The Evidence of Beauty

From another discussion with my friendly neighborhood atheist:

The fact that virtually all nature is beautiful, causes me
to believe it didn’t happen by chance. We don’t find 1 in 100 natural
scenes to be beautiful; or 1 in 10, or 1 in 5. Every natural scene is
beautiful. Hawaii is beautiful, Europe is beautiful, Africa is
beautiful, Australia is beautiful, each in its own way.3-09_035

Virtually every type of flower is exquisite, its proportions and
coloring perfect, the size and shape of its leaves combined perfectly with
its petals — an absolute work of art. It’s a rare human artist
who has the perfect sense of taste and proportion to make up an
original design in which all the parts, sizes and colors fit together
to form a perfect whole. But in nature it’s not rare at all; it’s not
1 in 10 flowers that are exquisite, but ALL flowers are exquisite.
Again, too consistent to be random.

If it’s not by accident, then whoever or whatever made nature made it
beautiful on purpose. But as far as we know, only beings with
intellect can appreciate beauty. So no being would bother
making creation consistently gorgeous, but one with an intellect.3-09_025

. . .

Here is my argument in syllogistic form:

A. Things that happen always or nearly always, do not happen by chance
B. Beauty in nature happens all the time
C. Therefore beauty does not happen by chance

If you’re saying my conclusion is false, then you have to tell me
which of my premisses, A or B, is false, or else tell me why my
conclusion does not follow logically from my premisses. If you can’t
do either of those things, then the conclusion stands. Merely
accusing me of “spinning” things amounts to nothing more than an “is
not”, “is so” argument.

. . .

You write, “Yes, the two premises are not absolute truths. In other
words, I’m not arguing your logic, just the premises.”

You can disagree with the premises, but since you have not shown them
to be false you have not refuted the argument.

In support of premiss A, I would argue that things that happen always
or nearly always, do not happen by chance. Examples would be, the sun
rising; the fact that human beings always reproduce human babies; when
you drop something (on earth), it always moves towards the ground;
etc. To say these things happen by chance is absurd.

An example of something that does happen by chance is flipping a coin.
Any time you flip a coin, you have no way of knowing which way it
will land. When you do it 1,000 times, you will get approximately 500
heads and 500 tails. In other words, when things happen by chance,
they do not always happen the same way. If a coin was flipped 1,000
times, and always turned up heads; or even if it turned up heads 900
times; we would know it was not by chance but that something was
interfering to make it happen that way. Therefore when things do
happen always, or nearly always, the same way, we know it is not by
chance.

3-09_034In support of premiss B, I think I have provided sufficient evidence
that beauty in nature happens always or nearly always. In any case
you have not disputed that assertion, except to say that it’s not an
“absolute truth”. But the question is merely whether it’s true. I
submit that it’s self-evidently true.

. . .

Previously I gave as examples of things that don’t happen by chance,
“the sun rising; the fact that human beings always reproduce human
babies; when you drop something (on earth), it always moves towards
the ground; etc.”

In the case of the sun rising, humans producing humans, or things
falling to the earth, these things can be accounted for by purely
material causes. But as far as nature being beautiful, there can’t be
a material force that causes it to be beautiful the vast majority of
the time, because matter (as you have pointed out) is mindless and
unintelligent, therefore it can’t distinguish between beauty and
non-beauty. Thus it would have no “reason” to make things one way or
the other. The only thing we know of that can make that distinction,
is a conscious, intelligent mind.

3-09_052Therefore if natural things are beautiful all the time, or even only
90% of the time, there are good grounds for concluding that they are
not that way by chance (per premiss A); but if they are not that way
by chance, then they must be that way either by unintelligent material
causes, or by a conscious, intelligent mind. But since unintelligent
material causes can’t distinguish between beauty and non-beauty, and
therefore would have no “reason” to make most of them beautiful, it’s
reasonable to conclude that the cause of beauty in nature is a
conscious, intelligent mind.

. . .

You write, “But again, your argument hinges on beauty being more than
an invented human concept and beauty being objective. Neither of those
two premises are substantiated.”

I disagree that it’s not substantiated.

When you say that beauty is subjective only, what you are saying is
that objectively, there is no beauty. Which is the same as saying,
beauty doesn’t exist. People who believe that beauty exists, are
suffering an illusion. But I don’t believe I am suffering an illusion
when I contemplate beautiful things, any more than I believe love and
trust are illusions when I contemplate my wife. Further, people in
every culture and from every period of time have understood and
appreciated beauty. I don’t believe the entire human race has been
suffering delusions in doing so. Rather, I believe the universality
of the concept of beauty reflects its objective existence; just as the
universality of the concept of love reflects the objective existence
of love.

