Atheism and Beauty

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

Some atheists seem to be inspired by a thorough-going hatred of metaphysics; perhaps even a thorough-going hatred of all abstract reasoning.  They are radical positivists (or radical nominalists, but I’ll focus on positivism).  Positivism is the doctrine that only that which is empirically verifiable has any truth or reality.  And while radical positivism does imply atheism, the converse does not hold: atheism does not imply radical positivism.

And it’s sort of odd to hear so much hostility to metaphysics among atheists.  After all, it seems that atheism is committed to metaphysical positions that are very deep.  Atheism is committed to the ultimate objective existence of at least one abstract metaphysical ideal.  A good way to see this is to start with some reflection on the nature of beauty.

Some things are beautiful.  And all beautiful things share the quality of being beautiful; they all have the feature or property of beauty.  Plato is famous for his theory that beauty exists as the abstract form that all beautiful things share in common.

For Plato, beauty is transcendental – it exists in the heaven of  abstract Platonic ideals.  As is well-known, Aristotle argued that the forms must be brought down to earth – they are immanent powers in concrete things.  For Aristotle, the form of beauty is wholly present and active in every beautiful thing.  For Neoplatonists, who aim to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, the form of beauty is wholly present both in some concrete things in our universe and in some abstract structures (such as purely mathematical structures).

All beautiful things express, manifest, or display beauty.  Beauty is inherent or intrinsic in every beautiful thing.  And things of very different types can be beautiful.  There are beautiful works of art like beautiful songs and beautiful paintings.  There are beautiful events in nature like beautiful sunsets.  And there beautiful things in nature.  Some human bodies are very beautiful.  And even abstract structures can be beautiful: there are beautiful structures in mathematics.   The axioms of set theory are extremely beautiful.  The laws of nature can be beautiful.  Scientific theories can be beautiful.

Some beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  It is subjective and it depends on the perceptual abilities and sensitivities of some observer.   Some beauty arises from the interaction of minds with things.  But that does not mean that all beauty arises from such interaction.  There is an important sense in which some beauty is objective – it is mind-independent.

An aesthetic realist (and I’m one of them) argues that we experience certain natural things as beautiful because they are beautiful, that is, they are beautiful in themselves, and they would beautiful whether or not they are ever observed.  For instance, mathematical patterns like symmetry groups are beautiful whether or not there are any minds that ever think of them.  Crystals forever unseen in the depths of the earth have the quality of being beautiful.  There are chess games, eternally unplayed, that are extremely beautiful.

Beauty manifests itself in things.  It may well be possible to design a device that empirically measures the beauty of things.  Such a device might detect subtle harmonies, well-balanced patterns, finely-tuned complexities.  Human eyes and brains are examples of natural devices that can detect beauty.  It’s entirely possible that an artificial intelligence could be designed to detect beauty.  Nevertheless, the quality being detected is not a thing.

Things exhibit beauty; they display it.  Beauty is a power in things, and it is a power that can affect brains (or measuring devices) in certain ways.  It is a power that can influence the course of events.  It is certainly plausible that biological evolution selects for beauty and that beauty is a marker of health or reproductive fitness.  The peacock’s tail is beautiful.  And thus animals (including humans) become sensitive to beauty and their mating behaviors are guided or influenced by it.  On this view, sexual beauty is not subjective at all – it is an objective marker of fitness for which animals evolve very finely calibrated detectors.

I would hope that atheists can affirm that there are beautiful things in the physical universe and even that there are beautiful structures in mathematics.  But what is beauty?  Things are beautiful, but beauty is not a thing; beauty is immanent in things.  Beauty is an immanent universal, a quality shared by many things, a power within things.  Some of those things are physical while others are mathematical,  even purely mathematical, and thus not physical at all.  Surely the existence of beauty is compatible with atheism – it requires no theistic deity.  And surely the existence of beauty is compatible with naturalism – beauty is an entirely natural quality.  And surely the existence of beauty is compatible with rationalism – much of what reason reveals is beautiful, even purely beautiful, beauty-itself.

Some of the older posts in this series:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

    An aesthetic realist (and I’m one of them) argues that we experience certain natural things as beautiful because they are beautiful, that is, they are beautiful in themselves, and they would beautiful whether or not they are ever observed. For instance, mathematical patterns like symmetry groups are beautiful whether or not there are any minds that ever think of them. Crystals forever unseen in the depths of the earth have the quality of being beautiful. There are chess games, eternally unplayed, that are extremely beautiful.

    I agree that beauty is a real subjective experience, but I don’t think that things are beautiful in and of themselves, what do you call that?

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Aesthetic anti-realism!

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      See, that’s why I hate this historical association between subjectivism and anti-realism. Subjective experience is REAL!

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      Bingo!

      It seems very strange to me that someone who believes that beauty is possible only if there is some Platonic form of Beauty is called a realist, while someone who believes in actual human responses is somehow labeled an anti-realist.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      :D

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      So, I was trying to think of a thought experiment where we had some empirical hints as to the nature of beauty in any number of minds, not just human minds. It seems to me for a conscious species to be intelligent enough, beauty in things like symmetry would be such an advantageous selection mechanism that any conscious/intelligent minds that come about through evolution would possess some common conceptions of beauty. That said, what would be the difference between beauty as “an emergent, necessary condition for evolved consciousness” vs “intrinsic beauty”? I don’t know if I’m a positivist, but I find that I’m limited by my epistemology. I can’t claim something about external reality without access to more information (alien or other intelligences).

    • Caru

      Mind projection fallacy?

  • felicis

    “There is an important sense in which some beauty is objective – it is mind-independent.”

    So a cat would find such beauty beautiful as well? A bacterium? If it’s truly ‘mind-independent’, then it shouldn’t matter the ‘observer’. (E.g. mass is an objective quality – the physics affects you independently of your ability to even perceive it, at least that’s my understanding of ‘objective’. Obviously, I’m not a philosopher.)

    Also – what does that even mean? What sense?

    You agree that *some* beauty is in ‘the eye of the beholder’, i.e. subjective – but argue that some is *not*. Could you give an example?

