Let me tell you about a dream I had last week. This is a bit unusual since I rarely remember my dreams when I wake. I've always been rather frustrated and even embarrassed by this for when others discuss their dreams I have nothing to contribute and describe. This may explain why Descartes' dream argument never had much appeal to me. Anyway, on the few occasions when I have remembered my dreams, those dreams have typically been quite strange. This one was quite strange.
It was a summer evening at the beach, and I was sitting on a log idly tossing pebbles into the water and talking with a companion. It was a being from another world, an extraterrestrial creature, and we were explaining to each other who we are as you do with someone you find interesting but don't know very well. I don't recall the exact mechanics of how we were communicating. I was speaking English, and it seemed to be as well because I heard English sentences from it in response to what I said. But I don't know how it was speaking to me as it lacked a mouth. It lacked a face for that matter. Nevertheless, we were talking.
It asked me to refer to it as Glak and explained that that was the best approximation of its name I would be capable of since humans lack some of the physiological features necessary to pronounce its name properly. So Glak and I were just chatting about everything and nothing, and I continued to chuck rocks into the water. It threw a few as well, but this didn't seem to interest it and it soon stopped. I think Glak was just humoring me in this, but now that I reflect on it, I am not sure just how it threw the stones in the water since Glak did not have hands or arms or feet or legs. But I didn't wonder about this at the time. Neither of us was at all disconcerted by the very unusual appearance of the other, and it seemed the most normal thing in the world to be having a conversation with someone from somewhere out of this world.
As I flung another stone out to sea, I noticed the sun setting. The sky was orange, red, purple, pink, and deep blue and all this was reflected and slightly distorted in the not quite calm water. Glak had paused for a moment, and I said, "I don't know if you have sunsets at your home or what they might be like, but that is a very beautiful sunset tonight."
"Pardon me." I thought it hadn't heard me so I repeated myself. "Yes, I have seen Earth sunsets and they are reminiscent of atmospheric phenomena familiar to my kind; but you said something else of it."
"That it was beautiful?"
"Yes, that was it. Beautiful. I do not understand that. What did you mean when you used that term?"
"Really? From what little I know of you, you understand quite a lot about Earth and humans. This can't be the first time you have heard a human refer to beauty."
"You are right. I have heard humans speak of beauty, and it has always confused me. I have noticed that you humans use it to express a kind of satisfaction, but what this satisfaction is I do not understand. Explain to me why you said of the sunset that it is beautiful and what that word says about the sunset."
Geez, where do I start? "Well, I said the sunset is beautiful tonight because it is beautiful." As soon as I said that, I realized that it wasn't quite a circular explanation but probably an empty one to Glak. It was kind enough not to point this out and tossed a rock into the water as it waited for a better answer. Its aim was as poor as my explanation. I tried again.
"A beautiful sunset is beautiful. I know that is like saying that a white rock is white, but a white rock is white. When I tell you this rock is white, I am pointing out a quality of it. I am telling you something about it, that it is, in fact, white. Wait a minute—you do perceive color, don't you?"
"Certainly. Indeed, my species can sense far more of the electromagnetic spectrum than humans. We are able to see both what you call infrared and ultraviolet radiation beyond the ability of your eyes. I can observe that this rock is white, this one is black, and this one brown with spots of gold."
As it said this, Glak pitched each of the three rocks into the water one by one. Its aim was improving.
"Alright then. Beauty is a quality of something just as white is, and if this rock is actually white, when I call it white I am giving you a true description of one aspect of this particular rock. Tonight's sunset had the quality of beauty, and when I told you that, I gave you a true description of one aspect of it."
"Yet I do not understand what that quality is. When I look at this rock I see it has the quality of black color. I saw the orange, the red, the purple, and many other colors you are not able to see in the sunset when you drew my attention to it. But I did not see anything called beautiful in the sunset. I do not mean to be facetious, but is beauty a color you can see that I cannot?
