On empirical truth and beauty

Such a beautiful morning it makes me wonder anew how anyone could believe that true beauty is relative, not absolute…

One of my Theory of Knowledge essays submitted for examination back in 1995 (TOK is a compulsory component of the IB, asking students to “reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how we know what we claim to know”, assessed through an oral presentation and a 1,600 word essay nowadays: http://www.ibo.org/programmes/diploma-programme/curriculum/theory-of-knowledge/) was on the topic, “Do we judge something as true or beautiful, or do we recognise it as true or beautiful?”

My answer back then is the same as it is now. We recognise. Just that twenty years on I have gathered so much more data and backing for this perspective.

This is not to say that there aren’t (many) cases where we do exercise our subjective judgement on matters of “taste”. Within this vast and varied realm are many things that can be claimed to be layers of “truth” and “beauty”.

But to illustrate the depth of truth and beauty to which I refer when I sit here in a suburban Tesco carpark, typing this on my phone while a row of yellow-green trees twinkle their glowing multicolours in front of me, framed by an azure sky kissed with floaty wisps of puffy white cloud, the whole scene bathed in a golden autumn midday sun –

I offer you one of my favourite quotes by the legendary Danish Nobel laureate quantum physicist/chemist and philosopher Niels Bohr, which I first encountered in this (unverified) form:

“You can recognize a small truth because its opposite is a falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another truth.”

(A more exact quote seems to be this:

“Two sorts of truth: profound truths recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd.”

As quoted by his son Hans Bohr in “My Father”, published in Niels Bohr: His Life and Work (1967), p. 328)

I have been deeply influenced by the radical empiricism that I first read about in Beyond Biocentrism, where Lanza and Berman refer to the universal sense of wonder and rapture that seems to be aroused by witnessing something like a full solar eclipse. This radical empiricism was then further elaborated upon at length, in content and practice, by Dr Alan Wallace (himself trained as a physicist and philosopher of science after 14 years of Buddhist monk training ordained by H.H. the Dalai Lama) as a recurring leitmotif throughout the week’s meditation retreat.

The roots of radical empiricism hark back to the pioneering and visionary American psychologist and philosopher William James (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_empiricism). I never got to study him in depth at my psychology and philosophy course at Oxford, a fact I am puzzled about and regret deeply.

For it makes total sense to me. Not just in theory, but now with my ongoing mindfulness practice through meditation and yoga, I can actually verify this – as the name of the philosophy suggests – *empirically*.

Definition of empirical:

“Based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.”

I *experience* this beauty in the pictures below, in the trees in front of me, in the gentle warmth of the sun on my skin, as an inherently, simply, undeniably pleasurable occurrence.

During last night’s guided meditation podcast, Alan asked us to pay close attention to whether there were any sensations we were experiencing during our meditation that were in themselves pleasurable.

I’m glad to report that I found one. Breathing. Breathing itself is immensely pleasurable.

So. Proof is in the pudding. Put your phone down for a second, and pay attention to your next breath.

Is the subtle pleasure of this most fundamentally pedestrian of sensations a *judgement*? I.e. Can you, on the basis of your this, perfectly ordinary breath, tell me that I am only “judging” this breath as something that feels good – and that you, as an ordinary human being in the absence of any breathing impairment, can truly say that it doesn’t feel good for you?

Or – might you be *recognising* something… real… in this idea I’m playfully setting out here in front of you for your consideration? ☺️

I’ll wrap this up here; boys’ pickup awaits, and I have quite a way to drive still. I’ll end this musing with another Bohr quote, to underscore the same spirit with which I present everything in this post:

“Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.”

Niels Bohr, Nuclear Physics, 1929-1952

I am beginning to see how life is one beautiful, great, game. Language itself is one beautiful, great, game.

Hopefully this gives you a little snippet into feeling your way through to playing joyfully with your own beautiful, great, game. (Which includes, of course, the option of thinking of everything I’ve written above as pure baloney too. πŸ˜ŒπŸ’•)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s