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Witnessing Beauty

 When we reflect on our life, how do we make sense of it? We might look for a theme, or evaluate our impact on, or importance to, the world. Each of us would likely focus upon different elements. For me the narrative would revolve around three concepts and my relationship to them: Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Or is it just one concept, as Plato wanted to suggest? Truth is beautiful and good. Beauty is good and true. Goodness is true and beautiful. Plato may have been onto something, but for our investigation let us explore each one in turn.

For nearly thirty years my life was not about anything definitive. As a child I often had the sense that I had forgotten something important. The feeling haunted me, as the realization of a forgetting often will. Maybe this tease, suggesting that I was so close to something significant, explains why I later found seeking so important. For whatever reason, truth became my first meaningful focus, and the most compelling mysteries concerning truth were, and I still believe are, the philosophical ones.

It was academic philosophy that provided me with a set of values and tools for revealing these truths. The values were clarity and precision. The tools were about how to conceive definitions and form distinctions crucial for both clarity and precision. The overriding structure was logic, with it's aspiration to fathom language and its connection to the world.

So the beginning of my reflective life had the pursuit of philosophical truth at the heart. This path was not without complexity or dissonance, but it led me to commit to one principle over all others: That I should strive to believe things to the degree to which they are justified or evidenced, by no more, and no less. As David Hume says, "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence." As a result, believing an unpleasant truth became more important to me than finding solace in a reassuring or seductive lie.

So belief comes in degrees, as evidence does, since unconditional proof for most things is elusive. Thus, with the commitment to evidence as the foundation of my beliefs came the acceptance that sometimes my beliefs would not correspond to the truth, and because acts are based upon beliefs, sometimes my actions are going to be imperfect. I had to accept this. I did and moved on.

After a while it became evident that I had answered most of the important questions in philosophy to my satisfaction, but I still needed clarity about issues in ethics. This would be my next significant venture.

After jousting with the concepts in ethics for a while I began to lean firmly in one direction: that the primary role, and original reason for invention, of the language of ethics was to communicate information about another person's character. When we talk about character we sometimes talk about courage, humility and loyalty, for instance. But the most general categories for character appraisal are the notions of "good" and "bad".

Although these terms are vague, they are not without meaning. I became convinced and wedded to the view that the most important character traits that make up being a good person are kindness and honesty. There are others and we cannot always say with precision when a person should be more kind than honest or more honest than kind, or when we should give more weight to other personal commitments, but it was clear to me that being kind and honest should be the focal points of a good life and central to the commitment to be a good spirit.

But then I wondered: Is this what I should be doing with my life?" Should I be focused on being a better person? Or should I go back to my initial quest for truth? Maybe I should I do both? How do I discover the guiding principles for what is worth doing? No clear answer presented itself.

Then one day I realized that there is another concept worth special consideration: Beauty. I noticed upon reflection that my experiences of beauty were many of the best experiences of my life.

In a parallel pursuit I'd been exploring issues concerning value. Upon reflection, it became clear to me that there is only one thing is of intrinsic worth: experience. If a physical object, for instance, is of value it is because it enables positive experiences or prevents negative ones. To discover, then, what the value of some physical thing is to you, you only need to reflect upon how your experiences with that object are distinct from the experiences without it and follow this with an assessment of the value to you of those experiences.

Thus, if experience is the only thing of intrinsic value and if there is a real answer to the question "what is the meaning to life?", and if the question about the meaning of life is about the value of a life then "the meaning of life" must be expressed in terms of experience i.e., the experiences that make a life meaningful.

Now, consider this thought experiment. Suppose there were an entire universe that contained no life. Nothing in that universe experiences any part of that universe. Could there be something meaningful in or about that universe? It's hard to imagine what it would be. It seems empty and a little tragic.

But now let us imagine a universe where there are things that experience it, but theyonly experience it, they don't reflect upon that experience at all. This is a better universe, not as sad, but still it lacks something, something significant.

For our third universe, let us have beings that experience it as in the second universe, but let those beings reflect upon that experience and furthermore let some of this experience take the form of appreciation of the wonder, the awe and thebeauty in and of that universe. Now we have a universe that is worth the effort to be!

As an aside, what does it mean to wonder? It emerges from our need to know the answer to a profound question, together with a reflection on our awareness that we don't know it now, but someday we might. What does it mean to feel awe? Awe is the feeling we have when we realize that we will never know the whole truth. We will never satisfy our desire to possess and entirely contain it.

So why are we here? What is our place in all of this? We are here to experience the wonder, awe and beauty of the universe. We are the witnesses to this amazing universe. Without us, the audience, the universe would be lonely, isolated and sad. It would have no witnesses. Without us, it could still be amazing and beautiful, but the tragedy would be even greater if it were exceedingly wondrous and beautiful, because no one would ever know.

Please realize that for most of my life I haven't really given much weight to the question of the meaning of life, mostly because I was convinced that it presupposed the false idea that the universe wants us to do something and that somehow doing what the universe wants us to do gives an importance to our life.

At other times the question seems to suggest that there exist rules that are a certain guide to how one must lead a life, and that following those rules for some reason gives meaning to a life. This suggestion was also hard for me to accept and so the question of meaning in this context had no emotional resonance for me.

But on an emotional level the notion of being a witness to an awesome universe seems to satisfy any impulse I'd ever had for wanting to ask the question. And so this answer, even though it may not fulfill others, gives me a sense of resolution. It serves to remind me at those times when I wonder about my own worth, what gives value to my life: Reflecting on the wonder and beauty of the universe. Not that the universe "needs" a witness, but for me it's assuring to know that it has at least one. It makes me smile.

Why would the experience of beauty be so special? Why would it be more special than the pleasures of physical sensation? These are good experiences also, but the appreciation of beauty is unique in at least one sense. It is not self-centered. It is (most of the time) about something outside ourselves. It provides us with a connection to the universe that is not based upon our needs, but upon our realization that something outside of us is great.

This view also fits well with a view of what it means to be spiritual.

To be spiritual involves:
1) A sense of being connected to the universe.
2) A sense of awe and wonder about the universe.
3) A sense that there is something in the universe greater than oneself.

Beauty is closely aligned with one and three, and perhaps even two.
We must realize, of course, that the meaning of life in general may be different from the meaning of a particular life, but the two are likely connected. The possible relationship is worth exploring at another time.

Because beauty is often hidden, since it comes in various unexpected forms, if we want to see it in those hidden places we must pay close attention or we might miss it.

So, I decided on balance. Besides seeking truth honestly, and trying to learn to be a better person, I will try to stay aware of the beauty and wonder of this amazing universe, and thereby stay connected to it.

I will not forget that attentiveness and reflection are crucial to seeing the world as it really is, flawed but sometimes perfect, serious but sometimes humorous, callous but sometimes loving. We live in an astonishing world at a compelling time and, in fact, the only one who can keep me from savoring and focusing upon the uniquely wonderful things in it is me.

Maybe this perspective is what I initially forgot.