Further, if beauty doesn’t exist, nothing can be more beautiful than
anything else. Therefore a factory belching black smoke is every bit
as beautiful as the Taj Mahal (or the latter is just as ugly as the
former). This is plainly absurd.

The argument for the subjectivity of beauty is basically, people
disagree whether particular things are beautiful, therefore beauty
must be a different thing in each person, therefore it’s only within
persons. But for that matter, people disagree about what is true.
Does it follow that nothing is objectively true?

People argue that if there were no persons, then no claim that
anything is beautiful would be true, because there would be no persons
to experience anything as beautiful. But consider, if there were no
persons, then no claim about anything would be true, because there
would be no one to make any claims. Does it then follow that truth is
only within persons? And therefore nothing is objectively true?

The objective existence of beauty may not be scientifically proven.
But in light of the universality of the concept of beauty, I submit
that those who claim it is an illusion have the burden of proof. I
believe what I see with my eyes is real, until someone gives me a darn
good reason to doubt it.

For these and other reasons, I am convinced that beauty is objective.

3-09_047

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7 thoughts on “The Evidence of Beauty

  1. When you say that beauty is subjective only, what you are saying is that objectively, there is no beauty. Which is the same as saying, beauty doesn’t exist. People who believe that beauty exists, are suffering an illusion. But I don’t believe I am suffering an illusion when I contemplate beautiful things, any more than I believe love and trust are illusions when I contemplate my wife. Further, people in every culture and from every period of time have understood and appreciated beauty. I don’t believe the entire human race has been suffering delusions in doing so. Rather, I believe the universality of the concept of beauty reflects its objective existence; just as the universality of the concept of love reflects the objective existence of love.

    Sorry to respond to such an old post (if that is in fact a problem at all), but I don’t think this is necessarily true, and I think that you’re missing what the believers of subjective models of beauty actually model these things as. (This will be relevant to our discussion elsewhere on morality.) In other words, I think “objective or illusion” is either something of a false dichotomy or maybe even some sort of begging question…the implication that subjective necessarily equals “delusional” seems pumped to evoke some sort of negative connotation that only really makes sense from an objectivist’s perspective…whereas the subjectivist is saying “there’s nothing bad with something being subjective!”)

    When someone says that beauty is subjective only, then yes, they are saying that objectively, there is no beauty. That is not the same as saying that beauty doesn’t exist because we are not saying that subjective things do not exist. Additionally, we are not saying that everything that is subjective is an illusion.

    For example, color is subjective. If someone tries to say, “Well, color relates to objective wavelengths,” they are missing that those wavelengths in and of themselves do not carry color with them. Rather, the way that organisms’ eyes process those wavelengths produces the phenomenon of color. Since humans generally share similar biology and mechanics in terms of rods and cones and eyes and things like that, we generally see the “visible spectrum” of colors in a certain way.

    But if you have different biology, then you see things differently. This is true for animals with very different color perceptions (e.g., dogs…bees…), but is also true of some humans (those we call “color-blind” or even just fully blind).

    Does this mean color doesn’t exist? Well, objectively, it does not. If you do not have a being to perceive subjectively, there is no such thing as color — because color is defined as what subjective beings perceive via their biology, etc.,

    But does this mean color doesn’t exist at all, or is an illusion? No, it does not. Again, color is defined as what subjective beings perceive, so that subjective perception is the most important aspect of the definition. (This is even more important when you’re getting into the debates over qualia…the rich inner perception of such things. This is getting deep into subjectivity, not objectivity.)

    For another example, that philosophical question: “If a tree falls in the wood and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The most pressing disagreement on this is what precisely defines a sound…just to summarize from wikipedia’s entry on sound (because it does highlight the two perspectives): “In physics, sound is a vibration that propagates as a typically audible mechanical wave of pressure and displacement, through a medium such as air or water. In physiology and psychology, sound is the reception of such waves and their perception by the brain.”

    From a physical definition, one might say that just because this tree’s falling isn’t “typically audible” (because no one is there to hear it), there is still a vibration wave of pressure and displacement, there is still presumably a medium through which that wave could be heard (if there had been someone to hear it.) I mean, that’s your “objective” case for sound there. But keep in mind that the way we talk about sound even from a physical definition does hinge on a few things — we are talking about what could be heard *if there had been someone to hear it*. So, for example, we say that in space “there is no sound” because even if there are vibration waves, there is no medium through which one could hear those waves.

