Explaining the Aesthetic Dimension of Nature

aesthetic dimension of nature

It may seem intuitive, in evolutionary terms, why we would find natural settings attractive and appealing. The biologist Edward O. Wilson argued that humans possess a trait called biophilia (fondness for nature, or an innate tendency to seek connections and affiliations with nature and other forms of life), which he argued makes sense evolutionarily. It is inherited from our ancestors who resided in natural environments. Ancestors with stronger connections to nature would have an advantage over those who experienced less connection. Biophilia would have conferred better knowledge of natural environments, leading to better access to food, water, and shelter. 

An Evolutionary Perspective on Natural Beauty

Evidence for biophilia can come from several sources: the negative effects of cities on our mental health, the psychological benefits of nature relatedness (subjectively feeling connected to nature) and time spent in nature, and how biophilic design (such as fractal architecture) benefits our mental well-being.

However, people do not just find nature appealing in the way that, say, ripe fruit is appealing to the eye. The aesthetic dimension of nature goes beyond mere attractiveness (which draws us in, grabs our attention, and centres around what we value). We also find nature beautiful and sometimes awe-inspiring. The emotional component of contact with nature can sometimes be so strong and profound that it takes on mystical qualities: we may lose our sense of self, feel we are at one with the natural world, and even imbue natural landscapes and features with divine or spiritual qualities.

But evolutionary theorists do not believe that their perspectives are lost on these more treasured types of experiences. We tend to find fractal patterns (self-repeating patterns), the Golden Ratio, and symmetry beautiful – such as in artwork and architecture – because these same patterns are found in the natural world. Since beauty and awe are such positive emotional states, we become drawn to landscapes and natural features that evoke them. Just as orgasm evolved to entice us towards sex, so too can beauty be seen as the reward that motivates us to seek natural forms that helped our ancestors survive.

This evolutionary account may run counter to religious claims that nature is beautiful because it was created by God (and God’s work is awe-inspiring in its craftmanship and perfection). Nature, from a religious perspective, is divine. It is what naturally inspires reverence, as it is linked to reverence for God (towards His/Her abilities and His/Her creation).

Several philosophers, such as Edmund Burke, have made a distinction between the beautiful and the sublime (the latter can be seen as synonymous with, or similar to, awe: it involves both wonder and fear). Beauty may be seen as perhaps more easily accommodated by an evolutionary perspective than awe. The latter often feels spiritual, in a way that goes beyond the merely pleasurable feelings associated with beauty. 

Nonetheless, awe too has received evolutionary analysis. Scientists have argued we may find sunsets, imposing mountains, and certain landscapes stunning (in the full sense of being emotionally stunned) because of seven evolutionary functions of awe

awe as a reinforcer of social hierarchies, awe and its effect on prosocial emotions, awe as a meaning making emotion, awe as a promotor of reflective processing, the contribution of awe to creativity, awe as a signal for the selection of potential mates and awe as an indicator of psychological health.

To take just one of these factors as an example, research has shown that the experience of awe shrinks our sense of self, making us feel small in comparison to a vast landscape or natural object, or a powerful natural phenomenon (e.g. a mountain, a large body of water, a storm). This effect, in turn, is associated with enhanced prosocial emotions (which makes sense, as awe can reduce our feelings of self-importance and increase our humility). 

I do want to stress, however, that this type of analysis need not be reductionist. The aesthetic appreciation of nature, even if made possible by brain states, does not mean that such appreciation is nothing but evolutionary and cognitive factors. Human culture, interpretation, and meaning-making can turn nature-based awe into something much more than just a positive experience. Transforming awe in this way, through human imagination and frameworks of meaning, does not distort our perception of the world but instead re-envisions it (and arguably enhances it). All of nature may not literally be alive and communicative, but this phenomenology and metaphorical thinking can still serve to increase awe, as well as improve our attitudes towards the natural world. 

Cognitive Accounts

The philosopher Elizabeth Scarbrough examines what makes nature beautiful in Chapter 6 of Introduction to Philosophy: Aesthetic Theory and Practice. She outlines cognitive, non-cognitive, and hybrid accounts of the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Allen Carson, for instance, uses a cognitive approach (because it emphasises the importance of cognition in aesthetically appreciating nature well). He argues that the proper aesthetic appreciation of nature involves looking at it through the lens of scientific knowledge. Scarbrough writes, “Just as knowledge of the art’s kind (e.g., opera, painting, sculpture) informs our appreciation, scientific information about nature informs our aesthetic appreciation of it.”

For Carson, the true aesthetic dimension of nature does not involve treating nature as one would treat art, turning a natural object into an art object, or imagining natural landscapes as a landscape painting (as theories of the picturesque might). This, he argues, would involve imposing a frame that should not be there. Carlson’s cognitivist account can be contrasted with non-cognitive theories, which emphasise the subjective aesthetic experience of natural beauty and focus on the role of the imagination.

