Beauty, Truth & Human Consciousness
The Three Substrates of the Universe
Look up at the night sky to see our beautiful destiny.
Do this away from city lights on a clear night and your breath will be taken away. Thousands of points of light in all their majesty will twinkle back at you. Awestruck is how it makes one feel. Inspiring. Beautiful.
Our ancestors looked to the sky and felt the same way. They were inspired to create myths about the stars. They thought celestial signs foretold the future. And, of course, they too must have been awestruck by the sheer beauty of the world they lived in.
But what is Beauty? What is Truth? Why are Truth and Beauty often used in the same sentence? Are they correlated in some way? Are they the same thing I wonder?
I don't claim to know the answers to these questions but sometimes, just exploring the questions themselves is enlightening. So let’s explore these questions together.
Before we dive into Beauty, which is the topic I was challenged to write about by my colleagues in the Soaring Twenties Social Club for our first Symposium, I want to take a quick detour into Truth. Beauty is the realm of art and nature, while Truth lives in the realm of science. So let’s see what science has learned about Truth and how that might help us in our thinking about Beauty.
Our best understanding of the nature of the universe comes from physics, and we currently have two major theories regarding the Truth of our universe: quantum theory and general relativity. The weird thing is, these two theories are completely different. They both attempt to explain the Truth of reality, but in radically different and, sometimes contradictory, ways.
This is partly due to the limitations of human perception. We are unable to see all of the dimensions that create the universe spanning all of time, so we are only peeking through little windows at the Truth, each of which gives us a different view of the whole:
Quantum theory contends that underlying reality is made up of tiny little discreet "quanta" of energy. Each quanta can be "on" or "off", not unlike a computer with its zeros and ones. Quantum theory is a sort of digital theory of how the universe works.
General relativity on the other hand, is an analogue method of describing the universe. It contends that space and time are actually the same thing - that they are “Spacetime.” And, oddly, that “gravity” is not a force at all, but that it is actually a distortion, a curving, of spacetime created by the mass of objects. General relativity is, unlike quantum theory with its zeros and ones, analogue and continuous. And indeed, when talking about relativity we even refer to the "Spacetime Continuum."
Is reality discreet or continuous?
We know from scientific experimental evidence, that both of these theories are accurate at predicating the behavior of the universe and so, in some sense, they are both "true." But they are also incompatible with each other. So, in some other sense, they must both be "wrong" and there must exist some Deeper Truth that we have not yet guessed or discovered. That’s why so many of today’s physicists are searching for a “quantum gravity” theory. It would be a way to unify those two theories into one.
Humans are the only known force in the universe that create and encode knowledge. Science is the pursuit of Truth through that encoding of knowledge. And we’ve been trying to encode the Truth.
We can infer, simply by thinking of the nature of reality, that an “Ideal Truth” of the universe must exist. We humans feel intuitively that a greater Truth must exist and we yearn to know what it is. So, while we are trapped forever in some version of Plato's cave, we can see that there is sunlight just outside the cave entrance. And we try to encode knowledge about that sunlight.
We may never fully grasp the entire Truth, in fact it may be impossible for us to comprehend it, but we continue to create knowledge and pursue science, knowing that we can only ever get asymptotically closer and closer to the Truth with more and more refined theories and experiments.
What is Beauty? Like Truth, we feel drawn to Beauty. That is why we are inspired by the expansive beauty we see when we gaze at the unadulterated night sky. But we don’t just “consume” Beauty, we feel compelled to create Beauty and, even when we fail, we still strive, because the striving itself is beautiful.
Are Truth and Beauty different things? We certainly yearn for both. We strive for both. Scientific truths are often described as beautiful. Beautiful music is often said to contain mathematical truths. Are we talking about two different things here? Or are we talking about two aspects of a greater, underlying universal?
