Beauty is a quality of existence that has engaged philosophers since Plato. It is an ancient ideal we should pursue, along with goodness and truth. From classical times its hallmarks were harmony, proportion and coherence, or unity. There is also beauty of sound, as in good music, and delicacies of touch, taste and smell. There is beauty of thought and imagination derived from the creative minds of men and women. Poetry, rhetoric, logic, dance, an elegant mathematical equation…all can inspire a response of delight. Yet beauty is not purely a response, perceived merely in the eye of the beholder; it resides in the object itself, and that has to be the result of deliberate design.
When Phillip Johnson spearheaded the intelligent design movement in the early nineties, he set in motion a huge debate about the origin of life. The focus then was on complexity, with little attention to aesthetics. Living things are intricate and highly ordered, and that order doesn’t just appear by chance out of nowhere. It has to be designed, and design implies intelligence and purpose. Yet in explaining life, many leaders in the sciences have resisted the idea of design; they rely on natural law and chance. They exclude a purposeful intelligence or a designer-God.
Today, after twenty years, the advocates of intelligent design have won many victories, arguing from science. If you read Dembski, or Nelson, or Behe, or Wells, or any number of others, you will see that mechanistic naturalism is under serious scholarly challenge. God does get a hearing. Yet in academia scientism still rules, and the debate seems to have reached a stalemate. That’s why, I think, we should strengthen the design argument by an emphasis on the aesthetic side of nature, on beauty.
Beauty is a special kind of order, different from complexity, and producing it requires a deliberate purpose. It points to a source that goes beyond mere intelligence. The paintings of Van Gogh tell us the artist exists, but they also tell us something about his persona, what kind of man he was. So likewise the beauties we see in nature, and in humankind, tell us that God exists and also reveals some of God’s personal qualities. Complexity may point to a clever engineer-Creator, but beauty, with all its rich diversity, points to an artist-Creator, and an artist by nature has a different, emotional, celebratory view of reality. That’s the kind of Creator we deal with. From his art we can judge his tastes and his purposes, his thoughts and his feelings. And he becomes more like us, with emotions and preferences, closer to us and more approachable.
How did objective beauty arise? What First Cause, other than a purposeful mind, could cause beautiful patterns to appear? How can evolutionary theory, which excludes God and intelligence agency, account for them? And further, how does evolution, which relies only on chance mechanisms, explain how humans possess an ability to perceive and enjoy beauty? Here are two separate entities with no physical connection: the beautiful objects or ideas, and our conscious capacity to appreciate them. Chance cannot explain the parallel but separate development, over eons of time, of two distinct parts of a system, when each part is meaningless without the other. Such a system had to be designed, and with a majestic purpose for our benefit. It’s powerful evidence for Creation.
Beauty raises another question: Why does it survive? In Darwin’s world survival depends on toughness, on competitiveness, not on loveliness or any perception of aesthetics. Darwin would surround us with life that is rugged, strong, functionally efficient but brutal and savage: not a pleasant place for living. Naturalists recognize this problem. Steven Pinker, psychology professor and atheist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, referred to beautiful music as a puzzling gift, and he called it “auditory cheesecake”. It enriches our lives, he said in Nature (March, 2002), but it makes no contribution to survival.
Beyond giving us compelling evidence of divine causation, beauty in the natural world tells us some remarkable truths about God’s artistic taste. He is extravagant with his gifts. He gives us delicately tasting fruits, just for our pleasure, and he made silver-toned songbirds and magnificent plumage, far beyond any requirement of mate attraction. He was not content with efficient function only. He went further and gave us aesthetic pleasure. And it is not presumptuous to marvel that the things we enjoy, God also enjoys. Far above us, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. Yet we are told we are made “…partakers of the divine nature…” We truly do bear in our persons the imago dei. The likeness surely is not only physical, but in the mind, and partly it is in our capacity for aesthetic pleasure. He likes what we like. That’s why Adam and Eve could walk with God in the Garden, enjoying together the beauty around them.
Even today, our tastes in visual patterns, in music, and in speech should be cultivated to approach the lofty tastes of the author of beauty. The full range of aesthetic pleasure has been opened to us, both God-made and man-made. It includes the splendors of the cosmos, all observable nature, and also our man-made music, our art, and our dance. King David loved exuberant dance, and surely so does God. He enjoys what we create: our sculpture, our poetry and our rhetoric, our software algorithms, even our superb gadgetry: all our exalted flights of inventive fancy. He knows what’s in The Getty and in the Guggenheim, and he knows the qualities of the music with which we choose to worship him. He understands the good and the not good. So we too can discriminate, and we can choose and enjoy.
We are warned in Romans 1:20 that those who observe God’s handiwork yet do not believe “are without excuse”. Before the artist-Creator we must stand in awe. We can lift our wonderment above the mechanics of Creation, the hard intricacies of particle physics, of quantum gravity, of string theory and the mysteries of time. Certainly we can wrestle with these entities and seek understanding. But always let us also revel in the wonder, in the beauty of it all. That is the divine quality that brings us face to face with our artist-Creator. And we, too, may walk with him in the Garden. ******************************
Loma Linda University
8 June 2012