    “All beautiful things express, manifest, or display beauty. Beauty is inherent or intrinsic in every beautiful thing.”

    Circular definition? What is beauty? It’s intrinsic to this beautiful thing. How do you know it’s there? Because it displays beauty…

    “And things of very different types can be beautiful. There are beautiful works of art like beautiful songs and beautiful paintings. There are beautiful events in nature like beautiful sunsets. And there beautiful things in nature. Some human bodies are very beautiful. And even abstract structures can be beautiful: there are beautiful structures in mathematics. The axioms of set theory are extremely beautiful. The laws of nature can be beautiful. Scientific theories can be beautiful.”

    Will two people regarding the same ‘beautiful thing’ always both perceive the inherent beauty? Certainly not in abstract structures – what’s ‘beautiful’ about the axioms of set theory? Useful, perhaps, but ‘beautiful’?

    Would those ‘intrisincally beautiful’ works of art be beautiful to a species (or person) with different perception?

    “…it [beauty] is an objective marker of fitness for which animals evolve very finely calibrated detectors.” Is it really? How is brightly colored plumage an *objective* marker for fitness? Could that bird with the beautiful colors also have a genetic defect that renders him sterile? Reproductive fitness = zero in that case…

    While there is certainly this idea of beauty, I argue that it is completely subjective. We find things beautiful that we have been *taught* are beautiful. Their beauty is not inherent to themselves, but rather a product of our culture.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      While there is certainly this idea of beauty, I argue that it is completely subjective. We find things beautiful that we have been *taught* are beautiful. Their beauty is not inherent to themselves, but rather a product of our culture.

      I’ve always found it strange how cultural relativists treat different groups of humans as if they belong to entirely separate species.

    • felicis

      Am I doing that?

      A difference in opinion about beauty between cultures is a far cry from ‘being a different species’. Or are you arguing that all cultures share a common perception of beauty?

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      Or are you arguing that all cultures share a common perception of beauty?

      No, just that there is a limit to how much effect culture can have, beauty cannot be “completely subjective” and still remain human.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      Being one of those damned empiricists, I would suggest that the extent to which beauty is culturally-variant is not something for philosophy to determine, but something to be gleaned by studying actual cultures.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      rturpin says:

      Being one of those damned empiricists, I would suggest that the extent to which beauty is culturally-variant is not something for philosophy to determine, but something to be gleaned by studying actual cultures.

      I’ve got nothing against scientific research, but there is also something to be said for just experiencing beauty. I know for a fact that I am capable of appreciating art, food, intoxicants and women from a variety of cultures :D

    • felicis

      I tried replying but got some kind of odd error…

      Peter Grant says:
      No, just that there is a limit to how much effect culture can have, beauty cannot be “completely subjective” and still remain human.

      My response:
      It sounds like you are claiming that there are some things (that is discrete objects – for example a particular sunset, or piece of music) that members of all human cultures would agree are beautiful (if they are able to perceive the object in question – we cannot reasonably expect a blind person to comment on the beauty of a painting for example). But while I agree that any pair of cultures might overlap quite a bit, there are also things on which any two distinct cultures would differ as to whether or not they are beautiful. I am doubtful as to the existence of something that would be considered beautiful to a representative member of every human culture. And without such an object, what is the basis for your claim that there is any part of beauty that is not culturally driven?

      Indeed, you specifically claim an appreciation for beauty is specifically a human characteristic: “beauty cannot be “completely subjective” and still remain human”. If that is so, then no part of beauty is inherent in the object, but in the (human only) beholder – and is thus entirely subjective.

      As for how far cultural differences can take us – as rturpin points out – that is a great question for an anthropologist to answer (and who knows, perhaps there has already been some work done on that very question).

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      Indeed, you specifically claim an appreciation for beauty is specifically a human characteristic

      I made no such claim. Aliens might have a completely different appreciation for beauty.

  • The Lorax

    So, a thing can have inherent beauty, and be beautiful even if it isn’t seen.

    This sounds a bit like the question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, yes. We can say this because every tree that has ever fallen has made a sound. But here’s the rob: you are saying that a tree is falling. Thus, you are acknowledging the event. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, how do you know it fell? You can’t, and so, you can’t know if it has a sound. As soon as you say for certain that a tree is falling, you can then say for certain that it has sound, because we know the two are linked.

    Apply this to the other thing. If crystals are inherently beautiful, and we acknowledge a crystal buried in the ground, then yes, it is beautiful even if we aren’t seeing it. However, that crystal only exists because it is presumed to exist. It has been mentioned. The topic of its existence has come up. If we are forever unaware of it, or the possibility of it, then we can’t possibly say whether it’s beautiful or not, because we haven’t even considered its existence.

    And now for something completely different.

    I think all beauty is in the eye of the beholder, because how can there be beauty if there is no one to behold it? It’s like asking how something can fall if there’s no such thing as gravity.

  • Larry Clapp

    Essays like this always make me want to say, Please restate your point in E-prime. (Equivalently, Please restate your point in the active voice.) It strikes me as profoundly circular and muddy.

    I really don’t see how you can come up with a coherent definition of beauty independent of a mind.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      I’d love to see a physics text written in E-prime. Oh, wait…

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    Radical nominalist, here.

    There is an important sense in which some beauty is objective – it is mind-independent.

    My entire experience with beauty has involved the reaction of myself or others. And indeed, it is through these experiences that I learned what the word “beauty” meant. Let’s call that beauty-o. Very much mind-dependent. Now, maybe there is some sense of “beauty” that is mind-independent. Let’s call that beauty-g. Since that isn’t a sense of the word with which I’m familiar, and since I have no experience of it, it seems to me the right start for anyone proposing that is to define that “mind-independent sense of beauty.” Beauty-o I can understand, with reference to human experience. I have no idea what beauty-g even means. Because you haven’t defined it, or done anything to help me understand it, except that you think it is somehow connected to beauty-o, absent any kind of human response. Or even absent any mind.

