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The Intersection of Objective Beauty and Truth

Can we know beauty? Is beauty entirely subjective or does objective beauty exist? Many people, from the casual observer and especially to members of the art community often pose these questions, leading to the deeper question: “If there is objective beauty, in what or whom is it grounded?” Plato argued that beauty is grounded in the Forms (essences), postmodernists argue that beauty is relative to a culture, those who hold to naturalism posit that beauty is entirely subjective, and Christians argue that beauty must be grounded in God. The latter argue that if there is no God then there is no basis for objective values and thus, beauty too is entirely subjective. Further, is the determination of beauty simply an argument of subjectivity or objectivity, or does such a determination hold any moral weight? As an example of extreme contrast, if beauty is simply “in the eye of the beholder,” and some person thinks that the mutilation of another person is beautiful, how are we justified in making an objective claim and stating that it is not beautiful or further, that it is morally wrong? In this article I will argue epistemologically that we can know beauty objectively and that it is metaphysically grounded in God, as a proof for God’s existence. Further, I will argue that the aesthetic argument also carries moral implications.

Objective Morality

The topics of morality and beauty often overlap, especially when one considers that moral actions can sometimes be assigned an aesthetic descriptive such as “the beauty of compassion” or “the beauty of love.” Thus, in this section, I will investigate two prominent arguments on morality, cultural relativism and private subjectivism, and argue for the theistic view that objective morality exists. The significance of objective morality in our discussion of objective beauty will become clearer as we move forward.

To begin, relativism is a philosophical theory which claims that there are no absolutes and no universals when it comes to knowledge, morality, and truth. More specifically, under a framework of cultural relativism, a culture may decide that it is morally wrong to torture children and in that particular culture, it would be true—but not universally true. Conversely, this would also mean that torturing children could be considered morally right in another culture, and it would be true for them. Anyone espousing the view of relativism would have to agree with this, in order to remain consistent to the theory. For, the moment we say that it is always wrong to torture children, we have abandoned relativism because we are claiming an absolute moral truth. Another crucial problem to the theory of relativism is that it is self-defeating, for it makes an objective claim to truth. If we say that truth is relative to a culture or individual and objective truth does not exist, we are making an objective statement regarding truth that the truth does not exist. For instance, under relativism, if we make the claim that there is no objective beauty, we are making another truth claim. Thus, the argument is self-defeating. Now, to employ another example of extreme contrast, if a culture were to apply an aesthetic quality and say that the raping of women is beautiful, relativists would still have to say that it is true for that culture. However, most people, cross-culturally, would not agree with this statement and instead call it perverse or ugly. But how – if objective truth does not exist? This will be examined in greater depth in the next section, but for now it seems that the burden of proof rests with relativists to justify the claim that there is no objective morality, beauty, or truth.

Now, closely related to relativism is the theory of subjectivism which posits that what we can know is based off of our subjective experience and whatever we feel dictates the ultimate rightness or wrongness of a subject. More specifically, under a framework of private subjectivism, a “moral statement” is “simply stating the likes and dislikes of a speaker.”[1] So, if a person were to say that they liked torturing children, within a framework of subjectivism, it would be morally right for them. However, as with the examples given above regarding relativism, this would not sit well with most people. Also, as with the relativist, the subjectivist is still making an objective truth claim when they suggest that everything is subjective. Thus, subjectivists also employ self-defeating arguments when they make truth claims.

Conversely, the Christian framework posits that there are objective moral truth claims. Moreover, Christian theists would argue that it is always wrong to torture children. Why? Because humankind was made in the image of God and therefore everyone has intrinsic value, dignity, and worth.[2] Thus, the difference between Christian theism and relativism or subjectivism is that objective moral truth and intrinsic values are grounded in God. For the cultural relativist, moral truth is grounded in the culture, and for the private subjectivist, it is grounded in the self. By grounding moral truth in a moral lawgiver, namely the Christian God of the Bible, we establish a basis on which to judge right from wrong. Thus, following the framework of Christian theism, the existence of morality points to and requires an objective law or law-giver. Now, in the following section I shall argue that objective beauty exists and is grounded in the Christian God, and address the Humean and Darwinian ideas that all beauty is subjective.