    However, I get that for people who answer “yes” to that question, they probably are going about those lines…If there would be sound had there been an observer, then that sound still occurs without an observer per a physic-al definition.

    However, the subjectivist looks at that latter definition…sound is the reception of such waves and their perception by the brain. Again, because humans generally share similar biology and mechanics on terms of processing waves, we may talk about sound being a certain way. We say that people who can’t perceive sound are “disabled” (e.g., “deaf”) because we take being able to process certain wavelengths as being normal (in a statistical sense, at the very least.) But this “normality” is not objective. It still hinges on subjectivity.

    No, when we talk about the universality of color or sound (and, to move a little more abstractly as your post does, of beauty and love), we are not talking about objectivity, but about intersubjective agreement. We are saying that “because humans generally share similar biology and mechanics, there is a range of experiences we treat as normative for the human experience.”

    I think that the more interesting question might be, “OK, so if this all depends on brain mechanics, biology, etc., then for what reason would “beauty” be selected for in an naturalistic evolutionary narrative.”

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  2. Any post is fair game. I’m happy any time they get read. : )

    You raise interesting points. I will think about it. I’m not sure how it affects the rest of my argument since you’re not denying that beauty exists; that is, you’re denying that beauty being subjective makes it an illusion. If it exists then it can be evidence of a creator notwithstanding that it inheres in subjects rather than objects.

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  3. A thought occurred to me: I argued that beauty is virtually universal in natural objects, e.g. every tree is beautiful, every flower, every animal, in its way; and that ugly objects almost always are man-made. If beauty does not inhere in objects but only in subjects, then why the difference between natural objects and manmade objects? Why do we see beauty in the former but not the latter, rather than seeing it indiscriminately? This seems to point to beauty inhering in objects and not only in subjects.

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    • Agellius,

      I will think about it. I’m not sure how it affects the rest of my argument since you’re not denying that beauty exists; that is, you’re denying that beauty being subjective makes it an illusion. If it exists then it can be evidence of a creator notwithstanding that it inheres in subjects rather than objects.

      Yeah, I want to go in two directions on this:

      1) The thing I would say about your last sentence is that the question of beauty being subjective or objective is orthogonal to the question of whether there is a creator involved. Even if there were a creator, that wouldn’t necessarily imply objective beauty. Because then the creator’s own viewpoint is a subjective viewpoint that is asserted as “most important.” And presumably, the creator could create us to recognize his handiwork as being beautiful. At best, you’re arguing, “The creator created these things he thought were beautiful, and we have been created with a similar enough awareness of beauty that we also find them beautiful.” That would be the scenario of a creator alongside beauty inhering in subjects rather than objects.

      2) I think that the more interesting question would be (as I’ve noted above) something like, “how does a naturalistic model of evolution account for the development of the phenomenological experience of beauty?” (And to this point, I think that people *are* thinking about this sort of question, but I personally am not a biologist or neuroscientist or whatever so I’m not saying I’m up to speed on every advancement.)

      A thought occurred to me: I argued that beauty is virtually universal in natural objects, e.g. every tree is beautiful, every flower, every animal, in its way; and that ugly objects almost always are man-made. If beauty does not inhere in objects but only in subjects, then why the difference between natural objects and manmade objects? Why do we see beauty in the former but not the latter, rather than seeing it indiscriminately? This seems to point to beauty inhering in objects and not only in subjects.

      First, I think that it’s disputable that beauty is “virtually universal” in natural objects, and that ugly objects are almost always man-made. (I think that “in its way” is a very weaselly expression here. You can always just say, “Well, sure this isn’t conventionally beautiful…but it’s beautiful in its own way.” But then, couldn’t I argue the same about something manmade?)

      Anyway, I’m not too caught up on disputing that claim though, because when you say “every tree is beautiful, every flower, every animal” I already add: “Agellius perceives…” to the beginning of it. So to me, when you say, “Beauty is virtually universal in natural objects, I think this says more about you than those natural objects. It says to me that you are a nature lover. The real question is: are you aware that others are not as big of nature lovers as you are? Do you see that as a deficiency?

      …However…when you say beauty is virtually universal in natural objects, I’m guessing that you’re not just making a claim about your personal preferences (I mean, that is the distinction between objective and subjective, right?) Like, even if *I* don’t find a particular flower or tree or animal to be beautiful, then that doesn’t challenge your view of the objective beauty of those animals. And even if you say you find a particular flower or tree or animal to be beautiful, you probably wouldn’t be satisfied with this just reflecting your own POV, rather than a property inherent to those flowers, trees, or animals.

