The Fallacy of God and Art

Picture yourself given the following question: A woman becomes pregnant. She has tuberculosis and the father has syphilis. As a result she has already had four miscarriages. In fact, their only surviving child is deaf and intellectually impaired. You, as a doctor, are asked to decide whether they should terminate the current pregnancy. Yes, it is (one of the versions of) the Great Beethoven Fallacy. Would you answer “yes” your questioner would triumphantly announce “Congratulations, you have just murdered Beethoven”. Of course the queerness of the argument should be obvious (if not I can readily point them out in a comment), but this is just the introduction to my subject.

This tale, it doesn’t correspond to Beethoven’s real situation by the way, is an example of the Argument from Beauty which tries to affirm the existence of god. The argument is that since beauty transcends an object’s material state, and beauty is a quality of god, then god must exist. And from this there is also an argument that all great art must come from, or be inspired by, religion. But this is of course an incorrect assumption. To see why lets first look at some examples of explicitly religious art and architecture:

 

notredamedeparisgod2-sistine_chapel


uppsala_domkyrka_front

Of course these are impressive examples but is it impossible to find something that at least rivals these works? Of course not.

Statue of Liberty

hemispheric_-_valencia_spain_-_jan_2007

library_of_alexandria

sydney_opera_house_-_dec_2008

None of these examples have anything to do with religion, yet most would agree they are quite esthetically satisfying.

There are two things one can say about this. The most likely reason artists, architects, musicians and others almost exclusivly created religious art in the past ages were that churches were the only one who could support the creation of such works. God is apparently not a requirement for appreciating the wounderful and spiritual (for lack of a better word). One can also notice the fallacy of defining god as direct responsibility for certain properties in the world. If god is the beauty in a painting, the gentle surface of a lake, and in so many other things, what god is there left to talk about?

Steven Weinberg sums it up perfectly in his Dreams of a Final Theory, “Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that ‘God is the ultimate’ or ‘God is out better nature’ or ‘God is the universe.’ Of course, like any other word, the word ‘God’ can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say ‘God is energy,’ then you can find God in a lump of coal.”

14 Responses

  1. omg!! the people in front of the statue look like ants holy crap!! the statue is huge!!

  2. The argument from beauty does not say beautiful objects are only those made for religious purposes or by religious people. The argument from beauty agrees that one can be an atheist and work for secular purposes and still produce beauty.

  3. Thank you for the observation apologianick. If this is the case I feel it only strengthen my line of reasoning.

  4. Then you’re not familiar with what the argument from beauty says. All that has been presented is a straw man. We’re still waiting to find that beauty explained. Of course, you could just say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” but then you have to drop the idea that all the above pictures are aesthetically pleasing.

  5. Nick (aka apologinick): I’m sorry that I just read your comment from the hip, so to speak. Double checking wikipedia clearly identify this as “The argument from beauty is an argument for the existence of God as against materialism.”.

    While this line of reasoning might not be widely used by the ordinary beliver I do not think this is a straw man argument when it comes to the “sophisticated theologicans”.

    I don’t know what “side” you’re taking on this, but you are actualy raising the exact counter arguments atheists raise in that it’s nonsensical to see any further purpose in beauty than itself.

    Also, beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder. But we can still retain the concept of good art if only through statistics.

  6. Roger. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then you can’t hold to what you stated. Do you think the images you included above that are not religious in origin are beautiful? If so, then beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but in the object. However, if you want to say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then you say beauty is an idea in the mind of the viewer and he projects that beauty onto that which he views, but if he speaks of that which he views saying “X is beautiful” then he is not telling anything about the object but the way he perceives the object.

    If you hold that, then you live in a world where the statement “X is beautiful” cannot be a true statement or even a false one. It is meaningless.

    And please use some other source besides wikipedia. It might help to actually read something on the argument from beauty sometime because you do not represent it properly at all.

  7. Well then. Before I say anything more, would you care to state the definition of the argument from beauty to us, for our common benefit?

  8. The argument from beauty is like the argument from morality. Just as truths about morality can be known, so can truths about beauty. You can make statements about the beauty of an object in itself and those statements are either true or false. However, for things to be beautiful, there must be some standard of beauty by which they are made beautiful and this, as Aquinas would say, everyone knows as God.

    Also, if you wish to debate these in a more in-depth style, I recommend coming to TheologyWeb.com. I’m ApologiaPhoenix there.

  9. I noticed that this is not the first time you mention this topic. Why have you chosen it again?
    p.s. Year One is already on the Internet and you can watch it for free.

