Why Conscious AI Would Experience Beauty

Åsmund Folkestad at Extra Medium Please: Over several years now, a single question has refused to leave me: what is beauty? Triggering it was a series of aesthetic experiences so intense that I count them among the most significant moments of my life. They felt supercharged with meaning, yet what they meant I could not tell. After a couple years of scratching my head, I still cannot claim to understand them. Nevertheless, I believe I have taken a step towards understanding what beauty is.

Many a great tome has been written by philosophers on beauty. I wish I had read them. However, all I’ve read is one of these Oxford University Press booklets: “[Subject]: A Very Short Introduction”. Why then should you bother to listen to me? I will give you three reasons.

First, while certainly interesting, I am not most compelled by the philosophical route to this question. Instead, I find the evolutionary perspective most illuminating. This shifts the question, however. I’m a theoretical physicist thinking about black holes for a living, so again, why should you bother listen to me? This leads me to my second reason.

My explanation of what beauty is, is incredibly simple. In fact, so simple that I would be surprised if neuroscientists or evolutionary theorists have not expounded it in detail somewhere. Nevertheless, a quick Google-session did not give me what I expected to find. Works by evolutionary theorists seem to revolve around explanations of the following flavor: symmetries in a potential mate signal genetic/reproductive quality, and thus your reproductive success increases if you’re good at perceiving and displaying these symmetries (which we perceive as beautiful). Another example is this: landscapes perceived as beautiful are those that were more beneficial to our survival, so people who felt pleasure from (and thus attraction to) these landscapes survived at a higher rate. As you will soon see, while I have no reason to doubt these arguments, I claim they are too narrow. As I see it, the tendency to appreciate beauty is a core capability and urge of the human mind, and it furthers the probability of our genes’ survival through a much wider set of mechanisms.

A disclaimer is in place here. It probably is the case that if I dig in the literature, I can find a similar thesis detailed by someone else. But I have decided to consciously avoid this until I write up this initial post. In our age, so much time is spent consuming predigested ideas. This is an idea I have decided to process on my own. If nothing else, I hope to provide a unique perspective.

Third, I will argue that my thesis explains the fact that music seems to move the average human to a greater degree than visual arts (sorry visual artists). It also makes it manifestly obvious that beauty is neither completely subjective nor completely objective. My thesis implies actionable advice for anyone in the business of producing beauty (in my ideal world, this would include a significant fraction of people producing art).

Now, before presenting my thesis, I will make a few clarifying remarks. First, I will not try to explain what art is. Art is more than beauty, and beauty is more than art. Much art communicates through beauty, but some does not, and aesthetic experiences can be triggered by things other than art. Second, if you think my thesis is wrong, I joyfully invite you to shake your fist and yell at me in the comments. Bonus points if you tell me why I am wrong.

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