      So, instead, I translate your claims of the universality/objectivity of beauty as being claims about intersubjective agreement between humans. E.g., when you say “beauty is virtually universal in natural objects,” you’re saying something like, “I *and most, if not all humans* perceive beauty to be virtually universal in natural objects.” (I still don’t necessarily agree with you, but I’m suspecting you’d say there is something deficient in people who can’t see the beauty everywhere in nature, haha)

      So, when you ask in particular, “Why do we see beauty in natural objects but not man-made objects?” this seems like an easy question: “because the way our senses and sensibilities have evolved has been in adaptation to a natural world, and not the man-made world.” In other words, if beauty inheres in *subjects* rather than *objects*, then we need to pay more attention to how those *subjects* are built.

      Again, the more interesting question might be, “how does a naturalistic model of evolution account for such”…but I leave that to scientists. And again, I note as well this consideration is somewhat orthogonal to whether there is a creator or not. Because even if you might say, “Well, our creator created us in such a way” or even, “naturalistic evolution cannot explain…only creation by a creator does”…that puts it on the *subjects* and not the *objects*)

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  4. Well, of course the argument wouldn’t work for someone who denied that natural things are virtually always beautiful. The atheist I argued with originally didn’t dispute that point, he only disputed whether beauty was objective, whether it was an invented concept, etc. My guess is that most people would agree with the premise, but there’s no accounting for taste. : )

    As far as whether a creator is involved, the argument is that if natural things are always or nearly always beautiful, then it doesn’t happen by chance. And if not by chance, then by unconscious material causes or by an intelligent cause. But material causes would have no way of distinguishing between beauty and non-beauty, and no reason to make such a distinction. Therefore it’s reasonable to conclude that beauty is caused by an intelligent cause.

    As you say, there could be an evolutionary explanation for the universal presence of beauty in nature. But you concede that if there is such a cause, it’s not clear what it might be. Therefore, while that’s a possible explanation, I don’t see why it’s a more compelling one.

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  5. To be fair, I am not particularly interested in the argument of whether beauty shows there is a creator or not. I am just interested in hashing out that beauty is the sort of thing that is subjective, because I think that it has some cool implications elsewhere (regardless of if we have a creator or not).

    As far as whether a creator is involved, the argument is that if natural things are always or nearly always beautiful, then it doesn’t happen by chance. And if not by chance, then by unconscious material causes or by an intelligent cause. But material causes would have no way of distinguishing between beauty and non-beauty, and no reason to make such a distinction. Therefore it’s reasonable to conclude that beauty is caused by an intelligent cause.

    I think the flaw here is in saying that “material causes would have no way of distinguishing between beauty and non-beauty, and no reason to make such a distinction.” This requires an implicit claim that beauty is somehow superfluous from a material perspective. Again, I am not a scientist, but I think many of the arguments about situating beauty in a naturalistic framework would argue that beauty serves — either indirectly or directly — as a signal for things that are advantageous from an evolutionary perspective…e.g., the colors, sounds, smells that are indicative of health are appealing to us, where as other colors, sounds or smells may be indicative of disease, danger, poison, etc., I think beauty and disgust work well together here…a lot of people, contrary to what you think, are not going to find “natural things” always or nearly always beautiful. They may find puppies beautiful (but of course, as dogs have domesticated, we have selected for cuteness)…but they probably aren’t going to find insects or eldritch abominations from the deep ocean beautiful.

    So, if beauty is not superfluous, then material causes could distinguish between beauty and non-beauty, the same way that they can distinguish between “advantageous for survival” and “disadvantageous for survival” (if only in the sense that if you make the wrong choice, you die, and therefore your genes don’t pass on.) When we talk about manmade things having the potential for ugliness, this could just be a way of saying that we haven’t had enough time as a species to develop those evolutionary biases.

    As you say, there could be an evolutionary explanation for the universal presence of beauty in nature. But you concede that if there is such a cause, it’s not clear what it might be. Therefore, while that’s a possible explanation, I don’t see why it’s a more compelling one

    I don’t think I’m quite making that concession. I am conceding that since I am not a scientist, *I* am not the best person to consult on that. My personal ignorance on the subject should not make science as a discipline more or less compelling.

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  6. Pingback: In Defense of Subjectivity: Sound, Color, Beauty | The Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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