What is real? Off the bat we'd say trees are real. What about unicorns? Also easy, of course not. Okay, let's try beauty- is beauty real? I venture that almost all of us, apart from some who've entrenched themselves in some obscure philosophical deconstruction, would say "of course!" and then point to something they consider beautiful like a matured and majestic oak. (Or if by chance a Chevy van from the seventies drove by, they might point to a scene of a unicorn air brushed into a mural along its side ...please, gag me with a spoon!)
But wait; this person didn't point to beauty, they pointed to a tree. It's the tree that can be touched and sniffed- not the beauty. If beauty were truly real, shouldn't we be able to dissect a beautiful tree and end up with a pile of cellulose and a pile of beautiful?
And when I think about it, beauty exists more like the unicorn does than in the way a tree does. And if unicorns aren't real how can....
I don't know about you, but I've encountered beauty in ways that are so profound, it felt more real to me than I did to myself...what should I make of this experience? What have you made with your own encounter with beauty?
Here's the thing. In our time, we've come to count as real, only the things that exist in space in the way furniture does in a living room; things that can't be "furniture" then, can't be real. In science culture, adherents to this view call them selves "materialists" so when it comes to our experience of the mind for instance, because the brain is furniture but the mind isn't, the brain is really real and the mind experience is made out to be simply illusory, and any thought other wise is met with a pat on the head for not being "in the know."
Adam Frank, an astrophysicist and a favorite thinker of mine, notes this about the nature of the real: "reality's there; you push on it, and it pushes back."
In other words, you can sit on a couch, and because it pushes back you don't free fall to the floor (which too pushes back). And though comfortably reclined on your couch you could put your feet on the matching ottoman, you couldn't put them on a pile of beauty-- no matter how solidly beautiful you consider your furniture and living room to be.
And yet, when I encounter beauty I encounter something that can push back even though I can't encounter it like I can furniture, and even though Newton's laws about push-back can't be applied. Again; what do we make of this quandary, that something which can't exist like furniture can still be real-- even though its existence is a lot like that of a unicorn?
I think the answer begins with understanding this: All things that exist are real, but not all things that are real exist.
What do I mean. We commonly use the words 'exist' and 'real' interchangeably. But the word existence is specific about its description of reality: it's gotta stand out-- like a pile does. What makes a pile of dirt, exist from its surrounding dirt, is that it stands out from the ground. This is basic existence: something pile like.
In this sense of understanding, does beauty exist? No! If it did, I should be able to see a pile of it over there. Is beauty real? Yes! It has the ability to push back on us. Its push-back though, acts in ways that are entirely different from existing things like couches, or from non-existing things like unicorns.
So then, what if beauty was as real in this universe as any california redwood, even though redwoods exist but beauty does not? What could we make of this understanding?