Beauty: Can You Only Really Get It with God? (No)

A Christian commenter recently claimed this humdinger:

If God exists, beauty and ugliness are not subjective but objective properties. that is the point. you used the term ‘ugly’, while you claim to be an atheist.

Yes, everything people say says a lot about them. The fact that you would be a deistic god, if you were god, says a lot about you, as well.

For me, a caring God is the kind that created us with feel will and with a plan to save us from ourselves.

and:

This is not a random assertion. For beauty to be objective, there must be a standard outside of the things themselves. While it is true that beauty is subjective, if there is no God, this is not so, if there is a God.

The view may be tragic but it is the truth. We are sinful and need to be saved from ourselves. If God exists, then a standard of righteousness exists, which flows from God’s nature.

I claimed that this view really was naive. He answered how ti could be naive, so here you go.

My belief is that:
  • Beauty is a word which all too often means “I like that”. In other words, it is shorthand for desirability, attraction etc. Stripping many of those meanings away leaves you with somewhat anaemic definition.
  • Beauty is a personal value statement ascribed to an object by the subject. It might be described as relational.
  • If there were no humans or rational agents in existence, then nothing would be beautiful, though they would still have the properties which were ascribed beauty.
  • In other words, it is dependent on perception.
  • I would think, in the ways that humans understand beauty, only humans presently have that conception, though other animals might have the same emotional reaction to some things which we might describe as beautiful.
  • The argument boils down to nominalism vs realism and it is arguably foundational to the debate. That said, real emotional/physiological reactions are also at play.
  • There are many good theories and a whole host of research concerning the evolutionary basis of things pertaining to beauty. For example, see Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works.
  • If you think an object actually has the real properties of beauty, then these properties must exist somewhere. Either this means a platonic realm DOES exist, or that an object holds beauty like it does mass and so on. Either claim is victim to an array of problems.
Let’s say that we claim a volcano is beautiful. These questions should evoke the issues with objective beauty:
  • What about looking at the inside of the volcano? The outside?
  • Is half of the volcano half as beautiful?
  • What about where the volcano ends? If I included 2, 4, 9 miles outside the volcano?
  • Would different angles viewing the same object ACTUALLY hold different beauty values?
  • What about that same volcano but magnified to standing right in front of it? What about magnified under a microscope? What about at electron level? This same object, would it now have different objective beauty?
  • What about the volcano to an alien, monkey, bird?
  • What if it was erupting, smoking?
  • What if it was now causing widespread death and destruction? Global warming?
  • What if I kept chipping away at it, rock by rock? When would it go from being beautiful to not? Or is it gradual? If you were looking from afar, you wouldn’t see most of that gradual chipping, yet you would still claim that now different object had the same beauty value. At some point, though, there would be a tipping point.

So on and so forth.

The point is, it is easy to claim that something is objectively beautiful; far more difficult to give a coherent account of how it works.

However, from a subjective stance, all the above questions pose absolutely no problems at all.

Of course, with different definitions and ideas (a grandmother being beautiful to grandmothers as a generic concept being beautiful – visual vs abstract ideas of beauty), we have different ideas concerning beauty, and objectivity becomes even harder.

In other words, it is difficult enough to establish abstract ideas as real in philosophy (nominalism vs realism) but to then assign a supposedly objective abstract concept (beauty) to an abstract idea (grandmotherness) is even more difficult. And then to claim this is only coherent when underwritten by another abstract concept (God), well…

The case here is that if God exists, beauty must be objective. But hopefully you can see that the idea of objective beauty is problematic and those problems, highlighted above, are simply not solved by throwing God into the equation.

The final issue pertains to the meaning and purpose debate. Theists, such as the commenter above (TJT), claim similarly:

There can be no real purpose and meaning, if there is no God.

The problem is, as Kant would argue, you can’t know things-in-themselves, and this includes ideas of meaning. If God has a meaning for us, then:

  1. Why should that mean I have to adopt that meaning for myself?
  2. Meaning is by definition what things mean to me. This is the case for language. We try to codify and make it objective in creating dictionaries, but meaning is the act of a mind applying meaning and representation to a thing or a concept. This is necessarily subjective.
  3. All that saying God gives meaning does is to say another mind applies it’s own meaning to s given thing. You may or may not accord with that third party in your own representations and meaning-making.

Imagine if I cam up to you and pointed at a painting that you hated and thought was ugly and said, “That is truly beautiful!” We would argue and give reasons for our probably intuitive reactions. But that visceral reaction is neither wrong or right, and each of us is neither wrong or right.

Now imagine I am God. This does not really change the situation. I can give you all the reasons in the world, but if you don’t feel that the painting is beautiful, then you don’t think it is beautiful.

Theists love to argue that everything that has value (here, aesthetic value) must be underwritten by God. But they fail to adequately grapple with the idea that values – or the acts of evaluation – are necessarily subjective. Just because something has a price tag does not mean it objectively has that value, or that God has a price tag machine.


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