Argument from beauty

The argument from beauty is an argument for the existence of God as against materialism.

Outline logical structure

Its logical structure is essentially as follows:
# There are compelling reasons for considering beauty to exist in a way that transcends its material manifestations [This view goes back at least to Plato and has been a staple of Christian and other philosophers ever since. St Augustine was a major exponent. The most important 20th century Christian writer on this was Hans Urs von Balthasar whose monumental works on the subject (14 volumes) explore most philosophical and theological aspects of the topic! see e.g. [] ]
# According to materialism, nothing exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations.
# According to classical theism, beauty is a quality of God and therefore exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations [Heavily explored in "Von Balthasar" "op cit."]
# Therefore, to the extent that premise (1) is accepted, theism is more plausible than materialism [Polkinghorne makes the point like this: "how does it come about that [experiences of beauty] convey to us an encounter with a dimension of reality too profound to be dismissed as merely epiphenomenal froth on the surface of an intrinsically valueless world?... Theistic belief offers an explanation" "Science and Theology" SPCK 1998 ISBN 0281051763 p82]

Points 2, 3 and 4 are relatively un-controversial, and the argument is formally valid, so discussion focuses on the premise (1).

uggested reasons for accepting the premise

The principal arguments for the premise are:
# We have a strong intuition, especially when in the presence of great art or extreme natural or human beauty, that the beauty is real and transcends its material manifestations [for example Polkinghorne suggests "If you want to make a materialist reductionist feel uneasy, ask one what he or she makes of music, and insist on a response that corresponds to the actual way one lives and not to an ideologically glossed version of it. 'Neurological response to vibrations in the air', seems totally inadequate as an account of listening to a performance of the Mass in B Minor." "Faith, Science and Understanding" p.14. However, Richard Dawkins, an "ardent materialist" (Gifford Lectures website), shows no hint of unease in choosing the St Matthew Passion as an exemplar of beauty in music or in finding Beethoven's late quartets "sublime". "The God Delusion", Ch.4.] . Although such intuitions are not always correct, they are strong enough prima facie evidence that very compelling arguments to the contrary would be needed to cancel them out.
# Creative artists generally experience their efforts to create great art/literature/music in terms that assume the objective existence of beauty, albeit mediated by their subjective experience [ Dorothy L Sayers "The Mind of the Maker" gives an extensive discussion of this, and of creativity from a metaphysical point of view] .
# Although one can make plausible evolutionary explanations for finding beauty in potential sexual partners and in healthy animals that might be food or predators, the experience of beauty is much wider than these categories and includes visions of things for which there can be no direct evolutionary advantage (like clouds seen from aeroplanes, or images from telescopes).
# Scientists, especially physicists, have found that mathematical beauty is a very useful guide to a valid theory. [As John Polkinghorne (a FRS in physics who studied under Dirac) puts it: "In fundamental physics it is an actual technique to seek theories whose expression is in terms of equations endowed with the unmistakable character of mathematical beauty" "Faith Science and Understanding" SPCK 2000 ISBN 0281052638 p21]
# It is very difficult to speak of beauty in a coherent way without assuming its objective existence, albeit mediated by highly subjective and cultural factors. [This is part of the logic of Thomas Reid's argument for the real existence of beauty. See [ the discussion of Reid's position in the Stanford Encyclopedia] ]

uggested reasons for disputing the premise

# Our intuitions may be mistaken.
# Creative artists may be mistaken or culturally conditioned.
# Given that important brain circuits have evolved for detecting beauty in potential sexual partners, food or prey, they may be "misfiring" to detect beauty in other places. The evolution of the brain may create this impression as a byproduct of its main function.
# Ordinary language is not always a reliable guide to objective reality.
# Beauty does not actually exist in the observed object or scene. Instead the sense of beauty exists within the observer, as does the sense of "transcendent" beauty.