    I think Plato makes a mistake. It’s one that I see many religious believers making. They observe love between people, and then assume that there must be a real thing or essence that constitutes that love, independent of the people involved. Then, they just rename it: “God is Love.” They take a human concept of human behavior and try to turn it into something independent of people, something out there. Then, they worship it. And then they deny that we non-believers can believe in the reality of love. Which is nonsense. We just believe in real love, an aspect of human emotion, human belief, and human behavior. Something complex, intimately connected to many other human traits, subject to all the extremes and lacunae of human behavior, and very, very real. Not at all simple and pure, like the reified nonsense their ideology posits. The Greeks before Plato personified the notions they turned into gods. There is a certain beauty there. Even though I think Aphrodite just a fantasy, she has a visceral appeal and narrative potential that good fantasies should have. I can imagine a jealous Aphrodite or a deluded Aphrodite, as well as an Aphrodite who has a good, loving relationship. A Platonic form of Love? Or Beauty? As far as I can tell, just fantasy absent any of the benefits of fantasy.

    After all, it seems that atheism is committed to metaphysical positions that are very deep. Atheism is committed to the ultimate objective existence of at least one abstract metaphysical ideal.

    Really? I thought my atheism was just rejecting the theological notions that various believers are selling. I don’t see how that creates any metaphysical commitment.

  • Brandon

    There is an important sense in which some beauty is objective – it is mind-independent.

    An aesthetic realist (and I’m one of them) argues that we experience certain natural things as beautiful because they are beautiful, that is, they are beautiful in themselves, and they would beautiful whether or not they are ever observed

    I see no evidence for these claims, and tend to tentatively reject them until evidence can be provided. I suppose that makes me a radical positivist, at least in this context, but I don’t see any particular downside to that outlook. It’s a goal of mine to have my ideas be as close to correct as possible, and what I’ve learned up through now suggests that accepting propositions because they sound nice to me isn’t a very good idea in the absence of evidence.

    • Brandon

      To be more clear, I think of beauty as not being some intrinsic property of things in the way that their mass, density, or some other physical property is. Rather, it’s a purely aesthetic quality that derives entirely from whether an observer thinks it’s beautiful or not. That explanation strikes me as easily the most parsimonious, and I can’t think of any examples for which it isn’t much more sound and strongly evidenced than positing some intrinsic beauty.

  • Dan L.

    Just wanted to throw out a suggestion: I think the atheists who “hate metaphysics” are actually Pyrrhonic skeptics but lack the knowledge of philosophical history to describe themselves as such.

    If this is so then the objections to speculative metaphysics make perfect sense. From such a position, one can make good arguments about the “world of appearances” and why it might be the way it is but you can’t prove anything about it or directly access it (hmm, sounds a whole lot like methodological naturalism…). But conjuring ad hoc entities without explanatory power the way philosophers so often seem to do is frustrating to people like me who tend towards skepticism. The feeling on my part is something like, “That’s such a load of bollocks I shouldn’t be expected to spend hours arguing against it just to establish a point that should be common sense in the first place.” You must admit, there is a strange tendency for intractable philosophical problems to be solved, Gordian-knot style, by scientists after many hundreds of years of fruitless and often heated discourse.

    Personally I’m moving away from Pyrrhonic skepticism but I do think it’s an underrated worldview.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      I can’t speak for all atheists, but I have no problem with notion of love (for example) as real. As a human behavior. It’s the abstract, Platonic form that I doubt. And similarly the perception of beauty. I find it an interesting aspect of the English language that “love” can label both the act of loving and the thing loved, but “beauty” doesn’t work in parallel. You can’t say “I beauty that,” but instead must say, “I see the beauty in that.” I think that peculiarity of English has no bearing on what actually is happening.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    I’m always troubled by how easily so many atheists seem to think that radical empiricism, positivism, nominalism, naturalism, and skepticism are cost-free. Those positions all involve as much metaphysics as any other foundational position. And most of those positions aren’t nearly as consistent with science as many atheists seem to believe. By not considering the costs of their assumptions, atheists come off looking just as dogmatic as many religionists.

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      How much of a difference is it to say that you find metaphysical claims unavailable, not impossible? Often times I just don’t feel justified in making jumps to most metaphysical claims and I find myself “stuck” epistemologically.

    • felicis

      Again – not being a philosopher, I don’t really know what you mean by ‘metaphysics’. I am also slightly ashamed to admit that I have only the vaguest idea of what you mean by “radical empiricism, positivism”, “nominalism” – a slightly less vague (though probably incorrect) idea of “naturalism” and a pretty decent idea of “skepticism” – though again my idea and the philosophical definition are quite probably different.

      But that doesn’t really matter – who is claiming that any particular system is ‘cost free’? If so many atheists think this way, could you provide a couple of examples?

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      I’m curious what metaphysics you think is implied by nominalism. Or the various varieties of skepticism.

      I reject naturalism and positivism, so I won’t bother asking about those.

      Empiricism is a broad brush. That may be where the sticky wicket is.

    • Dan L.

      Why troubled? What difference does it make whether other people’s belief systems conform to your own idiosyncratic criteria?

      For the record, I do disagree. Pyrrhonic skepticism doesn’t require ANY metaphysical commitments aside from “assumption” that the world of experience is different from the “real world” behind the veil (“assumption” is in scare quotes because there’s plenty of empirical evidence for this thesis at this point; yes, now you object that the notion of “empirical evidence” implies a metaphysics but for a skeptic, it doesn’t; “empirical evidence” to a skeptic is just facts about the experience of reality or “world of appearances” rather than the “real world” itself). Furthermore, while it denies the truth of scientific theories it does not deny the utility of scientific theories.

      I think a lot of people who take philosophy very seriously overestimate the normativity of philosophical arguments. In reality, I think you’d have trouble finding a lot of actual knowledge provided by the practice of philosophy assuming you first distinguish philosophy from science.

