Sunday, March 27, 2016

Theistic Argument from Aesthetic Experience

It's a beautiful Easter morning, with fresh snow in the trees and a bright, sunny sky.  I watched a woodpecker outside my window and thought, what magnificent coloration this bird has.  It's a joy to look at.  At times like this, people get a sense of wonder and awe.  They feel connected to nature and happy to be alive.  Many of them think this could only be the work of God.

Likewise, when we hear a masterful musical composition played well, we get a similar kind of feeling.  Kreeft and Tacelli have formulated a simple but elegant argument from aesthetic experience for the existence of God: "There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.  Therefore there must be a God."  Of course, they recognize that God is not the author of the music itself, but they believe that without God, there could be no experience of its sublime beauty, because God is the author of objective beauty.  This is similar to many other versions of aesthetic arguments for God.

The common thread among these arguments (whether explicitly stated or not) is the assumption that this feeling we have is the result of the sensus divinitatis.  Our experience of beauty reflects a harmony between us and the world, and is sustained by divine will.  We have the sense that we are at home in the world, that we are part of God's creation.  By contrast, they say science alienates us.  It denies the aesthetic experience of meaning.  Many believe that it is impossible for an atheist to experience the joy of sublime beauty.
If God exists and has designed us for relationship with Himself, as Christianity claims, one would expect people to find contentment only within such a relationship and to show signs of deprivation if such a relationship is lacking. - Beauty and the Existence of God (author not identified)
I think most would agree that this is not among the strongest arguments for God.  But it has the appeal of personal experience.  It's something that you feel rather than conclude logically.  And of course, that's the big problem with this argument.  It isn't logical at all.  Why must we accept the truth of this?  If beauty can exist without God, then the argument fails.  If our sense of harmony with the world is natural, then the evidence leads us to conclude that our experience of beauty is natural.

And that appears to be the case.  We have strong empirically based reason to believe that aesthetic appreciation is not only natural, but it exists in some form in many animal species, and is strongly influenced by evolutionary factors such as sexual selection, and other survival-enhancing functions, as explained in this article in Contemporary Aesthetics by philosopher Wolfgang Welsch.  There's a perfectly good natural reason the woodpecker has such interesting color patterns, and a perfectly good reason for some creature to find it to be a thing of beauty.

But what about that feeling of awe?  That seems to be something that goes beyond aesthetic appreciation.  Isn't that God communicating with us?  Not necessarily.  Observation tells us that it is experienced by atheists and theists alike.  Furthermore, rather than being caused by God, it is a natural phenomenon that tends to cause feelings of spirituality, which enhance or confirm belief in God.  So proponents of the argument from aesthetic experience actually get the causal relationship backwards.  For atheists, the same feeling is there, but it can be interpreted in a very different way.

The experience of awe is emotional.  And like any kind of emotion, it has a function that may enhance our (or our ancestors') well-being to live in certain circumstances, but can sometimes be an impediment to well-being in different circumstances.  The role of awe in our lives is the subject of scientific investigation.  As our understanding increases, theists have less justification for their claims that God did it.

Given a scientific understanding of aesthetic beauty and our feelings of awe, there is little reason to think that the theistic argument from aesthetic experience carries any weight.  There is plenty in nature and in the works of mankind, from the ordinary to the sublime, that an atheist can take pleasure in, and know that God has nothing to do with it.


  1. It's something that you feel rather than conclude logically. ... It isn't logical at all.

    You are absolutely correct. It is not a logical argument. It was never intended to be. But logic is not the only way of arriving at truth. Beauty is another way. So is art.

    Your entire posting is little more than an argument in favor of the premise that Beauty proves God. Just look at the language you have resorted to in an attempt to not see the obvious: "evolutionary factors", "sexual selection", "survival-enhancing functions", "awe ... has a function that may enhance our (or our ancestors') well-being to live in certain circumstances".

    That's right, Skep. Shakespeare wrote his plays to increase his chances of passing on his genes to the next generation. Bach wrote Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring to enhance our well being to live in certain circumstances.

    Skep, what is wrong with you?!? It's EASTER, for God's sake. A world of quite literally unfathomable beauty surrounds you, and all can think about is "survival value" or what chemical reactions are going on in your brain. Please believe me, believers don't hate atheists. We pity you. What a horrible, cramped, colorless world you must inhabit. No breath of Fresh Air from the Great Beyond to send your spirit soaring. Just the leaden chains of "logic", shackling you to the pillar of soulless atheism. God save me from such a miserable fate! (And thank God that He has!)

    1. You missed the part where I said we all experience it - where atheists can feel awe and take pleasure, despite the theistic trope that we can't. My argument is that this emotion is common to all of us, it's natural, and God has nothing to do with it.