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The Concept of Beauty


As a concept, beauty has been extolled, revered, dismissed and argued about throughout history. It has been regarded as some fundamental property with connotations of perfection, or equated with truth. It has been declared, in an adage, to be merely “skin deep” and to be “in the eye of the beholder”. Today’s discussion is an attempt to develop a concept of beauty that will be coherent and defensible. I will start with definitions, and then discuss beauty from a range of viewpoints.

A Tentative Definition

Dictionaries refer to beauty as giving aesthetic pleasure or pleasure of the senses. But since aesthetic pleasure is defined as pleasure derived from the appreciation of beauty, this doesn’t help. “Pleasure of the senses” might imply something like the pleasure of being stroked or massaged, but this seems inadequate as an example of beauty. Dictionaries also refer to beauty as being perfection of form. But what are the criteria for perfect on? Something like a balanced combination of dissimilar elements, perhaps? But many things we regard as beautiful are neither perfect nor complex. The French novelist Stendhal described beauty as “the promise of happiness”, commenting that “there are as many styles of beauty as there are types of happiness”. But beauty seems to be a presence not just a promise, and happiness is not entirely the same as pleasure.

Here are two tentative definitions that I have concocted:

Beauty is the quality by which something gives pleasure to someone for reasons other than mental stimulation, personal gain or the satisfaction of innate drives. The pleasure may be aroused by a thing or an artistic representation or an action or an idea.
Beauty is the quality by which something gives pleasure to someone directly through the intellect and independent of any ulterior considerations.

What is Life? What is A Life?

Life is the property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and other inanimate matter. But this simple description omits to say how to make the distinction. Some life forms seem inanimate at first sight, for example spores or slime. And continued argument about how to decide exactly when human death occurs, with such concepts as brain death replacing earlier concepts such as cessation of heartbeat or breathing, shows that the criteria for being alive are uncertain.

A common biological definition is that living organisms possess four properties:
* metabolism – using material and energy within the body to support continued functioning;
* reproduction – producing, from within the bodies of living parents, new separate organisms that become similar to their parents;
* growth – increasing in size from infant to adult;
* response or adaptation to the environment – taking action needed for metabolism, growth, reproduction and safety.

The Nature and Existence of Time

The present time “does not exist.”
It isn’t even fleeting.
The past is gone and often missed,
And just keeps on retreating.
They say tomorrow never comes –
You can’t give it your greeting.

The message of this simple rhyme
Seems very, very strange,
For if there’s no such thing as time,
Then what could ever change?
(GL 2013)

We all are aware of something called time, but it is hard to define what it is. It seems to have something to do with change, or with sequences of events, but we are still aware of it when nothing seems to be happening. And we have concepts of now, and before and after, which seem to be essential aspects of time.

But what is time? Is there such a thing as the present time? Does time exist? What do philosophers and scientists think about it?

There are more philosophical opinions on this topic than there are on most other parts of the physical sciences. And scientists also disagree about some aspects of time. So this essay will be just a simple overview. And there is much more to say about time than is covered here.

Data, Information, Meaning, Intelligence and Consciousness

We feel that our consciousness is the very essence of our existence. The quality of life of each of us is just a matter of the particular content of that consciousness.

But what is consciousness, what is its content, and how did its content arise? The first of these questions, what is consciousness, seems to be inscrutable. Some of the content seems to be hard to describe and some straightforward. And there is a lot of complex argument about all of this.
I will try to untangle the matter by assuming that there are basic elements called data, and that the content of consciousness can, after a series of steps, be ultimately described in terms of data. You might say that the concept of data is just part of the content of our consciousness, so this might be a circular argument. I will come back to that later.

Some of what I say will sound like common knowledge. And some of what I say may challenge your concepts or definitions relating to data, information, meaning, intelligence and consciousness.

Reductionism and Emergence

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, October 4, 2015

Reduction is an analytical process, identifying the parts of something and examining their relationships to each other and to the whole thing in order to explain the thing’s characteristics.

But when someone puts forward an argument that sounds clear and logical, you may occasionally hear it dismissed with the words "that is just reductionist." The word reductionist is used in such cases to imply that the argument is unduly simplified or distorts the issue. And reductionist thinking, it is implied, leaves out something essential, perhaps some romantic or supernatural element. Reductionist thinking is integral to science. So doubt is sometimes cast on science because it is reductionist.

Another criticism of reductionist science is that it is not holistic: it deals with individual aspects of the world but ignores the overall unity. I agree that reductionist science looks at individual parts of the world, and that it looks only at identifiable evidence. But I think that reductionist science indeed deals with the whole, however large or small we might take the whole to be in any particular case.

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