      I know this sounds very positivist but that’s a little misleading. Personally, I do take philosophy seriously but I don’t fool myself into thinking I’m interested in it because it’s important. I’m interested in it because I like it. Ultimately and for reasons rooted in my own philosophical world view I don’t expect anyone to accept any argument based purely on logic and introspection (or, more accurately, intuition).

    • Brandon

      I’m unclear on what it is that you find dogmatic about stating that one is unwilling to believe things in the absence of evidence. Such a position does not rule out the possibility that an unevidenced claim could be true. Is the putatively dogmatic part the positivism in and of itself? I’ve never known or seen anyone clinging to positivism in the face of countervailing evidence that their position is incorrect.

      Could you expound a bit upon what you find dogmatic? Thanks.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      What’s evidence? What’s the connection between the “evidence” and what you believe? And what’s your evidence for the thesis that evidence tracks truth? I don’t disagree with what you said; my point is merely that it takes lots of theory to justify what you said, and it’s not easy at all.

    • Brandon

      I get that epistemology isn’t as straight forward as just accepting evidence as whatever we intuit it to be, but I’m unclear on where the dogmatism in positivism comes into play. If someone states that they’re radically positivistic, but willing to acknowledge that their present evaluation of what qualifies as evidence may be wrong, does that avoid the dogmatism you mention?

      I’m very new to philosophy and fairly naive regarding it, so I’m just trying to clear things up a bit in my head.

  • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

    Are there any inherent properties at all and how can we know? From what I understand of physics everything arises out of interactions.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Nice point!

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      I’m not sure which point you think I’m making.

    • Brandon

      While it seems true that we can’t really know whether things have physical properties, it certainly seems useful based on every experience we’ve had with our physical world to operate on the assumption that things have physical properties. It’s a far cry from “useful” to “true”, but I’m not sure we can do much better at this point.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      I think we can know what physical properties things have, I just don’t see how we can ever know for certain if those properties are inherent.

  • jesse

    I guess I’d be a radical positivist or whatever.

    I just can’t see how any subjective quality like beauty is inherent in anything at all.

    Look at the difference between 17th century baroque furniture and Japanese furniture of the same period. An then tell me that two cultures necessarily have to share the slightest thing in common when discussing beauty. Gad, the sheer number of ways humans have come up with to be beautiful (or at least sexually attractive to one another) would seem to me to put paid to that notion.

    The world is real. If I stub my toe on a brick that’s real. If I jump off a building more than a few feet up I will die. If you can’t tell me how something works in a similar fashion then to me your model has problems. That’s why I have problems with all kinds of metaphysics, in a nutshell.

    That is, gravity is an intrinsic property of matter. Can you fly unassisted? No. Neither can a Maasai or a Japanese person or an Inuit.

    But all those people will sometimes have radically different notions of beauty. Which says to me that as a description of physical reality the notion of beauty needs some work. We haven’t even gotten into what a whale or dolphin thinks beautiful. Something tells me it would be rather different. (Wish we could ask).

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    @Brandon – Brilliantly done! You got it exactly right: all these epistemic positions very quickly collapse into pragmatism: I believe in science / empirical evidence / etc. because the results are successful – it works. And it is indeed a far far journey from utility to truth. I’m a pragmatist in that way myself (I think usefulness tracks truth); but that’s just a metaphysical assumption on my part.

  • Michael B.

    The concept of beauty as some metaphysical absolute Beauty seems way too much like supernatural thinking. In fact, it seems very much to rely on the same basic mode of thought that produced crap like the Ontological Argument. So because we perceive such a thing as beauty there must be some magical, perfect Beauty that’s floating out in the aether somewhere, just like there’s a perfect Horse and a perfect Man, and a perfect Smell of Rotten Eggs.

  • James McCann

    I don’t have the time or interest to contribute much to this conversation. I have no background in philosophy either. But this:

    Some things are beautiful. And all beautiful things share the quality of being beautiful; they all have the feature or property of beauty. Plato is famous for his theory that beauty exists as the abstract form that all beautiful things share in common.

    bugs me. The second sentence is the sort of handwavy wordgame that theists use for the cosmological argument. This discussion of beauty is a discussion of human minds, not of properties of the subjects under consideration. Beauty is in the minds of beholders and has no other existence. There is no universal or abstract beauty.

    Let me correct your paragraph:

    Things are not beautiful. People think things are beautiful. Plato is famous for the notion, which cannot be called a theory because it has no explanatory power and is not supported by any evidence, that beauty exists as the abstract form that all beautiful things share in common.

  • James McCann

    And one more thing really bugs me:

    Atheism is committed to the ultimate objective existence of at least one abstract metaphysical ideal.

    I have no idea what you are talking about here. Atheism is not committed to the existence of anything. It is committed to the nonexistence of deities. There are a number of things that may be identified by the term atheism and so it is possible that you have something in mind that is committed as you say – I would like you to clarify what you mean by atheism here because while this sentence seems nonsensical I have no way to reply to it.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      My atheism is even that committed, simply lacking commitment to the existence of any sort of “deity” seems enough.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      Oops sorry – where’s the edit? – should read:

      My atheism isn’t even that committed, simply lacking commitment to the existence of any sort of “deity” seems enough to me.

  • SAWells

    “Some atheists seem to be inspired by a thorough-going hatred of metaphysics; perhaps even a thorough-going hatred of all abstract reasoning.”

    Really? Give examples. Is this your get-out-of-criticism free card on the natura naturans issue? Am I on your list of people who hate thinking?

    You do know that this “My critics just hate beauty and truth” bullshit is a classic religious apologetics tactic, don’t you?

    I think you’ve been surprised by the pushback you’re getting on this whole series of posts, and rather than respond to substantial criticism, you’re attempting to claim that your critics are wrong to criticise you. This is puerile.

    I’ve made very critical comments on several of your posts because you keep making claims that are either unfounded or wrong. For example, you said you’d be arguing for nine theses, and as far as I can see every single one of them is wrong ( http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/12/11/nine-theses-on-wicca-and-atheism/#comment-178122 ). Shouldn’t you sort the foundations before building the skyscraper?