Objective Beauty

In evaluating the case for objective beauty, I shall primarily build upon the arguments presented by philosophers F.R. Tennant and Mark Wynn, and the objections of Humean and Darwinian philosophers. F.R. Tennant, in his work Philosophical Theology, states that “nature elicits aesthetic sentiment from men severally and collectively; and the more fastidious becomes this taste, the more poignantly and lavishly does she gratify it.”[3] In describing natural beauty in this manner, Tennant is working toward the point that the beauty we observe in nature indicates both a sense of design and intrinsic beauty that “is meaningless and valueless without God behind it and man in front.”[4] Building upon Tennant’s descriptions of nature in relation to God and beauty, and in contrast to the seemingly universal beauty observed in nature, Mark Wynn argues that the products of human agency are rarely beautiful, when devoid of artistic intent.[5]  Based on this contrast, Wynn proposes the following progression, which I quote here:

  1. If nature has its origins in forces which are indifferent to aesthetic values, then it is no more likely to exhibit beauty in general than are the works of human beings, whenever these works are made without artistic intent.
  2. But nature is uniformly beautiful, whereas the products of human beings are rarely beautiful in the absence of artistic intent.
  3. So the premise must be denied: we should suppose that most probably nature does not derive from forces which are indifferent to aesthetic values.
  4. In turn, this suggests that nature is the work of a mind, and more particularly of a mind attuned to aesthetic kinds of fulfillment.[6]

At this point, it should be noted that Wynn’s progression bears a striking resemblance to eminent philosopher Richard Swinburne’s “C-inductive” argument which states that the existence of God increases the likelihood of the existence of a beautiful universe and the existence of an “orderly physical universe.”[7] In both cases, these arguments conclude that beauty and order in nature become more probable given the existence of God.

Wynn states that one primary objection to his four points would stem from the philosophy of the eighteenth-century philosopher, David Hume. Wynn’s analysis of Hume’s Arguments from Design postulates that Hume would have two primary objections to the four points noted above. The first of these objections would be that “a judgement of likelihood surely lacks any empirical support…since we have no experience of the origins of worlds.”[8] The second objection is that “even if we find a strong analogy between the character of the world and the character of human artefacts, there are other analogies which are just as apt and carry no implication of purposeful agency.”[9] In other words, the analogy drawn between the need for human agency and artistic intent in the creation of man-made beauty, and the apparent “saturation” of beauty in the natural world, is weakened by Hume’s assertion that other such valid analogies exist, which do not support an argument for design. In particular, Wynn says that Hume might draw an analogy to the ability of animals and vegetation to “produce order reliably…notably when they reproduce themselves.”[10] This argument suggests that there is “no more reason to think of the world as the product of design than to suppose that it derives from some process of generation or vegetation.”[11] In response to the first objection, it can be argued that there is ample empirical evidence available in the form of human agency, where artistic design is present and where it is not. Indisputably, “things of beauty arise more frequently in the [former] case.”[12] In response to the second objection, Wynn points out that this reasoning begs the question because it “presupposes the falsity of the design argument.”[13] Therefore, in order to reliably evaluate the premise of the design argument, “we must take examples where aesthetic intent is either indisputably absent or present, and this suggests turning to the case of human agency.”[14] Thus, the skeptic must address the impact that human artistic intent has on the existence of beauty, since we can only empirically evaluate these claims when observing human agency. Once again, the implication being that the ample beauty observed in nature points to “the work of a mind,” leading to the conclusion that beauty is both intrinsic to the subject and objective.

Nonetheless, Hume argues that beauty is subjective when he says:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.[15]

However, it is interesting to note that Hume compares the person who perceives deformity to the person who is “sensible of beauty” (emphasis mine), which implies that one is better at perceiving what is beautiful. Does this not imply that the objects themselves have an innate beauty but it is up to the observer to be perceptive of that nature? It suggests that there is an objective sense of defining beauty. Also, Hume’s language suggests that there is a strangeness to perceiving deformity when another sees beauty, when he uses the words, “may even.” This also implies a basis on which to judge beauty, but on what basis is he able to make this truth claim?

