Circuits – and the Arbitrariness of Beauty and Value

Some lines from Keats:

Linger awhile upon some bending planks
That lean against a streamlet’s rushy banks,
And watch intently Nature’s gentle doings:
They will be found softer than ring-dove’s cooings.
How silent comes the water round that bend;
Not the minutest whisper does it send
To the o’erhanging sallows: blades of grass
Slowly across the chequer’d shadows pass.
Why, you might read two sonnets, ere they reach
To where the hurrying freshnesses aye preach
A natural sermon o’er their pebbly beds;
Where swarms of minnows show their little heads,
Staying their wavy bodies ‘gainst the streams,
To taste the luxury of sunny beams
Temper’d with coolness. How they ever wrestle
With their own sweet delight, and ever nestle…
[from John Keats’ I stood tip-toe upon a little Hill]

And on and on the poem goes.

Keats wished to be a conduit to beauty itself, a wooer of real, objective beauty in the universe.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
– John Keats

When writing of nature, what Keats is actually doing is making our minds dance with sparkling imagery about things we’re programmed to enjoy.

Early Rodentia, apes, and man survived best where plants and water were plentiful – and so these things strike us as soothing and beautiful because they hit some kind of satisfying “nature circuit” in the hindbrain. We have many other such circuits – and probably all of the consciously experienced and pleasant ones have been a source of much poetry.

Doubtless, Keats wrote of love and romance without knowing that it, too, is merely what pleases our human circuits.

Enjoying some of those lines is less our unique imagination and delight – and more of Nature simply having her way.

Of course, beauty in nature and other inspiring experiences seem more significant than a subjective quirk of the monkey suit, it feels profound in some way that must exist outside of our brains.

Then again, it seemed right to worship the sun as a god, and morality seemed to Kant like some kind of innate, God-given imbuing of some lofty and objective morality.

But the sun is just a burning ball of matter around which we arbitrarily orbit, and the moral intuition arbitrarily bubbled up through communal species of mammalian as just one more expression of the conatus, one more tendency that proved advantageous in a world red in tooth and claw.

There is actually nothing objectively beautiful about trees and sunsets and flowing water. If we evolved from flies, the loftiest poems would be about rotting carcasses and dung. If we evolved from the funnel-web spider, the loftiest poems might be about finding the perfect place for a nest, or the rhythmic wrigglings of doomed prey… or the slurping of liquefied innards.

I can’t help but be haunted a bit by the notion that Keats’ sparkling words are just playing on lyre-strings that I didn’t create or choose.

I’m not denying my own experience of nature’s beauty – I experience it just like you do. I’m also not arguing that the natural ecosystem – plants, animals, bodies of water – aren’t worthwhile things to be cherished and protected (for a while, anyway).

Rather, I’m arguing that what is profound and beautiful is subjectively bounded by our hardware and software – and that, as homo sapiens, we can experience only a tiny sliver of all possible “beauty” – an even tinier sliver of all possible positive sentient experiences – and of all possible ideas – a tinier sliver still.

We might think of all the possible ideas and positive qualia of a field mouse and compare that to our possible ideas and qualia – and wonder what another such massive leap upwards in the trajectory of intelligence would look like.

The realization of this arbitrariness of beauty and value somehow doesn’t make Keats’ poetry less enjoyable. In my opinion, it opens up a deeper kind of longing for conceptions of beauty and value astronomically beyond the fetters of our antiquated hardware.

There is an even greater poetic sense in what we might one day experience and have access to.

A kind of awe for all the awe that we cannot now access.

Or in the words of the Concord Sage:

In one of those celestial days when heaven and earth meet and adorn each other, it seems a poverty that we can only spend it once: we wish for a thousand heads, a thousand bodies, that we might celebrate its immense beauty in many ways and places. [from Emerson’s Uses of Great Men]

What kind of unlimited “beauty”-like (post-beauty?) experiences might be experienced by intelligences unbound by our legacy hardware? We have these archaic “circuits” that give us access to positive experience – but what would life be like for entities that could alter their circuitry in an unlimited number of configurations?

The driving forces of the singularity are sometimes framed as inherently vicious – as if only human greed and the lust for power are pushing humanity into dangerous post-human trajectories.

There’s some truth to this. I’m the first to argue that human drives and ideals will tear us from humanity – but I think that wonder and curiosity and a yearning for higher knowledge and experience are part of the mix of forces that are taking us in that direction.

Maybe this is a kind of “curiosity circuit”, or a drive to transcend limitations, or maybe it just ties to an avoidance of boredom, which Yudkowski deems to be among the most important traits of humanity.

Our circuits are our fetters, but our circuits have gotten us this far, and seem to encourage us to go farther.

Maybe through this curiosity, or our general impetus to become more, we can escape the bounded space of circuits. Maybe – from the impetus to till the soil or build a city or discover the laws or physics or imagine a radically different and better future – maybe through this drive we can leave the pre-ordained, limited space of beauty and capability that we are otherwise boxed in by.

Is that impetus for incessant change and improvement anything other than a circuit itself? It might be the circuit.

From enjoying nature to longing for intimacy, our circuits were developed for our survival. The circuits that drive us to know and become more developed for the same reason as the circuits that drive us to enjoy a natural landscape or an attractive member of the opposite sex.

Ultimately, it’s most likely to be a drive to achieve some higher plane of understanding or capability so that we can further master our environment and survive. We’re more likely to survive in a changing world than our chimpanzee ancestors – and whatever we turn into – should the transition go well – should be all the more robust than we are.

So, reaching for awe beyond awes, for knowing and doing beyond our knowing and doing, is also less of our unique and bold creative spirit – and more of Nature simply having her way.

At worst, all this momentum and development has been determined from the origin of the universe, and we’re helpless to do anything but feel like we have volition, and let the course of things rush through and eviscerate us.

At best, we might be fettered by our circuits, but we might be able to leverage the best of these circuits to at least open up new magazines of capability and understanding – and maybe some greater modicum of authentic freedom.


Note: I use “circuit” as shorthand, and don’t actually suspect that the workings of the mind can be boiled down to a set of simply identifiable and discrete circuits of this kind. There are arguments that nature’s soothing effect doesn’t have anything to do with the landscape of our ancient early or pre-human ancestors. That may be so – but the idea of “circuits” still holds: We can only experience a bounded amount of beauty and value in the world given the limitations of our hardware, and that some things seem profound simply because we’re programmed to experience them that way. 

Header image credit: Smithsonian Magazine