"You said that the sunset truly had the quality of beauty, meaning that the beauty was in the sunset and not merely in you as a result of your apprehension of it. In that case it would have been beautiful even if we had not been here and you had not noticed it. I have heard an Earth story about a tree falling in the woods with no one there to hear it. Is that tree beautiful?"
"Do bears shit in the woods?"
"I do not understand."
"Oh, nonsensical non sequitur. A joke. You made a joke. Humor. Amusement. That is something else I do not understand about humans."
"Somehow that doesn't surprise me." By now the last streaks of color had faded and the deep blue of evening was rising from behind us. "We were talking about beauty, but I think you have suggested a detour into humor. Because you recognized that I made a joke, that might be a way to get at beauty. Do you know any jokes?"
"I do, but not any punny ones."
I didn't know whether Glak has feelings, and I certainly did not want to hurt its feelings. I bit my lip and didn't say anything as I threw a few rocks far out into the water. At last I said, "I really am sorry, Glak. If that was the best you can do, I'm not sure you do know any jokes, at least any good jokes. As they say, don't quit your day job."
"Was it not an unexpected inappropriate use of a word? Is that not a type of joke?"
I had to think about that for a moment. "Yes, the unexpected inappropriate use of a word can be a type of joke, but not all unexpected inappropriate uses of a word are jokes. Further, not all unexpected inappropriate uses of a word that do constitute jokes are funny. Finally, not all funny things are jokes. Now you were asking me about beauty, and it strikes me that there are some parallels between humor and beauty."
"Do you mean that humans find beauty funny? Humans laugh when they find something funny, but you did not laugh because of the sunset."
"No, I didn't laugh, and I didn't because humor and beauty are two different things. The sunset was beautiful, but it was not funny. Your joke might have been funny, but it surely was not beautiful. As you noticed, when humans find something funny, we tend to laugh. When we find something beautiful, on the other hand, we have a different sort of reaction. I'm not exactly sure what it is; it doesn't really have a name. It is not laughter, but it is something rather like laughter."
Now Glak paused and was quiet. It seemed to be lost in thought and threw one stone after another into the water in what struck me as a very methodical way. "If I understand what you are saying, there is a two-step process involved in what is funny. You first recognize that something is funny and then you laugh. But I do not comprehend the beautiful so I do not understand how they can be parallel."
"Maybe because you are not human, I think you might have a better handle on it than I do. Your observation that there are steps or stages here is right. In humor, we first recognize that something is funny and then we react with laughter. And you made me realize the same is so with beauty. First we recognize the beauty in something and then we react to that recognition. The recognition-reaction process is the parallel I have in mind."
"I am not capable of either with both humor and beauty."
"Oh, that is not true, and you just showed me. You recognized that I made a joke. And then you made a joke; you used a word in an unexpected and inappropriate manner. You recognized that this can often result in something humorous. You understand that there are ways to make things funny."
"But I do not have the laughter reaction."
"Perhaps not, but you are part way there, maybe half way there. You can understand how to make a joke; you know what context and circumstances make jokes possible; you grasp some of the ways in which jokes operate. You can recognize the formal aspects of humor. In a sense you do get the jokes—you just don't find them funny. You don't move on to the next step; you don't appreciate the humor; you don't laugh." I picked up a large rock and threw it as far and as high as I could. It made a big splash. "I'm not so sure you are that different from some people I know who do not appreciate humor, who find very little to be funny and seldom laugh."
Glak threw a stone into the water, and I thought I heard it skip. "You said humor and beauty shared parallel aspects. I am not certain I comprehend the parallel."
"OK, sure, beauty. If the recognition–reaction dynamic is right, going back to the sunset, I saw something in the pattern of the colors that appealed to me and then I reacted. Part of my reaction was telling you about it. The first step was my recognition, but what did I recognize? I saw the pattern of differing and blending colors, the form, if you will. I suppose that the arrangement of beauty is a special kind of pattern. I recall one description of beauty as an ordered variety of parts in a discrete whole. There is surely more to it than that since not all ordered varieties of parts in discrete wholes are beautiful, but that sounds like a minimally necessary condition. And you told me that even you did see this in the sunset; you did see the many colors and shapes visible in your observation of the sun setting."