Variations on the argument

Richard Swinburne

Richard Swinburne advocates a variation of this argument:

"God has reason to make a basically beautiful world, although also reason to leave some of the beauty or ugliness of the world within the power of creatures to determine; but he would seem to have overriding reason not to make a basically ugly world beyond the powers of creatures to improve. Hence, if there is a God there is more reason to expect a basically beautiful world than a basically ugly one. A priori, however, there is no particular reason for expecting a basically beautiful rather than a basically ugly world. In consequence, if the world is beautiful, that fact would be evidence for God's existence. For, in this case, if we let k be ‘there is an orderly physical universe’, e be ‘there is a beautiful universe’, and h be ‘there is a God’, P(e/h.k) will be greater than P(e/k)... Few, however, would deny that our universe (apart from its animal and human inhabitants, and aspects subject to their immediate control) has that beauty. Poets and painters and ordinary men down the centuries have long admired the beauty of the orderly procession of the heavenly bodies, the scattering of the galaxies through the heavens (in some ways random, in some ways orderly), and the rocks, sea, and wind interacting on earth, ‘The spacious firmament on high, and all the blue ethereal sky’, the water lapping against ‘the old eternal rocks’, and the plants of the jungle and of temperate climates, contrasting with the desert and the Arctic wastes. Who in his senses would deny that here is beauty in abundance? If we confine ourselves to the argument from the beauty of the inanimate and plant worlds, the argument surely works." [Swinburne, "The Existence of God" Chapter 6]

Here it is not so much the (alleged) transcendent existence of beauty that is in evidence, as the overall level of beauty, and premise (1) is replaced by:

1. There are compelling reasons for considering the level of beauty in the universe to be greater than that would be expected under materialism.

The difficulty with this variation of the argument is that it depends on an essentially subjective assessment of whether the overall level of beauty in the universe is greater than might be expected if God (or gods) did not exist.


The argument as stated is for theism against materialism. It is possible to be an atheist without being a materialist. According to Midgley "Atheistic Idealism like Hume's is a perfectly possible option, and may be a more coherent one. At the end of the 19th century many serious sceptics thought it a clearer choice (Russell's liflelong ambivalence is quite interesting here)" [Mary Midgley "The Myths We Live By" Routledge 2004 ISBN 0415340772 p40] The classic view of Christian Neo-Platonists was that God is the perfection of the Idea/Form of the Good that included a perfection of Beauty, and that if an Idealist was philosophically committed to the existence of the Form of Beauty it was reasonable for them to accept the existence of the perfection of that Form in God [see e.g. the special introduction by Prof Maurice Francis Egan of The Catholic University of America to the Dialogues of Plato published by the Colonial Press 1900 "God and the highest good are the same; the highest idea is good. [Plato] believes in the living soul and in the Deity who prevades the universe" (p vii)] . Keith Ward suggests that materialism is quite rare amongst contemporary UK philosophers "Looking around my philosopher colleagues in Britain, virtually all of whom I know at least from their published work, I would say that very few of them are materialists" ["Is Religion Dangerous?" p 91]

Philosophical Criticism of the Argument

Critics have labeled the variant of Argument based on the "level" of beauty (as per Swinburne above) as a seeing the world in an overly optimistic fashion, incapable of seeing the ugliness as well as the beauty. Joseph McCabe, a freethought writer of the early 20th century, questioned the argument in "The Existence of God", when he asked whether God also created parasitic microbes. [Joseph McCabe (1933), The Existence of God, p75] Bertrand Russell questioned it in a similar fashion, stating that he was "unable to see any great beauty or harmony in the tapeworm." [Egner, Bertrand Russell's Best, p. 33] H. L. Mencken stated that humans have created things of greater beauty when he wrote, "I also pass over the relatively crude contrivances of this Creator in the aesthetic field, wherein He has been far surpassed by man, as, for example, for adroitness of design, for complexity or for beauty, the sounds of an orchestra." ["Minority Report", H. L. Mencken's Notebooks, Knopf, 1956] More recently, Richard Dawkins dismissed the Argument as "vacuous", claiming that " [i] f there is a logical argument linking the existence of great art to the existence of God, it is not spelled out by its proponents." [Richard Dawkins (2006), "The God Delusion", pp. 86–87, ISBN 0-618-68000-4]

Notes & References

ee also

*Argument from poor design
*Human nature


Relevant authors and sources include:

* Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote extensively on beauty in a theological and philosophical context.
* John Polkinghorne, who is also particularly impressed by the role of mathematical beauty in science. See e.g. his "Faith, Science and Understanding" p14
* Tom Wright, who regards our experience of beauty as one of the four main pointers to belief in God — see especially his "Simply Christian" SPCK 2006, Ch 4 "For the beauty of the earth"
* Richard Dawkins, who in The God Delusion dismisses the Argument from beauty.
* Richard Swinburne, especially "The Existence of God" OUP 2nd Edition 2004 ISBN 0199271682

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