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." - Keats
But, unlike Truth, we say things like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Is beauty subjective or objective? In some sense, both. But the subjective “eye of the beholder” type Beauty is not the type of Beauty I’m talking about. You see, it turns out that there are actually two things we refer to as “beauty.” The first is a kind of societal preference which changes over time. That is the “eye of the beholder” type of beauty because it’s not beauty at all - it’s just a fashionable trend. Some cultures think tan skin is beautiful, others think milk white skin is beautiful. That’s not “Beauty” with a capital B. That’s fashion.
The second kind of Beauty is the real, universal-related-to-truth Beauty that nearly all humans from all times would agree upon. As David Deutsch put it in his book, The Beginning of Infinity:
It is that the attribute we call beauty is of two kinds. One is a parochial kind of attractiveness, local to a species, to a culture or to an individual. The other is unrelated to any of those: it is universal, and as objective as the laws of physics. Creating either kind of beauty requires knowledge; but the second kind requires knowledge with universal reach. — David Deutsch
With it firmly established that we’re talking about Beauty (the universal, real kind) and not “beauty” (the parochial kind) in this essay, let’s move on.
Most humans feel that Truth and Beauty are somehow related:
Think about this: We know, as discussed earlier, that, in general relativity, there is one underlying “substance” called SpaceTime. Which we humans, due to our limited perceptions, perceive separately and distinctly as Space and Time.
My contention, and I’m certainly not the first to suggest it, is that there is one underlying “substance”, we’ll call it TruthBeauty, that humans, due to our limited perceptions, perceive separately and distinctly as Truth and Beauty.
I’m not speaking metaphorically here or saying “the truth is beautiful.” I’m conjecturing that Truth and Beauty are literally one thing in the underlying reality.
In relativity it is velocity, from the human perspective, transmutes Space into Time (via time dilation).
What, from the human perspective, transmutes Truth into Beauty? Or more accurately, transmutes TruthBeauty into the Truth or Beauty that we perceive?
It is Consciousness.
Human Consciousness transmutes TruthBeauty into both encoded knowledge and Beauty. With our sciences, we apply our consciousness to transmute TruthBeauty into encoded Truth - knowledge. And with our arts we apply our consciousness to transmute TruthBeauty into encoded Beauty - art.
It takes Consciousness to perceive Beauty. Think of how a human being will stop and admire both the most trivial and the most grand aspects of nature. The act of applying your Consciousness to a particular moment in time is what makes it beautiful (from a human perspective).
It turns out, this transmutation of TruthBeauty into knowledge and art may be one of the reasons humans exist at all.
We are the ones who can make things that are beautiful. And we are the ones who pause to perceive Beauty. We are the ones who can push back entropy and create order. We are the ones who can create meaning. We are the ones who can create knowledge. And, in fact, we are the only ones that we know of that can do any of these things.
I once said that science is the pursuit of truth through knowledge, that art is the pursuit of truth through beauty, and that entrepreneurship is how those two things get distributed to humanity (as either art or technology).
As technology continues to accelerate and removes the need for menial and manual jobs to be performed by humans, I foresee a day that all humans will work at creating more art or creating more technology. In other words, all of humanity will eventually work in the pursuit of Beauty or in the pursuit of Truth.
Oddly, even though the encoding of TruthBeauty through consciousness and creativity seems to drive us from deep within our souls, we don't really know what it is.
The question we started with was “What is Beauty?”
But that isn’t the right question. The real question is: What is TruthBeauty?
Perhaps it's God. Perhaps it’s the Tao. Perhaps it’s Plato’s Ideal. Perhaps it's a universal consciousness. Perhaps it’s a massive supercomputer. Perhaps it's just part of the vibration of the universe.
Whatever it is, we humans perceive it as Truth and as Beauty and we are motivated, no, we are drawn, with an almost insatiable hunger to know it. To understand it. To explore it. To depict it. To perhaps recreate it and expand its influence in the universe. This manifests inside of each one of us as an intense hunger to create something. To create something beautiful. That is sometimes art, it is sometimes poetry, it is sometimes music, it is sometimes a scientific theory, it is sometimes a child. But, inside, we are all creators.
