The beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder debate

I have been going around and around with Andrew at Irresistible (Dis)grace as to whether beauty exists subjectively only, or objectively as well.

I wanted to offer just a brief sketch of how I think beauty may have come about, to illustrate both the subjective and objective aspects of beauty. Since this seemed to be opening a new aspect of the discussion, I thought I would post it here as a new post. Some of the things I say here may not make sense without having read the prior discussion on Andrew’s blog, but unfortunately I don’t have time to edit it for purposes of making it stand on its own.

I said before (in mine and Andrew’s discussion) that God made the world in order to communicate himself to creatures. We traditional Christians believe God is purely immaterial, therefore we material beings have no way of perceiving him directly. Yet God wanted to use material things to communicate himself to us. How to do that?

I don’t know the specifics of how he managed it, but first, he made the creation beautiful. I’m sure Andrew would say, correctly, that this does no good unless there are beings who can “perceive” or “sense” — but my preferred term is “experience” — that beauty. Otherwise no communication is taking place.

Therefore God made beings who are capable of experiencing beauty in creation, who themselves are a part of that very creation. You could say that beauty and persons are like lock and key: Each useless on its own (as far as beauty is concerned), but made for each other.

He didn’t give us constant beauty, and perhaps not universal beauty either, nor a constant level of beauty. This, I suppose, is so that we can appreciate beauty: If everything is beauty and we’re constantly immersed in it without any break, then perhaps we would become oblivious to it, as I imagine fish are oblivious to water, or people are oblivious to gravity most of the time. Thus some things are more beautiful than others, sometimes we’re not in the mood to experience beauty, some people see beauty where others miss it and vice versa, and so on. Therefore when something strikes us as really quite exceptionally beautiful, it can be a transcendent experience, that is, it transcends our ordinary experience and makes us feel uplifted.

What exactly beauty is, though, I don’t think can be accounted for by material explanations. I think the experience of beauty is a spiritual sense of a spiritual reality with which material things are imbued. This may seem like a contradiction, but an analogy might be the intellectual stimulation and appreciation that people get from studying the material world on a deep level. Scientists often describe a sense of wonder and beauty upon learning or discovering some fact, or formulating an equation to account for a phenomenon [see e.g. ].

These scientists are not feeling wonder and awe upon looking at something which appears physically beautiful in a manner appealing to the senses, but rather, upon realizing the existence of some truth, or attaining an understanding of the cause or mechanism of some process.

Why do physical processes stimulate awe and wonder in human scientists? Because physical processes are awesome things, that is, they are so complex, intricate and elegant that they are beyond human powers to fully comprehend, and further, are far beyond what we ourselves are capable of accomplishing. It’s similar to the awe that an amateur piano player or basketballer experiences upon witnessing the skill and ability of a pro — except multiplied by a factor of billions, since a piano player or basketballer might feel that he could potentially reach that level of excellence with enough time and persistence, whereas a human scientist knows that he would never be capable of creating for example a solar system, or a black hole, or a physical force such as gravity or electromagnetism, from scratch.

Wonder and awe, like beauty, are spiritual reactions, in the sense that they are only experienced by beings with minds. And I think it stands to reason that things which inspire awe in a mind, themselves come from a mind. This is why they inspire awe in us: Because we can relate to them; we can ponder the mental capacity that would be required to create such a thing and when we do, we realize that it’s far beyond us. We can barely understand it, let alone invent such a thing ourselves. We relate to it on the level of intelligence, and therefore conclude that it has its origin in an intelligence. At least a lot of us do, and I would argue that that’s a reasonable inference.

And so beauty moves our spirits in such a way that we infer that beauty must have its origin in spirit. We are able to create things of beauty, but only by using things that we find around us, and largely by imitating or rearranging things which already exist: colors, shapes and sounds. When we think of how hard we must work to create a work of beauty, first to attain the skill and then to accomplish the actual work, we’re amazed and astounded to see how nature creates beauty so effortlessly and abundantly; and we realize that our own ability to create beauty only arises from nature itself. And so again we feel awe: That there is apparently a creative force, as we are creative forces, which achieves great beauty as a matter of course, which we can only do with much time and great effort; and thus infer that there is something like us, but infinitely far beyond us. At least, some people draw this conclusion; quite a lot of people, actually; and again I would argue that it’s reasonable to do so.

So in this sense, I think Andrew and I agree: That beauty must come from a subject and be appreciated by a subject, or it wouldn’t exist at all. It may not make sense to think of beauty existing in objective, material things apart from any subject, but if you think of objective, material things as the very “work product” of a subject, who himself contains beauty and in fact is the origin of beauty; and who, in addition, makes intelligent beings “in his image”; and then designs the objective, material things to possess qualities which are perceptible to the beings made in his image; and furthermore designs the beings made in his image to be able to perceive the qualities in the objective, material things by which he intends to communicate himself to them; I think we at least have a coherent picture of how it can be the case, that beauty can be a quality of objects as well as subjects.

To put it in perhaps a simpler but cruder way: If God wants people to experience X, he can make them sensitive to stimulus X, and then proceed to surround them with things which themselves contain stimulus X (I don’t mean “stimulus” literally, this is just an analogy); as in fact we might say that God wants us to experience intellectual awe, and therefore makes us capable of intellectual awe, and then surrounds us with things that are intellectually awesome.

If someone is a materialist, his materialism might prevent him from finding this a coherent account: If beauty is not measurable or detectable by instruments, in other words is incapable of being accounted for by the physical sciences, then he may for that reason conclude that it can’t exist anywhere except in a mind (which Andrew does conclude). Or to put it the other way around: If someone can’t believe in the objective existence of beauty since it can’t be accounted for physically, and therefore believes it can only exist subjectively, that may be an indication that he is a materialist.

One thought on “The beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder debate

  1. i don’t think that conclusion can necessarily be safely made from an encounter just with me. I mean, for a moment, let’s take that one argument some theists make:

    “Objective morality requires God.
    Objective morality exists.
    Therefore, God exists.”

    (This is a simplification of the argument, but perhaps you’ve heard of that.)

    Now, certainly, one could challenge either premise here to challenge the conclusion, if not both. Just because I would be more apt to challenge the second premise doesn’t mean that materialists would do that, or that somehow materialism means seeing that the second premise is incoherent — haven’t you’ve engaged with many other materialists or atheists who would instead try to situate objective morality in a framework that doesn’t require God?

    Also BTW, I’m not saying the account you’re describing in your second-to-last and third-to-last paragraphs are incoherent to me. It just sounds different than what I would think an “objective” accounting would be (to the point I would say that is still a subjective accounting). I would say additionally that if we both concede “That beauty must come from a subject and be appreciated by a subject, or it wouldn’t exist at all,” then it would be reasonable to recognize that human beings are subjects, so beauty could be coming from us. I mean, it is coherent both that 1) God wants people to experience X, he can make them sensitive to stimulus X, and he surrounds them with things that have stimulus X…or 2) that humans have evolved and developed in a world with stimulus X, and have evolved sensitivities to X based on that setting. (And of course, a hybrid of the two in a theistic evolution context.)


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