The Principles of Beauty

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The question of beauty has been incessantly debated since Greek times in Western philosophy, but it has some simple answers, if we adopt the view that the world is idea-like. When we look at a rose, and we cognize it as a rose, then we might also say, that the rose is beautiful. The cognition of a rose involves the application of a prior idea in our minds, and therefore, ‘rose’ is a concept. Likewise, if the ‘rose’ is also beautiful, then, the beauty is applied to the knowledge—i.e. the concept ‘rose’. The simple conclusion is that beauty is a property of knowledge, and if we understand the properties of knowledge, then we can also define what we mean by beauty. This post discusses this definition.

The Form of God

Beauty, like knowledge, has a divine origin in the person of God. God is defined as knowledge in Vedic texts, but this knowledge also has a form, because knowledge has many parts and aspects, which then expand into smaller instances of knowledge—i.e. concepts such as a rose—and because these concepts also have parts (e.g. that the rose is comprised of petals), therefore, the rose also has a form.

The form of God, and the forms of things in the world such a rose, are ascribed the property of beauty. Since the form is knowledge, therefore, the beauty is a property of that knowledge. Of course, not everything that is known is always called beautiful. Therefore, there are certain types of knowledge that are also considered beautiful, and there are other types of knowledge that are not beautiful.

Beauty is therefore not an independent ideal, like truth, justice, and good (Greeks considered these ideals, and they are ideals in Vedic philosophy too; truth represents knowledge, right represents duty and its failure leads to justice, whereas good represents pleasure). Rather, beauty must be applied to the ideals of truth, right, and good. Hence, some things like a rose are beautiful. Certain actions like dance, speech, or sound are beautiful. And certain pleasures like that of love are beautiful. Conversely, certain things are ugly, certain actions are ugly, and certain types of pleasures are also ugly.

Is Beauty Objective or Subjective?

When we treat beauty as a property of knowledge, and the world is described in terms of concepts, then beauty is both subjective and objective. Just like the idea of a rose is within us, so using that idea we can decide if something is a rose, and therefore, the rose is subjective. However, the things to which this idea will be applied are outside us, therefore, the rose is objective. Since beauty is a property of this concept, therefore, the beauty is within us, and beauty is also objective. The classical paradoxes of whether beauty is subjective, or objective are false, because beauty is not only in the observer.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone has the same sense of beauty, just as everyone doesn’t have the same ideas. We must first know what a rose is, before we can say that the rose is beautiful. And if our conception about the rose is different, then certain things will not be understood as roses. Due to variation in our ideas about a rose, we might also not consider some roses as being beautiful.

Therefore, the objectivity of beauty doesn’t deny that there is an inner sense of beauty. Likewise, the inner sense of beauty doesn’t repudiate the idea that there is an objective sense of beauty. And yet, the fact that beauty can be both inside and outside, leads to the question: Which of these beauties is fundamental? Is there objective beauty that I cannot perceive, or what I think is beautiful is not so?

The answer to that problem is that beauty is not determined by our subjectivity, but by God’s subjectivity. What He considers knowledge is knowledge. What He considers beauty is beauty. Our ideas of knowledge and beauty are parts of God’s ideas of knowledge and beauty. So, God may be able to consider many things beautiful that we might not. But everything that God considers beautiful must also be considered beautiful by us. Thus, some of things that we don’t find beautiful may be beautiful. But not everything we find ugly is necessarily seen by God as beautiful; so, they are indeed ugly.

In short, ugliness is determined by God, and beauty is determined by us. In a simple sense, if we don’t find something beautiful, then it is not necessarily ugly; we may not look at it, but we should not say it is ugly. But if God says that something is ugly, then we can also call it ugly. Our choice determines what we consider beautiful, and that choice is okay if it is within that which God considers beautiful. Thus, our choice of beauty is restricted by God’s choice of beauty. But that is not a denial of our choice, because we can still choose one of the many things that God finds beautiful as our notion of beauty.

Since we can have a personal notion of beauty, therefore, beauty is a choice, and hence subjective. But since we should not choose our sense of beauty outside God’s sense of beauty, therefore, beauty is objective. Whatever is not considered beautiful by God, but is thought to be beautiful by us, is a false sense of beauty; we have the choice of a personal sense of beauty, but it may not be actual beauty. Likewise, we might have a personal notion of right and good, outside what God considers right and good, but that personal choice is not truly right and good; our choice of truth, right, and good doesn’t change the fact that there is an objective—although a broad—definition of truth, right, good, and even beauty.