What is the Soaring Twenties Social Club but an expression of this desire to create? All of the members found their way into the club, driven by a common desire to create beauty, to create meaning, from nothing but arrangements of twenty-six characters on computer screens. It’s speaks volumes about what drives us as humans that the first symposium topic was Beauty. Creating Beauty is what we are made to do. Perhaps there will be a future symposium on Truth, in which case I will resubmit this essay.
Our desire to create beauty is the ultimate and original form of mimetic desire: We mimic this ultimate thing, TruthBeauty, that we can never quite define. We are creators in the same way that Truth/Beauty/Tao/God created us.
What are we evolving into?
The universe, despite all the talk of increasing entropy and chaos, has, on it's own been the most remarkable creator of truth and beauty: Stars have been created, planets have been created, water has been created, sky has been created, animals have been created, and we, humans, have been created. These things are beautiful. Beauty is the output of creation combined with consciousness. And all of evolution seems to have led to us, to humanity. Sometimes it feels to me like the entire point of nature’s evolution was to get to humans, so that we could then continue evolution’s work with our technology and our art.
Though us, this process of evolution gets faster. It took all of history, 13.1 billion years, for nature to develop human brains and for those brains to create the agrarian revolution. But, once humans had steady food and time to think, it only took human brains just a few thousand more years to encode enough Truth as knowledge and technology to get to the industrial revolution. And, with the enlightenment, building upon the back of that technology and art humans created, just a few hundred more years to get to the information revolution. The theory of evolution was just the first act in my theory of human revolution.
And what are we evolving/revolving toward? Now that we live in the information age, our brains, along with computers and AI can continue the work of applying TruthBeauty to the universe at an exponentially increasing rate. And, as we continue to push that the boundaries of that evolution, we are getting asymptotically closer and closer to that "Ideal" that we can never understand fully.
We might never understand it fully, but we will understand it more than we do today, just as we understand it more today than we did a thousand years ago. And, in the process of creating the knowledge to better understand Truth, and the art to greater understand Beauty, we will see astonishing increases in both.
We will not only increase our understanding of Beauty, but we will also increase the sheer level of Beauty that exists and that can be created by humans. Our current pinnacles of artistic achievement will appear as crude to future humans as the famous cave paintings of Lascaux appear to us today.
Think about this: There are more Michelangelos alive today than when Michelangelo was alive. What can those Michelangelos create when we have perfect virtual reality? I've seen people moved to laughter and tears by colored oil paint on canvas. What will happen when a virtuoso artist is able to “paint” a masterpiece directly into your brain?
Technology drives art and art drives technology in a virtuous spiral that, if we don't blow ourselves to kingdom come in the meantime, will lead humanity to unimaginable heights.
Given enough time, we will be able to do anything that is not prohibited by the laws of physics and, as we've just seen, we don't even fully understand the laws of physics.
Can you imagine the technology of the year 36,542? Can you imagine how much Beauty humans will create in that span of time? Can you imagine the Technology we will utilize to create such Beauty?
So back to the question of the day: What is Beauty? Beauty (along with knowledge) appears to be the substance that the universe evolved humans to create more of. Existence is striving to create Beauty through us even as we are striving to create Beauty through our existence.
And now we humans, the very way the universe became conscious of itself, have picked up the torch to continue the universe’s noble work.
Admittedly, our first attempts, colors on canvas, imitating our own form in stone, making tones with stringed instruments, while enjoyable, are comparatively crude compared to the majesty of the universe. But as with language, science, art and every other thing humanity has done, we will get better.
Our attempts will slowly become less crude. Just as the enlightenment has driven an explosion of knowledge, we will drive an explosion of Beauty across our planet. We will come to a greater and greater understanding of the connections between Truth and Beauty.
Over eons, we will spread Beauty beyond planet earth, to our solar system and, eventually, to the distant stars that we see in the night sky, that inspired us to seek Beauty in the first place.
And so, I say again, look up at the night sky to see our beautiful destiny.