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The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting and defending the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.
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Beauty: A Challenge to Naturalism
Bruce A. Little, PhD
Professor of Philosophy
Director of the L. Russ Bush Center For Faith and Culture
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Beauty may be a many splendor thing, but any attempt to define it results in a larger conversation regarding the nature of reality. Although defining beauty may be something like trying to catch an elf, contrary to questions about the existence of elves, there is little debate that beauty is a universal concept among human beings. Definition is difficult precisely because it is a universal. The question this raises is whether naturalism can, in fact, provide an adequate worldview within which to explain the concept of beauty. A distinction must be made between the concept of beauty and describing something as beautiful. Of course, the two are inextricably related, but remain different. In this essay, I will argue that beauty, as a universal phenomenon within the human experience, strongly suggests that reality is more than matter. Beauty involves more than a scientific analysis of a particular object, for it is the observer, not the object who declares something beautiful. For example, it is possible to explain the properties of a flower scientifically, but science is powerless to explain why the flower presents itself to us as beautiful. In fact, beauty itself is without substance since it is not something we name as if it were a particular object or entity; beautiful is what we predicate of things that present themselves to our senses in a particular way because we have innately the concept of beauty. If beauty is not a substance, then it cannot be analyzed scientifically as a substance. For example, we say the sunset is beautiful. No one first does a scientific analysis of the sunset and then claims that it has the property of beauty. This is why there is no objective, scientific definition of beauty. It is not as if one can place a flower under the microscope and tell if it is beautiful simply by its component parts. Of course, it might be possible to explain scientifically how certain biological properties of a flower produce certain aspects of the flower that result in someone admiring the flower, but that is something totally different. The fact is that beauty itself has no material properties although something called beautiful may have physical properties.
Although a full definition of beauty may elude us, we can still know that certain properties or conditions must be present for a human response of beautiful. However, that does not assure that every object or condition with those qualities will elicit the response of beautiful by all who observe it. Furthermore, it seems beyond question that there is an objective and subjective aspect to naming something beautiful. The objective is related to that which comports with the category of beauty, that is, certain properties must be present in the object or condition, as not all objects or conditions give rise to the human response we call beautiful. The subjective aspect is the observer, who responds mentally or emotionally to something. Where nothing exists there is neither the beautiful nor the ugly. In terms of definition, then it seems the best we can do is point out that certain properties of an object must be present, but we must realize that that is not defining beauty as the universal category.
Dutch art critic Hans Rookmaarker echoes a common thought regarding beauty, namely that "Truth, love, beauty, and reality are all closely linked to one another. Truth and love are intimately connected, just as beauty and reality are. . . . The beauty of something is always related to its meaning. A tree, for instance, is beautiful, because it is so wonderfully made to fulfill various functions." The first part is undoubtedly correct, however, the latter part seems only partially true as it cannot be true in all cases as it is possible that one can see beauty in a thing before he knows the function of the thing. So while function may indeed help us recognize beauty (that is, in its order), it is not what necessarily defines beauty.
Three conditions must be met when speaking of an object that elicits the response of beautiful. First, there is the physical ordering of the object itself, which is not beauty, but order, harmony, balance, texture, and color. Second, the context must be appropriate to the object. These are what we might call necessary conditions for beauty to arise. Third, there must be an observer who possesses the appropriate senses and judgment to receive the image of the object. All three are necessary for the mental/emotional experience of beauty. These three conditions must converge within the mental/emotional framework of the individual person, but beauty is neither in any of these, nor is it a fourth substance. So beauty is not a substance, it is that which lies behind what is.
Equally instructive is the fact that we are more comfortable when surrounded by what strikes us as beautiful than when surrounded by the ugly. What strikes us as beautiful may be a matter of preference, but beauty is not. We even purposely decorate our homes, our neighborhoods, and even our person because we have a greater sense of well-being when surrounded by beautiful rather than the ugly. To the best of our knowledge, we know of no other animal that has this response, nor one that purposefully seeks to beautify its environment. In addition, when a person paints, he does not paint beauty, he paints an object that may be beautiful. We enjoy sunsets and mountains; we boast of the beauty of our native land. We are embarrassed and disconcerted when our landscape is marred or our neighborhoods are disfigured. And when the flower dies or the sunset disappears from view, beauty does not die or disappear. This seems to indicate that beauty requires more to reality than matter, for by itself matter cannot explain what we all acknowledge to be true of the idea of beauty.
It is possible to measure brain activity when one experiences beauty, however, the brain activity does not create the experience of beauty, it simply records it. Furthermore, the biological and chemical reaction fails to explain the universal category of beauty. And, why should I sense beauty when I look at the sunset instead of sensing an intense repulsion? Simply measuring the biological/chemical reaction says nothing about why the emotion is one and not the other. That is, the biological/chemical imaging is not the cause of the sense of beauty, it is the evidence that the mental/emotional response of beauty has occurred. The brain activity is the effect, not the cause of beauty. When I am asked to think on something it may be true that certain parts of my brain light up, but that is the effect not the cause of what I think. It is like when something goes wrong in a machine and a red light comes on, the red light is not the cause of what went wrong; it is the effect of something going wrong. All biological/chemical explanations fail as an explanation for beauty as has been demonstrated. Hence, there must be more to reality than matter if we are going to explain the human experience of beauty. If there is more to reality than matter, then we are faced with the inevitable conclusion that naturalism as a worldview, is an inadequate view of reality and this may well have serious implications for worldview thinking itself.
 Hans Rookmaarker. "The L'Abri Lectures" in The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker, edited by Marleen Hengellae-Rookmaarker (CD ROM, Piquant Edition), 226.