Most people would agree that the world can be a beautiful place, that people can be incredibly kind and generous, and that there can be moments of joy, peace, or simple happiness. Those same people would probably agree that the world can be incredibly ugly, people can be vicious, and life can be full of pain, sorrow, and anguish.
The existence of ugliness, pain, sorrow, and in particular human evil, are often used as evidence that there is no designer, or more specifically no God, because if he were good he would not permit suffering. The world would need to be a perfect place in order to support the idea of a good designer.
But is this true? No, it’s not.
Optimality Requires Trade-Offs
First of all, not all pain is bad. Medical treatments that are life-saving are often painful. Second, the ideal of perfection is not possible in this world. Optimality, meaning the best that can be, often requires trade-offs. What works ideally for one situation may not work at all for another. A baby’s head is as large as it can be when it is born — any larger and it could not pass through the pelvis. But the woman’s pelvis cannot be any wider without disabling her. There are constraints on both head and pelvic size.
One might be tempted to argue that our bodies are poorly designed. Yet these bodies are capable of incredible athletic feats. Consider the grace and strength of a ballerina en pointe, major league baseball players that hit a ball they can’t even see until it crosses the plate, or the precise control of competitive divers or gymnasts over their bodies.
Consider the concert pianist who flawlessly performs a piece by Liszt or Rachmaninov, or the opera singer who can fill a hall with her voice, unaided. Consider the beauty expressed in paint by an artist. Are our bodies optimal? They do what they need to do, sometimes astonishingly well. And the things we do with these bodies are beautiful
Consider all the feats of valor and heroism carried out by ordinary people in the course of their lives. Beautiful. Consider the resilience of life, of ecosystems. Beautiful.
Consider the natural beauty around us — the Himalayas, the cliffs of Dover, the Rhine as it flows past the Lorelei, the blue haze over the Appalachian Mountains, the crescent moon with Venus in the evening sky, and the Big Sur coast.
Consider the Alternative
So we find beauty in the world. Disease is another matter. Typhoid, cancer, and malaria can be counted as natural evils. Are they enough to disprove the existence of a designer?
I submit that they are not. Consider the alternative. If the world is not designed but the product of random events sieved by natural selection, then all we should expect are disease and cobbled together utilitarian life forms that evolved to compete for resources or rapid reproduction. There is no particular reason for beauty to be favored by natural selection over ugliness, since it does not provide a selective advantage.
In River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Richard Dawkins says, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” If the world is evolved by a process of random mutation and natural selection, by a universe that does not care, then why is there beauty? Why is it so beautiful?
Beauty Is a Surprise
Beauty is always a surprise, a delight. Beauty does not come from randomness. It is beauty, not ugliness that must be explained. If we are merely atoms in motion, the result of purely unguided processes, with no mind or thought behind us, then beauty is completely unexpected.
It’s not hard to make a muddy brown splotch when painting, but to paint a beautiful flower arrangement requires knowledge of where to place the brush, and the restraint to choose wisely among colors. Choosing what to do and what not to do is design. The highest forms of art, of music, and of physical performance require choice, discipline, knowledge, and restraint in what is done and not done, by design. Architecture and mathematics require the same. In fact, for any human endeavor to be done beautifully, discipline, knowledge of what to do and what not to do, and how best to bring things together in service to the whole are essential. The result is beauty, which is by design, not by accident.
A Reasonable Expectation
Having seen beauty in human artifacts, we also recognize beauty in the natural world. Landscapes are natural features that can be quite beautiful. Note that natural selection cannot modify the landscape, just our perceptions of the landscape. They are the way they are because of natural processes. The argument has been made that we evolved to like what are presumed to be safe environments, like the savannahs of Africa from which we came. This I doubt. Mountaintops with blue glaciers, wind-sculpted sand dunes, and steep cliffs overlooking a restless sea are not particularly safe places to live. Yet something in them captures our eye. Their proportion and balance and richness move us. It’s design. And it’s what holds the biosphere together.
Beauty is a reasonable expectation if we are the product of design by a designer who appreciates beauty and the things that bring joy.
Photo credit: tonyleeglenn, via Pixabay.