  10. Well Nick, if you’re still following this blog post, you are right in that saying that “X is beautiful” speaks about the perception of an object rather than an attribute of the object. This is not particularly strange since this is how the expression is ordinarily understood. But as I mentioned before, we can make assumptions of what is esthetical based on what people tend to agree on as beautiful.

    Your definition of the argument could, with some imagination, apply as a variation of the original formulation. However, it more closely resembles the argument from degree, although the original formulation by Thomas Aquinas discuss the degree of heat.

    But with your substitution of heat with beauty, what use would a maximum of beauty have?

    I am not saying that there are no absolutes. Take the absolute zero temperature for example. This limit is a logical conclusion from our knowledge of what constitute temperature, but our current understanding also tells us that it’s probable neither we, nor anything can actual reach it. It simply takes too much energy. Looking the other way, at the maximum temperature, and we only find infinity.

    Obviously one must ask how you measure beauty to begin with? But even putting this aside, the idea that an extreme demands a figuration is not evident. Just because something can be thought of as a concept doesn’t mean it have to exist.

  11. Well Nick, if you’re still following this blog post, you are right in that saying that “X is beautiful” speaks about the perception of an object rather than an attribute of the object.

    Me: Which is not at all what I’m saying! I’m saying that we can perceive some things as beautiful of course, but that perception is either right or wrong. The beauty of the object is in the object and not the perception.

    You: This is not particularly strange since this is how the expression is ordinarily understood.

    Me: Nonsense. If I say “X is beautiful”, I believe I am speaking a truth about the thing itself and not just my perception of it.

    You: But as I mentioned before, we can make assumptions of what is esthetical based on what people tend to agree on as beautiful.

    Me: We can. That doesn’t show it’s true or false and so is irrelevant.

    You: Your definition of the argument could, with some imagination, apply as a variation of the original formulation. However, it more closely resembles the argument from degree, although the original formulation by Thomas Aquinas discuss the degree of heat.

    Me: My definition is the correct one. Yours is the false one. Aquinas did not say much about beauty as much as he did about truth and goodness. It might help to read Armand Maurer’s “About Beauty” or Umberto Eco’s “The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas” to understand what’s been gleaned from his writings on his thoughts on beauty.

    You: But with your substitution of heat with beauty, what use would a maximum of beauty have?

    Me: Note I didn’t substitute heat for beauty. You’re saying I did. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that I don’t know the use of maximum beauty. So what? That proves it doesn’t exist?

    You: I am not saying that there are no absolutes. Take the absolute zero temperature for example. This limit is a logical conclusion from our knowledge of what constitute temperature, but our current understanding also tells us that it’s probable neither we, nor anything can actual reach it. It simply takes too much energy. Looking the other way, at the maximum temperature, and we only find infinity.

    Me: Good that you agree there are absolutes.

    You: Obviously one must ask how you measure beauty to begin with?

    Me: Let’s suppose again that we don’t know. What does this prove? It proves we have a poor understanding of beauty. It doesn’t prove that there is no such thing. We do have standards of beauty. We do see some paintings don’t compare to those of Van Gogh for instance.

    You: But even putting this aside, the idea that an extreme demands a figuration is not evident. Just because something can be thought of as a concept doesn’t mean it have to exist.

    Me: Correct, but if that is the case, you live in a world where there truly is no beauty. You can say you perceive beauty, but that is a beauty that is not there. Now I ask you about all the photos you put at the top. Are they beautiful? If they are, then my case is shown. If they are not, then you don’t even have an argument as your argument was based on those being beautiful and yet not having religious significance, which is not the argument from beauty. Either way, your argument does not work.

  12. Why do you keep suggesting that I’m not representing the argument correct? No matter if your charge is correct or not, it seem to me as just an ad hominem circumstantial attack, “you are wrong because it’s not the same argument”. Let us leave the references ten and look at the actual arguments we advance instead.

    You’re apparently not one of them, but I’m fairly sure what what people mean by “it is beautiful” is more like “I think it is beautiful” rather than “It have a high quantity of beauty”. I can make this clearer by pressing the question of the measurability of beauty (which I on second thought should have done already in my previous response). If we say that beauty is a property, then what physical mechanism do we refer to? How is it measured? We need to have objective means of doing this of course, and if there are no physical manifestation of beauty, then indeed there is no reason to thing that it actually exists.

    In this way beauty is identical to that of purpose. Purpose is an effect from our ability to plan ahead and set up goals, and it leads us to look for purpose in the world around us as well. However, if we look closely there is no purpose to identify in general in nature. Not that I by this want to diminish the gratitude we should harbor for the fact that we can find purpose for our actions.

