Category Archives: Beauty

Ontological Wallop

The structure of the world is shot through with a sublimity so sublime that it simply had to exist. …

The sublimity that had to burst into existence is not one that particularly concerns itself with us. Such a human-centered goodness would not pack the ontological wallop required to bring forth existence. (Plato at the Googleplex, pages 385-389.)

I like that phrase “the ontological wallop required to bring forth existence.” I’ll return to it in a moment. First, let’s look at a pretty picture.

Mandelbrot Satellite Bug

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The Most Beautiful Moment

Why do we think something is beautiful?

Imagine looking at a canvas painted solely in your favorite color. For me, that would be orange. I might think, “That is a really beautiful orange. There’s something complex in it — some depth.”

But even though the painting was 100% my favorite color, I’d probably like some other colors nearby as well, right? I once saw this installation, titled 24 Colors — for Blinky at the Dia:Beacon museum.


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Does Pi Contain the Universe?

I just ran across a very poetic meme about the number pi .

Pi is an infinite, non-repeating decimal — meaning that every possible number combination exists somewhere in pi. Converted into ASCII text [computer representation], somewhere in that infinite string of digits is the name of every person you will ever love; the date, time and manner of your death; and the answers to all the great questions of the universe. Converted into a bitmap [computer image], somewhere in that infinite string of digits is a pixel-perfect representation of the first thing you saw on this earth; the last thing you will see before your life leaves you; and all the moments, momentous and mundane, that will occur between these two points.

All the information that has ever existed or will ever exist, the DNA of every being in the universe.

EVERYTHING: all contained in the ratio of a circumference and a diameter.

Googling around for more about this, I saw someone point out that if the universe is finite, then pi must somewhere contain a representation of the entire universe.

I find this beautiful and very appealing. Judging by all the “Wow!” comments on the Internet, a lot of other people are equally fascinated.

The only problem is, it ain’t necessarily so. The non-sequitur is in the very first sentence: “Pi is an infinite, non-repeating decimal — meaning that every possible number combination exists somewhere in pi.” I studied a lot of math in college, and I admit that the error slipped by me. Before I knew it, I was carried away by the poetry and joined in the chorus of “Wow!”

The error (obvious now!) is that just because a number never repeats itself into all infinity, it does not follow that every possible number combination occurs. For example, maybe there are no sevens after the trillionth digit, but the other nine digits continue without repeating. If you’re looking for a sequence that contains a seven, and you don’t find it in the first trillion digits, you will never find it.

Sadly, the frisson I felt while reading transcendent thoughts about everyone’s favorite transcendental number was … unwarranted. Even a methodological naturalist like me must be careful to practice shaphat.

After further Googling, I learned that it could be true that pi contains all finite sequences. In fact, mathematicians suspect that it is true, even though it has not been proven one way or the other.

Now … how tempted am I to believe without proof, just because it’s beautiful?

I’ll leave that question with you as an exercise in shaphat. Can you refrain from judging what’s in my head when you have no proof? 🙂

Simple Explanations

About a week ago, I had a dream that was unusual because it centered around a philosophical thought: complicated things often have simple explanations.

The dream was doubtless brought on by a conversation I had had concerning the Myers-Briggs personality types. In my own experience and in the experience of several people I know well who have taken the Myers-Briggs test, it yields an uncanny description of one’s personality. Yet, it does so by asking just a few dozen yes/no questions by which it measures where you fall on just four scales: extroversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judging/perception. (You can take the test for free in about 3 minutes here. Once you do, click on the Self-Awareness and Personal Growth link to see your personality profile. See if you don’t agree it’s amazingly accurate.)

The day after my dream, I thought about the spiral of the chambered nautilus. You may have heard that it follows the pattern of a golden rectangle — said to be the most pleasing rectangle to the human eye. What makes it “golden” is that the sides are in a special proportion: if you remove a square whose side is the short side of the rectangle, then the rectangle that remains will have the same proportions as the original. In this figure, the outer rectangle’s proportions appear again in the pink rectangle, once the blue square is removed.

Golden Rectangle

You could repeat the process on the pink rectangle, removing a square whose sides are length b, and leaving a smaller rectangle whose sides are again in the original proportion.

Keep doing that, and connect the corners of the squares with a spiral, and you get the so-called golden spiral.

Golden Spiral

Enter the chambered nautilus. Here’s an actual specimen, showing how well its shell really does fit a golden spiral.

