Sunday, November 2, 2008

On beauty

Several days ago I returned home from a conference via air. As we were taxiing to the runway, the sun was just about to peak over the horizon, lighting up the early morning clouds and rain with a brilliant orange-red. Later in the flight, we flew over a mountain range on approach to our destination. Looking down, I could see patches of brilliant yellow stands of aspen in their autumn colors. These trees in their fall glory were placed where typically no human eye would see them.[1] In this reflective state considering the topic of beauty, I once again was reminded of all the beauty in the universe that goes unappreciated by human eyes.

It has only been in the last several decades that humanity has developed instruments to extend our capacity to see things previously hidden. We have telescopes to probe deep into outer space. We have microscopes to peer into inner space. We have sensors to detect not only visible light that we normally see but also other regions of the electromagnetic spectrum that aren't normally visible. We have computers to process data from these sensors and translate it into images we can visualize. The amount of beauty found in the universe is overwhelming. Some of it it has been hidden from us for millennia and is now open to us. But I believe we have only barely scratched the surface and there is far more that we have yet to uncover.

  • Where does this beauty come from?
  • Why is it there?
  • Why do we appreciate it and the cats sitting on and next to me seem oblivious to it?
  • What are its bounds?
  • When will we discover all that there is?
When contemplating beauty, we quickly run into philosophical for some, and for me, spiritual questions and issues such as these. It's a topic that challenges the purely rational side of our being with things that are outside the typical domain of thought. Like the computer generated false color images that allow us to see non-visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, discussion of topics such as beauty allow us to get a better idea of what is happening at the super-rational level. At best these discussions are a translation and remapping of data from one spectrum to another. There is a loss of fidelity, a compression of data, a poor representation of an incredibly rich subject.

The answer for these questions are found in the character and nature of God. There is such richness and diversity of beauty in the universe because a beautiful being made it. The loveliness found all around us is but a dim reflection of the brilliant radiance found in God. And we can see and appreciate it because He made us in His image. He gave us the capacity, indeed the desire, to behold beauty so we could appreciate it together and after seeing it around us, go and jointly work together with Him to make more.

For further exploration

Here are a few sites containing beautiful images from nature:
Our sun
National Geographic's best science photos of 2008
Image gallery from the Hubble telescope

The World Wide Telescope is a super cool, free software program for Windows (sorry Mac guys) that allows you to explore space right from your own computer, viewing all sorts of images and flying through the galaxies.

For a book long treatise on this topic, Thomas Dubay wrote a book entitled The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet. It is a wonderful, in-depth treatment of this topic. Like any book, it has a few bones you have to pick out, but the vast majority is good food with which to feed the soul.

1. This particular mountain range is mostly private property, closed to the public and the stand was back in the middle of the range, not visible from the valley floor.