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Encyclopedia > Argument from beauty

The Argument from Beauty is an argument for the existence of God, as against materialism


Outline logical structure

Its logical structure is essentially as follows:

  1. There are compelling reasons for considering beauty to exist in a way which transcends its material manifestations.
  2. According to Materialism, nothing exists in a way which transcends its material manifestations.
  3. According to Classical Theism, beauty is a quality of God and therefore exists in a way which transcends its material manifestations.
  4. Therefore, to the extent that premise (1) is accepted, Theism is more plausible than Materialism.

Points 2, 3 and 4 are relatively un-controversial, and the argument is formally valid, so discussion focuses on the premise (1).

Suggested reasons for accepting the premise

The principle arguments for the premise are:

  1. We have a strong intuition, especially when in the presence of great art or extreme natural or human beauty, that the beauty is real and transcends its material manifestations[1] Although such intuitions are not always correct, they are stong enough prima facie evidence that very compelling arguments to the contrary would be needed to cancel them out.
  2. Creative artists generally experience their efforts to create great art/literature/music in terms which assume the objective existence of beauty, albeit mediated by their subjective experience.
  3. Although one can make plausible evolutionary explanations for finding beauty in potential sexual partners and in healthy animals that might be food or predators, the experience of beauty is much wider than these categories and includes visions of things for which there can be no direct evolutionary advantage (like clouds seen from aeroplanes, or images from telescopes).
  4. Scientists, especially physicists, have found that mathematical beauty is a very useful guide to a valid theory.
  5. It is very difficult to speak of beauty in a coherent way without assuming its objective existence, albeit mediated by highly subjective and cultural factors.

Suggested reasons for disputing the premise

  1. Our intuitions may be mistaken.
  2. Creative artists may be mistaken or culturally conditioned.
  3. Given that important brain circuits have evolved for detecting beauty in potential sexual partners, food or prey, they may be "misfiring" to detect beauty in other places.
  4. These scientists may be mistaken.
  5. Ordinary language is not always a reliable guide to objective reality.

Variations on the Argument

Richard Swinburne

Richard Swinburne advocates a variation of this argument: "God has reason to make a basically beautiful world, although also reason to leave some of the beauty or ugliness of the world within the power of creatures to determine; but he would seem to have overriding reason not to make a basically ugly world beyond the powers of creatures to improve. Hence, if there is a God there is more reason to expect a basically beautiful world than a basically ugly one. A priori, however, there is no particular reason for expecting a basically beautiful rather than a basically ugly world. In consequence, if the world is beautiful, that fact would be evidence for God’s existence. For, in this case, if we let k be ‘there is an orderly physical universe’, e be ‘there is a beautiful universe’, and h be ‘there is a God’, P(e/h.k) will be greater than P(e/k)... Few, however, would deny that our universe (apart from its animal and human inhabitants, and aspects subject to their immediate control) has that beauty. Poets and painters and ordinary men down the centuries have long admired the beauty of the orderly procession of the heavenly bodies, the scattering of the galaxies through the heavens (in some ways random, in some ways orderly), and the rocks, sea, and wind interacting on earth, ‘The spacious firmament on high, and all the blue ethereal sky’, the water lapping against ‘the old eternal rocks’, and the plants of the jungle and of temperate climates, contrasting with the desert and the Arctic wastes. Who in his senses would deny that here is beauty in abundance? If we confine ourselves to the argument from the beauty of the inanimate and plant worlds, the argument surely works."[2]. Here it is not so much the (alleged) transcendent existence of beauty that is in evidence, as the overall level of beauty, and premise (1) is replaced by: Richard G. Swinburne (born December 26, 1934) is an eminent British professor and philosopher primarily interested in the philosophy of religion. ...

1. There are compelling reasons for considering the level of beauty in the universe to be greater than that would be expected under materialism.

The difficulty with this variation of the argument is that it depends on an assessment of whether the overall level of beauty in the universe is greater than than expected given materialism.

Notes & References

  1. ^ for example Polkinghorne suggests "If you want to make a materialist reductionist feel uneasy, ask one what he or she makes of music, and insist on a response that corresponds to the actual way one lives and not to an ideologically glossed version of it. 'Neurological response to vibrations in the air', seems totally inadequate as an account of lictening to a performance of the Mass in B Minor." Faith, Science and Understanding p14
  2. ^ Swinburne, The Existence of God Chapter 6

The Rev. ... The Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) is a work of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. ...


Relevant authors and sources include:

  • Hans Urs von Balthasar who wrote extensively on beauty in a theological and philosophical context.
  • John Polkinghorne who is also particularly impressed by the role of mathematical beauty in science. See eg his Faith, Science and Understanding p14
  • Tom Wright who regards our experience of beauty as one of the four main pointers to belief in God - see esp. his Simply Christian SPCK 2006, Ch 4 "For the beauty of the earth"
  • Richard Dawkins who in The God Delusion dismisses the Argument from beauty.
  • Richard Swinburne esp The Existence of God OUP 2nd Edition 2004 ISBN 0199271682



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