Aesthetics, Naturalism and Theism

I was watching a television program recently. I can’t even recall what it was about, but it did show a lot of fancy houses along the waterfront. I recalled growing up in my own home town, and how all the rich folk seemed to live on the “east side” – that is, along Lake Michigan.

It seems all over the Western world this is true: the most expensive and sought after properties tend to be along the shore. Whether on an ocean, a lake, or a river, people just seem to love living there, and as a result, often the most expensive homes can be found there.

People are willing to pay good money to get a beach property or a sea-side home. Why is that? Having access to water would be one reason: for swimming, surfing, fishing, or what have you. But perhaps a major reason would be one of aesthetics. People simply love the beauty of an ocean view or a lake view. They love seeing sunsets or sunrises over a body of water.

It is simply a beautiful experience. We all seem to love beauty, and many are willing to pay top dollar to experience such natural beauty on a daily basis. There is nothing new or odd about this. Of course we consider this to be quite normal. However, questions arise if atheism is true.

If the naturalistic evolutionary account of things is true, and we are only just survival mechanisms seeking to perpetrate our genes, then how in the world does something like aesthetics arise? How does the love of beauty fit in the reductionist worldview of naturalism?

If, as Dawkins says, we are simply a collect of selfish genes, the aesthetic experience seems hard to be accounted for. So too does the also universal sense of transcendence and wonder. These things make complete sense in the theistic worldview, but seem quite out of place in the atheist’s worldview.

Of course that is not to say that atheists have not tried to account for our sense of beauty, wonder, awe and even the transcendent. They have sought to explain away all non-material realities in various fashions. They really tend to be not very convincing however. Indeed, it often takes more faith to embrace the naturalist explanations of reality than it does to embrace theism.

The love of beauty makes perfect sense in the Judeo-Christian worldview. A God of wonder, beauty and perfection exists, and we are made in his image, so we share in this love of beauty. And God of course created a beautiful and majestic world, so we resonate with what we find in the created order.

But why in the atheist account of things should we put any premium at all on the aesthetic? Indeed, why would it even be there in the first place? How do we account for this overwhelming delight in beauty on the evolutionary account of things?

Again, the atheist crowd has offered various explanations for this, but they seem to be far from convincing. For example, how do we account for the universal belief in God and the transcendent? Easy: there is a god gene they tell us! All sorts of wild theories are thrown out there simply because they reject a priori the most obvious ones.

But how is it that the chief goal in life – the replication and promulgation of our genes – should ever result in people making great sacrifices just so that they can purchase a waterfront home to enjoy the beautiful scenery? This really makes little sense at all.

The more honest atheists and naturalists admit to there being a problem here. For example, secular philosopher Anthony O’Hear put it this way: “But how could we think of an aesthetic justification of experience. . . unless our aesthetic experience was sustained by a divine will revealed in the universe, and particularly in our experience of it as beautiful? It is precisely at this point that many or even most will draw back. Aesthetic experience seems to produce the harmony between us and the world that would have to point to a religious resolution were it not to be an illusion.”

He continues, “From my point of view it is above all in aesthetic experience that we gain the fullest and most vividly lived sense that though we are creatures of Darwinian origin, our nature transcends our origin in tantalizing ways.” He insists upon holding to his naturalistic evolution, even though it seems to run counter to the evidence – in this case the evidence of beauty and wonder in the world.

And note how he has to use the idea of transcendence to even start to come to grips with all this. His own worldview won’t allow him to do this, so he almost seems to want to sneak transcendence in by the back door. Yet all he can do is label this non-material account of things an “illusion”.

Theists are on much safer ground it seems. They simply do not have to explain away so much of everyday reality. Of course there is beauty and a universal appreciation of it, and the most sensible explanation is that this is the result of our being made by a God who is beautiful and delights in beauty.

