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: