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God and Beauty

Monday,  05/19/03  10:38 PM

This article is about the nature of beauty.  It is not really about God, but it sort of is.  You'll see.

Atheism and the Anthropic Principle

Let me begin by explaining how I came to write.  I've been following a recent debate between Steven Den Beste and The Raving Atheist.  Both self-avowed atheists, their debate is about whether atheism can be "proven", that is, whether there is a way to prove or disprove the existence of a God.  Mr. Raving claims it can, while Mr. Den Beste claims it cannot.  I can't possibly do this interesting debate justice, so if you're interested I direct you to their respective blogs and you can decide. 

In the course of posting about the provability of the existence of God, Steven quoted from an email he'd received from a reader:

Which brings me to my main argument for [the existence of God].  Beauty.  Not only did God create this big, beautiful universe, he endowed us with the ability to appreciate that beauty.  Explain to me how your mechanistic universe produces a humanity that can say, "Wow, what a beautiful sunset!"  Show me how natural selection would produce a species that likes to smell and look at flowers when we don't eat the darned things (for the most part).  Why would we even find those [cosmological] pictures you have at the top of your site even mildly attractive?

Theists often invoke the existence of beauty as proof for the existence of God - this is a conventional argument.

Steven takes an equally conventional tack in refuting this argument; he invokes the "anthropic principle".  Large books have been written on this subject, but here's a brief synopsis:

The anthropic principle asserts that the laws, constants, and basic structure of the universe are not completely arbitrary; they are constrained by the requirement that they must allow for the existence of intelligent observers, namely us.

Another way to say this is that since we exist, the universe we live in must be a universe which supports our existence.  When you put it that way, it seems almost too obvious, doesn't it?  Nonetheless there is a lot of subtlety in this argument, and it is often used incorrectly.  The atheist rebuttal to the "beauty as proof of God" is that since we perceive beauty, the universe we live in must be a universe which contains beauty.  It is what it is.  Note that to dispute "beauty as proof of God" one shows that beauty could exist without God, which is quite different from showing that God does not exist.

Okay, enough of atheism.  I happen not to be an atheist, but I completely agree with Steven that God's existence is not subject to proof; it is purely a matter of belief.  So - what is beauty?

The Natural Selection of Beauty

In addition to being a theist, I am also a Darwinist, and I therefore believe that natural selection is sufficient to explain the existence of the universe and everything in it.  If that is so, then it must explain the existence of beauty.  If we can show that beauty evolved by natural selection, then we can also refute the "beauty as proof of God" another way - we will have shown that beauty can exist without God.  Again, this doesn't prove God doesn't exist, it merely shows that the existence of beauty does not logically imply the existence of God.

Let's revisit the question "what is beauty"?  First, let's agree that beauty is an attribute of things which is perceptual.  Beauty is not only "in the eye of the beholder", but it is only in the eye of a beholder; it does not exist in and of itself.  Something can be a certain color, or a certain shape, or have a certain texture, or exhibit particular patterns, and these things are innate.  But beauty is a meta-property of color, shape, texture, pattern, etc. which is derived by an observer.  So to ask "what is beauty" is really to ask "why do humans perceive things as beautiful?"

Before diving into this, let's consider a related question, which is "why do we perceive things 'as' anything?"  In other words, why do we categorize the objects around us?  Classification is a higher level cognitive function.  A great deal of intelligence is pattern recognition, and pattern recognition is essentially classification.  Chunking things together enables analogy, and analogy is a powerful tool for estimating future events.  It is easy to see that this could help individuals survive.  The better your ability to predict the future, the less likely bad things will happen to you.  Classification is naturally selected for because of its survival value, in other words, individuals who were able to predict future events with greater accuracy would tend to contribute more children into the next generation.  The key survival formula is:

pattern recognition -> classification -> analogy -> prediction -> survival

It is not a stretch to say this is at the core of cognition.  We think in order to predict, and we predict because doing so gives us a greater chance of surviving.

Perhaps it would be helpful to digress with a brief example.  You are walking along a path and come to a cliff.  If you continue walking and do not make any prediction about the future, you will fall off the cliff and be killed.  Now suppose that you had previously seen someone else walking on this path, and they continued walking, fell off the cliff, and died.  You absorbed this information and use it to make a prediction, and hence avoid falling.

{ You are able to recognize the pattern "people who walk off a cliff get hurt", and make an analogy between that pattern and your current situation.  This requires that you form a class of "people", and recognize that you belong to it. }

Next suppose that later you come to a different cliff.  Again you can make a prediction, and avoid falling. 

{ You are able to make an analogy between the pattern "people who walk off a cliff get hurt" and the new situation.  This requires that you form a class of "cliffs", and recognize the new cliff belongs to this class. }

Finally suppose that you are walking and darkness falls.  If you continue walking, you may encounter a cliff and fall off it.  You may not be near a cliff, but it is too dark to know.  If you stop walking you can avoid falling.

{ You are able to compute some probability that the pattern "people who walk off a cliff get hurt" might apply to this situation.  This requires that you form a class of "dangerous situations", assign cliffs to this class, and then recognize that your current circumstances might match the pattern. }

This sort of computation goes on constantly for every person.  As we experience life we accumulate knowledge which we classify, and then use it to predict future events.

Okay, back to the main thread.  I've probably sold you on the survival value of classification.  Let's go back to beauty...  Given that we classify all sorts of things in all sorts of ways, what does the classification "beautiful" really mean?

I often cite a simple formula I semi-jokingly call the "equation of life":

W=UH, where W=wrongness, U=ugliness, and H=hardness

This equation can be summarized as "if something is ugly or hard, it is wrong".  I say semi-jokingly because I don't want to take it too seriously, but actually this equation seems to have significant predictive value.  I have empirically observed that in many different areas and in many different ways, if something is ugly (not beautiful) or something is hard (not easy) it will be wrong (not right).

