Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Joy of Big Questions

About twenty years ago I was roaming around in a Redwoods grove in California, and in response to the grandeur of the scenery, I began to think about what it meant to call something in Nature beautiful. At first I just started thinking about the question, and then I began to read about it, and later to talk with other people who were interested in the question. For about 10 years this question became a focal point of my reading and contemplation.

In tangible terms, all of this mental focus has resulted in little more than a few of my posts on this site such Nature Appreciation 101, Beauty in the Equation, Something Special May Happen, and The Teleology of Beauty, though it enters into most of what I write. Yet I can imagine few better uses of my time than pursuing that question. It was a joy and remains a joy.

I grew up in rural Minnesota on the banks of the Mississippi River and have taken joy in wild nature from as early as I can remember. Nobody taught me this or even encouraged it, it was just ingrained in my temperament. In particular I loved animals, and living on the river brought me each spring and fall the great bird migrations. 

I studied natural history as much as I was able in college and worked as a park naturalist and outdoor education instructor for several years after college. Though even as a child I tended to ask philosophical questions, I took no philosophy courses in college (which was fortunate -- academic philosophy as often extinguishes natural curiosity as enhances it).

After college, I started reading philosophy quite widely -- my introductory text being Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. By the time I took that walk through the redwood forest, I had gained a pretty good understanding of Western philosophy. After that walk, I focused for a few years on aesthetics and the philosophy of beauty. One thing that surprised me was how little had been written on the beauty of nature. Indeed, many philosophers of beauty denied that nature had beauty. In the final end, I realized I was not going to find an already prepared answer to my question -- that I would have to work out the answer for myself. And that is where the fun really began!

The question about Nature's beauty led me from philosophy to what I might call the anthropology of nature -- what other people's and their cultures thought about the value of nature. This also lead to a long study of how various religions valued (or failed to value) wild nature, which included the study of mythology (another joyful intellectual excursion). It led also deeper into scientific findings and particularly cosmology. 

My readings went on and on in all kinds of different directions, but I won't go on and on about that. At a certain point in time, I felt I had answered the question to my satisfaction. So, what is the answer? Partly that beauty is like a butterfly -- it is best to enjoy it on the wing. Trying to pin down beauty in a verbal formula is like killing the butterfly and pinning it in a box. I won't do that. If you are interested in this question, I suggest you pursue it yourself.

Philosophy, IMHO, should be the asking of deep, heartfelt questions; it should be as impractical and beautiful as watching birds or butterflies. Unfortunately, it has been turned into a somewhat soulless, impractical, often egotistical activity.  If you love big questions, the questions proper to philosophy, I suggest you follow your own inner philosopher and not get too caught up in the formal discipline.

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