Recently, I went on a short trip through the Adirondack Mountains. New York is full of spectacular places, but this park is without a doubt near the top of that list. If you are lucky enough to visit, you will not be disappointed. Each visitor is confronted with beauty at every turn. While the park is mostly known for its mountains, this beauty is apparent on many levels; the tranquility of a stream that roams through the forest is just as potent as the awe-inducing qualities of a mountain range’s powerful presence. It is truly remarkable to be immersed so fully in such an incredible setting – a deeply human response of wonder is elicited after even a brief exposure.
It is curious to me though that an examination of what beauty actually is typically goes unconsidered. Being something we come across in so many diverse settings, one would think we might devote more thought towards it. Maybe we do not because we have become conditioned by our exposure to those beautiful things. Isn’t that just the way the world is, after all? There are objects, people and sights (to name just a few) which are good and bad, attractive and ugly, helpful and harmful etc. It’s simply a matter of fact; why overthink it right? So then, in a sense, it has receded into the background of our experience, and only makes an appearance when called upon explicitly.
Another difficulty here is this: we too often simply focus our thoughts on the object itself that grabs our attention, rather than the very process which allows us to appreciate it. But as is the case with many other things we are accustomed to, a deeper analysis of the concept of beauty reveals certain layers of truth about the world around us which are typically untouched by the casual spectator. Asking ourselves the right questions about what enables us to marvel at something extraordinary may uncover those layers, and reveal some vital observations.
A Compelling Contradiction
As I looked out the car window at the breathtaking scenery racing by, I was struck by a realization. Something didn’t add up. The sight spread out before me was a cold, hard, mechanical one. It was a random assortment of atoms and molecules, placed there at the whim of time, erosion, wind and rain. Geological processes had conspired to formulate the landscape I was surrounded by. This sedimentary soup of atoms was unassumingly ordinary. And yet, without any real rational reason, it evoked a manifestation of a deeply held conviction – one which I was unaware until that very moment I had held – that there was something profoundly right about what I was seeing. Why was I experiencing such a moving connection to it then? If strictly adhering to the rules laid down for me by the very atoms themselves, there seemed to be no room for inserting such an emotional response. This automatic reaction, which was a clamoring indication of a deeper layer of meaning embedded into the sight I was drinking in, didn’t gel with the physical harshness of the landscape. And yet, bold and center stage, there it was.
Furthermore, a subsequent thought occurred to me. If – at a fundamental level – the makeup of this landscape was indeed a “random assortment of atoms”, what distinguishable difference was there between it and any other setting? This may seem like a strange question, but it quickly becomes a very difficult one to resolve after even a brief examination. Of course, we would all initially react to this query by pointing out that those specific arrangements matter. Surely, a mountain range is quite distinctly different from a junkyard, we might say. But that response does nothing to answer the question of why that difference is meaningful to any degree. Why is a pile of trash any different than an immense pile of dirt and rocks? While a junkyard and a mountain range may each respectively contain unique portions of various elements, that fails to account for the deeper fundamental differentiation which we instinctively know exists between them. Attempting to answer this question then through a solely material explanation is tremendously unsatisfactory, and ultimately bankrupt. We wouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that the only disparities between a laugh and a scream are accounted for by varying arrangements of sound waves; let us not do so with the question of beauty either.
Essentially, what is actually being recognized when we identify something as beautiful is that we believe it is significant in some way or another. It seems necessary then to acknowledge the difficulty of reconciling the concept of beauty with a strictly materialistic explanation of the world we inhabit. If one spends even a brief amount of time dwelling on it, this concept makes no rational sense – or at least fails to answer for the degree to which we as human creatures are moved by it. The sense of wonder which is evoked when interacting with something beautiful is unmistakably potent. And yet, the nature of our cold, elemental world doesn’t seem capable of generating such a powerful sensation. Why then is it there?
Hopefully what is becoming apparent is the fact that beauty is actually an unsettling notion. It must be accounted for; if left to follow its natural course, it inevitably leads to some uncomfortable concessions. Responsibility to a greater purpose outside ourselves – as well as acknowledgement of an underlying significance we were not involved in crafting – follow close behind any recognition of substantial beauty existing in our world. Naturally, this is not the most popular thing to admit. To address this difficulty then, many people would rather attempt to tackle the deeper question of significance in a relativistic fashion. We’ll briefly inspect the advantages and drawbacks associated with doing so.
Mankind’s Great Endeavor?
The narrative goes something like this: As human beings, we can, and must, construct our own meaning. We then naturally impose whatever we have formulated outwards onto the universe, assigning significance in the manner we see fit. This is far and away the most popular in our current cultural moment – so much so that it is appealed to as an assumed fact, rather than a premise that should be tested. This popular video, entitled Man in his Arrogance and narrated by Carl Sagan, captures this sentiment excellently. He comments on the apparent arrogance of religious doctrine, which supposedly conditions man to envision himself as “a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity.” An excerpt from the transcript is representative of the views commonly held by many:
We long to be here for a purpose. Even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for parents to care for us, to forgive us of our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better, by far, to embrace the harsh reality than a reassuring fable. Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Our common sense intuitions can be mistaken. Our preferences don’t count. We do not live in a privileged reference frame. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.
It should be acknowledged that this approach has its merits, but only within correctly defined limitations. If a person has created or authored something (e.g. a painting, sculpture or book), they do indeed have the right to assign meaning to it. This is the case because their own creative mind was the impetus for the object or work in question. Without the spark of that creativity derived from their mind, and the technique which they applied in order to bring about its existence, the book or painting would have remained unrealized and unformed. However, to presume – as an external observer who played no role whatsoever in the creation of the work – that one has the right to apply their own spin on it is stepping outside the bounds of what is reasonable. What claim does that person truly have in commandeering its original purpose? While they are perfectly within their rights to receive its effects on them however they desire, they have no say in the driving foundational intent or meaning of it.
