The Teleology of Beauty?

In his book Adventures in Ideas, Alfred North Whitehead wrote “The teleology of the Universe is directed toward the production of Beauty.” This is certainly an adventurous idea, but perhaps also a doubly questionable one. That the Universe is directed by any teleology is questionable, and even for those who believe on faith the world is so directed, that it would be toward “beauty,” rather than say “goodness,” is questionable. But here we will take up Whitehead’s idea in the spirit of adventure.

Many people think the important thing about an idea is whether it is true or false. Some people, like myself, are not so interested in whether an idea is true or false, but care more about whether an idea is interesting or not. For us, questions that can unambiguously be answered true or false are rather boring.  As the opening strains of a great symphony entice a music lover, so a sentence like Whitehead’s entices the lover of adventurous ideas. So in the spirit of that adventure, I’ll wander around in it for a bit.

The experience of Beauty requires a being with direction, understanding and awareness. And it requires an object that can attract that being, engage its understanding, fill its awareness. Since without such a being the experience of beauty would not exist, to say that the Universe is directed to the production of beauty is to say that the Universe is directed to the production of creatures like ourselves, capable of experiencing beauty.

From a naturalistic (which is to say an evolutionary) perspective, the creation of creatures like humans requires at least three ingredients: a great quantity of matter/energy, a very long time, and rather special parameters or rules. According to the standard model of particle physics, there are about 21 fundamental parameters to the Universe. These parameters include the masses of the various fundamental particles, and the relative strengths of the four fundamental forces. Metaphorically, we might think of these fundamental parameters as the ingredients of a recipe that when cooked long enough, turns into a tasty stew. We are each of us a bit of that tasty stew.

The parameters, with their unique and constant values and intricate relationships, allowed beings capable of experiencing beauty to emerge. Whether this is the result of some strange cosmic purpose, as Whitehead suggests, or the result of an equally strange cosmic accident, is beyond our knowing. But that the Universe has produced such beings is simply a fact – a fact that is ours to enjoy.

* * * * * *

Naturalism, and the scientific method that is integral to it, has tended toward the kind of positivism that insists on ideas that can be judged true and false. In scientific and technical communication, the burden is largely on the communicator to express ideas clearly so that a minimum of interpretation is required of the reader.  This is sound methodology for those whose jobs are in scientific and technological fields.

Spirituality, on the other hand, tends to use myth and metaphor. Its missives are often quite intentionally ambiguous, like poetry (much of the best spiritual writing is in the form of poetry).  The purpose of this is not obfuscation, as some may think, but because the realization of a spirituality requires effort and work. This kind of effort begins with the work required to penetrate the sayings of a teacher, or the foundational writings of tradition.  The Tao Te Ching is a particularly good example. Its text is dense and capable of being understood on many levels. One can come back to it over a lifetime with new and deeper understandings.

Both naturalism and spirituality produce interesting, adventurous ideas, but in the presentation of these ideas, they use language in different ways. Spiritual Naturalism attempts to integrate naturalism and spirituality. Such an integration cannot come about through the reduction of one or the other of these ways of using language, but has to be comfortable with both.  It needs to recognize when a clear, denotative language best serves the purpose and when a connotative or mythic language serves best. This is by no means an easy challenge. For just as the modern world tends to be politically polarized, there also is a tendency for a polarization between those who prefer a clear denotative language and those who prefer a connotative language and its ambiguities.

The integration of naturalism and spirituality is itself an adventure in ideas; ideas that hopefully direct us toward both a better understanding of the World and a deeper sense of belonging to its very Being. To return again to Whitehead’s idea, if the Universe is directed toward the production of beauty, then we fulfill the purpose of the Universe by exploring and experiencing its beauty and wonder. The Universe has given us the talent for such exploration and experience. Personally, I feel wonderfully privileged to be able to cultivate and use that talent.


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3 thoughts on “The Teleology of Beauty?”

  1. The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.
    ~ Robert M. Pirsig

    Words to ponder.

  2. I think this question about beauty is a significant one. Beauty seems to be such an otherworldly, beyond-the-normal experience that it may be difficult to see how the same evolutionary process that created our everyday mental capacities could also endow us with a sense of the beautiful. So for me (Whitehead would not have looked at it this way) the question is, in what way is the perception of beauty an evolutionarily useful capacity–or at least a spinoff of other closely-related capacities?

    I read a bit about Whitehead’s statement and he apparently defined beauty as a product of harmony and intensity. A beautiful thing should be without harsh conflict (harmonious) and should have dramatic, interesting contrasts (intensity). The Grand Canyon is harmonious and intense, an open pit mine displays man’s attack on nature and the tedious devastation that results.

    I can glimpse how our mind’s ability to experience harmony and intensity might have evolved, and I’m sure evolutionary psychologists could say more. A situation that is harmonious and intense is, more or less, both happy and healthy for us; unrelenting conflicts, stress, and boredom are the opposite.

    So, for me, the teleology of beauty is really a question that is not so much about the universe as about our instinct to search for a thriving perfection.

  3. Brock writes: “So for me…the question is, in what way is the perception of beauty an evolutionarily useful capacity–or at least a spinoff of other closely-related capacities?”

    I have read many articles that have tried to link the appreciation of beauty to some useful biological capacity, and without exception I have found them greatly wanting in explanatory value. That beauty if a spinoff of other biological capacities is more to the point, but I doubt it is possible to actually identify these other capacities in a scientific way, and I doubt that beauty reduces to this in any sense.

    I suggest we will get much further if we simply recognize that beauty is a cultural accomplishment. We have learned to “spinoff” the biological character of our being into a great range of cultural accomplishments. We have learned to spinoff the evolutionary need to procreate into that elaborate thing called love, with all its variety and rituals. In the process we have been able to completely divorce love from procreation — at least if we so choose. (Erotic love undoubtedly has something to do with the experience of beauty, but there is an aspect of beauty beyond even erotic love.)

    Evolution explains many things, and culture explains many other things. Culture cannot be reduced to evolution, and cultural evolution has a completely different dynamic than biological evolution. When seeking to understand human behavior and talent it is imperative to respect the limits of both biological and cultural explanation.


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