    I asked what use a maximum beauty would have. My example of absolute temperature limits was intended to show one of the problem of putting a god there. Temperature is defined as the average velocity of the individual atoms in the given body. At the absolute zero temperature no movement happens at all (this is why it can not reach anything colder). If we allow for a god to have this property it can not be a theistic, or even deistic god. It could be a pantheistic god, but then we don’t really have any case left to advocate.

    In the same way we have to ask what does a maximum beauty mean, and why is it important? It might exist, and I never proved it doesn’t, but I don’t have to do that. I can dismiss the claim since the burden of proof lie with you.

    Regarding my own argument, we recognize that food, art and music critics differ in opinions, both by degree and in entirely. We accept this difference due to recognizing this as subjective evaluations. Thus, it is enough if just one person thinks the “secular” photos above are beautiful, because e can disagree with the majority and still be intellectually honest. This could not be the case if beauty were a physical property.

    • You: Why do you keep suggesting that I’m not representing the argument correct?

      Me: Because it’s true.

      You: No matter if your charge is correct or not, it seem to me as just an ad hominem circumstantial attack, “you are wrong because it’s not the same argument”.

      Me: No. I’m saying you’re wrong in refuting my argument because you’re not dealing with the argument from beauty as it is. The main post shows that.

      You: Let us leave the references ten and look at the actual arguments we advance instead.

      Me: Which is what I’ve been doing.

      You: You’re apparently not one of them, but I’m fairly sure what what people mean by “it is beautiful” is more like “I think it is beautiful” rather than “It have a high quantity of beauty”.

      Me: Then go ask most people and see what they say. Ask them if they think the object they speak of is beautiful or not.

      You: I can make this clearer by pressing the question of the measurability of beauty (which I on second thought should have done already in my previous response). If we say that beauty is a property, then what physical mechanism do we refer to?

      Me: Form, Clarity, and Proportion, which is what Aquinas spoke of. Does that have to be physical? No. You’re begging the question by assuming all such has to be physical. There is non-physical beauty.

      You: How is it measured? We need to have objective means of doing this of course, and if there are no physical manifestation of beauty, then indeed there is no reason to thing that it actually exists.

      Me: Tell me your physical means of measuring truth.

      You: In this way beauty is identical to that of purpose.

      Me: Let’s see if that’s accurate.

      You: Purpose is an effect from our ability to plan ahead and set up goals, and it leads us to look for purpose in the world around us as well. However, if we look closely there is no purpose to identify in general in nature. Not that I by this want to diminish the gratitude we should harbor for the fact that we can find purpose for our actions.

      Me: You are merely asserting that there is no purpose. I am curious if you think anything has objective purpose or not.

      You: I asked what use a maximum beauty would have. My example of absolute temperature limits was intended to show one of the problem of putting a god there. Temperature is defined as the average velocity of the individual atoms in the given body. At the absolute zero temperature no movement happens at all (this is why it can not reach anything colder). If we allow for a god to have this property it can not be a theistic, or even deistic god. It could be a pantheistic god, but then we don’t really have any case left to advocate.

      Me: Correct, because temperature is a necessarily physical quality and beauty is not. Beauty can express itself in the physical but it is not necessarily physical.

      You: In the same way we have to ask what does a maximum beauty mean, and why is it important? It might exist, and I never proved it doesn’t, but I don’t have to do that. I can dismiss the claim since the burden of proof lie with you.

      Me: Actually, no. If there is no objective beauty, then your whole post here is null and void and so is your argument. There has to be objective beauty for the post to make sense and your post assumed that there was. Why are you changing your position?

      You: Regarding my own argument, we recognize that food, art and music critics differ in opinions, both by degree and in entirely. We accept this difference due to recognizing this as subjective evaluations. Thus, it is enough if just one person thinks the “secular” photos above are beautiful, because e can disagree with the majority and still be intellectually honest. This could not be the case if beauty were a physical property.

      Me: We can be intellectually honest and still be wrong. When critics disagree, I take it to mean there is some truth that is worth disagreeing about. I would suggest you read Mortimer Adler on this topic in “Six Great Ideas.”

  13. Thanks for putting up this article. I’m unquestionably frustrated with struggling to search out relevant and rational commentary on this matter. Everybody now goes to the very far extremes to either drive home their viewpoint that either: everyone else in the planet is wrong, or two that everyone but them does not really understand the situation. Many thanks for your concise, pertinent insight.

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