In everyday application of W=UH, typically you have a situation, you make a mental estimate of U and H, and you derive a rough W.  How do you do this?  Well, estimating H is usually straightforward, you estimate how long something will take, or how possible it is, or how complex.  Essentially you say "how easy is this?", and H is the inverse.  Note this requires prediction by analogy - you use other tasks you've performed in the past to guess.  Estimating U is a little different.  Essentially you say "how beautiful is this?", and U is the inverse.  We all have this sense of beauty, but it is ephemeral, sometimes you can put your finger on why something is beautiful, but often you can't.  You know it is, but you don't know why.

Suppose this simple formula has survival value.  You could see that this could be; resources would not be wasted on accomplishing tasks the wrong way.  Expending resources efficiently has great survival value.  Then individuals who can compute this formula well are selected over individuals who can't.  (If the formula has survival value, this would necessarily be true.)  Okay, we've reached the key point.  Are you ready?  Since computing W=UH well has survival value, and since H can be estimated relatively easily by analogy, it follows that estimating U well would have survival value.  If ugliness is the absence of beauty, then having a sense of beauty enables survival!  QED and all that.

How about an example?  Let's say there are two beavers, each building a dam.  They are faced with similar problems (moving large branches, digging mud, wedging sticks, etc.) and can approach each problem in multiple ways.  From previous experience they can probably form some estimate of how easy each approach might be.  If they've had similar experiences, their abilities in this would be similar.  Now suppose Beaver A has a strong sense of beauty.  She can readily choose the "right" method because it seems "beautiful".  Perhaps it is simple, or elegant, or in some way that she can't pin down it is pleasing.  Beaver B does not have a strong sense of beauty.  She cannot choose the "right" method, because she can't estimate U, so she uses H alone as a guide.  She can choose methods which are easy or methods which are hard, but she can't choose the "right" methods.  She doesn't have that same sense of simplicity and elegance.  Beaver A is going to be more successful at building the dam - it will take her less time, expose her to less danger, enable her to build a better dam, etc.  All these things convey survival value.  Beaver A will have a better chance of passing her genes into the next generation than Beaver B, and hence her sense of beauty will be naturally selected.

Do you buy this?  Or does this seem theoretically possible but farfetched?  Perhaps it would be helpful to consider how we humans actually use our sense of beauty.  Let's consider some applications of "beauty" and see if it appears to have survival value.

First and foremost, we use beauty to classify individuals.  And not just as a metric, but as a value judgment.  People who are beautiful are good, people who are not beautiful are not good.  (This is not a moral judgment on my part, this is how I claim people use the classification of"beauty" in actual practice.)  Not only is beauty a good/bad distinction, but it is good/bad in a very specific way - suitability for sex.  People who are beautiful are good for mating with, people who are not beautiful are not good for mating.  Clearly this use of beauty is heavily weighted for survival value, because it impacts something as critical to genetic reproduction as selection of mates.  If this use of beauty did not have survival value, it would not have been selected.

Again let's take an example.  Let's say there are two beavers, each seeking a mate.  Beaver A has a strong sense of beauty, and selects the most beautiful mate he can.  Beaver B does not have a strong sense of beauty, and selects a mate based on other factors ("easiness", for example!).  Both A and B have offspring with their mates which will compete with each other.  If A's offspring are more successful, the use of "beauty" in selecting mates will become more prevalent in the next generation, whereas if B's offspring win, the use of "beauty" will be de-emphasized.  Over many generations natural selection will "choose" whether a sense of beauty is valuable in choosing a mate.  The fact that beauty is the most important mate-selection factor for humans is significant - clearly there is great survival value in having a sense of beauty and using it to choose a mate.

There are many other ways we apply "beauty".  Objects can be beautiful, either because of their functionality or because they are "pleasing to the senses".  It is easy to understand why functional objects are beautiful, and this has a direct relationship to their value.  The aesthetic judgment follows a logical path.  But what about art?  Most art can be thought of as objects created specifically for their beauty.  Do these objects have survival value?  No.  Most art is beautiful by analogy; it emulates things we do classify as beautiful for their practical value.  And some art is beautiful in a different way - as an interesting representation of a beautiful idea.  The idea might have survival value, even if the physical representation of the idea as art does not.

Ideas themseleves can be beautiful, usually from a sense of elegance or simplicity.  It is easy to identify these ideas with survival value, this gets back to the efficient use of resources.  And some ideas are beautiful in a different way - as interesting representations of classes of ideas.  These meta-ideas are called philosophy.  In a way, engaging in philosophical discussion exemplifies application of a sense of beauty.  This recursion is beautiful in itself, in kind of a recursive, beautiful way...

So the way we humans use beauty as a classification does indeed appear to bear a relationship to the things' survival value, whether they be potential mates, objects, or ideas.  This doesn't mean our sense of beauty did evolve via natural selection, but it could have.

God and Beauty

So, that's a lot of words, what are the takeaways?  First, we considered whether "beauty implies God".  The anthropic principle can be applied to show beauty can exist without God, but we wanted to show that beauty could be naturally selected.  We asked "what is beauty?", and agreed it is a classification.  Then we asked "why classify things?", and showed that classification was an important survival technique.  Next we considered whether classifying things as beautiful could have survival value, and demonstrated that a sense of beauty could be used for determining "wrongness" (via W=UH), and that indeed this does have survival value.  Finally we considered the actual applications of beauty to classifying people, objects, and ideas, and saw that they were consistent with the hypothesized survival value.

So - beauty does not imply God; our sense of beauty could have evolved from natural selection.  Which is terrific, because as an idea natural selection is quite beautiful!