God and the Problem of Beauty

Sunrise Image 1The beauty of nature must be an enigma to an atheist.


Science can explain how a ballet dancer is able to move her body, how the planets circle the sun, why the ocean tides ebb and flow, and how the movement of the tectonic plates made mountains.


But why is it all so beautiful?


Surprised by beauty


The evolutionist has only the narrowest of approaches to the problem of beauty. For the evolutionist, beauty is something favored by natural selection, ensuring our attraction to the opposite gender so reproduction continues. But this doesn’t explain why we gaze at sunsets, why we stare at the night sky, or climb mountains just for the view. All are activities that don’t serve any apparent evolutionary purpose.


The problem of natural beauty is compounded by the fact that our experience of it is universal. The same cannot be said about manmade works of art. Some people surely think Picasso is a great artist while others consider him a ‘degenerate modern’ whose discombobulated paintings speak for themselves. Some like Beethoven, others prefer the Beastie Boys. But when was the last time you heard someone argue that a sunset was ugly? Or that a warbler didn’t know how to sing?


Our experience of beauty is significant because it can’t be written off as a side effect of the evolutionary process—it’s not like the night sky or sunsets got more beautiful as our ability to recognize them matured. The sun, according to science, is more than four billion years old, and the Milky Way galaxy is three times its age. Mountains may be much younger but still were around tens of millions of years before the arrival of mankind, at least according to the dating scheme of science. Yet somehow our consciousness is imprinted with the ability to recognize an aesthetic value in the world around us, a value that gives us a kind of mental pleasure—one that seems wholly superfluous to our existence as evolutionary scientists would have us understand it.

Mountains Image 2


A beautiful mind


All this suggests that there must have been coordination on a cosmic scale: Long before the first man raised his eyes to the sky, something or someone, it seems, made sure it would be beautiful for him. It’s almost as if a starry welcome mat has been laid out for us—a trail of cosmic clues pointing to something beyond itself, something outside of space and time.


There are a number of different ways of following these cosmic breadcrumbs to God. One approach is that of St. Augustine, who argues in the City of God that the existence of beauty and our ability to recognize it are evidence for the existence of God. His argument rests heavily on Platonist philosophy, which held that the ultimate nature of reality consists not in what we can touch or see around us—our bodies, furniture and buildings, elements of nature like water, air, or the soil—but in unchanging ideas.


For Augustine, the source of ideas, of which beauty is a prime example, must lie beyond the visible world, because the world changes while ideas themselves are unchanging. This may sound like head-in-the-clouds philosophizing, but it does make some sense: visible beauty is, after all, not permanent. Models age and wrinkle. Hurricanes blow away beaches. Volcanoes blast holes in the sides of mountains. And an army of bulldozers or an ice storm can easily ruin the most beautiful of vistas. So where exactly do ideas exist? In the mind, according to Augustine. But this mind, unlike human minds, itself must be eternally unchanging. Otherwise, it could not logically be the source of the unchanging idea of beauty. For Augustine, this eternally unchanging mind is none other than the mind of God. (The full argument, in all its wonderful complexity, can be read in Book 8, Question 6.)


Another version of the argument from beauty is made by the British philosopher Richard Swinburne, in his book, The Existence of God. Swinburne approaches the question from a slightly different vantage point. Instead of asking what our experience of beauty says about origins of the universe, he turns the question on its head: if there was a God, what would we expect the universe that He creates to look like? Swinburne makes the matter-of-fact assertion that “if God creates a universe, as a good workman, he will create a beautiful universe.” On the other hand, without God as Creator, Swinburne says there is no reason to suppose that the universe would be beautiful, as in fact it is.


It is a beauty that must bewilder the modern thinker. Science can explain what powers the sun, what drives the expansion of the universe, and even what matter is made out of. Even the most die hard of skeptics can invoke the convoluted theory of ‘quantum tunneling’ when pressed to explain how something could come out of nothing in the Big Bang. But the most obvious question of all is one that stumps him—the question that nagged the first purported caveman to come out and behold the night sky, long before there were supercolliders or space telescopes. Modern science may have peeled back the veil of ignorance on the natural world, but it avoids God only through sheer blindness.


Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage