Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Everything is beautiful

Consider something visually ugly, say one of my school painting projects. The colors are poorly chosen and the lines don’t do a good job representing what it’s meant to represent. (I am not being modest.)

But now suppose we live in an infinite universe or a multiverse, so that every possible intelligent species is realized. It is very likely that there will be some intelligent species whose electromagnetic spectral receptivities are such that the colors in the lines look gorgeous to it, and harmonize in a wonderful abstract way with the shape of the lines. This is, of course, a chance matter—I wasn’t making the painting for that mode of visual receptivity. Let’s say that the species is the xyllians. We can still say that what I made is an ugly work of art, but it is also a part of the natural world, and considered as a part of the natural world it is visuallyx (i.e., as seen with the electromagnetic reception apparatus of xyllians) beautiful while being visuallyh (i.e., as seen with human electromagnetic reception apparatus) beautiful.

Moreover, it is irrelevant whether the xyllians and humans exist. Whether they exist or not, my painting is visuallyx beautiful and visuallyh ugly. All that’s needed is that the xyllians and humans could exist. Thus, my painting really is both beautiful and ugly, even if we are the only intelligent species. And it is just as objectively beautiful as it is objectively ugly. I wasn’t supposing that the xyllians misperceive: just that they have a different pattern of spectral receptivities. We can suppose that xyllian visual perception is just as accurate in reflecting the world, including my unhappy artistic productions, as ours is.

This means that an argument from particular beauty for the existence of God must be run cautiously. Sure, sunsets and goldfish are beautiful. But so is any child’s scrawl, and quite likely any physical object is beautiful with respect to some possible sensory apparatus. Particular instances of beauty are easy to find and should not surprise us. What could surprise us, however, is:

  1. That the particular sensorily beautiful things around us—such as sunsets and goldfish—are in fact beautiful with respect to the sensory apparatus of the intelligent species that dwells near them.

We might also attempt to mount arguments from beauty to God on the basis of these remarkable facts:

  1. That there is such a property as (objective) beauty at all.

  2. That we are able to perceive beauty.

  3. That we enjoy beauty.

  4. That we are able to make correct judgments of beauty.

And bracketing the question of arguing for the existence of God on the basis of beauty, the realization that all material things are beautiful should lead us to glorify God. For while I said that it’s chance that my poor attempts at painting are visuallyx beautiful, that’s only so loosely speaking. God is omnirational, and that the paintings are visuallyx beautiful is a redeeming quality that surely God did not fail to intend.


SMatthewStolte said...

All else being equal, human beings prefer the more beautiful scientific theory to the less beautiful. Suppose it isn’t just that xyllian perception is as accurate as ours, but their judgment about scientific matters is as good as ours. Here are two theories, equal in lots of ways but not (by human lights) in beauty:


Human scientists are agreed that T1 is more beautiful.
Could xyllian scientists think that T2 is more beautiful, but reject the scientific preference for beauty? Or might they think T2 is more beautiful, consequently accept T2 as a better theory, but still somehow be neither better nor worse scientists than human scientists?

Maybe my mistake in asking such questions is that I am switching the topic from whether something is beautiful to whether it is more or less beautiful than another thing.

Another possibility is that the kind of perfection we find in theories isn't beauty but only something akin to beauty.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Many forms of beauty are to be understood with respect to a perceptual apparatus. An orchestral performance can be beautiful auditorily but ugly visually (suppose the performers are dressed really badly), or vice versa. The apparatus can be linguistic. Thus, we could imagine a case where the same sequence of sounds is a beautiful poem in one language but something trite in another language. When speakers of the one language say the sequence is beautiful and speakers of the other say it is banal, they do not disagree.

But at some point there comes the possibility of disagreement. If the xyllians say that Beethoven's Ninth sounds ugly via their auditory apparatus, and humans say it sounds beautiful via ours, there is no disagreement. But if the xyllians say that Beethoven's Ninth is ugly *qua* work of human music, they're wrong.

So, to say something as ugly or beautiful, one needs something like a perceptual framework--something that specifies the genre the work is considered to fall under--and then one can have objectivity with respect to beauty and ugliness. In the case of sensible beauty, this framework will include data about the particular senses through which the work is to be perceived. But there may be further cultural features that are part of the perceptual framework.

What about the beauty of theories? Here's what I think. Yes, we need a perceptual framework. We need to know the relevant genre. If we judge a law to be beautiful qua item of genre A and the xyllians judge it to be ugly qua item of genre B, there is no disagreement. But if we fix the genre, then there is real disagreement.

I think what happened in the scientific revolution is that we have learned to recognize the genre in respect of which laws of nature are beautiful. It's like recognizing that the book we're reading is fantasy, or is a mystery, or is historical fiction. In the case of laws, it's some sort of mathematics-heavy genre.

I think it's likely that if the xyllian scientists have failed to catch on to the same genre that we have, then either they or humans are failing at science (failing to get to true theories).

If they have caught on to the same genre, then their judgments of beauty of theory will be subject to the same norms as ours.

Mikhail said...

Doesn't this imply that God can be ugly given certain perceptual schemes?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Imagine a painting that looks just like Monet's Springtime, but has an additional special property due to magic: It is invisible unless looked at through the normal human visual apparatus. The resulting painting is either beautiful or lacking in aesthetic properties through any visual apparatus: through the human one, it is beautiful; through any other, it lacks aesthetic properties.

So one could have something that has to be beautiful no matter who views it.

Perhaps God is like that. Any "perceptual" (hard to use that word in the case of vision of God) apparatus that succeeds in perceiving God is a perceptual apparatus with respect to which God is beautiful; there may, however, be perceptual apparatuses with respect to which God isn't beautiful, but there are apparatuses with respect to which God cannot be seen at all. (E.g., the perceptual apparatus of a snake might be like that.)