The argument from beauty

I listened to most of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos this afternoon and got to thinking again about the argument for beauty.

This fellow blogger raises a concern that the argument, which is articulated this way

  1. Beethoven’s quartets, Shakespeare’s sonnets, etc., are beautiful.
  2. If there were no God, then there would be no beauty (and thus no beautiful things).
  3. Therefore, there is a God.

may not be a legitimate argument for the existence of God in the first place and that Richard Dawkins’ only reference to the argument in “The God Delusion” is anecdotal. The writer also claims that Dawkins dismisses the argument for beauty by committing the begging the question fallacy because he asserts “without argument, that beauty doesn’t depend on God.”

First, it is clear from reading the entire passage about the argument from beauty in Dawkins’ book that he doesn’t take the claim very seriously in the first place, but that he was compelled to at least give it a brief airing since it was, from his experience, a commonly articulated argument, however flawed it may be. And the blogger leaves out the two sentences that make this point. Here is the full paragraph:

Another character in the Aldous Huxley novel just mentioned proved the existence of God by playing Beethoven’s string quartet no. 15 in A minor (‘heiliger Dankgesang’) on a gramophone. Unconvincing as that sounds, it does represent a popular strand of argument. I have given up counting the number of times I receive the more or less truculent challenge: ‘How do you account for Shakespeare, then?’ (Substitute Schubert, Michelangelo, etc. to taste.) The argument will be so familiar, I needn’t document it further. But the logic behind it is never spelled out, and the more you think about it the more vacuous you realize it to be. Obviously Beethoven’s late quartets are sublime. So are Shakespeare’s sonnets. They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t. They do not prove the existence of God; they prove the existence of Beethoven and of Shakespeare. A great conductor is credited with saying: ‘If you have Mozart to listen to, why would you need God?’

Actually, the authors of “Handbook of Christian Apologetics,” the supposed seminal work on all arguments for the existence of God, list the argument from beauty, which they call “the argument for aesthetic experience,” as one of the 20 cumulative statements that, taken together, make a “very strong case” for God. Here is the authors’ rather crudely constructed claim:

 17. The Argument from Aesthetic Experience

There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.

You either see this one or you don’t.

Talk about question begging. (I’ve dealt with numerous portions of the book on this site already. Here is my last entry: Apologetics VIII: heaven, hell, free will.)

In any case, let me deal with the first articulation of this argument at the top of this post, admitting that Dawkins probably could have handled the topic a little more carefully, but the fact that he didn’t consider it as a serious argument in the first place perhaps should have led him to ignore the claim in the first place. In any case, let’s see if we can do a little better.

Premise 2: If there were no God, then there would be no beauty (and thus no beautiful things) is a false premise because it assumes that God is the source of beauty and that all things beautiful must spring from the mind and hands of God. But we can equally claim, just as fallaciously that If there was a God, then there would be no beauty. Just because a god exists provides no guarantee that he is the source of beauty or ugliness, just like the existence of a god doesn’t prove that he is the source of morality. He may very well be the father of evil and ugliness. The writers of the Bible and other holy books couldn’t seem to make up their minds whether God was a supreme sadist, benevolent or the judge, jury and executioner. Indeed, he is all of those things depending on which passages you read.

The crux of the question is the same as with morality: can we come up with an objective way to define and identify that which is beautiful? While beauty is surely relative to a degree, I think it’s well documented within psychology and neuroscience that whatever we perceive as beautiful has certain positive or euphoric effects on our mood that differ drastically from that which we view as ugly or disheveled. And if outward beauty if more relative than inward beauty, we can make a strong case that society generally favors and awards members of communities who display peace, happiness, acceptance, love, etc. than those who display other inward traits like disdain, hatred and unfaithfulness.

Though not stated directly, I think this is what Dawkins may have been getting at when he said that Beethoven and Shakespeare’s works

“are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t.

Even if there are various levels of beauty or sublimity depending on the person, few could argue that works of those two artists fail to meet the following definitions of the sublime:

  1. elevated or lofty in thought, language, etc.: Paradise Lost is sublime poetry.
  2. impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.: Switzerland has sublime scenery.
  3. supreme or outstanding: a sublime dinner.

Now, how about some sublimity:

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

3 Comments on "The argument from beauty"

  1. I would sublimely invite anyone who cares to argue the existence of God while I'm listening to the B'burgs or reading Shakespeare to shut the fuck up. I would tell them to get the noise of their mind out of their life for just a few minutes and actually let something in.

  2. I don't get this argument. Why can't there be beauty without God? "Why can there be anything without God?" makes more sense. Why make the distinction of beauty?

  3. Jeremy Styron jeremystyron | April 23, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply

    There's not much of a distinction. People who postulate the argument from beauty just make the same assumptions that people make about God being the source of morality or the source of anything at all and assume that just because something came into being (the universe), there must be a prime mover behind it. I think it's just kind of a back door way to make the same argument appear different.

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