Materialism and Beauty

In response to a post by Victor Reppert, I left the following comments on his blog.

Victor — I’m very late to this thread, but I hope you’ll respond to this comment.
I read the linked article. Maybe I misunderstood it, but it seems to me that even if everything that article said were correct, it wouldn’t follow that materialism cannot explain beauty. What that article talked about is one recent attempt by neuroscientists to offer a (neuro-)scientific explanation for beauty, an attempt which apparently didn’t work out very well. Have I missed something?
I don’t identify as a materialist because I understand materialism to be logically incompatible with abstract objects. Since I deny the existence of supernatural beings but allow for the existence of abstract objects, I identify as a metaphysical naturalist.
I’m aware that some philosophers (including Swinburne) have argued that beauty is evidence favoring theism over atheism (or naturalism). While I can usually understand why theists find various theistic arguments convincing, that’s not the case with the argument from beauty. I am baffled why anyone finds *that* theistic argument convincing.
In my experience, defenders of arguments from beauty usually (1) conflate the existence of beauty with the existence of observers who can appreciate beauty; and (2) assume without argument that the concept of “objective beauty” is coherent. I, for one, find the concept of “objective beauty” to be unintelligible. And if beauty is not objective, then beauty does not favor theism, since evolutionary naturalism can explain beauty, including non-utilitarian beauty, as well as theism. (As TaiChi has pointed out, not every inherited trait need be adaptive.) If, on the other hand, beauty is objective, then it’s far from clear why theism is a better explanation for non-utilitarian beauty than, say, neo-Platonism about beauty.

Jesus on Faith – Part 5
The Theistic Arguments: A Brief Critique
Jesus on Faith – Part 6
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Francois Tremblay

    “I don’t identify as a materialist because I understand materialism to be logically incompatible with abstract objects.”

    • Ryan McCarthy

      I think Jeff is simply saying that 1. It can’t be the case that materialism is true and that there be abstract objects and 2. Abstract objects exist. So due to 1 and 2 he believes materialism is false.

      • Francois Tremblay

        So, another argument from ignorance like all other presuppositionalist nonsense. Got it.

    • Richard_Wein

      The term “materialism” is not well-defined, and is used in a variety of ways. Jeffery seems to be taking it in a particularly narrow sense. It’s often used in a far broader sense, as when the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: “The two broad, traditional and competing theories of mind are dualism and materialism (or physicalism).”

    • Mike D

      I had the same reaction. There’s no such thing as “abstract objects”. There are abstractions of objects, but abstractions are just representations of actual or possible objects – not actual objects.

      • Jason Thibodeau

        Does a representation require a representer? If so, then numbers only exist when there are beings that can represent them.

        I also have problems with materialism. It is not that I think that numbers are abstract objects and abstract objects are not not material. Rather, it is that I don’t know the correct account of the metaphysical status of numbers or abstract objects in general. And I don’t think anyone does. Sure, lots of people say they do, but that is mostly just bluster.

        I think that we should just say that this stuff is hard and we are pulled in different directions. For some reasons, we want to think of numbers as abstract objects. For other reasons we want to say that everything is material. But there is no need to take a definite stand.

        • Mike D

          A representation of something only requires a representer if it is a representation of something that actually exists, rather than an abstraction. Numbers themselves are abstractions used to represent some state of reality – they’re not objects.

          I think there’s a tendency to overthink this kind of stuff in philosophical discussions, but the most logically consistent stance is that abstractions, including numbers, do not exist as anything more than representations of actual or possible things. Their existence is wholly dependent on the existence of brains that can make such representations.

          • Jason Thibodeau

            “Their existence is wholly dependent on the existence of brains that can make such representations.”

            This is very tempting, but I have my doubts. Mainly because it implies that numbers did not exist before the evolution of conscious beings capable of abstraction. But it seems intuitively plausible to me to say that 2+3=5 is a timeless truth.

            In any event, my main point is that I just don’t think that we need to commit to any particular account of the metaphysical status of numbers (or of beauty). It is a very interesting topic in its own right, but it really has nothing to do with much of anything, especially with the existence or non-existence of God.

        • Mike D
          • Jason Thibodeau

            Thanks for the recommendation.

      • staircaseghost

        “possible objects”, eh?

        things are getting materialer and materialer…

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