The Easier Properties of Knowledge

Now we can talk about why some things and knowledge are called beautiful or ugly. Since beauty is a property of knowledge, therefore, some knowledge or concept is beautiful, and some idea is ugly.

There are two commonly prevalent criteria by which something is judged to be knowledge. These are called consistency and completeness. Completeness means that knowledge must cover all diversities, and consistency means that it must describe this diversity without a contradiction. Thus, the description of an object as a ‘rose’ is more complete than the description of the same thing as a ‘petal’. In fact, if we don’t know that there is a rose, we will not call something a ‘petal’. We might as well call it: “a colored, leaf-shaped soft-surfaced object”. This is not necessarily wrong. But it not the full truth. The fuller truth is that there is a rose, and the petal is a part of that rose, and because it is a part, therefore, we call it a ‘petal’ instead of a “a colored, leaf-shaped soft-surfaced object”. An even fuller truth therefore is that there is a rose. But we will not know of a rose unless we see not just petals but also stamens, stems, leaves, and thorns which might be attached to a rose plant, which is standing in a garden.

Thus, the knowledge of the rose, a rose plant, and a garden constitute a fuller understanding. This greater fullness of the knowledge is called completeness. However, we also know that we cannot call marigold flowers and plants as ‘roses. So, we need a deeper idea of a ‘flower’ to say that there are many kinds of flowers, and what doesn’t look like a rose is not a rose, but it is still a flower. This type of reconciliation of diversities constitutes what we mean by consistency. Ultimately, knowledge means that we can know everything, which means a lot of diversity, but without contradictions in it.

The Harder Properties of Knowledge

The above two, namely, consistency and completeness, are relatively easier to understand. It is somewhat harder to understand two other properties of knowledge—i.e. parsimony and simplicity.

Suppose you describe a part of the world with X axioms, and another part of the world using Y axioms, and the combination of these two worlds with Z axioms, such that Z > {X | Y}, then our axioms are growing as we add more and more aspects or parts of reality to our knowledge. The principle of parsimony says that we must reduce our assumptions, axioms, or fundamental concepts to a bare minimum. So, a theory that can describe the world with fewer axioms is necessarily better than a theory that needs more axioms—even though both theories may be consistent and complete.

Now, one way to achieve this reduction in axioms is to combine these axioms. For example, we could combine the first two Newton’s laws of motion, and claim that there are only two laws of motion instead of three, so we have reduced the number of laws, and hence our theory is now parsimonious.

This won’t work, because, under such situations, we must apply another principle of simplicity. We must say: not only do we need consistency, completeness, and parsimony, but each of the ideas used in an explanation must also be simple. You can get parsimony by combining things into fewer things, but that isn’t permitted, or at least, we will not call that ‘knowledge’. The need for parsimony doesn’t mean that the fewer things can each be more complex things; the fewer things must also be simpler things.

In general, when we have fewer ideas, they tend to get more complex. And when we have simpler ideas, then they tend to be numerous. Therefore, simplicity and parsimony are often contradictory. This contradiction is like that between completeness and consistency: we can easily get consistent theories of nature, but they will be incomplete. As we unify these descriptions, we get more contradictions. In the same way, as we get many ideas, they tend to be simple. But as we unify these ideas, they get more complex. Knowledge requires that we employ a minimum number of most simple ideas.

The Principles of Knowledge

Now, we can define beauty in a very rigorous scientific sense, and after we understand this definition, then we can elaborate it to encompass many diverse notions about beauty and aesthetics.

If a theory P uses axioms inconsistent with a theory Q, and both P and Q are incomplete, then we conclude that both theories are false. To be true, there must be one theory that explains all that P and Q explain, and this theory must be consistent in the axioms, and more complete than P and Q.

A theory that is consistent and complete is true, but it is not necessarily beautiful. This theory might use thousands of assumptions, a very complicated predictive structure, which may be hard to grasp. But we cannot say that the theory is false because it is consistent in the axioms and complete in its predictions. Therefore, the quest for a better theory stops once we reach consistency and completeness.

To create an even better theory, we must say that it must not just be consistent and complete, but also parsimonious and simple. In short, it must explain everything without contradictions, but also utilize the fewest possible assumptions, and each of these assumptions must be simple and intuitive.

