Argument from Beauty

An argument from beauty for the existence of God can be formulated in the following way.

  1. Many features of the natural world are beautiful
  2. Beauty cannot be fully or sufficiently explained naturalistically.
  3. Therefore, beauty has a supernatural explanation.

The obviously controversial premise in this argument is going to be premise 2. There can be a neurological and perhaps evolutionary reasons for why we find certain things beautiful, but my contention is simply that these cannot give a full or sufficient explanation of what beauty is, and more importantly, what the experience of beauty is like. This can be recognized with a simple thought experiment. Imagine yourself hearing some music or looking at a painting or watching a film that you find not merely entertaining but beautiful (better yet, actually listen to the music, or look at the painting) and then think that this experience of beauty is just a chemical reaction in your brain or a by-product of the struggle for survival. If you think this and truly believe it, you will find that it deflates your experience. The experience of beauty definitely points to the fact that beauty is independent or irreducible in some way – that it is transcendent. We normally regard our intuitions and experiences as valid, and debunking the contents of consciousness with biological explanations ends up being self-defeating. If the contents of consciousness can be considered as purely illusory, as a result of biological explanations, then why should the reasoning process itself, which is experienced in the mind, be regarded as veridical? If we regard our intuitions about beauty as illusory based on neurology and Darwinism, then we should regard our rational intuitions as problematic for the same reason. (For more on this line of argument, visit the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism).

Why should the explanation be God?

We know that the experience of beauty is unique to minds, which means that, if we’ve established that the explanation is not natural, then the explanation of natural beauty must be a mind capable of imbuing nature with beauty (i.e. most likely its creator).Or, to borrow Richard Swinburne’s terminology, if beauty cannot be sufficiently explained by science, then it must have a personal explanation ( refer to the Argument from Temporal Order​). It is most likely that this person would be the creator of the universe since it is simpler to postulate a creator who also imbued to universe with beauty than to postulate two beings (one who created the universe and one who imbued it with beauty). It is also simpler than to posit that the world simply existed and then some being imbued it with beauty ( which would still give reason to believe in some supernatural being).Thus, by Ockam’s Razor, this being who imbued the world with beauty is also the Creator. It is unlikely that the world developed naturalistically and then some supernatural being came along to imbue it with beauty, because the beauty is inherent to nature. In other words, that supernatural being would essentially need to recreate nature or big parts of nature in order to make it beautiful (since we’ve already established that beauty cannot develop naturalistically). It is therefore simpler and more likely to suppose that this supernatural being was the creator in the first place.

Objections

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Some people will agree that the experience of beauty is irreducible but deny that this implies that its explanation cannot be fully naturalistic. They will argue that just because beauty is different from its neurological composition, doesn’t imply that there is some extra component. However, every time we can see that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, we can explain exactly why this is the case by pointing out what each constituent part contributes. But we can’t do this with the experience of beauty without extinguishing it. There is an element of it that remains inexplicable on naturalism. It is also unlikely that this will ever be explainable in terms of science. If we learn more about the brain, our understanding of the neurological circuitry will become more complex. However, the problem of explaining a first-person experience in terms of impersonal, avolitional brain mechanisms will always remain.

There are also many ugly things in the universe

Some atheists attempt to refute the argument from beauty with appeal to suffering in the world. But this would not be the correct response, since the opposite of beauty is ugliness, not suffering. Atheists should actually appeal to the existence of ugly or asymmetrical things in nature. “Ugliness” is a strange way to describe suffering, because the problem with suffering is certainly not that it is aesthetically displeasing. So, this response fails in that regard. But let us admit it for the sake of argument and address my more astute reformulation of the objection. Would the presence of ugliness “cancel out” the need to explain the presence of beauty in the world? I think clearly not. The argument does not require all parts of nature to be beautiful. It only requires some beautiful things in nature which human minds clearly did not create. Say you came upon a small handful of gems that had already been polished and carved, but these polished and carved gems are surrounded by many gems which have not been treated. You wonder who treated these gems only to put them back. It would be strange if your companion responded that because the treated gems are surrounded by untreated gems that the treated gems therefore do not require an explanation. What calls out for explanation is not the fact that everything there is is beautiful. If beauty calls out for transcendent explanation ( as was established earlier), then any presence of beauty that was clearly not created by human minds, require explanation in terms of a transcendent cause. How much beauty there is or whether there is also ugliness is irrelevant.