"It is true that I did see the sunset tonight, and I did tell you that sunsets remind me of atmospheric phenomena with which I am familiar. I am aware that there are many colors and shapes involved in this visible phenomenon, aware that these change as the sunset transpires, and aware that this variety can be considered as parts comprising a comprehensive whole. But if this is what beauty is, is every whole comprised of parts therefore beautiful? Is this whole beach with its parts of sand, driftwood logs, aquatic and terrestrial plants, stones, bivalve shells, rolling and breaking water waves, wind, humidity, large and small animals, is the whole beach beautiful? This beach, of course, is only one part of a coastline, each part different from the others; is the whole coastline beautiful as well?"
"Yes, and no. Some humans find the beach itself beautiful, and I suppose some might find the entire coastline beautiful, but beauty is usually taken to be a special kind of ordering of parts in a relatively discrete whole. Many years ago, three Greek philosophers, Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, held that the keys to beauty are mathematical. Something is beautiful based on the proportionality of its parts, its symmetricality, its overall unity and order within a complex of parts. An ordering of parts in appropriate ratios within a unified whole affects humans pleasurably. Chance natural objects and phenomena—such as a sunset or a beach—can have such a pleasurable ordering. Artificial objects and phenomena, such as the architecture of a building or the music of a song, can have this pleasurable ordering intentionally. The beauty is in the object or phenomenon by nature or craft and can be pleasantly experienced when the proportionate ordering is recognized."
"So I was correct," Glak burst in, "Beauty is a kind of satisfaction for humans. When something satisfies you, you call it beautiful." It paused, and I think it was thinking.
"Please excuse me for a moment. I am in need of nourishment." At that Glak started moving around. I had absolutely no idea what was happening, but its bulbous form changed shape in odd ways and its color appeared to alter slightly. After a minute or two it seemed to recover its composure and announced, "Now I am sated. The nutrition is proportionate to the need. I am satisfied, and that is beautiful."
"Ah—what did you just do?"
"I was what you call hungry, and I consumed a packet of nutritive substance from my stock of supplies. When I did so my need was satisfied. I called it beautiful as you humans do."
"Excuse me for a moment. Now I am hungry." I reached into my backpack and got out a sandwich. I was glad Glak had found some appreciation for beauty, but I was also disappointed it was on the wrong track. My explanation wasn't working. I took a bite of sandwich. It tasted good. It did not taste beautiful.
"You know that we humans have five main senses by which we know the world outside ourselves—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. I am not sure why, but beauty is primarily a matter of what we see and hear, and not what we smell, taste, or touch. Maybe it is simply a matter of the usage of the term 'beauty,' maybe it is something substantive. I'm not sure. So, let's restrict our considerations of beauty to what is seen and heard."
"Yet I know humans call some poetry and morally worthy actions beautiful."
"I think they're speaking metaphorically or analogously. Let's stick to the seen and the heard. It might make it easier."
"For the sake of the conversation, there is no problem with that restriction."
"OK. If we return to the Greek idea of mathematical proportionality of parts in a whole, I think there is something to that. The formal organization of an object or a collection of sounds when appropriately ordered is beautiful. Seen objects ranging from a chair to a hydroelectric dam can be beautiful or not depending on their coordinated form. The practical utility of the object—that you can sit on it or that it generates electricity—has nothing to do with it."
"I am aware of all kinds of formal mathematical proportionalities, but I do not react to these as you humans do."
"I'm not sure I understand what you mean."
"The sum of the angles of a triangle equals 180°. The Pythagorean Theorem. 2 + 2 = 4. These each have well ordered parts in a whole. Are these beautiful to you?"
