Today will be one of my more counter-intuitive and possibly controversial ideas. I want to talk about what it means to be shallow in terms of one's character. What is shallowness, really? But before I dive into the depths, a bit of preface on the subject of free will is in order. In recent years, I have come to accept the fact that free will, insofar as most people think about it, doesn't exist. If you've never heard or read any lectures on this idea, you may find yourself quickly losing the plot, but that's okay--I find it takes awhile for these ideas to make sense. The basic premise is this: although we absolutely have the power of conscious choice and voluntary action, our choices and actions are all directly caused by our thoughts, and you don't author your thoughts. You don't actually bring your thoughts into being. You are not the driver or pilot of yourself that you think you are. You are not the author sitting at the desk in your mind, writing the thoughts of your life. Thoughts simply arise in consciousness. They spring into being. You don't create them; you are merely witness to them. With a little bit of practice at introspection, one can easily prove this to oneself. If you pay close enough attention to what it's like to think a thought, you will see that you don't create them, and don't truly have any control over what thought comes careening into consciousness next, even when it seems to be otherwise. I could go on at length attempting to demonstrate this, but I don't wish to get bogged down and run too far off the rails. The punch line is that because you don't author your thoughts, you don't actually have the freedom over yourself that you think you do. Everything you think and do arises out of a perfect crucible of prior causes stretching back to the beginning of time.
Confused yet? It took me some time before I stopped being so. Hopefully you're still with me. To help you understand this idea a bit better, I recommend listening to this short audio clip before continuing:
Now then, today I would like to argue that being concerned with physical attractiveness is no more shallow than being concerned with intelligence. This is quite a bold claim, and cuts directly against what most of us tend to believe, but I think I can argue this successfully.
If you've followed me much at all, you might already know that I am a highly sexual person, and a great proponent of embracing and celebrating physical and sexual beauty. People who place a high degree of importance on physical beauty often take a lot of flak for being shallow, and I probably would too, if I actually went outside and talked to people... :/ In my country of America, there is an odd double standard at play when it comes to physical attractiveness. We live in a culture of mixed messages, where the media tells us that looking good and staying young is paramount, but we are also admonished to look at inner beauty and judge people only on their characters. Most people typically say that part of what constitutes being a good person is looking past outer beauty, and to pay little to no attention to what people look like. I think that even when people are concerned about physical beauty, they feel societal pressure to say otherwise because it's the "right" thing to do. It seems universally accepted that looking only at "inner" beauty is an inherently good, noble, and virtuous way to be. People who say that they care only about what's inside, even when it comes to their romantic partner, typically get pats on the back.
What I am arguing today is that essentially every trait we could conceivably care about is largely out of our control, and thus, it is no more shallow to compliment someone's looks than it is to compliment their smarts.
Here comes the part that many people really don't want to hear. Intelligence is pretty much entirely genetic. You either have it or you don't. From there, it comes down to what you do with it. You can use it, or not. Education--filling your brain with knowledge--will help you reach your potential, and early childhood environmental factors certainly play a role in facilitating this and priming the brain for the rest of it's life, but that's not really what intelligence is. Intelligence is your ability to understand and to think. It's not really about what you know, or how much, but about how you think. It's about your potential. This is genetic. You're either born with high intelligence or you're not. You can't really change your intelligence level in any deep sense. This is the uncomfortable truth that people don't want to hear, but it is a truth nonetheless. Your intelligence simply is what it is. What you can do is exercise your brain to help maintain it and reach your potential. You can study to increase your knowledge, you can perform various mental exercises to improve memory, and you can make new neural connections and pathways by learning new things. There's lots you can do to improve the brain, but this is merely sharpening up and honing what you already have. It's taking the brain you have and helping it be the best it can be. It's helping you to reach your potential, but it isn't really changing your intelligence.
If you find yourself resisting this idea, let's look at the rest of the body instead. I probably don't need to spend a second convincing anyone of how genetics and exercise work with respect to physical fitness. We all know that genetics plays a major role in how your body will look and function. You're born with whatever build you're going to have--you get what you get. From there, it's again a question of what you do with it. Some people put on weight easily, others stay stick thin regardless of what they eat. But no matter what your genetics, you can always improve by eating a healthy diet and exercising. But this is about improving what you already have and reaching your potential. It doesn't change your genetics. No matter what your build, your genetics are either better or worse, relatively speaking, and that comes down to luck. It is conceptually no different when it comes to intelligence. You get the dealt your hand, and then it comes down to what you make of it.
