A Beginner’s Guide to The Argument from Beauty

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A few years ago I was trekking in the Himalayas and had the privilege of watching the sunset at Mount Everest. All day, the mountain had been hidden, but as dusk approached, the clouds rolled back, revealing the great north face. At the very same moment, the westering sun dipped and the clouds lit up as if on fire, a maelstrom of red, orange and ochre, causing the whole mountain to shine with alpenglow. It was one of the most breath-taking scenes of natural beauty I have ever experienced.

Two Approaches to Nature

I had gone to the Himalayas because of my fascination with the pioneering British Everest expeditions in the 1920s which were funded by two organisations, the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club and right from the start, there was a clash of cultures. The RGS were interested in science—they wanted to bring back samples, perform experiments, to map the region. In contrast, the Alpine Club’s interests were primarily aesthetic—they wanted to conquer the summit, capture beautiful photographs, and advance the art of climbing.

Science and the pursuit of beauty are two very different approaches to life. Most of us are fascinated by and drawn to both of them, but how do they fit together? Aren’t they even in tension with each other at times? How you deal with this tension largely depends on your worldview, your philosophy of life.

The Failure of Naturalism

Naturalism is the worldview that says that only material things exist: atoms, particles, stuff. The only thing that matters is matter. There is no transcendent realm of any kind, everything can be explained by the blind, impersonal forces of nature.

For those of us who truly love the outdoors, especially the wild places, the problem with this is that naturalism so obviously and patently fails. You liked the sunset on Everest? Well, that’s only atoms and photons, there was nothing sublime there. You were moved with wonder? Ah, that’s only the motion of chemicals in your brain. Anthony Esolen playfully parodies this philosophy:

[For the philosophical naturalist] it is best to keep the word “only” ready in the arsenal at all times. The flame of the sky at sunset is “only” the part of spectrum that penetrates the atmosphere at that angle … it is “only” something or other material that scientists know about … or at least somebody knows all them in some Important Places. Beauty is “only” a neurological tic, or a personal opinion.[1]

Yet trying to explain away a sunset as only photons, a mountain view as only the result of tectonic activity and erosion, or our sense of wonder as “misfirings, Darwinian mistakes” in the words of atheist, Richard Dawkins[2]—fail, because none of those purely naturalistic explanations come even remotely close, to our actual experience of natural beauty. Naturalism is a half-hearted attempt to simplify and reduce an experience that is rich, deep and three-dimensional to a two-dimensional caricature. Naturalistic explanations fall woefully short: sure, at a basic level Paradise Lost is “made of letters”, or Chartres Cathedral is “some bricks”; but neither description does justice to their entire reality.

Beauty is one of many such experiences that strips away our pretensions and points us beyond ourselves. For most of us, natural beauty causes us to yearn for something that molecules, atoms and particles alone can never ultimately satisfy.

What is Beauty?

Beauty clearly isn’t just a personal preference—you like the music of Beethoven, I like Justin Bieber. If beauty were simply our personal opinion, then we render the word meaningless.  If this were true, when I say “I find this picture beautiful”, I wouldn’t have told you anything about the picture, merely described my interior psychology. Furthermore, if you say that beauty is subjective, you instantly demolish all of the humanities—why bother studying art, music, literature, or photography if ultimately aesthetics is nothing more than personal preferences?

Beauty and Emotion

Another fascinating thing about beauty is the emotions that it can produce. When I stand on a mountain, I find three emotions rise up. Wonder, gratitude, and something akin to homesickness. I noticed this when I gazed at that sunset on Everest—a desire for something more beautiful, more radiant, more real, and a sense that beauty gave us a glimpse of it.

Naturalism struggles to begin to even describe such emotions, the experience of seeing real beauty, and thus it’s here I wonder if a second philosophy, a different worldview, may offer us a more compelling explanation. Consider these ancient words of poetry from the Hebrew Bible:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.[3]

Now at this point, maybe some people are thinking: “What’s with the whole God stuff, for Darwin’s sake, all we need is science, right?!” When I interviewed the atheist Oxford Professor of Chemistry, Peter Atkins he said: “Some people think science answers how questions and religion answers why questions. But that’s utter rubbish. There are no such thing as ‘why questions’. ‘Why questions’ are just little packets of ‘how’ questions—and science can answer them all.” I was tempted to ask “Why do you think that?” but resisted.

The deeper problem here is that it’s a misuse of science. Science is an incredible tool, but like all tools, it does some things well and some things badly—a hammer is great for putting up shelves, but don’t use it for brain surgery.

This kind of approach also leaves no room for the things that really move us. Are we then condemned to live disconnected lives, being rationalists in our work, but romantics in our personal lives; Darwinians in our science but anti-Darwinians in love of beauty, art, and aesthetics?

Signposts

According to the philosophers, truth is one of three ultimate values—alongside beauty and goodness. Why should you believe something? Because it’s true. Why should you desire something? Because it’s good. Why should you look at something? Because it’s beautiful. But of course, if naturalism holds true, none of that works. If we are just random collocations of atoms, why does it matter what you believe? Why does it matter what you desire? And what does good even mean—surely all you have are personal preferences?

Only if human beings are designed to be truth-seeking, beauty-pursuing, good-desiring creatures can any sense be made of this. Why do we yearn for more? Why do we ask ‘why’? Why do we desire not just food and sex; but value, purpose, meaning, significance, truth, justice, goodness, and beauty?  What if our desires for things like beauty and meaning and purpose and significance point somewhere? Imagine you were lost in the trackless expanse of a desert, dying of thirst and craving a drink. That wouldn’t mean that every glimmer on the horizon was an oasis—but your burning thirst would surely tell you that water exists. What, then, does our desire for beauty and such transcendent things tell us? Where does that sign point?

 

Three Ways of Looking

There are three ways of looking at beauty. Take a beautiful painting. You can look through it, and see just blobs of paint on canvas. Or you can look at it—and admire its beauty. Or you can look along it—ask yourself, what does the fact that this is really, truly, objectively beautiful, really mean? Is that a clue about something bigger about the universe and if so, what?

What worldview, what philosophy of life can hold all these things together? I come at these questions as a Christian philosopher and in the fourth book of the New Testament, we read:

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made … The Logos took on flesh and dwelt amongst us.

Among other things, the Greek word “Logos” meant “The Meaning of Life”. By the time of Jesus, classical Greek philosophy had divided into two camps. The Stoics thought there was a meaning of life, but we can never know it (so grin and bear it). The Epicureans thought life had no meaning, so eat, drink and party—for tomorrow we all die and nothing matters.

Into this raging debate, the Bible says something different and deeply radical. Yes, there is a Meaning to Life. There is a Logos, you’re not a random accident. But that meaning is not an idea, nor a concept, nor a philosophy. The meaning of life is not a thing, but a who. The Meaning of Life, says the Bible, is a person, Jesus Christ. And the purpose of life is to know him; and all beauty, truth and goodness point to him.

This means that scientific truth and natural beauty can join up—that we can integrate our lives—because truth and beauty and justice are grounded somewhere. And it also explains why we humans are wired to pursue both truth and beauty, science and aesthetics.

What worldview can hold together science and beauty, truth and justice and goodness? Only one that I know of. And thus I believe in Christianity in the same way as I believe that the sun has risen: not because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.


Andy Bannister Short Answers 13Dr Andy Bannister is Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity

Further Reading:

Roger Scruton’s, On Beauty.

CS Lewis, Surprised by Joy.

Rick Stadman, 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God. 

 

[1]        Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 236.

[2]        Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Transworld, 2006) 221.

[3]        Psalm 19:1-2.