Clouds from the air

On an airplane today looking out at the clouds, while taking in their majestic loveliness, I found myself pondering the nature of beauty. As far as I can see, we cannot know anything of the nature of beauty outside of human experience, since we can confer on the subject only with our fellow humans.

I don’t expect Martians to land on Earth anytime soon to invite us for tea and some good conversation on the nature of beauty. Our nearest companions here on earth don’t seem particularly interested either. I’ve never known a dog or a cat to look up at a cloud (although I’d be willing to be surprised).

And so we are faced with this odd situation – the wonder of a tree, the dance of a flame, the delightful meandering path of a mountain waterfall, none of these wonders can be teased apart from the human brain that perceives them. Perhaps things matter only because they matter to us.

And so I wonder – does “beauty” exist in the universe outside of the human perception of beauty? Or is the question itself meaningless?

9 thoughts on “Clouds from the air”

  1. I don’t think the nonexistence of beauty outside of us matters either. I don’t think dogs and cats regret exactly like we do–they probably don’t love exactly like we do–but these things are still central to us.

  2. I have an evolutionist approach to beauty. We find lakes beautiful, because it gains us to be close to water. We enjoy great vistas, because it gives us a beneficial overview over our surroundings. Therefore I believe that the concept of beauty lies only in perception.

    Like many other functions coming from evolution, it also “misfires” and gives us a sense of beauty from things that does not have an impact on our lives beyond the experience itself.

    With this mindset I’d find unlikely that other mammals wouldn’t have some perception of their own version of beauty.

  3. Some 20 years ago, as an evangelical Christian, I was taking a university philosophy course. The professor, at the end of a compelling lecture on beauty, pulled out a rose, handed it to a female student and said something to the effect of, “I give this rose to you in the hope that you can see beauty in it, as for me, I only see the sexual organ of a plant.” You see, he was a self-proclaimed athiest, he had no ability to comprehend beauty, he wanted, desperately, to see beauty but had no ability. Obviously, his statement deeply affected me, as a Christian, I had the answer and felt for him I *wanted* him to see the beauty.

    Move forward 10 years : I am now a functional athiest, but hold out hope for some kind of theism. I now understand exactly what he was saying, but at the same time, I am compelled by the beauty of the rose. The beauty I used to see was “God’s creation”, the beauty I see today is the mind-numbing complexity of life. Even now, I claim to see beauty, but what I call beauty today is not how I used the word in the past. Beauty is in the mind of the beholder.

  4. Whence came this idea that beauty is somehow dependent on one’s religious values? It may color them just like anything else, but how this professor’s atheism prevented him from appreciating the beauty of the rose is beyond me…

  5. @Dean – wow!
    With one post the full rollercoaster ride of emotion. I was willing to grill you after the first paragraph, to hug you after the second. Oddly, I find little discrepancy in my appreciation of visual ‘beauty’ despite an understanding of its organic complexity or even the awareness of social conditioning leading to my perception of its symbolic meaning. Its still beautiful – to me. And beautiful on numerous levels.

  6. It sounds as though Dean’s philosophy professor was trying to be provocative, and wasn’t doing a very good job of it. Enjoyment of beauty is a sensual experience, not a metaphysical one. We may invoke the metaphysical in how we interpret such an experience. But we still have the experience whatever our interpretation of it.

    The absurdity of the professor’s gesture would have become immediately evident had he offered to share a bar of chocolate while saying โ€œI give this chocolate to you in the hope that you can taste something delicious in it, as for me, I only experience the chemicals from a plant.โ€

  7. I would have kicked the philosophy professor for his sexism. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Funnily enough I found myself one day doing something similar what Ken described, I gave a bar of chocolate to someone and said: “to you it is something delicious, to me it is only a too sweet bar of chocolate.” ๐Ÿ™‚

    But back to the beauty of clouds, when I was nearly 14 I was sitting in my parents garden, watching the beauty of the clouds and the beauty of the planes in the sky.
    It all looked so airy and effortless to me, I simply loved it. That year my beloved parents allowed me to start my pilot training. That was when I realised two things, firstly learning to fly an air plane is hard work, it makes you sweat and suddenly loses all it’s effortlessness.
    And secondly you don’t see anything anymore, when you are in a cloud other than milky white stuff.
    I was honestly disappointed about both. ๐Ÿ™‚
    The effortlessness of gliding came back after I had enough training and I was the first time alone up in the sky. And it is still to me one of the most wonderful things you can do in life.
    And the clouds became even more beautiful to me, the more I understood about their complexity.

    Very much later in life, I could see the beauty of the Mars, after friends from JPL did a film about it – funnily enough I was never interested in before, in spite I studied aerospace.

    Some of us see / experience beauty in a mathematical expression, most of us see the beauty in the face or eyes of their partner (hopefully:-)).

    So beauty might be a very personal experience – perhaps even some kind of emotion. But this experience doesn’t seem to be possible without some accompanying thoughts or interest.

  8. On certain temperate and breezy days during long walks here in my hilly neighborhood in Los Angeles, upon finding himself on just the right grassy and tree shaded spot, my dog Mr. Popo will stop whatever he’s doing and plop down. He will look off into the distance while enjoying the coolness of the shade, the feeling of the grass on his belly and the breeze on his nose. In my honest opinion, Mr. Popo is appreciating what I would characterize as the beauty of these moments.

    There is no way to know if Mr. Popo has a human’s sense of the beauty of the moment. He certainly has an innate appreciation for a moment that I’d call beautiful. For that matter, though I might be able to verbally agree with another person about a shared instance of beauty, I couldn’t feel the same the other felt when they beheld it.

    I hope it’s not copping out to say that while I do not know if the ‘beauty concept’ transcends human consciousness, I do believe that beauty can be shared and appreciated simultaneously in ways that transcend how it’s defined or conceived.

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