Thus, a Theory of Everything that uses only 5 assumptions is beautiful, and a Theory of Everything that uses 50 assumptions is ugly. Let’s remember that the ugly theory is also true, because the criterion for truth is that the theory explains everything. Hence, to knowledge, we must now add beauty. And this addition is necessary in science; beauty is not a necessity only for art, literature, and music.

In literature, this necessity will say: If you can state the same thing in fewer words, then your literature is beautiful, otherwise it is ugly. But remember that the fewer words must not be so complex that nobody can understand them. So, not only must we use fewer words, but also simpler words. If we can say something complicated and difficult in fewer and simpler words, then the statement is beautiful.

Knowledge is Complexity, Beauty is Simplicity

Things must be simplified, but they cannot be oversimplified, because oversimplification becomes ignorance and incompleteness. Likewise, things that can be simplified, must not be complicated, because although this complexity is knowledge (because it is consistent and complete) it not beautiful.

In a simple sense, knowledge and beauty are independent criteria, applied to knowledge. To create completeness and consistency, our description of nature can become very complicated. We cannot deny that this complexification is knowledge; but we can also say that this complexification is ugly.

Thus, the form of God is both knowledge and beauty. As knowledge, He is infinite complexity, because everything emanates from Him. But as beauty, He is that infinite complexity presented in a very simplified manner: He is a person—like you and me—so the conclusion of knowledge is also very simple, namely, that God is a person with hands and legs, face and stomach, front and back, etc. Knowing the complete truth is now identical to seeing the person of God; He is complexity simplified.

This makes people cringe. They say: After studying the world, we have developed so many complicated theories and we are still unable to reconcile all these things, and the complexity keeps growing. And you are making this whole complexity so simple. Therefore, you must be wrong. The question is now pitted between the extremes of truth and falsity—truth must mean complexity. Now, there is some truth in complexity—if this truth is consistent and complete. Alternately we can say that the description of nature that is more consistent and complete is truer. By the process of unification of science, we can obtain truer theories, whose complexity keeps growing. For example, present atomic theory unifies the theories of matter and light, electricity and magnetism, strong and weak forces, etc. But this unification comes with an extraordinary amount of complexity—e.g. there are over 25 free constants. Therefore, in some sense this is knowledge; but this knowledge is not truly knowledge because it is ugly.

Alternative Notions of Beauty

Since Greek times, there have been many alternative ideas of beauty. For example, one notion of beauty says that things must be proportional. What is proportional? Something should not be too big in comparison to other things that are too small. For example, the legs in a statue must not be too short compared to the head, or vice versa. That principle of proportionality is identical to the combination of the principles of parsimony and simplicity. There must be as few parts as possible, and each must be simple. Proportionality would be violated if in trying to achieve parsimony, some parts became much bigger than others (e.g. if we combined many axioms into a single complex axiom). Hence, the principle of proportionality is equivalent to the combination of the principles of parsimony and simplicity.

Likewise, another idea of beauty is symmetry. What is symmetry? This world is comprised of opposites, such as hot and cold, black and white, bitter and sweet, etc. Symmetry means that these opposites have a place in the whole, as the parts of the whole, but no part is bigger than the other part. This means two things. First, the complete truth cannot be merely sweet, white, or cold. That truth must also be bitter, black, and hot. But there is no contradiction between these opposites because these aspects have their different places. Consistency demands that their coexistence doesn’t create a contradiction, and completeness demands that one part of the truth cannot be ignored just to obtain consistency.

Thus, the complete truth must have the opposites in equal proportion, but the whole is also symmetrical in the sense that there is as much sweetness as there is bitterness; there is as much brightness as there is darkness. The correct description of this truth is that it is bittersweet and shining darkness.

Thus, the alternative notions of beauty such a proportionality and symmetry are not false. But they must be understood as principles applied to all concepts, rather than merely shape. When they are applied to all concepts, then they can be applied to the sum of all concepts—i.e. the totality of all knowledge. And then we can say: our knowledge is imperfect unless we also know that truth beautifully.

How Wealth and Power Define Knowledge

Krishna is described to be sad-ujjvala vigrahāsya, or the form of six illuminations. These are described as knowledge, beauty, renunciation, power, wealth, and heroism. In other places, He is described simply as jñānam-advayam or non-dual knowledge. As a result, knowledge is the most fundamental quality of God, but as we have seen, we don’t know God perfectly unless we also know the beauty.

But knowledge is still not perfectly defined even if we consider consistency, completeness, parsimony, and simplicity. The other four qualities of God—i.e. renunciation, heroism, power, and wealth—also constitute the criteria for knowledge. Each of these qualities brings a duality or conflicting requirements, and what we consider ‘knowledge’ must satisfy these opposites—i.e. it must be non-dual.