  • Nele

    Eric:
    I would hope that atheists can affirm that there are beautiful things in the physical universe and even that there are beautiful structures in mathematics. But what is beauty? Things are beautiful, but beauty is not a thing; beauty is immanent in things. Beauty is an immanent universal, a quality shared by many things, a power within things.

    I am not convinced.

    You talk about “mind-independent” beauty, but the examples you give, i.e. the abstract beauty of mathematical expressions, the structure of chrystals, or the elegant strategy of a never played chess game, are not mind-independent at all. In these cases, the existence of beauty always relies on an observer potentially capable of sensing these forms of beauty. An unseen chrystal only becomes beautiful if actually unearthed or imagined in the mind of the potential observer; in other cases, a specific cultural proficiency on the side of the observer is needed. Abstract mathematics have to been formulated or a visualized as well as to be understood to become beautiful. An unplayed chess-game must be actually played or created as well as be understood by a chess-playing observer to be beautiful.

    I don’t see any immanence. As a matter of fact, I don’t see any example in your argument which is not explainable by interaction of an observer with the observed. Beauty may indeed be defined in several ways – human psychology, biological selection, cultural practices, or even a psychopathic mind. “Empirically measuring” beauty with the help of an AI would indeed be nothing more than to find some kind of statistical quantification to compare possible observer expectations with defined paramters of the observed. It should be quite easy to find an algorithm, calculating the beauty of a peacocks tail for the female peacock. But why shouldn’t it be possible to apply the same assumed algorithm to determine the beauty of the supposedly mind-independent examples you have given?

    You say: “but that does not mean that all beauty arises from such interaction”. But here lies the rub. As long as you do not actually demonstrate that there is some kind of beauty which cannot be explained by any form of interaction with an observer, there is no reason to actually introduce a concept of beauty which is in some kind transcendent and imminent to an object. Why should we need such a concept.

    As others have pointed out, the basic problem is exactly the same as with the construction of supposed metaphysical entity as the reason for phenomena we observe in the real world.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    I’m going to talk about “aesthetic properties” instead of “beauty” because they mean about the same thing — although “aesthetic” can include unpleasant aesthetics and beauty can’t — but “aesthetic properties” has less common sensical baggage.

    So, why is the Platonic position realist while the subjectivist position is anti-realist? Because the subjectivist position would say that there are, in fact, no actual aesthetic properties in the world; all aesthetic properties are nothing more than properties in or about one person’s mind. Plato’s position, however, says that aesthetic properties really do exist in the world. They aren’t the same kinds of properties as strictly “physical” properties, but they insist that paintings and sunsets actually have aesthetic properties that belong to them. Subjectivist and therefore anti-realist views deny that things have any aesthetic properties, and that aesthetic properties are all mental.

    Now, the problem with an anti-realist view is that, again, it insists that aesthetic properties belong to one person’s mind. What this means is that if two people look at a painting and one person calls it beautiful — or vibrant or whatever — and the other person denies this, there’s nothing more to be said about the matter. It is just a subjective state and that’s all it is. This is regardless of whether art critics can point out certain features that seem aesthetic or we can appeal to specific techniques the artist used to try to create a specific effect. None of those are indeed about the painting and so are not relevant; there are no aesthetic properties that belong to the painting that can be appealed to.

    As a specific example of the problem, I personally have a very muted appreciation for visual beauty (I’m fine with music, but bad at visual art). So if I and someone else looks at a painting, it is quite likely that they will find it beautiful and I will be unmoved. Under the subjectivist/anti-realist view, there is nothing more to say on the matter and, in fact that my appreciation is “muted” is a questionnable and possibly unsupported contention. But that’s like saying that if you add a lot of salt to a soup, and give it to someone who cannot taste salt, that the soup is therefore in some real sense not really salty, and that salty is just in the mind of the taster. In some sense that makes sense, but no one would deny the objective property of “saltiness” that normally produces a certain salty experience but doesn’t in that case because the person is incapable of completing the chain and getting that experience. The same thing, then, can apply to aesthetic properties; there are aesthetic properties in that painting that accrue objectively to it, but I am not capable of appreciating them for some reason. Thus, the painting itself has aesthetic properties just as the soup has salty properties, and they are not only in the minds of the receivers.

  • sawells

    No, the objective properties of the painting are physical – they have to do with the location of actual paint molecules and their interactions with light – and the aesthetic properties are in the minds of the observers, not in the painting.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      This would mean, as I said, that if I didn’t experience a painting as, say, vibrant then there would be no way to say that the painting itself was, despite the fact that the artist deliberately employed techniques to make it so. That doesn’t make a lot of sense and so you will need to say a lot more to make that case.

    • SAWells

      You could say “The artist put a lot of work into trying to make this painting vibrant, but I’m not seeing it that way myself”.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Yes, you can say that, but it doesn’t address the underlying issue. I argue, for example, that in those cases the problem is likely simply with me; the painting itself is vibrant and it is my muted appreciation of visual aesthetics that causes me to not see that. But, to me, this presumes that there can be aesthetic properties that attach to the painting independently of my experience of them. To me, the subjectivist view would deny that; there’s nothing wrong at all if I don’t experience that vibrance, and no real disagreement or way of saying that if I say “That painting is not vibrant” that I’m wrong and need to be corrected.

      In short, your way gives no way to answer whether the artist created a vibrant painting or not, despite all their effors, and that to me is the question over whether aesthetic properties are objective or subjective.

  • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

    What Plato, and a lot of others it seems, fail to realise is that thoughts are physical things happening inside brains in the REAL world.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      However, a tree that you imagine is still interestingly different than a tree that’s outside of your mind, so if you make this move you don’t solve the problem you just end up equivocating on the problem.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      The point is that I didn’t just create the tree in my mind out of nothing, it’s a model of a real tree.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Why do you think that makes a difference? A model of a real tree that can be nothing like any real tree you’ve ever seen is still interestingly different than a real tree. The model of the tree in your mind, even if you WERE directly modelling it, is not the tree in the world. That’s still a distinction that leads right back to the exact sort of problems that I’ve been stating with anti-realism about aesthetic properties.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      I’m not an anti-realist. Subjectivism doesn’t necessarily imply anti-realism with regards to aesthetics or morality, look it up. I really wish we could move past Plato’s essentialism.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      And my initial point was that if you do use the move you make to get subjectivism but not anti-realism, you still have the same issues that were raised because mental objects aren’t quite real in the same way as real objects are. There’s still a distinction that matters and needs to be addressed; we just have a different name for the debate.

