What is beauty?


Some people think that you need god to explain beauty. I disagree. Sunsets are multi-coloured because the light is refracted through the atmosphere differently at that time of day; flowers have evolved in the never-ending competition to attract pollinators and thereby reproduce; birds sing for the same reasons. In my beliefs all of these are derived from the natural processes of physics and evolution that I believe make the universe run.

To imagine that god created these in order to bring joy to human beings seems so completely self-centered and naive, in the same way as we used to believe that the earth was the center of the universe, or that the sun was a god who rode across the sky in order to bring life to us. I just don’t think it’s all about us … and to my view the evidence supports this. Sunsets are beautiful on Mars although no human being is ever there to see them.

I believe that humans have evolved as with all other organisms and one of our adaptions has been to develop a brain capable of supporting language and pattern recognition. We actively look for patterns and associations – much of the time this enables us to predict what the world around us is going to do and even to increase our understanding of how it all works – and some of the time we are just wrong. The point is we are always working at MAKING meaning, of searching for ways to make sense of the world. I believe that we create a sense of beauty out of our perception of the world. Flowers often punctuate with bright color an otherwise more monochromatic world, they are also associated with unusual smells, fruit, and new harvests. Sunsets signal rest at the end of a day and sunrises the end of a dark night where we are most at risk. We understand bird “song” as language and amuse ourselves by mimicking it.




The question of why certain things can be described as beautiful (that is, the objectivity of beauty) is an interesting philosophical question. Some Christian philosophers (see for e.g. Richard Swinburne) have argued that the mere fact of beauty in the world makes the existence of God more probable than would be the case if there were no beauty. In other words the beauty in the world seems to point to a Grand Artist.

To describe what a sunset is, or why flowers have evolved or why birds sing in a particular way, doesn’t explain why such things are beautiful. A scientific explanation of something does not explain the value quality (such as aesthetic value) that a thing or event might have. It is exactly the same with moral values: science can give an explanation of how things are, but it cannot pronounce on how things ought to be (a value judgement).

The fact that we can appreciate beauty doesn’t mean that things are beautiful merely for our sake – things might be beautiful simply for the Creator’s own pleasure. It is the fact that a thing can be said to be beautiful, that needs explanation. So, if sunsets on Mars are beautiful, why do sunsets have this property of being beautiful? Notice again that a scientific explanation is not going to help answer the question.

We don’t merely “create a sense of beauty from our perceptions of the world”. Nor are we simply “making meaning…to make sense of the world”. This assumes that things like aesthetics and meaning are mere subjective qualities of the world we live in and which we ascribe to things according to our subjective needs and desires. But it’s not clear why we should accept this. First of all, beauty doesn’t seem to be “created” but are simply perceived or discovered for what it is (by the way, you don’t create what you sense or perceive – you simply sense or perceive it). Secondly, to be able to understand how things work, or recognise patterns, doesn’t explain how we should apply the things we understand or the patterns we observe, or even how we should live generally, and therefore does not answer the question of meaning. Of course people “make up” their own subjective meanings all the time, but this in itself doesn’t negate the existence of objective meaning, particularly when one acknowledges the existence of God who provides the frame of reference for talking about “objective meaning” in the first place.



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