Some thoughts on human vanity

I think it’s fair to say that the human condition is one of a necessary vanity. I think it would also be fair to say that there’s nothing wrong with that – we are ourselves, so it’s only fitting that we see things precisely as we would see them. That’s nigh tautological. However, i think it begs an important scholastic question which will ultimately verge on practicality – what worth is there in our being thus? We might pull from the tautology and say that our worth is self-justifying, and that’s fine insofar as our own lives are concerned. The way we think need not be otherwise, as it satisfies us to our fullest. But, if we are to consider the scholastic question of how it is that we’ve come to think as we have and the related question of the universality of that process, our vanity begins to be a problem.

In “coming to think as we have” I do not merely mean a subset of opinions related to particular referents. No, I mean the sum total structure of opinion and reference, what it is we’ve conceived of and what it is we attain access to. I, for instance, might talk of “Beauty” in the abstract. The scholastics certainly begged the question of the actuality of beauty, as did Plato and Aristotle. That question might be posed thus – does beauty exist per se, or is it merely a convenience used to discuss an array of subjective responses to particular referents? Such a question is fine, and it’s debate is rich and varied. However, it begs an important related question – what does it mean for a formal, abstract entity like beauty to exist per se? What’s more, even if one takes a post-modern approach to the question, that being that there is no per se Beauty which entails normative consequences but, rather, that such a matter is merely subjective, he must at the least invoke the bio-chemical structure of the brain which affirms common responses to a set of sensory referents the total conjoint of which might be labeled “the sublime” or “the beautiful.” That is, even an extreme subjectivist as regards Beauty qua abstract entity must admit to bio-chemical objectivity as regards Beauty qua subjective response. That being said, it is this loose objectivity which begs the “meaningfulness” of beauty’s per se existence, qua entity or qua response.

If I imagine language as a spider’s web, there are no self-coherent “this’s” – that is – nothing exists by itself. All nodes on the web are that – nodes, intersections whose meaning coheres consequential to all other meanings. This web in and of itself might be said to cohere only as a node in a broader ontological web – this, however, is a question for another time. Now, if we ascribe beauty a place on that web as a node, certainly its meaning is only insofar as it implies other nodal sentiments. This begs a multitude of questions. First, we might say that the structure of an abstraction is as follows –

Concerning its use, it bears both an internal comprehension – it’s meaning in and of itself insofar as it is applicable – and an external extension – the referents it may be applied to. Concerning its ontology, it’s essence, it’s “beingness” however, we can (as alluded to above) examine the following hypotheses. Absolute objectivity, realism – beauty is per se out there in The world. Moderate objectivity, realism – beauty is per se in its extensions. Idealism – beauty is merely in the mind (implies some obscure objectivity). Now, we have a problem here. All of these “essential” ideals propose self-coherence, that is, that beauty has some “thisness” by itself. But as has been proposed above, all of ontology is more like a web, the particular only existing in virtue of the whole. Language is much the same. Thus these hypotheses do not seem to correspond with reality as it is properly observed.

The following problems arise out of this issue. First, the question of beauty’s existence at all seems absurd, as the question of existence seems absurd – no existent exists merely in virtue of itself. Coherence always maintains an external aspect – everything depends on something else. This being the case, we can propose no informational content which contains within itself its own existence. Information must cohere consequential to its being in a systemic condition of possible coherence. Thus, as concerns beauty, we could not imagine its comprehension without an extension – the comprehension cannot exist sans extension, or else nothing is comprehended. The informational and existential content of beauty in use, then, are contingent to the systemic coherence of our world. Beauty in being ought to follow from this – or else we are speaking delusively.

Now we have a problem of the ultimate connection of beauty in use to beauty in being. Certainly beauty in use, inasmuch as any particular mind conceived of it, is idealistic and subjective. Certainly too the set of a given group of people in a particular community is also idealistic and subjective – that is, relative. What we must now ask is this – for all people in the world, does beauty in use have grounding, that is, does it stand upon, something objective? Yes – as said above, this is our bio-chemistry and neurology. Is the disjoint of all qualia produced by this neurology referable by beauty in use then beauty in being? No, as we must ask – what does this qualia stand upon? As just said, it stands on neurology. So what does this neurology stand on?