      Note that I’m not sure if you need a Platonic essentialism to escape the issues I claim subjectivism has.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      That’s not a problem for a subjectivism which acknowledges that there is an objective reality which exists independently of subjective minds and from which those minds arise.

  • Steve Schuler

    I have got to admit that as I have followed this series of posts I have found very little that I agree with you on. You seem to frequently shift the meaning and/or the usage of terminology pretty liberally, so it is not easy to follow your thinking.

    Like the ‘falling tree’ question, as other commentors have mentioned, the crux of the problem is in how you define “sound”. If sound is defined as the presence of the approriate physical phenomena to be perceived as sound if there were someone to ‘hear’ it, then yes, there is sound when a tree falls. If you define sound as the actual perception by someone of vibrations in the air caused by a falling tree, then the answer is no, there is no sound. Not complicated, but in both cases the subjective experience, either potentially or actually, is implict with the use of the word “sound”.

    “Beauty” is an entirely subjective evaluation and unlike “sound”, has no universally accepted characteristics, physical or otherwise. Although you obviously disagree with this assertion, on what basis I have no idea beyond Plato said it was so, it would be nice if you could flesh out this notion of the objective nature of beauty beyond saying, “It is just so”.

    The balls in your court, Eric.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Well, the problem is that artists, art critics, and philosophers of art DO think that there are at universally — or mostly so — aesthetic properties. Vibrancy is a common one. So the people who study the aesthetic do think that such things exists, making it somewhat difficult to just deny that they exist.

      Now, let me take your example of sound, and talk about sound properties. I define sound properties as being properties that have a tendency to produce sounds in listeners that are in appropriate states. A couple of examples of these sorts of properties would be pitch and timbre. Now, pitch and timbre are indeed properties of the sound; they are not properties of the listeners or of the listeners’ mental states. However, these sorts of properties are defined solely by the sort of experiences they tend to produce in listeners.

      I’d argue that aesthetic properties are exactly the same way; they belong to the object itself, but are defined solely by the experience they tend to produce in aesthetic observers.

      But I’d say that just as my sound properties above don’t fit neatly into your two options for sound, aesthetic properties don’t fit neatly into the same sort of options.

    • grung0r

      So the people who study the aesthetic do think that such things exists, making it somewhat difficult to just deny that they exist.

      It sure does, if your the kind of person who responds to appeals to authority(unsourced appeals at that). Otherwise, not so much.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      I’m not sure why you’d deny that the people who study these sorts of properties and use them to both enhance the experiences of those who view art or in objective ways to improve the experiences of their art would not be considered reasonable experts in this field. Why should I trust your assertions that no such properties exist over the actual evidence and investigations that have been done in these areas? That would be like saying that if I think it absurd that humans evolved from apes I don’t actually have to go and look at the science, and any attempt to say that there is such a thing as evolution as proven by science would just be an appeal to authority.

      Also note that I can only be making an appeal to authority if I’m saying that they are RIGHT because they are authorities. I’m not. I’m saying that all of these people and this field have done a lot of work discussing and proving these things, and it’s quite odd, then, that you think it acceptable that you can ignore that based on your own feelings and personal experiences.

    • grung0r

      I’m not sure why you’d deny that the people who study these sorts of properties and use them to both enhance the experiences of those who view art or in objective ways to improve the experiences of their art would not be considered reasonable experts in this field.

      Because you are making an argument of your interpretation of what these unnamed people said, instead of their supposed arguments. It doesn’t matter if they have a Phd in philosophical aesthetics or are the night shift guy at 7-11. Their argument is what matters, not their credentials, or what or how long they have studied. Why would you appeal to these supposed experts(which you have yet to name) when you could repeat their supposedly expert arguments? To use your inane evolution example, if you were arguing with a creationist, would you say:”Richard Dawkins thinks(whatever)” or would you parrot his actual argument for(whatever)? The latter would be good tactics, the former, an argument from authority.

      Eric: this is the quality of your champion. Someone who makes a textbook argument from authority, and can’t even recognize it when it’s pointed out. Maybe your metaphysics allows arguments from authority along with tautologies, circular reasoning and entirely undefined terms as the basis for ones epistemology. I guess I just don’t get philosophy.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Except I’m not arguing that those things exist because they say they do, but that the simple assertion that those properties based on only your own subjective experiences in light of what other fields have done is at least a bit hasty. Did you really expect me to outline the entire field of art, art criticism, philosophy of art, and aesthetics for you before you even begin you consider that you might possibly be wrong?

      And, of course, I DID argue for them, in the first standalone comment I posted. Do I need to repeat that in every comment in order, again, for you to consider that the basic view might not be as tenable as you think it is?

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Heck, my whole discussion about sound properties was, in fact, an argument for my position, that you completely ignored, and THEN you have the gall to accuse me of not arguing? Please.

    • grung0r

      Except I’m not arguing that those things exist because they say they do, but that the simple assertion that those properties based on only your own subjective experiences in light of what other fields have done is at least a bit hasty.

      If you can’t see that despite the incredible amount of spin you put on it that this is STILL an argument from authority, then I think you may be beyond help in this regard.

    • Steve Schuler

      ‘Sound’ exists as a physical phenomena, and as particular to human perception within an approximate frequency range of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz depending on the auditory functioning of individuals. This is pretty much indisputable. What is very disputable is whether any particular sound or amalgamation of sounds is “beautiful”. Despite the evaluations of critics and whatever degree of concensus there is within the poulation as to what constitutes “beautiful” sounds, the bottom line is that “beauty” exists only in the subjective perception of the objective reality of “sound”, bearing in mind that “sound” implies a perceiver either potentially or actually.

