Do you ever wake up, throw the curtains open wide and marvel at how beautiful the world is? I know I do.
I enjoy a good sunrise or sunset even though I understand scientifically what the sun is, that the Earth is rotating on its axis rather than the sun moving across the sky, and that there are billions of other planets orbiting billions of other stars. Scientific knowledge doesn’t in any way diminish the experience. I still marvel at the magic and wonder of it all.
Where does this sense of wonder come from?
Does it happen because we are spiritual beings intimately aligned with the magical qualities of the universe? Is it perhaps because we are creatures honed by millions of years of adaptations to live in just this kind of environment, and hence it appears good and natural to us, in the same way that edible food tastes good?
I don’t think either of these is the true reason.
We’ve evolved to have the ability to organise, classify and to seek explanations and narratives. We have a huge capacity for creation, imagination and abstraction. And this, I think, is why we appreciate beauty. Not simply the beauty of an attractive sexual partner or good food, but abstract beauty and wonder.
That’s why we enjoy sunrises, sunsets, flowers, the stars at night. None of this appreciation of beauty has any evolutionary purpose. We even create objects of beauty that have no practical function. We call this art.
Here’s what Tennyson had to say on the subject:
Thus truth was multiplied on truth, the world
Like one great garden show’d,
And thro’ the wreaths of floating dark upcurl’d,
Rare sunrise flow’d.
You see? It’s not the actual sunrise that creates the wonder. It’s the imagined version of it in our heads.