The only recourse left – if one wishes to heed Sagan’s advice and dish out meaning for various things at their own whim and hope it will stick – is to strip away any notion of original design. Once the cosmos becomes reduced to a vague, formless haze of elemental chaos, the real work can begin. Understandably, it is an enticing notion to picture ourselves as a kind of pioneer in the grand endeavor of forging cosmic significance. This naturally requires the unquestioning elevation of the human mind and its capacities to some sort of godlike status – without it, the universe would truly be lost at sea. The great irony of this approach though is its self contradiction at a fundamental level. If staying true to the original conditions of purposelessness, how did our minds arise to such great heights? Are we not made up of the very same stuff that we previously deemed so ordinary? To sum it all up from a material perspective: we have one particular grouping of Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen and Nitrogen atoms (the human body) pontificating – with grand self importance – on the purposes of other objects that happen to have the same ingredients. Something doesn’t add up here. In this light, it seems far more “arrogant” to foist ourselves so confidently onto center stage. We have presumed to write ourselves into the lead role of a play, the plot of which is careening in a direction we cannot comprehend or even hope to alter. Perhaps someone should have suggested to Mr. Sagan then that the shoe of arrogance fits far better on the other foot.
Many people would object at this point, appealing to the fact that we are conscious beings as an area of differentiation between us and our physical environments. But even the factor of consciousness does little to rectify this quandary. We are aware of ourselves and our surroundings. So what? This does not somehow automatically bestow us with magical properties. One might argue that this conscious perception makes the irony even more potent; because of the awareness of our material similarities to the world around us, we should be better able to grasp the folly of attempting to elevate ourselves above it somehow.
The Difficulties of Self Generated Wonder
Returning to the question of beauty and inspecting it through the lens of a purpose fashioned by humankind may reveal some helpful observations here. These illustrate some of the shortcomings the materialist narrative is plagued by. First, the alternative possibility of discovered meaning is far more convincing. Surely one of the most compelling aspects of beauty is its distinct otherness. Things that we identify as beautiful seem to possess certain characteristics that mark them as such. Indeed, we do not assign beauty to places, objects or people; they exist as beautiful, apart from our interactions with them. In other words, they don’t rely on our recognition of them as beautiful in order to assume that role. They inherently possessed those qualities long before we came along to experience them, and they will continue to long after we have gone. While experiencing a breathtaking sight, one cannot shake the feeling that if they turn and walk away, it will go on being beautiful. There will be no crisis. It will continue along the same course it always has.
Here is where another deficiency comes into play. Because of the self sufficiency of beautiful things, to presume that it is necessary for us to impart those qualities to them is incredibly limiting. Our capacity for imagination is essentially the ceiling for how extraordinary they can be. Yet this is most definitely not the overwhelming impression one is confronted with when standing before the Grand Canyon, for example. Rather, the canyon’s expansive scope far exceeds their ability to even mentally grasp it, let alone be its sole supplier of beauty. If the imaginative powers of the human mind are barely capable of comprehending its own inner workings, what leads us to presume it is up to the infinitely greater task of determining a broader system of significance outside itself?
An Uncomfortable Concession
If you have been following along, it is most likely you have guessed where this was leading. It all culminates in this one simple observation. According to materialism, beauty is a delusion, at least in the sense that it exists outside of ourselves. Perhaps it is real, but certainly not in the grand manner we instinctively envision. Rather, it must necessarily be a construct of our own imagination – an elaborate hoax, fabricated by us in our futile search for significance outside ourselves. Chesterton has aptly noted this ideology leads to an inevitable erosion of our humanity, that “It is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity; I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human” (17). Once the domino of beauty has successfully been toppled, perhaps many of the other things we hold dear will follow soon after.
By no means has this been a comprehensive interaction with the subjects of materialism or beauty, and in particular how they overlap. Hopefully though, it has helped to illustrate that, when they do interact, there seems to be many irreconcilable difficulties and inconsistencies. And when materialism attempts to put forward an explanation which accounts for the human intuition that beauty is in fact a tangible reality, it doesn’t appear to be up to the task. This inadequacy is not an ultimate proof that materialism is false, but it still must be seriously weighed. The strongest arguments it can provide still pale in comparison to the compelling nature of extraordinarily moving things. A mountaintop view in the Adirondacks quickly demonstrates the insufficiency of materialism’s explanatory powers in regards to the question of beauty.
While it was not my intent to develop an alternate perspective in depth in this post (I’m sure I will do so at another time), I will leave you with an excerpt from Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God.
Doesn’t the unfulfillable longing evoked by beauty qualify as an innate desire? We have a longing for joy, love, and beauty that no amount or quality of food, sex, friendship, or success can satisfy. We want something that nothing in this world can fulfill. Isn’t that at least a clue that this “something” that we want exists? This unfulfillable longing, then, qualifies as a deep, innate human desire, and that makes it a major clue that God is there. (139)
Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007. Print.
Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Print.
One thought on “The Problem of Beauty”
Very interesting and ambitious read Sean. You are certainly taking this subject very seriously. I’d love to discuss this subject with you in conversation at some point. I’ll talk to Aunt Ann about having you and, if you wish, your friend Elizabeth over for dinner in the near future. I want to say that I’m a little awe-struck at your philosophical bent. It’s very encouraging to me. I think you’re a budding philosopher and, perhaps, a bit of an artist too.