The second major argument against Wynn’s four points stems from Darwinian Theory. Denis Dutton, a Darwinian philosopher, argues that “pleasures, pains, and emotion—including experiences of attraction, revulsion, awe, fear, love, respect, loathing—have adaptive relevance.”[16] In other words, Dutton suggests that beauty is adaptive and part of the evolutionary process. The implications of this assertion are many, primarily in that our observation of beauty occurs only as it relates to the survival of the observer, or stems from an inherent trait that provided an evolutionary advantage to its ancestry. However, in response to the Darwinian argument that the theory of evolution explains our concept of beauty, it does not follow that the vast majority of expressions of human sentiments (such as “that is beautiful,”) have any survival utility. An exception may be the utility of attraction to the opposite sex for the purpose of propagation of one’s species. However, many more expressions do not provide such a utility as in the example of believing that a poisonous plant has exceptional visual beauty.

Implications of Objectivity

Although it has been reasonably argued that objective beauty exists, this does not mean that there is not a level of subjectivity in beauty, especially with regard to the arts. Individual preference still remains. Likewise, preference does not automatically negate objective beauty. For instance, consider whether objects or nature that we call beautiful would continue to remain so if observers of beauty ceased to exist. In other words, are such subjects intrinsically beautiful? Swinburne argues:

It may be objected that there is nothing good in a work of art if no one observes it. This objection…seems to me mistaken. When people admire a beautiful work of art, they are not admiring the effect of the work on their own consciousness; they do not say ‘This is a wonderful painting because it produces these feelings in me and other people who look at it’. Rather, it is because they believe that it has some beautiful feature, which they have been fortunate to notice, that it does produce the appropriate feelings. The ‘feeling’ involves as an essential part the belief that the painting is beautiful in itself, that it has a beauty which it would still have even if no one had the right sensory equipment to notice it. Of course, it is also good that people admire what is beautiful; but the beauty of the beautiful does not depend on being recognized. How could it? For recognition of beauty, as of anything else, depends on the existence of the feature before and independently of being recognized.[17]

So, while there is no denying subjective preference, the argument for objective beauty still remains. Further, aesthetic statements regarding moral acts, such as “your kindness is beautiful” or by contrast, “racism is ugly” assume objective truth. Then, the question naturally follows, “In what or who is objective truth grounded?” In order for truth to be objective, it must be rooted in transcendent personhood without which such value would be meaningless. This transcendent personhood provides the basis on which beauty can be objectively judged. Based on the arguments above, this is a reasonable proof for the existence of God.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while the argument for objective beauty as proof for God’s existence is not exhaustive, it places the burden of proof on those who would say that there is no objective beauty and additionally, no objective truth. As has been demonstrated, beauty rarely occurs in human construction outside of artistic intent. This implies that for there to be beauty in nature, which is cross-culturally affirmed, there must be a designer with the intent of beauty in mind. Further, the argument that beauty stems exclusively from evolutionary advancement does not explain why many cross-cultural observations of beauty lack evolutionary or survival utility. Thus, it can be reasonably argued that objective morality, beauty, and truth exist and must be grounded in the personhood of God.

[1] R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), Kindle Locations 1877-1879. Kindle Edition.

[2] Gen. 1:27 (NIV), “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

[3] F.R. Tennant, Philosophical Theology (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1928), Kindle Locations 10694-10695. [Microform] Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid., Kindle Location 10672.

[5] Mark Wynn, God and Goodness: A Natural Theological Perspective (London: Routledge, 1999), eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), 20.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 150.

[8] Wynn, God and Goodness, 21.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid.

[15] David Hume, 1757, “Of the Standard of Taste,” Essays Moral and Political (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1894), 136.

[16] Denis Dutton, “Aesthetics and Evolutionary Phycology,” in The Oxford Handbook for Aesthetics, ed. Jerrold Levinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 694.

[17] Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 52. doi: 10.1093/0198237987.001.0001.

This article is posted with permission by Rachel Shockey. For more of her work, please visit rachelshockeystudio.com 

Disclaimer: All views expressed by those associated with this ministry or on our platforms do not necessarily represent the opinions of Women in Apologetics, Inc. or its individual team members.

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