Non-Cognitive Accounts

Emily Brady criticises Carlson’s scientific approach for several reasons. She argues that even if we accept that scientific knowledge could enrich our aesthetic appreciation of nature, this does not mean it is essential to such appreciation. Scarbrough finds that Brady’s most convincing objection is that the scientific approach is too constraining, in light of the idea that proper aesthetic appreciation of nature requires freedom, flexibility, and creativity (and this ties into the non-reductionist angle I touched on earlier). Scarbrough notes:

We should have the freedom to explore trains of thought not related to scientific categories. When looking at the weathered bark on a tree, I need not know how it was formed; rather I may make associations between the weathered tree bark and the beauty of a beloved older relative’s face—the ravines in both adding a beautiful texture to the surface. She [Brady] believes that the aesthetic appreciation of nature ought to use perceptual and imaginative capacities, such as those exemplified in my tree bark/relative example.

However, some worry that this ‘imaginative approach’ may lead to an unfettered imagination producing absurd kinds of aesthetic judgement. Scarbrough, as a case in point, states that:

one might look at the ripple pattern reflecting on the water of a lake and imagine that the ripples look like the ridges of the potato chips you recently cut out of your diet. From here you begin a train of thought which leads you to worry about processed food, factory farming, and fad diets. This seems like an unproductive, and unaesthetic, train of thought.

Brady, nonetheless, provides guidelines for what she calls “imagining well”, implying that there are some standards of imagination, similar to how David Hume claimed that there were standards of taste in art appreciation. For Brady, imagining well should be thought of like an Aristotelian virtue, one which is acquired only through practice, and which only becomes a virtue once it occurs as a matter of habit.

This imagining well can also involve knowing when to employ scientific categories in the aesthetic appreciation of nature and when not to. After all, there will be occasions in which focusing on scientific knowledge impedes (rather than enhances) our appreciation of natural beauty. Similarly, applying in-depth knowledge of musical pieces may get in the way of appreciating the overall sound of the music (e.g. by focusing on the technical ability of the artists).

A Syncretic Account of Our Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature

In his book Natural Beauty: A Theory of Aesthetics Beyond the Arts (2007), Ronald Moore defends a pluralist model of aesthetic appreciation. He argues that the appropriate way to aesthetically appreciate nature is syncretic: instead of relying on any one particular model, we should draw from multiple models. We can employ both cognitive and non-cognitive models. Moore also contends that we can look at nature through many lenses we have developed for thinking about aesthetic qualities: art, literature, music, politics, urban planning, landscape design, and more. A syncretic account, nevertheless, does not tell us what modes of appreciation are relevant to which natural objects. While some may view this as a weakness, it can also be seen as a strength: an opportunity for us to decide which specific accounts of appreciation suit specific types of natural objects.

In Moore’s syncretism, which he calls “the Unitarianism of aesthetics”, models of appreciation can amplify rather than preclude each other. For example, non-cognitive models of the appreciation of natural objects and phenomena that focus on ‘trains of ideas’ or ‘associations’ may be informed by cognitive models. In this way, scientific information about a natural object can lead to more interesting and productive trains of thought. Knowing that a particular flower blooms once a year would be an example of scientific knowledge that may be used to ground an aesthetic experience.

Some models, on the other hand, might be incommensurable, meaning it is impossible to employ two models – or to experience two kinds of appreciation – at the same time. In such a scenario, we may have to alternate between two different modes of appreciation (although this does not discount a syncretic approach). As Scarbrough observes:

Take, for example, the film critic. Film critics often watch movies twice: once to allow themselves to enjoy the film—to immerse themselves, and the second time to focus on technical aspects of the production with an eye toward their criticism. The “technical” mode and the “immersion” mode might very well be incompatible, but one might be able to switch off and on between the two. If this is the case, there is nothing stopping me from having one experience after the other as the appreciation unfolds throughout time. These multiple avenues for aesthetic pleasure favor a syncretic model, or pluralist model, of aesthetic appreciation. We must draw upon whatever models we have at our disposal, including conceptual as well as non-conceptual models, artistic as well as natural models, historical and contemporary models alike.

In summary, it appears the aesthetic dimension of nature involves various possible explanations. But we can favour a pluralistic account that brings these explanations together, viewing them in a compatibilist and non-reductive manner. In other words, our aesthetic appreciation of nature is not reducible to merely evolutionary factors, nor is one mode of appreciation reducible to another (or incompatible with another). Some models may be synthesised in some instances, whereas in other contexts, we may alternate between one and the other.

For those with a secular or naturalistic worldview, however, it is not divine creation or the supernatural that imbues nature with beauty and awe but evolutionary, cognitive, and non-cognitive factors. Evolution and human cognition may make certain emotional responses to nature possible, but imagination and creativity have helped to deepen our levels of aesthetic appreciation.

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