Editor’s Note: This is crossposted at Professor Scot McKnight’s Beliefnet blog, Jesus Creed. The first post in this series is found here, and the second here.
The Origin of Beauty
Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt’s masterful book A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature gives the following illustration of how modern scientific reductionists treat nature and the arts:
Imagine hearing the following account of one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s symphonies: ‘We have been able to prove that this particular symphony is actually reducible to a series of notes that happen to be played both at the same time in chords and one after another, creating a string of disturbances in the air caused by different frequencies. We realize, of course, that these disturbances cause further disturbances in the audience, due in part to the presence of Earth’s particular atmosphere and in part to the effect such disturbances have on the apparatus of the ear as transmitted by neurons to the brain–so disturbing, in fact, that some break into voluntary tears, remarking that they seemed to be hearing the very harmonies of heaven. Happily, we now know that there is nothing more to Mozart’s work in particular and to music in general than mere notes, themselves reducible to waves disturbing air.’
When Christian intellectuals hear such things, their general response is to think that they can have their Darwinian cake and merely scrape off the reductionist icing. But Darwinism, if I may continue the strained metaphor, is, it turns out, a layered cake with icing all throughout.
Continue Wiker and Witt:
Such reductionism displays the kind of bluntness of soul we found in Sigmund Freud, which could reduce the glory of Hamlet to the irrational gurglings of sexual desire. It is the precise bluntness of soul that led Charles Darwin to reduce the origin of music to mating calls and, hence, to the sexual desire that drives sexual selection.
The authors refer here, of course, to Darwin’s reductionist account of music in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Many Christians think science determines the ‘how’ and religion determines the ‘why.’ But we see here that in the strange case of Darwinism, this simply won’t do. Natural selection swallows up other causal chains. The ‘why’ of natural phenomena reduces to ‘because it enhanced reproductive success.’ And beauty–to the artist’s great horror–is no exception.
As University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne writes, “any injection of teleology into evolutionary biology violates precisely the great advance of Darwin’s theory: to explain the appearance of design by a purely materialistic process–no deity required.”
In chapter six of The Origin, Darwin further destroys the beauty of beauty, demoting it to an illusion which, once again, enhances reproductive fitness. Darwin there writes that if his theory is true, nothing in nature was created for the beauty of man. Nor is beauty of any real substance, but completely arbitrary.
The Darwinian, at least in his philosophical commitments, is tone deaf. As A.N. Wilson (the great biographer of C.S. Lewis) recently wrote of philosophical materialists in explanation of his re-conversion to Christianity, “they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. It is not that (as they believe) they have rumbled the tremendous fraud of religion–prophets do that in every generation. Rather, these unbelievers are simply missing out on something that is not difficult to grasp. Perhaps it is too obvious to understand; obvious, as lovers feel it was obvious that they should have come together, or obvious as the final resolution of a fugue.”
Nature’s design is just like this. Too obvious to grasp. (As Lewis said, fish don’t feel wet.) But this is why we need the artist. For the artist senses the transcendent and eternal in the mundane and temporal. She makes plain what should be plain; stirs in us what is simmering unconsciously. Conveys the immaterial through the material.
So why have so many of the best artists of our generation, even rather secular ones–the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.s, the Tom Wolfes, etc.–been unable to shake their skepticism of Darwinian fairytales? Because Darwin’s view strikes at the heart of the artist’s soul, reducing all purposes, all agency actually, to survival. The Darwinian world is no longer a shadowland, for it is without Sun. To the artist, however, such reductionism will ever echo falsely in the quiet hour, when another world whispers.