Nautilus Spiral

Now for the point.We see this and it seems miraculous. We jump to a million-horsepower explanation like “There must be an omniscient God who designed it!” However, a much simpler explanation does just as well.

To see it, reverse the process by which we pared the golden rectangle down into smaller and smaller golden rectangles. Instead of paring down, build it up by adding successive squares. At each stage, we have the same overall shape as we did in the previous stage. Likewise for the proportional layout of the inner “chambers” (except now we have one more of them). You can now imagine that if there were a creature who made himself a spiral shell, and whose body maintained the same proportions as it grew, then a golden spiral would be the inevitable result. It seems miraculous, but it’s really simple.

I have a feeling that there are simple explanations of many seemingly complex or surprising phenomena, if we’ll just tune ourselves to look for them.

The One Life I Know I Have

August’s 31 Days of Wonder were an experiment to see how I would feel about refocusing this blog (and my life) on the beautiful and true, spending less time railing against the lies that drive me nuts. That’s hard for me because it’s often the willful manipulation of gullible citizenry that gets me riled up enough to spend an hour or two writing a post. However, as far as I know, I have only one life.  I want to enjoy it, and being peeved is not as much fun as looking at the Mandelbrot set or marveling at the ribosome.

So, for the most part I’m going to hold my tongue. I do plan to write one post about why I left evangelical Christianity, but that will be my last one about religion for a while. As for politics, it will be difficult to rely on others to expose all the lies that will be told between now and election day, but I’m going to try.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the focus on “the beautiful, the true and the wondrous.”


Oh, wow!

Oh, wow!

If you enjoyed Daniel Dennett’s Canons of Good Spin last time, you’ll really enjoy a term he unveiled shortly afterward in the same speech: deepity.

A deepity is a proposition that

  • seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed;
  • has at least two readings and balances precariously between them;
  • on one reading is true but trivial; and
  • on the other reading is false but would be Earth-shattering if true.

The true-but-trivial reading is enough to slide it into your brain, where the false reading sneaks out and messes up your head.

Dennett gives one example: Love is just a word.

The first reading would put quotes around love: “Love” is just a word. Yes, it is a word. It has four letters. True and trivial.

The second reading is without the quotes: Love is just a word. As Dennett says, whatever love is, it is not a word. It may be an interpersonal relationship, an emotion, the most wonderful phenomenon in human psychology, or it may be an illusion. But whatever it is, it is not a word. To say it is, is to commit a use-mention error: confusion the use of the word with the mention of it.

Here are more you may have heard.

We’re just arguing over semantics. The confusion here arises because many people don’t know what “semantics” means. They think it means “just words” but it actually means “the meaning of words.”

True but trivial reading: We’re arguing about word choices.

False but profound reading: Discussions about meaning are a waste of time.

Free will and predestination are in tension.

True but trivial reading:  In theology, “free will” and “predestination” are ideas in opposition to each other.

False but profound reading: God predestines us to be saved or damned, but we can choose for ourselves.  

Beauty is only skin-deep.

True but trivial: You can’t see underneath someone’s skin.

False but profound: Beauty does not or should not matter. If you care about it, you are shallow. The fact is that an important part of being human is being attracted to beauty, including beauty in the opposite sex. Furthermore, a person’s supposedly unimportant looks are often the result of choices they have made as a result of their supposedly all-important character. Few people are so irredeemeably ugly that they cannot appear beautiful on the outside if they are beautiful on the inside. In that sense, you can see underneath someone’s skin.

Are there any deepities you would like to add to this list?

31 Days – Sky

When I arrived at work this morning and stepped out of my car, I looked up and saw the sky. It was ordinary enough, but I was reminded of a scene in the movie, Blast from the Past.

In the movie, Brendan Fraser plays a 30-year-old who has spent his entire life in a fallout shelter after a slight misunderstanding about the Russians bombing the United States. The supposed radiation having died down, his father lets him go above-ground for the first time.

SkyOne of the first things he notices is the sky, which of course he has never seen. He stares at it, fascinated, and people ask him what he’s looking at. “Don’t you see?” he asks.

They look up and see nothing.

Find an open space and take a look at the sky sometime. Pick a day when the sky is just a sky — not spectacular. Keep looking until it affects you.

That’s advice I’ve been following more and more lately. If I’m in nature, or even on a parking lot under the sky, I just keep looking until I really see. There is so much beauty and emotional power all around us if we’ll just hold still for a moment.