Friday, November 6, 2015

Beauty, goodness, truth

The other day I read a really insightful post by Melinda Selmys.  She said that goodness, truth, and beauty are all one, but that each of us is attracted to a different aspect.  Some want truth for truth's sake, and they find out that the truth is good; others are just looking for beauty and find it in the truth.

It certainly seems that it's true for goodness and truth.  I remember saying of a friend of mine who had become an atheist, "What he loves more than anything is the truth.  And since God is truth, when he comes to the end of his life, he will find he was loving God all along."

Me, I'm a goodness person.  If I found out for sure that I could possess goodness only by abandoning the truth, that's what I'd do.  But of course it doesn't work that way.  You can't ever know what goodness is unless you have the truth about it.  And because you're always finding new information and ending up in new situations, you have to seek the truth all the time if you want to be good.  So yes, you can't have goodness without truth.  I'm not entirely sure that seeking goodness will necessarily bring you to the truth, though.  Until you have the truth, you can't know that goodness is goodness!  So I think either way you should seek truth.

Truth alone doesn't necessitate goodness, though.  You could know the truth and just not want to make the right choices.  The Church says that's what Satan did.  And I've run across some incredibly smart people with a very keen grasp of the truth who then came up with monstrous morality out of it -- because they knew what reality was like, they just didn't want the same sorts of things I want.

But beauty .... I don't really know that beauty is necessarily connected to either goodness or truth.  I'll go further: I feel that my whole life has been one long reluctant walk from beauty into truth.  When I was a kid, I believed in fairies, because fairies were beautiful and I wanted them to be real.  As I got older, I couldn't believe in them anymore because there was just too much evidence that there weren't any.  I had a while as a pantheist, because nothing seems more beautiful and fitting than that everything around me is interconnected and conscious -- but again, after awhile, I just couldn't make myself believe that it was really so.

Reality is not perfectly shaped to human taste.  It feels like it ought to be true that a person's spirit lingers in the places where they've been -- I certainly feel the presence of my friends and family while wandering around their homes, even when they're not there.  But the truth is that my mind associates their space with them and imagines their presence all by itself.  When I have a bad day, it seems like a pattern of bad luck is following me around, but it's just apophenia.  The more I understand about how the human mind works, the less prone I am to assume, "Because it feels like it must be true, it is."

Perhaps it would be best if we thought of these three things as the goals of different mental powers: truth is what we know, goodness is what we choose, beauty is what we enjoy.  Sometimes we choose what isn't true, because we didn't spend enough time pursuing the truth or because we don't want it.  Sometimes we enjoy what we know is imaginary -- fairy tales, artificial flowers, airbrushed models.

Of course ideally they would be unified.  We would know the truth, enjoy it, and choose it -- we would find the wrinkled grandmother beautiful because of her love, and seek the truth only to do good with it.  But I don't think we can properly unify these three goods by pursuing only one of them and assuming the others will follow.  You really do have to give attention to all three, if you want any of them.

The reason atheism is not more attractive -- even for the "nones," various kinds of spiritualism are pretty popular -- is because people aren't convinced it contains all three of these goods.  Can it be good to know there's no cosmic punishment for evildoers or reward for the righteous?  Can it be beautiful to think that you will eventually die and be eaten by worms?  Even if it's true, no one wants it, because most people don't pay as much attention to truth as to goodness and beauty, not when they're looking for a religion.

I think goodness is definitely to be found in atheism -- there are great moral systems there and some incredibly good atheists.  They give a lot to charity, volunteer, and treat others with kindness, and they do it either because they are naturally attracted to goodness (most of us are) or because they have a solid, true philosophical grounding that convinces them it's the right thing to do.  The only trouble is that people don't know this, so they assume atheists have no morals.

Beauty is harder.  Atheism isn't to a human scale.  It's just plain not as beautiful to me to live in a world where so many things aren't particularly meaningful.  I want everything to be meaningful.  I find a great deal of beauty in the world as it is, but I'd be lying if I didn't say it would be more beautiful to think it had all been tailor-made by someone who loved me infinitely.  Isn't that why people believe it in the first place?  Religion fills in the holes of the things we don't understand and can never be okay with: why we long to be understood, but no one will ever understand us; why we spend all of our time longing for either the future or the past, but no moments last; why we fear death so much when it's the one certainty of every life.  These things hurt; they're not the pictures we would paint if we were holding the brush.

At the same time, I think there's beauty to be made, even of materialism.  For instance, when I die, I'm not just worm food -- the nitrogen and carbon in my body will re-enter the cycle of the earth and perhaps one day be part of another creature.  It's still disturbing to think of my consciousness no longer being present, but seeing it this way is somewhat comforting.  Or to think of my stories, my genes, my little rituals and traditions, surviving in my children.

Studying nature is pretty much always beautiful, but you have to have the right eyes.  It can look a little brutal sometimes -- like when you watch a nature video and you're rooting for the baby harp seal, but then the polar bear who doesn't catch the seal lies down and starves to death.  It's harsh and unlovely.  But the amazing level of order and complexity, the survival of all that is best and brightest, and the immense vastness of the universe are all beautiful.  But it's the strange beauty you might see in art made by aliens.  It wasn't made for you.  You have to learn to see it.

In short, I don't think beauty, goodness, and truth are all one.  I think they're all important, but they must be sought separately, each with its own method.  If you seek only one, and ignore the others, you might just end up with none of them.


Belfry Bat said...

Not meaning to contradict anything, ... beauty should be perfection of form, goodness perfection of action, and truth perfection of philosophy.

