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Atheism and the Problem of Beauty

by Joe HeschmeyerAugust 30, 20178 Comments

A lot has been said about the “problem of pain.” Why, if God is both loving and all-powerful, is there still suffering in the world? The question is a challenge for Catholics, as for all theists. As believers, we have some sense of why a loving God would permit suffering. It's easy enough to see that love is a good (the highest good, even), and that love requires free will. And it's just a small step from there to see how that free will could be used in some dastardly ways. Likewise, it's clear enough that a loving God might permit His creatures to suffer, in certain cases, for their (our) own good.

This answer to the problem of pain is sensible, but not satisfying. There's no shaking that there's still something out of whack, something not quite right about this world. Christianity hasn't been shy about this point the whole story of the Fall is that things aren't how they ought to be, how they aren't how they were intended to be, and how we're the ones who screwed them up. You can read that story in Genesis, or watch it on the nightly news.

And there's no shaking the sense that we don't have a full explanation. But again, Christianity acknowledges this from the outset: when Job complains about his problem to God, he's not given an answer; rather, he's basically told that there are things going on that he can't begin to comprehend. In the Cross, we get a fuller picture: God doesn't just acknowledge suffering, He takes it on, and we're given a tiny glimpse into the mysterious relationship between love, vulnerability, and pain. But there's still so much that we don't understand. And the Christian answer seems to be: that's the way it's going to be, this side of Glory. The answer is unsatisfying, but it seems to me that it's meant to be.

This ground is well-trodden, and others have addressed the problem of pain much more eloquently and exhaustively. I want to look at another problem (or “problem”) that doesn't get much attention: the “problem of beauty.” It's a problem, not for believers, but for nonbelievers: if there isn't a God, how can we account for all of the joy and beauty in the world? More specifically, how can we account for all the joy and beauty that doesn't have any evolutionary benefit? I really like the description of the problem given by Joanna Newsom, in a discussion about an album that she wrote shortly after the death of her best friend:

“The thing that I was experiencing and dwelling on the entire time is that there are so many things that are not OK and that will never be OK again,” says Newsom. “But there’s also so many things that are OK and good that sometimes it makes you crumple over with being alive. We are allowed such an insane depth of beauty and enjoyment in this lifetime. It’s what my dad talks about sometimes. He says the only way that he knows there’s a God is that there’s so much gratuitous joy in this life. And that’s his only proof.

There’s so many joys that do not assist in the propagation of the race or self-preservation. There’s no point whatsoever. They are so excessively, mind-bogglingly joy-producing that they distract from the very functions that are supposed to promote human life. They can leave you stupefied, monastic, not productive in any way, shape or form. And those joys are there and they are unflagging and they are ever-growing. And still there are these things that you will never be able to feel OK about–unbearably awful, sad, ugly, unfair things.”

This captures the problem so well, because it anticipates the easy answer: that joy and our love of beauty is some sort of evolutionary benefit bequeathed to us by natural selection.

That answer might sound good at first, but there's no real evidence for it. Moreover, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. After all, we're moved to awe at the grandeur of the heavens: how does that aid the survival or propagation of our species? Often, as Newsom points out, the sensation of beauty draws us away from working and reproducing: leaving us “stupefied, monastic, not productive in any way, shape or form.” Without God, it's hard to give a good account of why we experience this kind of joy at beauty.

At first, it seems like we're dealing with two equal-and-opposite problems: believers struggle to account for all of the bad bits of life, and non-believers struggle to account for all of the good bits. Both of us are placing our trust: the Christian, in the goodness of God and the promise that someday, all of this will be clear; the atheist, in the idea that science will somehow solve this problem, and that someday, all of this will be clear. But these two problems aren't really equal. I think that we can see this inequality in a few ways. 

First, they're not equal in size and scope: despite all of the awful bits, life is beautiful. Indeed, one of the very reasons many of the awful bits (like death) are so awful are because they deprive us of life. Thomas Hobbes famously claimed that the life of man in “the state of nature” was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But if life is really as awful as all that, why complain that it's short? It's like the Woody Allen line that “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.” The very fact that we lament the fleetingness of life (our own and others) points to a recognition that life is beautiful. Evil is noticeable precisely because it sticks out: it sharply contrasts with the beautiful background of life that we so often overlook or take for granted.

Second, evil is metaphysically dependent upon good. This is a concept that deserves more attention than I'm willing to give it here, and I hope to return to it soon. But I think that I can give at least a sense of what I mean by using a couple of analogies.

We often speak of light and darkness in a dualistic way, as if they're equal and opposite. But they're not: light actually exists in a way that darkness doesn't. In a world without darkness, we could still analyze light and its wavelike and particle-like properties. In a world without light, the very term darkness would be meaningless. We can only understand what darkness is by reference to light, but we can understand light without reference to darkness. The same holds true for  heat and cold. Heat actually exists: it's molecular energy. Cold is just the relative or absolute absence of heat. It's why we can talk about absolute zero: it's an absolute absence of heat. But there's not some maximum temperature where all of the “cold particles” are wiped out.

Something similar holds in discussing good and evil. Much of our concept of evil is tied up in the idea of “something that shouldn't have happened.” But for that concept to make any sense, you have to have at least an inkling of an idea of should, even if only an intuitive one. Evil is aperversion or an absence of good.

One of the clearest ways that we explore this is to understand why intentional evils are done. Invariably - as in, without a single exception - evil acts are done in the pursuit of some real or perceived good. We're always chasing after the good: after pleasure, after honor, after love, etc. (That doesn't excuse evil actions, obviously: you can't justify torturing the cat for pleasure simply because you did it for pleasure.) This shows that every evil act pays homage, no matter how unwittingly, to good. That's why you can't understand evil without understanding good. But none of this is true in reverse. We don't do good things because we're seeking evil, and we don't need a concept of evil to understand why something is good.

Third, there's a difference in explanatory power. Here, I want to conclude by refocusing on the two specific problems, the problem of pain and the problem of beauty, because it's here that we see the final inequality. The Christian explanation for pain leaves us unsatisfied, and I think that's an appropriate response. For starters, it's not a thorough explanation, nor a specific one: it doesn't explain why this evil thing happened to that person. But despite this, it offers a colorable explanation of the problem. It's clear that there's no logical incompatibility between permitting evil and being good, and this corresponds to our experience of life: we live in societies built on the idea of freedom-expansion, even if that entails the annoyance of people misusing that freedom for stupid or evil ends.

The atheist explanation of the problem of beauty is similarly unsatisfying. But here's the rub: unlike the Christian account of pain, the atheist account of beauty doesn't even advance any colorable explanation. The generally proffered solution, natural selection, just doesn't work here. Nor does it correspond with our experience of life: we don't see a clear correlation (at least, not a positive one) between “I cry at museums” and “I am adept at surviving and mating.”

At the end of a court case, even a well-argued one, there are often questions left lingering: if X is at fault, how do we explain this or that piece of evidence? On the other hand, if X isn't at fault, what about all of these other pieces of evidence? And if God is in the dock, so to speak, these are some of the critical arguments we should expect to see brought up - both in regards to His existence, and His goodness. That's why I think it's important to hold the problem of beauty up, side-by-side, with the problem of pain, weighing them, as if in a balance.

All of this is to say that I think that Joanna Newsom and her dad are right. While the argument from beauty isn't the only proof for the existence of God, I think it's conceptually sound, and hard to answer. The universe is full of endless delights, joys that we have no right to by nature, and which are presented before us everyday, all the same.

About the Author

Joe Heschmeyer

Joe Heschmeyer

Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a...

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