human society, other than to recognize it does occur across all cultures. As a final example of the subjectivity of beauty here is my own take on the idea. To me the night is beautiful and the day is ugly. I detest bright sunny days with no clouds in the sky. But the time before dawn when the dark is upon the land is stunning. We are now approaching daylight saving time and I lament that. To think that it will be daylight before 7 am is depressing. A day when rain is coming down and the temperatures are in the moderate 70 range with no electrical atmospheric disturbances like lightning are also beautiful to me. But not to my friends and acquaintances. They see my admiration for these environmental occurrences as weird. I've been asked things like: Are you a Vampire? You see what's beautiful to me is not others. And I am sure the same applies to you.

And one more note to consider. What would it be like to have no conception of beauty? I can't even imagine this! I'd have to be that bloodless machine to do that!

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Robleh Wais