For example, wealth means that costs are minimized, and value is maximized. Power means that effort is minimized, and the outcomes are maximized. A typical process of production requires the use of some materials and some labor. Cost minimization means that the least amount of materials is used to produce the maximum amount of consumable product; in short, raw materials are not wasted in the process of production, and knowledge is indicated when wastage is minimized. Likewise, labor minimization means that the least amount of effort is used to produce the maximum amount of change; in short, effort is not wasted in useless activity, and knowledge means that the effort is minimized.

How Renunciation and Fame Define Knowledge

Now, a question arises: What if we don’t have knowledge? How are we going to acquire it? This requires an understanding of how lies are created from truth. The answer is that truth expels lies in the act of defining what it is not. This definition of what truth is not, involves the truth’s negation, and it represents the absence of these qualities. The nature of falsity is that it is either not consistent, complete, simple, or parsimonious, or perhaps not all the above. To detect the falsity, we must analyze it.

Just like a person suspected of a crime is interrogated repeatedly because by that process—if he is lying—inconsistencies appear in their story. To hide one lie, more lies are narrated, so the lies don’t remain parsimonious. The lies also get more complicated, and convoluted. Even after these lies there are gaps in the story, so the lie is incomplete. If the person is not lying, then their story remains consistent, simple, complete, and parsimonious. Hence, in the Vedic texts, it is said that the symptom of a falsity is that it changes. And by the detection of change, or the failure of simplicity, consistency, parsimony, and completeness, we detect a falsity.

But even if we know that there is truth, and we we know that this world is a falsity, then how do we find the truth? There are many answers to this question, but the answer that is scientifically interesting is that truth is partially present in this world. In the spiritual world, all reality contains all the attributes of God, to an extent lesser than God. In the material world, all reality contains some attributes of God, but other attributes are missing. When a scientist looks at this world, and picks up one object as the model of reality, then his theory becomes necessarily incomplete because all things in this world are missing something completely. Conversely, if a scientist understands the spiritual world, and then looks at the material world, then he can model this world in many ways, all of which can be mostly true. If God is perfectly understood, then the understanding of this world also become perfect, because God becomes the basis of the material world.

Thus, the property of Renunciation is that God has abandoned some of His qualities to create other realities. This abandonment can be partial, for instance, when beauty is not fully manifest, although some beauty is manifest. And it can be complete, for instance, when there is absolutely no beauty present. As a result, whatever has more qualities presents a novelty that has never been seen, and this novelty then leads to new discoveries. Whatever has more qualities also becomes superior to that which has lesser qualities, or qualities to a lesser degree. This is called Heroism; it is ability to overpower things that are have lesser qualities of God, due to which we say “Truth Wins”.

God Can be Studied Scientifically

When God is described as knowledge, then many criteria for knowledge are established. Knowledge must be consistent and complete, it must be parsimonious and simple, it must create the greatest value with the least cost, it must create the maximum outcome with the minimum effort, it must maximize longevity and minimize change, and it must maximize victory and minimize the defeats.

To know God is to know that person who is this knowledge. In short He is consistent and complete; He is parsimonious and simple; He creates the greatest value with the least cost; He creates the maximum outcomes with minimum efforts; He becomes innumerable, without losing His individuality; and He creates the maximum victory with the minimum defeats. The minimum is of course zero! This means that there is no cost, no reduction, no defeat, and no effort and there is only value, numerosity, victory, and results. Due to the absence of the opposites, God is known as jñānam-advayam or non-dual knowledge.

Thus, the term advayam or non-duality has two meanings. First, there are opposites such as hot and cold, brightness and darkness, etc. and hence God is said to be beyond duality. Then, due to absence of inconsistency, incompleteness, costs, efforts, defeats, and minimization, He is devoid of duality. There is nothing compared to God because this combination is impossible anywhere else.

God is knowledge, but this knowledge is not merely some random ideas. I can conjure up some model of nature, but that is not knowledge. Knowledge must satisfy the criteria for knowing. Therefore, God is not ordinary knowledge, or an ordinary idea. He is that idea which is maximum of some principle and minimum of the opposing principle. He is transcendental to everything because nothing else comes close to meeting all the criteria for knowledge. But He is immanent in everything because these principles of knowing can be applied, and are indeed applied, in every attempt at knowledge.