The naturalist simply has too much basic stuff of reality to have to account for. He can seek to explain it away or dismiss its existence all he wants, but his attempts seem to amount to a desperate avoidance of reality. Just as a child may go into denial about things which seem unpleasant, so too the naturalist has to go into denial about so much of everyday experience, because the obvious answer of God is just too painful for him to accept.

Christian philosopher Bill Davis lists a number of features of the world that seem to be better explained by God’s existence than by metaphysical naturalism. Here are two such features: “Value, both moral and aesthetic, appears to be an objective feature of the world (and not merely imposed by human preferences), a fact much more likely to have been the case if God exists than if the universe is a grand accident….

“Humans have numerous features that are more easily explained by theism than by metaphysical naturalism, if only because metaphysical naturalism currently explains all human capacities in terms of their ability to enhance survival. Among these features are the possession of reliable faculties aimed at truth, the appreciation of beauty, and a sense of humor.”

He continues, “For each of these features of the world it is possible for the determined skeptic to insist either that the feature doesn’t exist at all (as with objective morality), or that the feature can be explained adequately in terms of natural forces (without God).”

I have yet to see such a naturalistic explanation do a better job of accounting for the data than the theistic explanation. But the diehard atheists and materialists will insist on living in a schizoid world. They will preach all day in the classroom that only matter matters; that there is no reality beyond the physical world. Yet – strangely – they will go home at night and say to their spouse, “I love you”.

Sorry, but this just does not cut it. The naturalist might say to his wife, “My brain is sending off various electrical impulses at the moment based on the external data my eyes have taken in” but he simply cannot carry on about non-material realities such as love. Nor can he speak to other such realities, such as beauty, truth, justice, and so on.

But our atheist buddies will nonetheless keep trying to come up with the impossible: naturalistic or physicalistic explanations for supernatural or metaphysical realities. I would rather simply enjoy the setting sun over the ocean, and reflect on the glorious creator God who loves beauty and was willing to share this beauty with his creatures.

[1329 words]

14 Replies to “Aesthetics, Naturalism and Theism”

  1. I was only just speaking with an atheist this morning about how God has revealed Himself through creation.

    “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Romans 1:19-20

    Annette Nestor

  2. Great read and something I am growing in my understanding of – however, I must confess that I find getting a good grasp on exactly why the notion of ‘beauty’ is such a discordant issue for naturalists, confusing. I suspect that I don’t truly understand why being able to appreciate ‘beauty’ is such a significant thing, and on the flip side perhaps reveals my lack of understand of naturalism … back to the books!

    Appreciate the post – perhaps I’ll read it a few more times!

    Peter Jackel

  3. Thanks Peter

    The short answer is this: a naturalist by definition believes only in the natural, physical, material world. There is no non-material reality. But what is beauty? Can you weigh it? Measure it in a test tube? Dissect it in a lab? There are all sorts of significant things which are clearly not material. Beauty is one, as is love, truth, justice, thoughts, imagination, humour, and so on. The naturalist, to be consistent, either has to deny all these things, or try to account for them on a purely material basis.

    Better to be a theist and admit to a world loaded with all sorts of non-material realities.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Peter

    Another way to appreciate the naturalist’s dilemma is to realise that they are reductionists. Meaning that they have to translate all the unique aspects of human consciousness – the necessary human mental qualities needed to appreciate beauty; rationality, qualia, intentionality, – as nothing but the firing of neurons in the brain. So they cannot take these phenomena as they are but have to reduce them to something entirely different, as described by fundamental physics or something of that sought.

    It just won’t do for the materialist to embrace everything in the world without trying to reduce everything to the most fundamental, physical level (David Lewis was guilty of this but he probably just realised the absurdity of reductionism).

    Many philosophers of the last half century have cried foul over this including Peter Strawson, Thomas Nagel and John Searle and others.

    See also neuroscientist Raymond Tallis’ article at The New Atlantis entitled ‘What Neuroscience Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves’,

    Bill may be interested in the book he has coming out,

    See also the anthology ‘The Waning of Materialism’

    Damien Spillane

  5. “From the East Side” living on Lake Michigan?

