Both Plato and Aristotle conceived of beauty as an actual quality of the external world. Though they disagreed on its definition, neither positioned its existence within the observer. In fact, from classical antiquity through the religious persuasions of the Middle Ages, the aesthetic in nature and art was understood to be the imperfect, physical representation of a higher-level, immaterial perfection. The geography of beauty remained more or less objectivist in this sense until the eighteenth century, when philosophers including Hume and Kant relocated it phenomenologically to a subjectivist understanding—within the borders of the self. The conflict between these two views demands a modern exploration of the ontology of aesthetics, perhaps one towards a compatibilist theory that furthers our understanding of the nature of beauty, an ambition that comes not with the fraught politics of redrawing borders, but of unification.
If patterns in what is found to be beautiful exist across cultures, they are worth noting. Ancient Grecians held that the more an object aligned in practice with the perfection of its conceptual form in principle, the more beautiful it was. This view of beauty as approaching some more profound truth that is never fully realized has the right spirit. In modern aesthetics, however, perfect form and absolute symmetry are understood to be less interesting and less beautiful than slightly broken symmetries. One needn’t believe that this disagreement is an irreconcilable function of a historical change in taste. Classical antiquity held that a thing’s essence, its Form, could not be perfectly realized in the physical realm, and therefore each instance of the experience of the aesthetic was necessarily symmetrically broken. Today, we find equal beauty in classical antiquity’s cultural achievements, from the semi-symmetrical Parthenon, the hemi-symmetrical amphitheaters, its demi-symmetrical representations of the human form, and arguably its conceptually symmetrical innovations of governance, like Athenian democracy.
The question of why evolution sculpted a sense for beauty in humans, and in other animals, unfolds on two apparent paths. One leads to Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of a spandrel: a characteristic that emerges as a byproduct of another, evolved characteristic—in other words, one that is not directly selected-for. And the other path, where an evolved capacity for beauty, inextricable from pattern-seeking within the observer and from external order and complexity, is understood as functional, and therefore has a high plausibility of being directly selected-for. The former path, while perfectly valid, leads down an intellectual cul-de-sac. The explanation itself almost mocks further attention. If the capacity for beauty is a byproduct, vesting so much in what is merely sense-tickling is frivolous. I’m far more enraptured by the thought of traveling down the latter path.
A more compatibilist theory of beauty needn’t assert that billions of individual agents are subject to an ultimate taste. Instead, it might begin with the observation that there is a great deal of overlap in what agents—primarily though not necessarily human—find beautiful. It might also recognize that the phenomenology of beauty—the conscious aesthetic experience—is usually dependent upon on a certain order and complexity in the universe that is not evenly distributed in any natural space, be it aesthetic, conceptual, or cultural (if it were, any distinction between the ugly or the uninteresting would dissolve). Admitting that the phenomenology of beauty is dependent on external geography that is not “flat” recalls both objectivist aesthetics and their subjectivist counterparts. Furthermore, this uneven distribution favors broken symmetries over the perfectly symmetrical, as well as certain universal constants, which are fascinating to consider.
A theory of beauty that acknowledges both external and internal necessities, and which does not hinge on the immaterial, needn’t be in conflict with the Platonic, religious, and subjectivist notions. Indeed, it may offer a substrate for synthesis. Such a theory should also attempt to explain why the distribution of our attraction seems guided by a reflection of cosmic fundamentality.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats
The notion that beauty and truth are aligned, albeit haphazardly, has long been recognized in physics and mathematics as a useful guide, though not a hard and fast tool. If a theory or mathematical proof is ugly or cumbersome, it is seen as less likely to be a true, fundamental theory. If it is beautiful, or “elegant,” if it tends to show a particular economy, then its prospects are typically better.
So why do broken symmetries—the almost-symmetrical—captivate us? Consider a sunset: a spectacle of color at the near-linear symmetry dividing earth, water, and cosmos. Or a spiral galaxy, draining spacetime with its near-symmetrical whirlpool—the prismatic wisps of creation and destruction. The meticulous, near-symmetrical restraint of an Agnes Martin. The quasi-symmetrical action-record of a Jackson Pollock. The barely detectable frustration of Platonic form in the projections of James Turrell. Each of these things achieves perfection only at its disturbance.
The universe, at its most fundamental levels, is made up of certain broken symmetries. The physical laws of nature may be perfectly symmetrical, but the actual universe exists in broken-symmetrical form. For example, the incredibly slight imbalance in the creation of matter and antimatter at the Big Bang resulted in the following imperfect total-annihilation event, and therefore, left our universe with a residue of matter, instead of nothing. This broken symmetry is, quite literally, how we are here.
Consider another example of broken symmetry and a vexing problem in particle physics: how particles attain mass. The theory of electromagnetism and the theory of the weak nuclear force had existed as fields apart from a theoretical boundary until 1967, when a paper by Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam successfully unified interactions between the two fields to form the theory of the electroweak. Their calculations required that all particles had a mass zero, something they knew was wrong at the time. Fortunately, three years prior, physicist Peter Higgs had written a paper suggesting a field of broken symmetry that would interact with particles to impart mass—the only field with a nonzero value in empty space. For over half a century, many predicted the Higgs field to be the answer to the mass problem of particle physics. Finally, in 2012, with the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, the Higgs field was confirmed—a massive achievement, one might say, that enshrined another fundamentally broken symmetry of our universe.
I believe there is a function to our capacity for the sensual and the conceptually satisfying aesthetic, and that an underlying cosmic structure sculpts it. That such a capacity has emerged is itself poetic. It is as though higher-level agency vibrates to a reflection of some fundamental cosmic sentence. And alongside this spacial contingency is another that can help shape our understanding of beauty: one in time.
For order and complexity to exist, entropy, the tendency of a closed system to evolve toward disorder and equilibrium over time, must be at a particular stage in the universe. Complexity in the universe arises as entropy increases and then diminishes once entropy exceeds a certain point. The appearance of agents—complex organizations of animate matter capable of volition and conscious experience—and the broken symmetries that may inspire them, are both contingent on the universe’s entropy being neither too low nor too high. Too early in the universe and entropy is not sufficiently high for complexity to exist. Too late in the universe and entropy is too high for complexity to exist. As if it consisted of portraits of order down a corridor of entropic states, beauty has a length in deep time. We live when it’s beautiful.
There is grandeur in this view: the universe’s manifestation of order and complexity, consisting, in part, of humans, is emotionally moved by reflections of its fundamentality—its original simplicity. And following glints in these reflections might guide a journey toward truth. When considered this way, the capacity for beauty is a metaphysical heuristic.
I’m not convinced that it’s possible to follow the rules of a compatibilist theory of beauty to create satisfying works of art, nor am I confident that such an endeavor should be made. But by creating the aesthetically or conceptually pleasing, the artist may perform an intuitive dance with some of the most fundamental truths of existence.