Here is the key question if we are to get at the meaningfulness of beauty and the vanity of our existence. This neurology must stand on our evolution as a species of animate being. What then does evolution stand on? We might say it stands on the laws and principles of existence itself, as it is through change that being is maintained. This being the case, we must ask if our material, ontic condition, that is, that set of material circumstances and entities we have evolved in the context of, is representative of that of the entire universe. Here is an immense issue concerning the dynamism of existence – given that life can only evolve given certain preconditions, then we must further ask if our preconditions are the ONLY preconditions, or if other preconditions might produce intelligence akin to ours. Regardless of this question, the given tells us that some evolutionary circumstances are necessarily precluded from whatever material substratum beauty maintains – no life will evolve with beatific preference for, say, empty space, as no life can evolve there as such. But, if life can evolve in conditions markedly different than ours, it would then seem to follow that whatever material referents event of what would become a “beauty in use” for such life must be different than our own. If this be the case, would the material referents (the extension) of such beauty in use be comparable to ours?

Here are a number of further issues. What of comparability? We could take this as subjective comparability (similarity of qualia), aesthetic comparability (similarity of the actual material entities referable to beauty). Qualia might then be the referent of the informational content of beauty in use, while aesthetic structure might be called a more precise referent of the extension. Here we again must pose further questions. If qualia alone be merely the same, we might say that beauty in being is an evolved mechanistic neurology evident in intelligent creatures in response to a given set of stimuli. Here we might also say that the qualia indicates an objective indicator of the way being and neurology arise, suggesting that “beauty in being” exists quite literally in the existence of life (it existent latently where there is potential for life). If qualia is comparable and aesthetics are, we might say that existents in themselves bear certain ontic properties which are necessarily realized in neurology as a given quale. This would be the strongest kind of “beauty in being”. If qualia are comparable and aesthetics are not, we are restricted to a mere animated notion of beauty. If qualia are not comparable while aesthetics are, existents in themselves bear certain ontic properties which are possibly realized in neurology as some kind of qualia. If neither qualia nor aesthetics are comparable, we might say that “beauty in being” is nothing per se. Beauty, in this case, is merely a subjective response to a given set of stimuli which indicate nothing of any broader substructure of reality. This case indicates a nihilism of meaning – beauty is merely a useful mechanism which exists in our circumstances to fit our needs. In the words of Richard Rorty, we are “clever animals” who have devised a way to effectively deal with our world. Hope remains in this nihilism, in that it is constructive and spontaneous, but this too must be addressed at a later time.

Whatever the case, my argument here attempts to conclude with the following. First, there is no guarantee that our conception of beauty (and related abstractions) in and of itself is connected to anything “real” whatever, as there is no necessary “this.” There are rather nodes of correspondences, our concepts being among them. We must compare our condition with that of life elsewhere if we are to truly understand the nature of intelligence. Our evolutionary circumstances pose only a given example of what we can only hope is a broader systemic trend across the universe. In short, we must treat this question experimentally and examine the relevant outputs contingent to their inputs. What we define as “sublime” may exclude altogether the sublime of other life without, however, excluding their feelings towards it. It may instead exclude everything other life sees and experiences, denoting it’s being nothing at all. Whatever the case, we cannot speak of our condition on terms any less restricted than this – until we know otherwise, we are but one example of intelligent life, and our claims to truth cannot go beyond this fact.

Nothing by itself can stand

Nothing by itself can stand
but by a firmer ground –
all things a mighty tower – formed –
A fall – of former grounds –

For from the first did God
abduct a might from nihil and naught –
in Him alone as All and One
is Grounding firmly wrought –

One part sugar, one part spice –
One part fire to an eye of ice –
A part of earth – another air
Moving ‘cross the waters bare –

Frozen forms affixed anew in
Terra cotta – Mind
Fire felling formal towers –
‘storing matter Prime –

Penumbral shade casts over us
A spell of words – a caustic rust –
‘Ranging matter new – a One
returns to Ground as None