Monday, April 29, 2019

The argument from beauty

1. The argument from beauty is a neglected theistic proof. There are several reasons. There's a bias towards more "rigorouss" arguments based on historical or scientific evidence as well as philosophical, a priori arguments. "Beauty" is thought to be too subjective. 

There's the methodological question. Where do you begin? Must you begin with an abstract, philosophical definition of beauty? Or is it okay to cite paradigm examples of beauty? That goes to the problem of the criterion.

It's hard to break into the argument from beauty because beauty is so varied. So many different kinds and candidates. 

2. Classical definitions of beauty center on symmetry. And there's a class of beautiful things that exemplify that principle. But a limitation with that criterion is ugly symmetrical objects (e.g. skyscrapers) as well as asymmetrical natural beauty (e.g. scenic landscapes).

Because the human body has bilateral symmetry, that draws attention to irregularities. But beauty isn't reducible to symmetry.  

3. There are different categories of beauty:

i) Natural beauty

E.g. Mountain ranges. Dawn and dusk. 

ii) Artistic beauty

E.g. Gothic cathedrals. 

iii) Abstract beauty

E.g. Mathematics

iv) Moral beauty

E.g. Heroism

v) Visual beauty

E.g. The play of sunlight or moonlight on waves. The Northern lights. 

vi) Auditory beauty

E.g. Music, songbids

vii) Kinetic beauty

Figure skating. Formation flying (birds). How some animals run. Trees flickering in sunlight. 

4. Moral beauty is interesting because it may coexist with physical ugliness. In addition, moral ugliness may often be a presupposition for moral beauty. 

5. Beauty can be related in subtle ways to things that aren't directly beautiful. It's natural to think of visual beauty but not to think of tactile beauty. Yet consider the male impulse to run one's hands over the sensuous curves of a woman's body. Or stoking long luxuriant hair. There the visual element is inseparable from a tactile element.  

6. One argument for the subjectivity of beauty is variation in musical taste. And in some respects, beauty is person-variable. There is, though, a difference between liking something and finding it beautiful. Many people like music that reminds them of childhood or coming-of-age. That's not about beauty but nostalgia. If they were born a generation sooner or later, they'd like different period music. But it's not primarily an aesthetic judgment. 

7. There's a distinction between beauty and greatness. Bach's B Minor Mass is greater than any hymn, but we might prefer hymns on a daily basis. His composition is so long and overwhelming. So much of a muchness. Oftentimes we prefer something simpler. More manageable. 

8. Another issue is the burden of proof. Must the argument from beauty show that beauty directly entails God's existence? Will a process of elimination argument suffice? If there's no naturalistic explanation, then theism wins by default. 

9. Apropos (8), a naturalistic objection to the argument from beauty is that our instinctive sense of beauty is an evolutionary adaptation to promote mate selection. 

i) And there's a grain of truth to that. A half truth. Mammary endowment and "childbearing hips" confer a survival advantage. They are, in addition, visible signs of sexual maturity. It's argued that men are programmed by evolution to find that appealing. 

ii) Mind you, even that is not an essentially evolutionary argument. Natural theology can make the same basic argument. That's consistent with creationism. 

However, most of what we consider beautiful doesn't tie into sex appeal. Sex appeal can't explain the appeal of seascapes, mountainscapes, sunsets, starry skies, music, &c. 

A tiger is a beautiful animal. What's the evolutionary explanation? Why are guys drawn to sports cars? What's the evolutionary explanation? 

iii) And even at the level of sex appeal, the argument is limited. It's not as if men only find certain female body parts attractive. Although breasts and buns have more sex appeal than ears (earrings notwithstanding), the appeal of the female nude in Western art (to take one example) isn't simply because it exposes bare breasts and buns, but because a male viewer can take in the entire sweep of the female figure from head to toe. While breasts and buns are appealing in their own right, they are even more appealing when integrated into the entire figure. Compare that to Michaelangelo's female nudes, which are beefcake men with grafted female breasts. That's repellent rather than attractive. 

iv) In addition, while evolutionary psychology might explain the sex appeal of Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot, male appreciation for female form isn't confined to pinup girl looks. Men like women with shapely legs, a swan neck, beautiful hair, beautify eyes, and high cheekbones. It would be circular to say men find those features alluring because it promotes mate selection, for that fails to explain why men find those features alluring. Unlike "childbearing hips" and mammary endowment, those features have no practical value. 

v) To consider this from a female perspective, it's my impression that Brad Pitt, back in his prime, was a sex symbol to women. But from an evolutionary standpoint, wouldn't a guy built like Brock Lesnar or Shaquille O'Neal be a better protector and provider? 

vi) Although evolution might explain the appeal of flowers to pollinating birds and bees, it doesn't explain the appeal to flowers to human observers. Although evolution might explain the value of camouflage, it doesn't explain why humans find some snake skin patterns beautiful. Although evolution might explain the appeal of songbirds to birds, it doesn't explain the appeal of songbirds to humans. Yet all of that is explicable in terms of natural theology and creationism. 

10. Is the argument from beauty a direct argument for God's existence? Or is it evidence for divine benevolence, which is, in turn, evidence for God's existence? 


  1. I was just thinking about this the other day, so thanks for this. One thing that came to mind is that the evolutionist might say that some human features don't really do anything or serve any purpose at all. They have, in the past, been willing to go to bat for such concepts as junk DNA and evolutionary dead-ends. So they might be quite comfortable saying that our sense of beauty is superfluous and provides no evolutionary advantage but it's just "there" for whatever reason. Any thoughts?

    1. In the future I'll have to be more careful regarding what I think about now that I know you're reading my mind.

    2. i) Of course it's possible to attack evolutionary theory direction. My point is that even if we grant human evolution for discussion purposes, it can't explain our sense of beauty in general.

      ii) In addition, the counter you mention is self-defeating. A major putative line of evidence for evolution is its vaunted explanatory power. Evolution is able to account for and integrate so much data. So goes the argument. But if, to rebut or deflect the argument from beauty, a Darwinian downplays the explanatory power of evolution, admitting that many biological outcomes or developments have no utility, then that undercuts a major putative line of evidence for evolution.

    3. Have no fear Steve, your fantasy hybrid of Sophia Loren-Elizabeth Anscombe-Buffy the Vampire Slayer will remain a secret! :)

    4. Until you spilled the beans!

    5. You're such a tattletale. Next thing I know, you'll start blabbing about how my real name is Angel and no one ever sees me in the daytime.

  2. Replies
    1. It's interesting how beauty can simultaneously attract as well as repel. What I mean is beauty both beckons us to good desires (e.g. marriage) and at the same time pushes us away from bad desires (e.g. illicit lusts). It's as if there's something ennobling or refining about beauty.

  3. Calvin used this argument. Living in Switzerland. It seems persuasive.