– Written 15th August 2010
Have you ever gazed upon something of incredible, majestic beauty, only to feel a sense of distress and tragedy? I have. And hopefully I’m not the only one, otherwise everything I’m about to write might fall on deaf ears. But let me explain.
So many times I come across some amazing sight and, despite my captivation, I am deeply unsatisfied by it. Something about it distresses me far down in the depths of my consciousness. Take that universal symbol of beauty itself, the sunset. There are many reasons to be distressed by a sunset. Often I have the privilege of seeing one of the best of these daily events – but I’m alone. We do all want to share beautiful things with loved ones, so seeing beauty at its best with no-one at your side feels like a wasted opportunity. But even when I see the greatest of sunsets, with the best of friends, it doesn’t satisfy. The distress goes deeper.
Ever-present is my underlying knowledge that, like all things in creation, a sunset is so agonisingly temporary. I realise that in this temporal universe, time is a necessary parameter for the sunset to move through, that it has to have a beginning and an end and there has to be change. I realise that the colours have to slowly flow from one shade to the next as the sun falls down, and that this is what makes the sunset so magnificent. But I just wish that I could somehow experience the sunset in its entirety – from beginning to end – all simultaneously … and eternally. That all that mesmerising change could collapse into one homogeneous singularity, and that I could behold it forever, never having to lose sight of it again. But clearly this is not the way things are.
…But believe it or not, even this is not the heart of the tragedy of beauty. Because even if I could share the most sublime of sunsets with some really hot wife, and even if that sunset could last forever, its beauty would still not fully satisfy. Not all the way down to the core. And that is because I just cannot grasp it. I just can’t truly experience it.
Because it is out there. And I am in here.
What am I talking about?
I usually laugh a little, and cry a little inside whenever somebody asks me to “prove” something to them. It’s a ridiculous notion. It just can’t be done in almost every case. Not if you take proof’s definition to its consistent logical conclusion. Really, if something has been proven to you, then you simply can’t doubt that it is true.
Try this. You’ve seen Finding Nemo. But are you certain that clownfish are a real species of fish? Are you certain that if you explored the oceans you’d eventually come across some? Has this been proven to you? Most of us haven’t actually seen a real clownfish. Maybe you have a friend who says he saw one. But maybe that friend was just making things up. Friends do lie or exaggerate occasionally. Now it does seem like the majority marine biologists have been led to believe that there are clownfish out there. But what if they’re all simply mistaken? What if a small group of marine biologists 100 years ago got together and decided to make up a fish called a clownfish and assembled a whole lot of fake evidence to support this, just for kicks. And since enough of them made this claim, the rest just assumed it was true, and no-one has ever challenged it since. Or maybe all scientists in the world are fooling us all intentionally to cover up some other sinister truth. Or maybe the entire world is just plain out to get you. I’m not saying any of this is plausible. I’m just saying it’s possible. Logically possible at least.
I mean a mere photo can hardly be considered proof of the existence of an entire species of fish…
…when you consider all the possible ways it could have been faked.
Well maybe you’ve been to an aquarium or a pet shop and seen one for yourself. But… wasn’t it behind glass? How close did you actually get to it? Could it have been something else? Perhaps you went diving and saw one in the ocean. Maybe it slipped past your arm and you felt its scales. Would that really be enough for you to be unable to doubt that there are clownfish? Is it impossible that something in that situation misled you?
Okay. What if you went diving in the ocean, found a clownfish, caught it, took it to the beach, cooked it yourself on the barbeque there, and you ate it. That’s right, ate a clownfish. I can think of no more concrete a way to verify the existence of an object. But really… what have you experienced?
Have. You. Really. Experienced. The clownfish?
I’ll tell you what you experienced. You experienced the sensation of sight, of sound, of taste, of smell and of touch. You held it, smelt it, tasted it, felt the texture of it as you chewed it, and felt it descend into your stomach. But your entire interaction with the fish was mediated by the senses.
Now, I’m not trying to actually tell you that the clownfish wasn’t there. I’m just trying to tell you that the only thing you truly experienced was your own sensory reactions to it. I’m saying that as you walk down your corridor at home, your experience of that reality is located within your mind as a mere representation of the corridor; that as you sit in the park, feeling the wind and watching it blow through the trees, you are not experiencing that directly. I’m saying there is a disconnect between the reality outside, and your consciousness inside. The bridge between the two is the inward account of the senses.
The only thing that you can ever truly experience is yourself.
I’m not being original here. It is well known that Descartes showed us why the only thing that we cannot logically doubt is our own existence, so the only thing I have absolute knowledge of is the fact that I exist. To attempt to prove anything else is futile. All this means that I can’t know that the world around me is real. I can’t know that my friends are really there, or that they really have their own consciousness and aren’t just mindless pieces of meat that coincidentally act like I do. I think these things are likely to be true. But I accept that I can’t prove them. It’s the way the universe works.
So here lies the true heart of this tragedy about beauty. As I lie atop a perfect hill, on a perfect night, with a perfect wife, and the two of us gaze together at our glorious sunset…
…deep down I know that it is out there and I am in here. I know that I just can’t grasp it. I know that I can’t truly experience it, and be a part of it, and connect with it.
For a long time it has been my one epistemic hope, that perhaps in Heaven the disconnect will be gone. Perhaps there we will be able to experience others in such a way that we simply can’t doubt their existence or their love. Maybe there we will truly experience beauty.