Beauty Leads Us Home
Why is the world a beautiful place and why does it touch me?
When I was 16, my parents gave me a horse. I was a fairly typical teenager — alienated, self-absorbed, and without a way to ground my understanding of the world. I had received a certain worldview from my parents, but it was incomplete and unsatisfying to me. I think my parents hoped that the horse would liberate me from my existential crisis. Some sort of animal therapy, perhaps. And it did, but not in the way they thought.
Where we lived had expansive, wild grasslands up in the hills, and I rode practically every day in those hills. As I rode, I was surrounded by nature at its best: blue skies, the scent of sweet grass, the wind soft on my cheeks, and the meadowlark’s song a benediction rising above the hum of insects.1 No signs of civilization, nary a telephone pole or electrical tower in sight. Solitude.
Yes, coyotes stalked their prey and vultures feasted on carcasses. Pain and death were not absent. Indeed, these were key to the balance of the ecosystem. I understood all this and was still enchanted. I wish everyone could have such an encounter with nature, for in it I met beauty.
A Genius Behind It
I discovered that nature was full of harmony, unity, depth, radiance, balance, and richness. Genius. Something reached into my soul, a sense that something or someone had to be responsible for such a beautiful arrangement of living things.
That encounter taught me that there was a designer, and it sent me in search of his handiwork in sea urchins, chicks, and fruit fly embryos, in blood clotting and molecular motors, in bacterial genetics and metabolic pathways, from MIT to the University of Washington to Harvard to Redmond, Washington. I can attest that there is a genius behind all levels of biology, a genius that produces beauty.
What I had intuited as a teenager was the argument from beauty to an intelligent designer. Peter S. Williams describes others with similar intuitions:
“What could be more clear or obvious when we look up to the sky and contemplate the heavens, than that there is some divinity of superior intelligence?” So wrote Cicero, and the majority of humanity echoes this insight at one time or another. Even David Hume noted that: “A purpose, an intention, or design strikes everywhere the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems, as at all times to reject it.” Call this the “intuitive design argument.” I suggest that a major factor in the intuitive design argument is an appreciation of the aesthetic dimension of reality.2
Composer Frank La Rocca says, “An apologetics of beauty…appeals to the human person’s innate sense of the universal, the mysterious, the numinous — a sense that is pre-rational or, perhaps, super-rational, and which can be reached, I believe, more directly — bypassing the skeptical intellect.”3
The Source Must Know
Beauty is an objective quality of things in the world4 and is intrinsic to the thing itself, whether it be the Milky Way, a painting by Monet, or the garden at Giverny.
To be sure, sometimes beauty hides, waiting to surprise us. Coral reefs are muted blues, grays, and browns under natural light, but when illumined with photographic lights, they explode with color — vivid yellows, oranges, and blues. But their beauty is there all along — waiting to be revealed.
It’s popular nowadays to say beauty is subjective. If by that we mean it’s something to be experienced by a mind, an agent, well enough. But let’s reject the notion that beauty is merely an autonomic response to whatever we find pleasurable, no matter how banal, abnormal, or immoral.
There is a reality to beauty, whether of the human form, natural scenes, or artfully created objects. Beauty is distinct from the viewer and intrinsic to what is viewed.
Beauty springs from neither chance nor chaos. Where it seems to, as in the beautiful spiral shape of a whirlpool, there lurk elegant and mathematical laws conjuring it forth.
Natural selection and random mutation cannot explain beauty either. Natural selection might account for some aspects of living things, but the beauty of the world is gratuitous, prodigal, indicating a designer who loves beauty for its own sake.
The source of such beauty must know what beauty is, because the designer cannot impart what he doesn’t know, and he imparts beauty at so many points and in so many prospects — the rolling grasslands of the Palouse, the lofty heights of Everest, the coastal seascapes of Malta, Hubble’s Deep Field images — that it cannot be accidental.
Why should the perception of beauty vary so? Why do some people experience a certain piece of music or a certain arrangement of stones in a Japanese garden as beautiful, and others not? One reason: appreciation for some beautiful things requires study and repeated experience.
Great works increase in richness the more they are studied because of that quality of beauty called depth. When I first heard Bach’s Passion of St. John, I found it impenetrable, but upon repeated hearings, I began to realize its great subtlety and depth of emotion.
Musician and composer Karsten Pultz puts it this way: “I know from my own experience that certain types of music require you to spend time getting acquainted with the particular tone language, if you want to ‘understand’ what it’s all about.”5
We also differ in our wiring. For example, between 3 and 5 percent of the population takes no pleasure in music. The term for this condition is musical anhedonia — in such cases, the brain’s auditory and reward centers don’t respond to music.6 But this no more argues against the reality of beauty in music than colorblindness argues against the reality of yellow and blue and rose.