      I never have to consult anyone to determine whether what I consider to be beautiful (in any sense of the word) actually is beautiful by means of some objective standard or professed authority. I have observed in myself that what I consider to be beautiful is likely to vary and change over time due to the subjective nature of beauty. That which was beautiful yesterday may not be beautiful today.

      Still, I could be missing something about the objective nature of beauty and invite anyone to enlighten me.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      I think you dodged my point here. What kind of property is timbre? Or pitch?

      Anyway, you are conflating the experience of beauty with what I’m calling aesthetic properties. Whether I have the experience of beauty is indeed subjective, and elsewhere I used my own case where I have a muted appreciation of visual beauty to point out that even though I may not be able to experience an aesthetic property or use it to consider something beautiful, that does not mean that there are no objective aesthetic properties, by which I mean aesthetic properties that tend to produce certain aesthetic experiences in people. A painting is still a vibrant painting even if I personally do not like vibrance.

      An inability to recognize or reaction properly to — even temporarily — an aesthetic property does not mean that they don’t exist.

    • Matthew Orlando

      I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make about pitch and timbre. Pitch can be measured objectively as the dominant frequency of a sound within human auditory range. Instrument tuning devices have been able to objectively measure pitch longer than I’ve been alive. You can be objectively wrong in your assessment of a sound’s pitch.

      Timbre is simply the way all the other frequencies present in the sound are perceived. You can objectively compare the timbre of two sounds using various signal processing techniques.

      These are objective properties of the sound that affect how the sound is perceived. There may be ways to determine whether a given pitch or timbre will be perceived as beautiful by a majority of people, but you can’t get from there to saying the beauty is an inherent property of the sound…

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      My point was pretty much your last paragraph, so you seem to be rather vigourously agreeing with me [grin].

      When it comes to beauty, we have to separate experiencing beauty from something being beautiful, which is what, you’ll note, I’ve been trying very hard to do by talking about “aesthetic properties”. Aesthetic properties are exactly like the sound properties of at least timbre and probably pitch, which are properties that impact how it is experienced. But that means that like pitch and timbre they are objective properties that belong in an interesting to the appropriate objects. Now, even if those properties exist someone may not find the object beautiful, but that wouldn’t mean that those properties are not there.

    • Matthew Orlando

      Sure, but it seemed you were trying to support the article’s idea that beauty itself was a property. That’s not what’s happening here. There are (more or less) well defined properties that can induce feelings of beauty, but the beauty itself isn’t a property.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      Well, I make the move from beauty to “aesthetic properties” to avoid just the sort of baggage that I think your comment is falling victim to.

      If by beauty you mean “the actual phenomenal experience of beauty”, then I and I think Eric would agree that that is indeed completely subjective and belongs only to the person. However, we’d agree that it is that in precisely the same way as the phenomenal experience of red is. However, that does not mean that there are not “red-producing” properties that rightly belong to the object and not the experiencing person. I think that Eric’s view here is working with problems encountered when you presume that beauty-producing properties are, in fact, simply subjective and in the person based on the fact that your experience of beauty is subjective. So, in that sense, I think I AM defending his view to the extent that I do think that there are properties that can rightly be called aesthetic in the absence of an experiencer, and so claims that the aesthetic is all subjective seem to me to be problematic.

    • Nele

      Well, the problem is that artists, art critics, and philosophers of art DO think that there are at universally — or mostly so — aesthetic properties. Vibrancy is a common one. So the people who study the aesthetic do think that such things exists, making it somewhat difficult to just deny that they exist.

      Well, the problem is that believers, prophets, and theologicans DO think that there is a universal – or mostly so – all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being. Wonders are common proofs of this being. So the people who study belief do think that such a thing exists, making it somewhat difficult to just deny that it exists.

      Mhm. A rather strange line of argument for a philosophical blog on FTB…

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      So, on what grounds do you dismiss the arguments of the fields that study these things without even bothering to understand them? It’s THAT argument that’d odd for a philosophical blog, not mine.

      To put it better, the original commenter simply denied that such things exist without noting that according to art criticism and even artists not only do such things exist but you couldn’t understand what they do without at least presuming the possibility of such things. Unless you take the time to understand why having properties like vibrance is so important to the actual activity of art you don’t really have a reason to claim in a manner that anyone should take as proven fact that such things do not exist and are not required. I outlined some of the problems with denying them in my previous comment.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      Yip, this is where I agree with you. Beauty exists, but as real subjective experience in our minds which can be discussed and studied objectively, not in some ideal Platonic form.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      But this, then, is where the question comes in (and I’m not, BTW, saying that you can’t answer it): If a painting is agreed to be vibrant under the standards of art and aesthetics, and if I look at it and fail to find it vibrant — which is quite likely for me so this isn’t a hypothetical case — does that mean that the painting is not actually vibrant, or can one identify a flaw in me that means that the painting is vibrant but I am incapable of experiencing vibrancy in that painting?

      As stated, my take on that was to argue that aesthetic properties rightly belong to the object, but indicate a tendency to produce a specific aesthetic experience in an observer. This makes them not subjective and not purely in the head, but yet does retain the tie to subjective experience that they need to have to have meaning. Is this an acceptable move to you? If not, what problem does it introduce?

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      You still seem to be thinking in essentialist terms. Beauty is neither entirely in the eye of the beholder, nor entirely in what being observed, it’s a result of an interaction between the two.

  • grung0r

    I too have written an essay about the objective properties of immanent abstraction. I hope everyone enjoys.

    Some things are floberdukleful. And all floberdukleful things share the quality of being floberdukleful; they all have the feature or property of floberdukle. Plato is famous for his theory that floberdukle exists as the abstract form that all floberdukleful things share in common.

