Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The argument from beauty

The argument from beauty, it seems to me, can come in four varieties, each asking a different "why" question, and each claiming that the best answer entails the existence of a being like God.

1. Why is there such a property as beauty?

This argument is the aesthetic parallel to the standard argument from morality. For it to work, a distinctively theistic answer to (1) must be offered. Parallel to a divine command metaethics, one could offer a divine appreciation meta-aesthetics. I think this gets the direction of explanation wrong—God appreciates beautiful things because they are beautiful. Moreover, if what God appreciates does not modally supervene on how non-divine things are, then divine simplicity will be violated. A better answer is that beautiful things are all things that reflect God in some particular respect, a respect that perhaps cannot be specified better than as that respect in which beautiful things reflect him (I think this is not a vicious circularity).

2. Why are there so many beautiful things?

The laws of physics, biology, etc. do not mention beauty. As far as these laws are concerned, beauty, if there is such a thing, is epiphenomenal. So, it does not seem that a scientific explanation of the existence of beautiful things can be given. But, perhaps, a philosophical account could be given of how, of metaphysical necessity, such-and-such physical states are always beautiful, and maybe then we can explain these entailing states physically. Or maybe one can show philosophically that, necessarily, most random configurations of matter include significant amounts of beauty, and then a statistical explanation can be given. But all that is pie in the sky, while a theistic explanation is right at hand.

3. How do we know that there is beauty?

This is parallel to my favorite argument from morality—the argument from moral epistemology. As far as naturalistic theories go, beauty (like morality) is causally inefficacious. As such, it appears difficult to see how we could have knowledge-conferring faculties that are responsive to beauty. The best story is probably going to be something like this. There is some complex of physical properties which correlates with being beautiful, and for some evolutionary reason, we have a faculty responsive to that complex of physical properties, and hence to beauty. However, the "and hence to beauty" is to be questioned. Evolutionary teleology is tied to fitness. The connection to beauty is fitness-irrelevant, because beauty is naturalistically causally inefficacious. It is at most that complex of physical properties that we are responsive to. But then it is not beauty as such that we are responsive to, that we perceive. Maybe, though, what we perceive is the most natural (in Lewis's sense) property among those that we could be reasonably be said to have states covarying with. But the physical correlates are, presumably, also quite natural since having states covarying with them is of evolutionary benefit. Moreover, I deny that the evolutionary teleology should snap to the most natural states, if the most natural ones are evolutionarily irrelevant. All in all, I do not think the prospects for a naturalistic account of our knowledge of beauty are good. But a theistic account is easy.

4. Why do we have aesthetic sensations?

This is an interesting question, but it strikes me as yielding an argument that is distinctly weaker than (3), unless it is just a different way of formulating an aspect of (3) (namely, the aspect of asking how our aesthetic beliefs get their intentionality). Still, the question is puzzling. We see such a very wide variety of things as beautiful: some people, most sunsets, many clouds, sme plants, most jellyfish, most tigers, most galaxies, some proofs, some musical compositions, some ideas, etc. It is odd that there would be an evolutionary benefit from being responsive to these things. The more likely naturalistic story is that this is some sort of a spandrel, maybe a spandrel of our recognition of good mate choices. Note that this story undercuts the attempt to evolutionarily ground our knowledge of beauty—it makes for us having aesthetic sensations but not aesthetic knowledge. That's a problem. But I am also not sure that the wide variety of things we sense as beautiful has enough in common for there to be a plausible story. However, that only yields a God of the gaps argument (not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that).


James said...

I'm afraid this is completely unrelated to the argument from beauty. So, if I'm being rude, please feel free (Alex) to delete my post. But I was wondering what people thought about the following question, namely: With a bit of work and detailing of terms, do you think I can get from (1) to (4):

(1) It would be good for a murderer S to be forgiven of his wrongdoings

(2) Therefore it must be possible for S to be forgiven of his wrongdoings

(3) Only a being very much like God could plausibly effect such forgiveness

(4) Therefore it is possible that God exists (meaning we have a starting point for some kind of ontological argument).

Or perhaps differently:

(5) Some dictator (S) whose life has been characterised by bloodshed and luxurious living should be punished for his wrongdoings

(6) Therefore it must be possible to punish S

(7) God is the only being who could plausibly be thought to implement such punishment

(8) Therefore it is possible that God exists.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Clever! One worry is that for this to be the start of an ontological argument, you need the being to be like God in respect of necessary existence. But it's not clear that necessary existence is needed for forgiving or punishing, is it? (Maybe only someone who is the ground of being has the right to do these things, though?)

James said...

Alex: Maybe only someone who is the ground of being has the right to do these things, though?

Maybe. Or maybe, for instance, (5) could be thought to express a necessary truth. In which case, in order for there not to be possible worlds where it's false that such a dictator should be punished, God must exist necessarily?

James said...

Though, now that I think about it, I don't think this is true..