For other things... I'll grant that fairies as usually imagined are unreal. I'm not sure if they seem to me a beautiful idea (or beautiful-in-idea) or not; But I definitely think there is some true thing that the idea of fairies is trying to get at.

Sheila said...

If there were a way I could still manage to believe in fairies, I would. So if you can work out what their meaning is, I'd be much obliged.

SeekingOmniscience said...

So there's a book on project Gutenberg about fairies, which I haven't read, which concludes as follows. The title is "The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries"

"We conclude that the Otherworld of the Celts and their Doctrine of Re-birth accord thoroughly in their essentials with modern science; and, accordingly, with other essential elements in the complete Celtic Fairy-Faith which we have in the preceding chapter found to be equally scientific, establish our Psychological Theory of the Nature and Origin of that Fairy-Faith upon a logical and solid foundation; and we now submit this study to the judgement of our readers. With more complete evidence in the future, both from folk-lore and from science, there will be, we trust, a better vindication of the Theory, and perhaps finally there will come about its transformation into what it but seems to us to be now—a Fact.

Some beliefs which a century ago were regarded as absurdities are now regarded as fundamentally scientific. In the same way, what in this generation is heretical alike to the Christian theologian and to the man of science may in coming generations be accepted as orthodox."

Sadly, this book was published in 1911, which is when people were sort of trying to get any kind of weird spiritual thing on an empirical basis. They failed, in most people's estimations; if I were to read through this, my conclusion would probably be that they're using the rhetoric but not the methods of science. I'm also not sure if he just argues for fairies existing in a weird psychological way we wouldn't actually care about.

But, well, there you have it.

Belfry Bat said...

I rather think these "Celtic countries" are more illusory than the fairies were...

Sheila said...

"sort of trying to get any kind of weird spiritual thing on an empirical basis"

This seems to be the perennial struggle of the post-religious -- having been sold on the idea of there being something perfectly appealing to the human mind and also provably true, the tendency is to search like crazy for something else that is. So far no luck, but I haven't exactly given up either, which is why I still research deism. The books in my library's section on this topic have been mostly disappointing, though. They fail in one premise or the other -- either it's not really so comforting as all that ("life after death is SYMBOLICALLY true!" -- well, who wants that?) or it's not provable ("we can't KNOW that quantum particles aren't conscious!"). I can no more make myself believe in these than I can force faith in Jesus.

Enbrethiliel said...


I have to find the link of an article I read recently about Iceland's little people. Apparently, if you can prove that a certain boulder has been associated with faeries for at least 100 years, the government will protect it, at the expense of any infrastructure project.

For me, this totally falls under Beauty--and well worth the cost in Good to commuters who might be inconvenienced by having to slow down to get around some weirdly placed rock. But what really made the article for me was a particularly irate commenter (who went as far as to call complete strangers "stupid") who couldn't get over the government's official policy on the matter. For her, compromising on Truth (and to some extent, I guess, Good) was completely inacceptable. And of course she just took for granted that the existence of faeries is totally false and that all modern governments should be totally secular.

Sheila said...

Huh. On the one hand I *do* think governments should be secular, because otherwise they're giving favoritism to one group over the others, and because it seems unfair to use force to make people comply with something they can't argue for intellectually. On the other, if the people want the boulder to stay, that's kind of a sufficient reason -- they like it! There don't have to be fairies there.

It reminds me of a similar battle over a telescope on a Hawaiian mountain. The site is sacred to the native Hawaiians, but on the other hand it's a great spot for a telescope. which is what the Hawaiian government wants. You're always going to have to strike a balance between a benefit for the majority and the sincerely-held beliefs of a minority.

Enbrethiliel said...


I found it! In Iceland, "respect the elves--or else"

The interesting thing about Iceland's case is that there isn't really a case of one group being favoured over another. The faeries don't exactly participate in modern civic life. And the Icelandic population is almost as homogenous as Japan's. Also, it's pretty clear that the people don't "like" the rocks (which can be an inconvenience) as much as they really do respect faeries who may or may not be there. Or perhaps, just respect a cultural tradition that goes back thousands of years. Especially when everyone knows someone who knows someone who offended the faeries and then had his life fall apart. Secularism is also a culture. Perhaps it works in Hawaii, but it would be wrong to force Icelanders to alter their way of life just because Icelandic culture doesn't make sense to someone from a secular culture.

Sheila said...

Iceland's pretty dang secular. I'm actually kind of surprised about this -- but then, just because most people there aren't religious doesn't mean they don't have strong opinions about tradition and even fairies.

But I don't think secularism is just a culture like any other one. It's more the basic premise that the government will be established on stuff everyone can agree on, like facts and rights, rather than unprovable stuff about which some minority, however small, disagrees with.

I bet this story would have gone a lot differently if the stakes were higher. One might curve a highway for the fairies, but Iceland isn't exactly mandating offerings to the fairies either. And I doubt they'd hesitate to lever up that boulder if someone were trapped under it.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm on my phone. Sorry in advance for typos!

When I called secularism a culture, what I was really thinking of was the English-speaking world. The Scandinavian countries, I usually just call "godless." (Haha, but really.) Anyway, all I meant was that the American template (which seems to take the existence of minorities for granted) isn't really analogous to the Icelandic template (which takes the existence of the fey folk for granted). I'd wager that an Icelander would be very surprised to hear someone object to their policy on the grounds that some minorities in the country aren't totally down with elves. Especially since faeries do seem to fall under "stuff everyone can agree upon" in Iceland.

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