Wednesday, March 14, 2012

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 that it can be judged 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 life time with new and deeper understandings.

Both naturalism and spirituality produce interesting, adventurous ideas, but in the presentation of these ideas, they use different language games (to use a phrase from Wittgenstein).   Spiritual Naturalism attempts to integrate naturalism and spirituality.  Such an integration cannot come about through the reduction of one or the other of these language games, but has to be comfortable with both.  It needs to recognize when a clear, denotative language best serves the purpose and where 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 is also a tendency for a polarization between those who are most comfortable with a clear denotative language and those who are comfortable with 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 (the integration of knowing and 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.  This fact, again, is ours to enjoy.

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