"Not to me, but maybe to mathematicians. I'd guess we'd have to say that the formal ordering of the right kind is necessary but not sufficient for beauty. Or it may be that the form alone is insufficient without the material. Consider music. Heard sets of sounds from a series of three or four tones to a symphony may or may not be beautiful just by their form expressed in sound."
"I must admit that almost all Earth music baffles me. I do find one work very interesting."
"John Cage. 4'33"."
"Oh, yes, I can play that piece really quite well, although my friends tell me I tend to play it too fast. I'll bet you'd really like Magritte's Treachery of Images or an empty picture frame on a gallery wall as works of visual art. As for that Cage piece, I am not sure that I'd consider it music since it has no sound, at least it is not music in the traditional human sense. But that is not to deny it aesthetic value. Consider a Jackson Pollack or Mark Rothko painting. These works may have aesthetic value, but many would hold them to lack beauty. No, a better example would be Raphael's School of Athens. My friend Richard has a copy of it. Are you familiar with it?"
"Yes, I am. I know that it is an exemplar of perspective painting. The vanishing point is just between the heads of Plato and Aristotle at the center of the fresco and all the perspective lines radiate from that point. The philosophers are also grouped by philosophical interest and approach beneath Apollo and Athena yet nevertheless directing attention to the central two philosophers. Is this what you mean by an ordered mathematical proportion of parts in a discrete whole? Is that what you recognize and react to as beautiful?"
"That is it exactly."
"Perhaps for you there is beauty in Raphael's fresco, but I do not share your reaction to it. I can discern his skill and talent, I can observe the organization of the shapes and figures, but I find no beauty in it."
I'd long since finished my sandwich, and now it was dark. I went back to flinging stones into the water even though I could no longer see where they were landing. I could only hear them plopping into the water. I looked up at the stars in the sky and remembered Kant's line about the two things that fill us with wonder. That gave me an idea.
"Maybe you're right after all, Glak. Maybe the recognition-reaction process of beauty does involve a kind of satisfaction. When we recognize the appropriate form, we then react with a sort of satisfaction. The recognition prompts what Kant calls a disinterested delight. This is not a selfish, I want to have it all to myself, desire, but an enjoyment I get from experiencing the beautiful something and an enjoyment I see that all who consider that something can have. Beauty is thereby simultaneously both subjective and universal."
"But that is just the point. I cannot have that. The universality does not extend to my case. I get the joke, but I do not find it funny. I see the ordered parts in the whole, but I see no beauty. I look at the Parthenon and I see the lines of the columns. I look for all the mathematical proportions the building is famous for and about which you talked. My reaction is, 'Yes, I see them—is there something more?' I have vision. I have rationality. I have understanding. I have imagination. But I take no delight or satisfaction. I am missing something. I cannot call the Parthenon beautiful. Nor the sunset."
I was taken aback by the force of Glak's lament. And I felt sorry for it. It obviously wanted to experience beauty, but it could not. Is it only humans that have the requisite perceptual, intellectual, and emotional apparatus to apprehend beauty? Morality may be understood and appreciated by all rational beings according to Kant, but is it only humans who can appreciate beauty? Glak clearly was disappointed, but something about its expression of disappointment struck me as matter of fact reporting, as if its inability to appreciate beauty was just the way it is. This reminded me of trying to help my son learn something difficult such as long division and the times he would give up and state that he simply can't do it. A Kantian distinction suggested another approach.
"You said you are missing something essential for experiencing beauty even as you clearly have intellectual faculties."
"Yes, that is so."
"Tell me something about yourself. Were you always as you are today? Did you always have the abilities you have today? Did you always know all that you know now? Or did these things develop over time?"
"Are you asking if I had a childhood?"
"I guess I am."
"The answer is yes. We are born and develop over time much as humans do, and we undergo training to develop the skills and acquire the knowledge we will need as independent beings. We practice, study, and learn."
"It sounds very much the same as for humans. With us it is often difficult to come to understand things others obviously know and have mastered. It was frustrating for me to learn so many things, but now they seem so simple and easy. After struggling with something, when I realized that I finally did understand something, I was relieved and pleased with myself."