    All floberdukleful things express, manifest, or display floberdukle. Floberdukle is inherent or intrinsic in every floberdukleful thing. And things of very different types can be floberdukleful. There are floberdukleful works of art like floberdukleful songs and floberdukleful paintings. There are floberdukleful events in nature like floberdukleful sunsets. And there floberdukleful things in nature. Some human bodies are very floberdukleful. And even abstract structures can be floberdukleful: there are floberdukleful structures in mathematics. The axioms of set theory are extremely floberdukleful. The laws of nature can be floberdukleful. Scientific theories can be floberdukleful.

    I would hope that atheists can affirm that there are floberdukleful things in the physical universe and even that there are floberdukleful structures in mathematics. But what is floberdukle? Things are floberdukleful, but floberdukle is not a thing; floberdukle is immanent in things. floberdukle is an immanent universal, a quality shared by many things, a power within things. Some of those things are physical while others are mathematical, even purely mathematical, and thus not physical at all. Surely the existence of floberdukle is compatible with atheism – it requires no theistic deity. And surely the existence of floberdukle is compatible with naturalism – floberdukle is an entirely natural quality. And surely the existence of floberdukle is compatible with rationalism – much of what reason reveals is floberdukleful, even purely floberdukleful, floberdukle-itself.

    Some people will object that I have failed to define “floberdukle”. They say things like: “If Darwin had called his theory “glenershyiz” instead of “evolution” that it still would have been equally descriptive of a real phenomena”, while your essay is just a pile of meaningless drivel that doesn’t appear to describe anything at all”. Others will object that my reasoning is entirely circular. They will say that I have defined “floberdukle” by calling it “floberdukleful”,and said that that things that are “floberdukleful” are things that contain “floberdukle”.

    To these people, I will say nothing at all. Instead, I will continue to churn out loads of vacuous tripe playing on appeals to people’s emotional connections to certain words instead of defining them, and I will continue to employ circular and tautological reasoning all in order to define my god(AKA the invisible red dragon of Betelgeuse 7)into existence.

    • Steve Schuler

      Dude, are you trying to tell me that some folks might be so caught up in the world/s of metaphysics that they may be losing touch with the real world/s (whatever that might be)?

    • grung0r

      No sir, I would never tell you such a thing. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to keep my cherished floberdukle, would I?

    • Steve Schuler

      It’s kind of embarrsing to admit, but when I first read this comment of yours I reacted a lot like the Double Rainbow Guy. I found myself vocalizing my emotions which ranged from delighted laughter to awestruck weeping while muttering, “But what does it mean…What Does it Mean…”

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Peter Grant,

    What’s the difference between your relational view of beauty and my aesthetic properties view, in your opinion? I think we might be agreeing on everything except that I consider my view objective and you consider yours subjective.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      I think we might be agreeing on everything except that I consider my view objective and you consider yours subjective.

      Yip, but as you pointed out, there’s pretty big difference between subjective and objective facts. Subjective facts are only true in relation to the subject, in this case human conceptions of aesthetics.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Ah, I think this might be an excellent example of why philosophers worry so much over the meaning over every little term in an argument.

      You say that subjective facts are true only in relation to the subject.

      I say that subjective facts are true only in relation to A SPECIFIC AND PARTICULAR subject.

      Yes, vibrancy is about how a painting, say, affects a subject, but its truth can be determined independently of any particular subject; a painting may still be properly called vibrant even if it fails to invoke that reaction in me. How would this work in your view?

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      Yes, vibrancy is about how a painting, say, affects a subject, but its truth can be determined independently of any particular subject; a painting may still be properly called vibrant even if it fails to invoke that reaction in me. How would this work in your view?

      Sure, as long as it invokes that reaction in some subject somewhere it is beautiful to them.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      And thus, the major difference in our positions. I claim that a thing having a property that is a tendency to produce an experience maintains that tendency even if that tendency is never activated, meaning that even if no one ever experiences vibrancy when looking at that painting or there are no beings capable of experiencing vibrancy that painting can still be called vibrant. You, on the other hand, seem to tie it to the experience itself, and thus argue that if no one has had a vibrant experience when observing that painting it isn’t vibrant, and that the instant it has been experienced as vibrant it is. You can correct me if I’m wrong. But that view is very subjective and seems to imply that if no one is currently experiencing that painting, then it isn’t vibrant either (after all, the vibrancy is only actualized in actual experiences, and so if there is no actual experience or actual relation currently happening then the property can’t exist either). And that’s a pretty odd claim, it seems to me. Is that what you’re willing to commit to, or am I misinterpreting your view?

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      You, on the other hand, seem to tie it to the experience itself, and thus argue that if no one has had a vibrant experience when observing that painting it isn’t vibrant, and that the instant it has been experienced as vibrant it is.

      Unless someone is experiencing or has experienced vibrancy in the painting I don’t see how we can claim that the painting is vibrant in any sense. It might be, but we just don’t know yet. All our knowledge is limited this way because of how we experience time.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      You’re conflating how we KNOW something is, say, vibrant with whether or not it is vibrant independently of our own experiences, and adding in a rather unwarranted assumption that there is no and will never be a way to determine that more objectively. Again, the art world has identified both colours and content that tend towards vibrancy, meaning that in theory you could simply identify those sorts of things and determine that the painting is vibrant regardless of whether you’ve had that experience or not. The theories are not yet complete, and cognitive science has just started to weigh in on the issue of aesthetics, but it does not seem far-fetched to think that objective measures may be forthcoming, which would put a hole in your argument even if your argument didn’t, as I said, replace “The object has property X” with “Here’s how I know that the object has property X”.

    • http://richarddawkins.net/profiles/51655 Peter Grant

      You’re conflating how we KNOW something is, say, vibrant with whether or not it is vibrant independently of our own experiences

      No I’m not conflating them, this is precisely why I try to avoid making metaphysical claims because we do not KNOW.

      Again, the art world has identified both colours and content that tend towards vibrancy, meaning that in theory you could simply identify those sorts of things and determine that the painting is vibrant regardless of whether you’ve had that experience or not.

      Colours, wavelengths of light which human eyes detect and human brains perceive subjectively. Other types of light detectors and perceivers might react differently or not at all. Why not just keep your claims in relation to your subject? Then you can do as much objective research and experimentation as you like.


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