Michael Strevens, Philosopher, on a view of the Canyonlands in Utah

MS This is a view of the Canyonlands area in southern Utah. It is taken from the Landsat 8 satellite, but it is not so different from what you might see from the window of a jet flying from New York to the West Coast.

There is plenty, in a view like this, of geological and geographical interest, but here I’m testifying to its abstract beauty. If I can get a window seat, I will spend hours taking in the changing forms of the hills, mountains, roads, rocks, and sand. Best of all for me are those landscapes where the influence of flowing water is sharpest and clearest: the dry and deserted places west of the Rockies.

On the face of things, the beauty is largely of shape, line, and color, but like much of the most captivating abstract art, something is going on just below the surface. Looking down from six miles up, two dimensions worth of terrain are laid out before you, plainly visible, but one other is only barely hidden, the dimension of depth. A part of the power of a photo from space is that depth is absolutely flattened, yet it expresses itself visually everywhere. The landscape alternately invites you to see through it, to decode its third dimension, or simply to surf across it, as though it were purely planar.

A fourth dimension is also evident if not at all visibly present — I mean the temporal dimension. The sense of sculpture in the feather-like channels carved by rivulets and streams is inseparable from the feel of water acting over time, cutting away dirt and stone.

The spectacle is flat yet contoured, static yet evolving. It is that invisible yet palpable dimensional doubling that gives what is otherwise merely formally beautiful its kick.

GB Are you choosing the view in real life or the digital image?

MS Officially it’s the view from an aircraft window that I’m choosing, but the digital image is in a way even more stupendous because it’s taken from so high up. It is dead flat, but in its clarity and detail it also gives you all the little clues to what’s really down there.

GB You say you like it as a piece of abstract art but I get the feeling that the beauty works on all sorts of different levels for you. When you say you can see the depth in the image, is that your scientific brain kicking in?

MS Sometimes when I’m looking out of the airplane window, I see the effects of block faulting or gradual uplift. Then I can tell I’m thinking scientifically. But sometimes it’s not like that at all. It’s more like I’m running my eyes over the patterns of a piece of abstract or decorative art, like Islamic tiling.

GB Why did you go for these colours rather than a green landscape?

MS I grew up with total greenness everywhere, all year round. These are exotic colours for me… But I think that what really matters is not the colour of the desert (or near-desert) but the way it exposes the underlying terrain, making it possible to see so clearly the way the water works in the landscape and the way it has created all these patterns on every perceivable scale, producing something that’s fascinating as a pure form in itself. I suppose that lightweight scientific knowledge is in the background, but knowing how it’s made adds something that is not only intellectual but also aesthetic. You don’t just know, you literally see how the water has run through the landscape. Half of your mind is grasping the abstraction and delighting in the multiplication and complexity and the other half is grasping it in time as a process, seeing the sculpture happening.

GB So it’s much more of a visceral visual beauty than an intellectual one for you?

MS I think so. Even for the part of me that’s aware of the physical process that creates it.

GB Is there any emotional element to experiencing this landscape?

MS That is a good question. In the past, I’ve had a wonderful time driving through the American West. Some of the Colorado Plateau is amazing and some is relatively boring to drive through. I chose this photograph in particular because it doesn’t have grand mountains in it. When you’re away from the real alpine scenery, you’re in a kind of hinterland where there’s not a whole lot to see and it’s not changing very fast. So when I think of the landscape close up, the memories, however pleasant, aren’t of the same beauty I find here as an abstraction. Something else is going on.

GB Are you saying that this is genuine disinterested pleasure for you?

MS Yes, that’s right.

GB And do you believe that this is universally beautiful?

MS I don’t think I can answer that question simply by reflecting on my own experience of the landscape. I need to think like a social scientist. But yes: looking at the patterns that human beings around the world like to iterate in their decorative arts, I think that this is something that would be considered beautiful across the human race.

GB Do you think nature is the highest form of beauty?

MS No. I do realize that the paths of the rivers and streams in my photo look organic. They have that same branching complexity that we find almost everywhere in living things. That may very well explain why they are beautiful to us, but I don’t think it’s important to our appreciating the forms that we see them as natural, or created naturally, let alone as organic. What really matters is the sense of depth and of creation over time. I think it’s important that there’s something more but it doesn’t have to be a natural more. It could even be a more that would be ugly close up. But it adds a layer of significance that makes the whole thing look deep in a more than a spatial sense.

GB Do you want to get to the bottom of this extra layer or do you like the fact that there’s a mystery to it?

MS I wonder if it’s a bit of both. If you get completely to the bottom of it you lose a part of the true aesthetic pleasure. Instead, your mind is taken up with a complete representation of particular processes, shapes, forms and so on. Aesthetic contemplation works best when you have some inkling that there’s more to know but you’re not actively seeking out that knowledge. In art as opposed to nature, of course, there’s typically no way to discover what’s not explicitly presented. But much of the most profound art is brilliantly effective at suggesting that there is, nevertheless, something else going on under the surface.

GB I find it interesting that you might accept that you can’t fully understand it. A lot of scientists might say that the beauty is in simplicity and finding a solution.

MS What I’m talking about here is the promise, or the potential of finding a solution. When beauty functions as a guiding principle in science, it’s at the apex of its functionality when it’s guiding you in to the solution. What it does best is to promise, to gesture toward the answer. Once you get there, you have beauty to thank. But you don’t need it any more. You don’t need to see it any more.

GB So beauty isn’t so much a promise of happiness as a promise of a solution!

MS That doesn’t sound very romantic!

GB Do you think we could ever make a machine that could make judgments about beauty?

MS I don’t doubt that Google could one day construct a deep learning algorithm that’s good at simulating human judgements about beauty. But I wonder whether you can appreciate beauty without a perceptual experience. Could an artificial intelligence grasp the beauty in some mathematical structure without somehow visualizing or otherwise perceiving the structure? We humans are thought to have in our minds amodal representations of spatial structures. That’s representation that’s not connected to any sensory modality, so not visual or connected to touch but still a representation of how things are related, connected together in space. Is that enough for true aesthetic experience of the sort I’m talking about here? I don’t know.

GB I like that you think beauty can be leading us to a solution but you don’t seem like you’re in a rush to find out.

MS Not when it comes to an aesthetic experience. It works better not to think about the solution when it comes to the landscape, but to let that extra layer of significance play on your consciousness.

GB What would you say this choice of an object of beauty says about you?

MS I don’t think that finding this beautiful is particularly idiosyncratic. And yet when they fly, a lot of people just close the window and watch movies or catch up on sleep, which makes me think that I do perhaps enjoy the view more than other people.

GB So maybe your knowledge really does help more than you think?

MS I guess that’s possible, but my geological knowledge is pretty minimal. When it comes to the mechanics of water erosion, I doubt I know much more than the person in the aisle seat! Maybe my curiosity is greater.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

MS It seems that what we’ve been working towards in this interview, without trying to frame a fully general definition, is the idea that beauty is found in a certain complexity of form that promises an interesting explanation or underlying structure or process or story that’s not made easy for you, not presented to you on the surface of things.

GB So do you find the intellect a higher form of beauty than nature?

MS No. Going back to our discussion about Artificial Intelligence, beauty has to be in some sense experiential, even if it’s experience of a purely mathematical structure. I see intellectual promise as a part of beauty, but the promise alone is not enough—an interesting book blurb has the promise, but it’s not even the kind of thing that can be beautiful. The promise has to be made palpable in this perceptual, or at least experiential, sense, and by way of a certain suggestive complexity.

Whoa! I’d better stop before I turn into Monroe Beardsley…

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