"There were times I found learning to be difficult."
"And on realizing you now had knowledge you previously lacked, you experienced satisfaction."
"You might call it that."
"Is that satisfaction similar to what you experienced when you ate your dinner a while ago?"
"It is akin to that. I have a need for nutrition. I have a need for knowledge. When those needs are satisfied, I am aware that the need has been fulfilled, that no more is required."
"But why is that? Why do you have these needs?"
"It is how I am. Nourishment is necessary for my existence. Knowledge is necessary for my existence. They are useful to me."
"And they give you satisfaction?"
"They are useful to me."
We were silent for a while. I picked up another white stone and tossed it at the water. Glak did too. Eureka.
"Why did you do that?"
"Throw the stone in the water."
"I am not sure. When we first arrived here, you started doing it. And you have been doing it now and again all the time we have been here. At first I thought you were sorting stones and rejecting those that were not useful to you. But that did not seem to be the case. Yet because you kept returning to the activity, it must have a function for you. Perhaps that is something humans do at beaches. Because I want to understand humans, I copied what you did. Is this a means of being companionable at beaches? Is it an affirmation of your existence to rearrange your environment? Is it a non-linguistic form of communication? Does it mean something? I admit that I really do not understand this."
"No, it is none of those things. It is just something to do. But I think I do understand why I do it. I toss stones into the water just to do it. It is not necessary for me. It is not useful to me. I have no specific desire to do it even as I do it. I simply do it. If I didn't do it, there would be nothing lacking. I would not regret not having done it. I would not be unfulfilled. In itself it is pointless—it has no purpose. Yet when I do it, it does give me a kind of satisfaction. It is enjoyable to me. It is fun. I like doing it. It is aimless and playful, but I delight in doing it."
I picked up half a dozen rocks and pitched them one by one into the water. This time it did seem like a non-linguistic form of communication.
"I am sorry. I have lost the thread of our discussion. Are we still speaking of beauty?"
"Is throwing rocks into the water beautiful?"
"No, not really. Yet it strikes me as related, and it does show what sort of thing beauty is for humans. Beauty is not necessary. It is not useful. We could probably survive just as well without it. But apprehending and appreciating beauty is enjoyable to us. It delights us. It gives us a non-useful satisfaction. And this lack of utility may be a way for you to get a semblance of what we experience when confronted by the beautiful. You say that gaining knowledge satisfies a need for you insofar as it is useful. But surely you learn a great deal that is not immediately useful. It may come in handy later but not right now. You said that learning, gaining knowledge provides you with a satisfaction, and this must be the case even if what you learn is not immediately useful but only potentially useful. Some of what you learn may never serve a practical purpose, but that doesn't detract from the satisfaction of learning it now. Your satisfaction may come from the potential usefulness of the knowledge, but the satisfaction is not diminished if the potential is never actualized. Knowledge that is never applied for you is very much like pointless but enjoyable activities for humans. There is no good utilitarian reason for you to learn something that will never be applied, but you are satisfied in the learning just the same. It is similar to humor with us. We get jokes and laugh at them, and this satisfies us without any overt utility. Likewise, apprehending and appreciating beauty through the process of recognition and reaction is not useful in itself for humans, but it satisfies us just the same."
The tide had come in by now and had almost reached my feet. The water was very close to Glak as well.
"It is getting late, and you will probably need your nocturnal unconsciousness soon. I very much appreciate your consideration in conversing with a stranger. I will see if I can apply your advice about beauty. Farewell."
I wished him well and we parted. I turned to go home and looking up, I noticed the thin sliver of the new moon peeking over the horizon. It was beautiful. I turned back to Glak to point this out, but it had vanished. As I walked away, I thought I heard the sound of rocks splashing into the water, but it may have been only my imagination.
Then I awoke. Given such a strange one, it is fortunate that I seldom remember my dreams.