Beauty does not come from randomness, formulaic composition, or distortion. We know this from our experience with human art. Composer John Cage was known for using randomness in “music.” I once sat through a performance of his Work 189. Thirty-nine mechanical metronomes were set going at 39 different speeds. What ensued had nothing to do with beauty.
A crucifix immersed in urine (true story) is not beautiful, even if it is called art and placed in a museum. That kind of “art” is produced for its transgressive shock value. “Ugly art often reflects an ugly time,” says Charlie Fox in the New York Times.7
Of course, evolutionary biology claims to have an explanation for our perception of beauty — beauty indicates fitness. This idea has been applied to the human form, to landscapes, and even to abstract things like paintings. Psychologist Glenn Wilson claims that “symmetry and sexual dimorphism — traits that are clearly male or female — signal reproductive fitness”8 and aid one in making the choice of a mate.
Okay, but what a reductive, impoverished view of human beauty that is — especially if one insists that it is only this. There is so much more to it. I also suspect that there are too many things involved in our brain wiring to actually be selectable in this regard.
Moreover, mutation and selection cannot account for the beauty we perceive in music, art, or literature, regardless of what Vilayanur Ramachandran says. This Indian neuroscientist helped develop a field called neuroesthetics, where he created reductionist laws based on evolutionary principles to explain perceived beauty in paintings.9 His laws have little to do with art — they may correlate with neural structures in the brain, but they do not describe beauty, much less explain its ultimate source.
Evolutionary biologists attribute our perception of beauty in nature to our evolutionary history. In 2004 two Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, commissioned a poll to determine which kinds of art people from various countries found beautiful, and which kinds they found ugly. The poll revealed that people in almost every culture liked landscapes with a heavy dose of blue.
Why? Denis Dutton explains:
The lush blue landscape type that the Russian artists discovered is found across the world because it is an innate preference. This preference is not explained just by cultural traditions…. This fundamental attraction to certain types of landscapes is not socially constructed but is present in human nature as an inheritance from the Pleistocene, the 1.6 million years during which modern human beings evolved.10
Supposedly the preferred “blue landscape” resembles the savannah where we evolved. But then, why do we also find rugged mountains, seashores, glaciers, and sand dunes beautiful? No Pleistocene history there, or even a hospitable environment. Nor does an affection for Pleistocene scenery explain music, fine art, literature, or poetry.
There is also this: our surprising ability to discover the beautiful mathematics that governs the universe. Indeed, Einstein and many other physicists and mathematicians regarded the elegant beauty of an equation as evidence of its truth. These equations describe fundamental relationships built into the fabric of the universe, and they have great explanatory power. Evolution cannot account for this — natural selection is blind to abstract things, and it has no power over the mathematical structure of the universe. Yet the math is beautiful.
“If beauty is entirely biologically programmed, selected for its survival value alone, it is all the more surprising to see it re-emerge in the esoteric world of fundamental physics, which has no direct connection with biology,” writes the distinguished physicist Paul Davies. “On the other hand, if beauty is more than mere biology at work, if our aesthetic appreciation stems from contact with something firmer and more pervasive, then it is surely a fact of major significance that the fundamental laws of the universe seem to reflect this ‘something.’”11
To return where we began, I offer a poem that captures natural beauty with beautiful words. Hear the sprung rhythms, the alliteration, the rich images, and the unity. It’s a message from Gerard Manley Hopkins about beauty and its source:
Pied BeautyGlory be to God for dappled things —For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.All things counter, original, spare, strange;Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:Praise him.
- “All About Birds” (Western Meadowlark).
- Intelligent Design, Aesthetics, and Design Arguments (2003).
- “The Apologetics of Beauty” (2012).
- “To believe in objective beauty is to be philosophically orthodox: ‘the view that has been most strongly held by philosophers in the past, from Plato onwards, has been the objective one…that whether an object is beautiful or not is a matter of fact and not a matter of opinion or taste, and that value judgements about beauty are true or false.’…Despite the current fashion for abandoning this orthodoxy, there are many contemporary philosophers who hold to the objectivity of beauty (e.g., Winfried Corduan, Norman L. Geisler, Peter Kreeft, J. P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and Keith E. Yandell).” Peter S. Williams, Intelligent Design, Aesthetics, and Design Arguments, idem, note 2.
- Personal communication.
- “Inside the Heads of People Who Don’t Like Music,” The Atlantic (March 10, 2017).
- “The Beauty of Ugly Painting” (September 4, 2017).
- “Standards of Beauty Are Determined by Evolutionary Biology,” Opposing Viewpoints in Context (2013).
- “The science of art: A neurological theory of esthetic experience,” Journal of Consciousness Studies (1999).
- “The Art Instinct” (January 30, 2009).
- Paul Davies, The Mind of God, quoted in Peter S. Williams, “Intelligent Design, Aesthetics and Design Arguments, idem, note 2.
Photo credit: PixelWunderbyRebecca, via Pixabay.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Salvo 45. It is published here with the permission of Ann Gauger.