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Dear J,

Allow me to move the conversation to another oddity in a purely natural world: beauty. What is this thing called beauty, and what is the experience of beauty? Some would like to reduce it to pleasure, so that what I find pleasurable is what I find beautiful and vice-versa. In that case, beauty reduces to what a rational creature finds pleasurable, and Darwinians have plenty of naturalistic explanations for the existence of pleasure.

But there are several problems with that. First, some beauty is not pleasurable. Humans find beauty in the opposite of pleasure: in sorrow, in consolation during suffering. They find sad melodies beautiful, and tragedies are regarded as beautiful as comedies. Indeed, the beholders come to find pleasure in this, but this simply means that the word pleasure can no longer function as a synonym for happiness or pleasing feelings. Only sadists find genuine pleasure in pain, but this is not the experience of beauty.

Second, beauty draws humans out of themselves. Beauty may be pleasurable, but it is more than a self-created pleasure. While it is possible to find one’s own thoughts beautiful, or to find beauty in selfish exploits (more on that later), the experience of beauty seems to humble the beholder. There seems to be a true object outside the subject that produces awe, or delight, or wonder. This does not seem to be a mere survival instinct of pleasure and reward. For what survival advantage comes by beholding stars, or watching water ripple, or listening to singing?

Third, why do humans long for the experience of beauty and enjoy the longing almost as much as enjoying the experience itself? What kind of natural appetite enjoys the hunger, enjoys the thirst, as much as it’s quenching? Something here seems far beyond instinct and survival advantages.

And I suppose that is the heart of my question. Why does beauty always seem to point beyond itself? Why does it feel like a kind of memory or reminder of something we know but have forgotten? Why is it gesturing to something, or someone which will finish, or include, or complete its own partial beauty?

If the cosmos is impersonal, if matter created minds, if randomness created order, and non-life created life, can you explain why we experience beauty? And what exactly is going on within us when we find something beautiful?

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