    Bill, where you from? I lived in Milwaukee about 25 years after college before ending up in Iowa…

    Rich Delzer

  6. I found your blog quite by accident and have kept the RSS feed for, gosh, two years maybe? I wish that more people would read what you write.

    It is dire times in the Christian Church but I look upon this as a time of renewal. The old that has failed is being replaced with the new that is vibrant and strong – God is a gardener in addition to being a shepherd.

    My only worry is for the people with false priests leading them astray. Being Episcopalian in such times is hard but there is hope. One of our priests tried during Adult Education to make the sell on Homosexuality as a civil rights issue. I reserved the right to rebut and at the beginning it was granted. When she was done and it was my turn suddenly that grant was revoked. I was none too worried about it — she had changed no minds with her effort.

    I had learned years earlier at one of our Saturday Men’s Breakfasts (where we get together once a month to do chores at the church) when no priests were present that they have little impact. Our late deacon at the time who was quite orthodox made the statement “priests come and go; we stay.” Their attitude was just to wait it out and things will change.

    The Episcopal Church is withering and failing. The new American Communion of North America is vibrant and strong from what I hear from my contacts on the East Coast. Here in Iowa we wait and hope that we will have options if and when Christ is no longer revered in my church and the path to righteousness is lost.

    I do fear for the kids and what is being taught in Sunday School. Having two adult children I have nothing at risk but worry for the other kids and what they are being taught…

    Wow, that was kinda heavy… I have to ask the most important question: are you still a Green Bay Packers fan? <>

    Rich Delzer, US

  7. Thanks again Rich

    As to your last point – yes still a card-carrying cheesehead!

    Yes the church is in a very bad way but God always has a remnant who will not bow the knee to Baal. Keep up your good work and hang in there. Blessings,

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. I THOUGHT you looked like a Wisconsin person! I grew up in Randolph, WI and graduated from U of W at Madison. I’m now in Coffs Harbour, NSW, Australia and am starting up a Pregnancy Support center. Could use some tips from you on how to motivate church people to get involved. I LOVE your articles – admire the way you develop an argument!
    Carolyn Etheredge

  9. Thanks Carolyn

    But that is the million dollar question – how to wake up and motivate a largely comatose church! When I find the answer I will share it with you.

    In the meantime, on Wisconsin!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Atheist’s have a god. His name is Lucky. You have about 8 hours of night time and we sleep for about 8 hours, that’s Lucky. I wake up in the morning, that’s Lucky. We have eyes, ears and mouths facing the right direction for communication, that’s Lucky. I need oxygen to breathe and it’s in abundance, that’s Lucky. My necessary food grows on trees or in the ground, that’s Lucky. The water essential for my survival falls from the sky, that’s Lucky. Somehow man and woman are built for each other and can reproduce, that’s Lucky. Lucky decided that children should be born to parents based on a love relationship. Well we could go on, spend some time looking at everything in life and still the Atheist will say “That’s Lucky”.
    Greg Sadler

  11. Thanks Greg

    Yes they are a “lucky” bunch – for now. One day when they stand before their maker they will not be so lucky. But now is the time for them to humble themselves, come to their senses, and bow to the rightful ruler of this universe.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  12. I would hate to have the viewpoint of God’s nonexistence. It would explain in today’s culture people getting drunk regularly on weekends, drug taking etc. I assume aside from the perception that it is fun, I wonder if they also want to forget that their life will one day end. Like what Paul wrote (Corinthians was it?) ‘Let’s eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’. It would explain many of the social problems we have too. I am not perfect but I try my best to lead the best life possible with God being the centre of my life. Deep down, I think many people think about God. I wonder if it is the naturalistic argument and intellectual that prevent them or something else, like may be having to make changes in their lives which they are unwilling to do. Could not believing in God some cases be a moral decision?

    Carl Strehlow

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *