We Christian philosophers are often trying to keep up to date with the latest arguments for the existence of God and any objections that may come up against those arguments. We are not just trying to affirm our own individual beliefs by way of rationalising our emotional interest; we genuinely attempt to reveal the truth of God’s existence in everyday objects, fields of study and experiences that can persuade even the most devout of unbelievers.
Most of us are familiar with the classical arguments for God’s existence which have, over millennia, taken various forms though they express the same fundamental truth or body of truths. Namely, our knowledge and experience of the universe (why it exists at all, how it originated, the fine-tuning of physical constants and biological life) all point upwards, above and beyond, to some great being we know as God.
More recently, what is known as the ‘Moral Argument’ has become a very powerful argument in demonstrating the existence of God, in virtue of the reality of objective moral truths. The fact that moral statements (e.g. murdering innocent people in cold blood is wrong) are objectively true forces us to think why such statements are true, what is it in reality that makes them true? The answer is God, because He serves as a transcendent anchor-point, providing an ontological basis and foundation in reality for objective moral values. Without God existing in this way, there would be no objective, absolute, changeless nor necessary standard in which moral values and duties could be measured as being better or worse; such values would be reduced to mere change rather than moral improvement.
That is the crux of the Moral Argument, but it has lead me to think as to why there is no argument for God’s existence from the idea of Beauty or from the idea of Aesthetic Truths. After all, the link between aesthetics and ethics has long been established or at least recognised to some degree. And so here I will make a brief attempt to formulate some argument for the existence of God based on the existence and nature of Beauty.
Beauty is incredibly hard to define, but I will define it in the following way:
an aesthetic experience which is heightened to maximum capacity, wherein lies inexplicable splendour at an object which exhibits perfect unity.
No doubt this definition may prove philosophically controversial but I think we recognise this definition or something like it is intuitively familiar.
What else do we mean by the idea of beauty? When we catch ourselves in those moments of awe and splendour, whether it’s gazing at a painting by Rembrandt, standing before some church architecture or listening to a romantic melody by Debussy, we are totally distracted from everyday reality. We do not enter these experiences with a desire to put something to use, we do not exit these experiences asking what they can do for us. Utility and function is not our concern at all, whether it is music, poetry, literature, paintings or architecture, we do not pursue any one of them with some governing interest in mind. Our only interest is to go on experiencing these things for the beautiful objects that they are; there is no, as Kant famously writes, interested pleasure – there is only disinterested pleasure. That is to say, our interests in such moments are entirely devoted to the objects themselves and we experience these objects for their own sake alone.
One (slightly more tangible) way to describe what it is like to have this experience is to imagine what it is like to not be thinking of anything or to be in a state of what Satre calls a ‘pre-reflective consciousness’. This is where you are aware of something but not actually thinking of it. I am aware of the candle lit in the corner of my room but I wasn’t actually thinking about it until just now when I was trying to find an example. I find experiences of beauty to be quite like this; when one is taken in by a great piece of poetry or music, any thoughts about anything else temporarily evaporate, they are reduced to a state of awareness and nothing more. The only thought on my mind is to go on experiencing this thoughtless moment.
Moreover, when I describe something as ‘beautiful’, I do so because I believe you should find it beautiful too. There is something about aesthetic claims which almost demand universality. Why else is their controversy when modern artists who present abstract junk in the Tate Modern? It is because we regard their claim that their artwork is beautiful as degenerate nonsense which is nothing less than sacrilege and a stain on real beauty… beauty that is unified, orderly and mystical, rather than chaotic, random and depressing. Beauty is objective, it is not ‘in the eye of the beholder’. Claims on what is beautiful concern us just as claims on what is good concern us, it matters when someone is mistaken on what they believe is good and similarly on what they believe is beautiful.
In aesthetics, you will be hard pressed to find a single ‘knock-down’ argument against subjective notions of beauty, but let us consider a thought experiment which lends itself in affirming the objectivity of beauty:
If some artwork X is produced by person A who is from some other culture B but is revealed in another culture still C and two independent people, D and E are viewing this artwork in a gallery, by what criteria and standards are we to judge this artwork? Is it A (the artists standards), B (the culture and values in which he came from), C (the culture the artwork is presented in), D (the first person who views it in a gallery) or E (the second person who views it in the gallery? Which and who’s set of standards do we judge this artwork by?
These sorts of multiple contradictions lead people to believe that there cannot be any objective standards in making these sorts of judgements. They are all equally valid, but this is tantamount to admitting that aesthetic values are subjective and relative, there is no such thing really as aesthetic truth. However, if A, B, C, D and E all contradict each other then this logically implies that there is some disagreement i.e. there is a wrong answer or a wrong judgement to have, and a wrong judgement only makes sense against the backdrop of some objective standards. We therefore have to appeal to some general standards above A, B, C, D and E.
General standards are exactly what it means to be objective. We are making judgements in accordance with standards which go beyond any particular persons opinion regardless of where they are from. And so beauty cannot be accounted for on subjective terms and must therefore be in the realm of the objective, beauty is not in fact in the eye of the beholder.
My thoughts on beauty and what it is could be discussed ad infinitum. However I will leave that there so we can move onto the next point, which is to ask what is it that grounds beauty as an objective phenomenon of the world.
Moral truths cannot simply be brute facts about the world, there has to be something in reality that makes moral truths, true. Similarly, the truth of beauty cannot simply be a brute fact; we must ask what exists in reality that makes the objective truth of what is beautiful, true.
The only conceivable answer is the one I gave from the start, namely God. You might ask, why doesn’t the truth of God’s existence also need a foundation to make the truth of His existence, true? This is simply mistaken. God is a maximally great being who exists by necessity of his own nature and so is self-explanatory. Asking for an explanation of God’s existence is like asking what the foundations of a house are built on, there can’t be any!
The argument for God’s necessary nature runs as follows:
1. God is a maximally great being who possesses all great-making properties.
2. It is greater to exist necessarily than to exist contingently i.e. it is better to have to exist than simply happen to exist.
3. Therefore, existing necessarily is a great-making property.
4. Therefore, God exists necessarily.
This is erring on the technical but I have found this little argument (defending God’s necessary nature) as very useful when debating atheists on any matter concerning God. Anyway, I will now consider how an atheist or unbeliever might respond in attempting to account for Beauty.
The atheist (or indeed naturalist) is rendered mute in accounting for our experience of the beautiful. If we are nothing more than accidents of nature, a cosmically insignificant animal species that happens to be on planet earth fighting for survival until death inevitably comes, then these experiences are just meaningless. What’s more, experiences of so-called beauty would be nothing more than chemical reactions and they certainly would not express any truth about the external world; they would be expressions of our own inner subjective state ultimately driven by evolution. Beauty is therefore stripped of the original definition I gave; its new definition (on this view) is just a chemical reaction, a function in the brain engineered for biological survival.
It is my contention that if we can describe and account for Beauty, then it follows that God must exist. Just as his existence logically follows from the fine-tuning of the universe, the origin of the universe, the existence of anything at all, the existence of objective moral values. Aesthetic truths, particularly the ‘beautiful’ (like the ‘good’) points towards a divine mind.
One might ask, ‘…but I don’t need to believe in God to believe in beauty surely?!’, and that is entirely correct. The argument is not that belief in God is necessary for the existence of beauty, the argument is that without God then beauty does not exist at all. The fact that an unbeliever can still experience beauty attests to the reality of beauty and why its nature and origin demand some explanation.
One final word on Beauty and God, and it is inspired by Plato. If I am correct, then the link between God and the beautiful can be explored on a slightly more holistic and mystical note. Plato believed that experiences of beauty are a step into the transcendental world, they lift the human spirit up from its earthly appetites and affections and transport it into another realm. Roger Scruton illustrates this a little when he says,
“By contemplating beauty the soul rises from its immersion in merely sensuous and concrete things, and ascends to a higher sphere, where it is not the beautiful boy who is studied, but the form of the beautiful itself, which enters the soul as a true possession, in the way that ideas generally reproduce themselves in the souls of those who understand them. This higher form of reproduction belongs to the aspiration towards immortality, which is the souls highest longing in the world.” (2011, p.34)
Another way of putting this might be to say that sensual and aesthetic pleasures could be considered the expressions of the immense, beautiful profusion of God and our ravishment thereby. Such accounts of the platonic conception of beauty, not to mention ‘love’, have recurred down the centuries. Eco quotes Suger, Abbot of St Denis in the twelfth century, describing a richly-appointed church:
“Thus, when—out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God—the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.” (Eco 1959, 14)
Lastly, a word from Plato himself,
“…beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may.” (c. 385BC, Symposium).
One of my favourite things to think and talk about is architecture. I love to admire great buildings and simply stare at them as though I’m waiting for the story to begin. When I am lucky enough to come by such buildings, I am completely and wilfully distracted by them, subsumed under all their majesty and captivated by the sole desire to go on experiencing and contemplating what a sublime piece of architecture that stands before me. No other thoughts are entering my mind at this point, my earthly appetites and desires are no longer with me. The platonic conception of beauty – as lifting the soul out of this world and into another – dawns on me in those moments and acquires its sense. I’m not pursuing some earthly pleasure for my own sake, I’m pursuing beauty for its own sake, and when beauty is pursued I really do catch a glimpse of what it is like for the eye of my mind to peer into the transcendent, straight into the eye of God.