From a certain perspective, there's really no difference between mental and physical health. The tendency to differentiate our beings into the mental and the physical is a tad illogical. The brain is just another organ in the body. The gray matter between your ears is just that--matter. It's just atoms in there. Whatever happens in your brain--whatever you learn, whatever memories you make--it's all just a restructuring of atoms. There's nothing else it can be. It's not as if memories and knowledge are some non-corporeal energy that has no physical basis, some spooky magic floating in the aether. Whatever is in your brain is just atoms, just as whatever data is on a hard drive is just atoms. A hard drive basically stores data by magnetizing and demagnetizing billions of little particles. What happens in your brain is like an analogous process with goo. The point being that it's all physical, in a sense, so mental health is just another part of physical health. You just have to do very different things to exercise the brain versus exercising muscles. We have this tendency to refer to the body and the brain as these distinctly different and separate things, when they're really not.
Genetics gives you whatever body you're going to have, including the brain. You either get good genetics for physical health or you don't, and you either get good genetics for intelligence or you don't. The rest comes down to use, maintenance, nourishment, and exercise of the given parts.
So, from here we can see that you are no more responsible for your base intelligence than you are for your physical attractiveness. Both are determined by genetics. You can improve your physical health and athletic ability, as well as your brain's health, in the ways I described. You can also do things to improve your attractiveness, though these things are much more subjective. You can shave, trim, and style hair, file nails, sand rough skin, moisturize, etc. Whether it's intelligence, athletic ability, or hygiene, one can always improve oneself, but none of this changes genetics. The only way to actually change what you look like in any deep sense is to have some sort of invasive cosmetic surgery. Likewise, the only way to truly change your mind, to change who you are and how you think, is to physically alter your brain in some way, either by trauma or some type of hypothetical rewiring, such as switching which hemisphere is dominant, for example. Without opening up your head and tinkering with the goo inside, you can't truly change who you are, or your intelligence level. Of course, who you are changes in each moment because that's the character of life, but you're not truly responsible for that, either.
It should be clear by now that when we compliment either someone's intelligence or their appearance, we're essentially congratulating them on being lucky. We're saying, "good for you for having good genetics." It's conceptually no different in either case. If someone has made good use of their luck, we can congratulate them on that as well, but that's just more in the way of luck. Noticing intelligence over appearance isn't inherently noble or virtuous, as people have no true responsibility for their intelligence.
When asked what they look for in a mate, people will often take care to list "inner beauty" traits in order to appear a deep and better person. However, you're no more responsible for your intelligence, your sense of humor, or anything else about your personality than you are for your appearance. You don't choose or design your personality. You have no control over your likes or dislikes. You're no more responsible for your love of sports than you are for your height. You're no more responsible for your warm and caring nature than you are for your breast size. All of it is genetics, and then the ocean of prior causes that shape who you are.
I wrote this piece in part as a self-defense; I resent being thought of as shallow simply because physical beauty is important to me. Any trait that we could conceivably care about is mostly genetic, and it's not wrong or immoral for us to want any given trait in a partner, or a friend for that matter. It's not shallow or immoral to seek a partner that you're attracted to physically. At this point, I want to make it abundantly clear that I care very much about intelligence and personality. In fact, those are far more important than appearance, and this is ridiculously easy to prove. You can be friends with an nice, ugly person, but you can't be friends with a pretty, mean person. It's simple, but really, that's all I need in order to know that "inner beauty" is far more important. To add a bit more, I'll just say that how we behave and how we treat others is far, far more important than how we look. I would never even imply otherwise. I merely submit that it's not shallow to be concerned with physical appearance as well.
So, what is shallowness, then, if not paying attention to appearance? Simply put, shallowness is judging someone character based on appearance. Seeking out beauty isn't shallow, but treating people poorly on the basis of appearance is. Concluding that a fat or ugly person is therefore bad or stupid is shallow. Concluding that a pretty person is therefore good and smart is shallow. Determining someone's worth as a human being based on appearance is shallow. Systemically excluding unattractive people, or doling out more wealth to attractive people, is shallow. But choosing certain traits for the people we want in our personal relationships isn't. To desire physical attractiveness is to desire good genetics. To desire intelligence is simply to desire another variety of good genetics, and wanting good genetics for our partner is the prerogative of every human being.
To be shallow is to judge someone's character based on appearance, and to then treat them thusly. To notice, compliment, celebrate, or be concerned with any trait we might care about, be it physical appearance, athleticism, or intelligence, is simply to say, "way to go on winning the genetic lottery." Desiring or seeking physical beauty is therefore amoral, and not shallow.