The World, Seen: On Beauty and Science

The World, Seen: On Beauty and Science

Two weeks ago, Amherst College bought us a Festival of Ice, complete with fire-blowers, ice-carvers and (what I believe to be) the yummiest Hamantaschen ever tri-cornered. To advertise for the event, a large ice sculpture of a snowflake was placed in front of Val, and Amherst’s Februaries are so cold that the sculpture lasted several days before the sun’s mild rays took their toll.

In my opinion, the snowflake sculpture was beautiful. Some, I am sure, did not share my enthusiasm, and maybe some did not notice that the sculpture was there at all. The same thing was true last week, when Val served a marvelously delicious goat-cheese-and-arugula pizza; I thought that it provided a wonderful eating experience, while others, presumably, were unimpressed (or disgusted, or didn’t notice).

Both experiences were pleasant, but the pleasures seem different in kind. For instance, eating even one bite of the pizza made me want to run back for more, and more and more; eating the pizza made me want more of it, until I was full. That was not the case with the sculpture, though; I did not feel mounting anticipation as I walked towards Val’s exit, and I did not stand staring at the sculpture until I “had my fill.” Kant calls the sculpture’s pleasure “contemplative:” rather than making me want to see it more, looking at the sculpture was just a pleasant thing to do.

One might wonder, then: what is the difference between these two experiences, such that one of them led to desire and the other did not? In particular, is there something distinctive about the pleasure of the ice sculpture that would explain my taking pleasure in it, yet not feeling the desire to take more pleasure in it?

Amherst College teaches its students a large number of ways to approach broad questions like these. For instance, consider an evolutionary answer to the question. In his TED talk on the subject, Denis Dutton argues that people find certain shapes beautiful and other shapes not beautiful because objects with those shapes were once important tools used by prehistoric men and women in their daily lives. For example, he argues that people find tear-shaped objects beautiful because tear-shaped rocks were both particularly prevalent and useful as tools, and individuals evolved to take pleasure in seeing those tear-shapes so that they were more likely to take advantage of such tools when they are available.

Maybe, then, the pleasures are not so different after all, both written into my genetic code in order that I make the best use of my available resources. However, this explanation seems somewhat deficient in at least two ways. First, as biologist Stephen Jay Gould puts it, “Evolutionary biology has been severely hampered by a speculative style of argument that records anatomy and ecology and then tries to construct historical or adaptive explanations for why this bone looked like that or why this creature lived here.” In other words: you can come up with an evolutionary story for anything. But if your only evidence for that story is the manifestation that you created the story to explain in the first place, then why should the story be given any credence?

However, Gould’s criticism aside, a second concern with the evolutionary answer is much more serious. Even if someone gives a really good evolutionary explanation for the difference between these pleasures, does that explanation answer the right question? After all, I am interested in the difference between these two pleasures, in me. I was not asking about what people in general think about pizza and ice sculptures, and I was not asking for the historical conditions that explain my pleasures. I want to know what the difference was between them, not why (or in whom, or whether) the difference exists.
A similar criticism applies to a neurological answer to the question above. After all, I could get a neuroscience major to hook me up to a complicated machine and watch my brain as it feels the pleasure of pizza, and then the pleasure of the ice sculpture, and then she could perform some complicated analysis and tell me all of the differences in my brain’s activity in the two cases. Then I would know what happened in my brain, but that does not tell me anything about the content of the difference between the pleasures; instead, it just tells me that there is a difference.

Say the amygdala was more active in the pizza case than in the ice sculpture case. What was the difference between the two experiences? Was there something about the ice sculpture, or about seen objects in general, that made that pleasure contemplative, while the pizza’s pleasure was desire-producing? Did the pleasures feel different, and if so, how? Is the difference between them the same as that between all art and food in general, and if so, why would those pleasures be different? Did I (or, is there reason to) prefer one pleasure over the other, independent of the degree of the pleasure? No matter how much one knows about the activity of the amygdala, that knowledge cannot be used to answer any of these questions.

A similar argument also goes for anthropology. Cultural information might explain why people prefer pizza to sculptures in general, or why one person’s upbringing might lead them to different preferences from another person. But culture offers no significant insight into questions about the actual differences between the two pleasures, since pleasures happen to individuals, not groups. Anthropologists might point at the difference, but they cannot explain it.

Evolutionary argumentation can answer many questions, just as neurological argumentation and anthropological argumentation can. But if we’re interested in the questions listed above, the only viable answers lie in the arts and philosophy. Think Joyce in “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man”. Think Frost’s “Dust of Snow”. Think Plato, Kant and Scruton. Though the value of various answers might be ambiguous, at least these writers are answering the right questions. In my next column, I will explore some of these various answers.