From the Editor’s Desk Summer 2022

Printed in the  Summer 2022 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard "From the Editor’s Desk" Quest 110:3, pg 2


IRichard Smoleyt is easier to praise beauty than to understand it. Much of the writing on aesthetics attempts to limn the elegance of a given object without really telling us why we find it so.

Although standards of beauty for both women and men vary across the globe, most of them share the element of regularity of feature. We are equally captivated by regularity in nature—the symmetry of many of the most admired flowers, for example. Art and architecture prize harmony of proportion above all else. Violations—intentional and otherwise—are “disruptive,” to use the current lingo of the art world.

We know that this is the case, but why? I believe the answer lies in the structure of human cognition (I am speaking mainly in visual terms here). We can take a cue from computer animation. One site on the subject says, “A creator will take specific objects from the storyboard and mold them into a 3D ‘mesh.’ This is a simple shape that can be refined with more details later in the animation process.” This mesh is a kind of grid pattern, which is then overlaid with details.

Computer animation may replicate the structure of human visual perception, which is very likely based on a grid pattern similar to computer animation, though doubtless far more intricate. Our visual perceptions are filtered through this grid. Images that conform to it are regarded as beautiful; those that run counter to it are counted as ugly.

People rhapsodize about the beauty of nature, but much of nature, such as various bugs and sea creatures, is repellent to our visual senses. That may be because they run counter to our sense of proportion and regularity. Whether these creatures are ugly from an objective point of view is impossible to say, because we have no access to a fully objective perspective.

Another piece of evidence for this argument comes from experience under the influence of psychedelic drugs. The word psychedelic comes from Greek roots meaning psyche and to show. Possibly these materials strip away some of the more superficial ways the eye structures reality and exposes the grid pattern more nakedly. Psychedelic visions regularly include intricate, moving, and often beautiful geometric patterns. Perhaps these patterns are close to the underlying grid behind human visual cognition.

There is a great deal of interest in sacred geometry these days, with the assumption that these forms—such as the Golden Mean—are the patterns inherent in nature. Probably not: although some forms (nautilus shells are a common example) replicate this pattern, many other life forms do not. It is more likely that our eyes and brains are structured to recognize these patterns and appreciate them when we find them.

By this view, studying sacred geometry is useful not because it takes us closer to the structures of reality, but because it takes us closer to the fundamental patterns by which we experience the world.

This process of pattern recognition is far from perfect; hence the constant deception that the senses impose on us.

This leads to a conclusion that is constantly asserted by the Ancient Wisdom: we do not see the world as it is; no doubt we cannot conceive of the world as it is. The illusory nature of perception has been given many names, including maya and avidya.

Present-day cognitive science is coming to many of these conclusions. It differs from the Ancient Wisdom in that the latter says that this illusion is real to a degree, but that we can surpass its constraints through certain practices and insights. We are limited by the structure of our senses, but they are a prison with both a door and a key.

Richard Smoley