Aesthetics involves the study, nature and appreciation of beauty, taste, and art. It asks questions such as: what defines beauty? is beauty objective or subjective? Why do human beings have an aesthetic and creative sense? How is aesthetic value related to moral values and other aspects of one’s worldview such as God, reality, and knowledge?Emanuel Kant, a central figure in the field of modern philosophy, has largely influenced the way our culture today answers these questions and is particularly responsible for shaping the popular belief in culture today that beauty ‘lies in the eye of the beholder.’ This statement implies that our definition of beauty and aesthetics is purely subjective. One can easily see how controversial this claim is, not just in academic circles but in our own lives as well. When discussing ones’ personal opinions or experiences regarding a book, song, work of art or experience in nature (i.e., Trekking through the mountains), we come to realize that it can be difficult to analyse what we consider beautiful using purely intellectual or philosophical viewpoint. These viewpoints can certainly influence the way in which we process our aesthetic experience, but they cannot fully encompass it because judgments of beauty strike an emotional and often spiritual chord within us. They are based on feeling and cannot be proved. However, judgments of beauty also frequently seek to set or imply the existence of objective standards that appeal to the agreement of everyone else.
How can we come to reasonable answers and conclusions on these complex questions? Even if we did come to some reasonable conclusions, how is it that our concept and experience of beauty and aesthetics can even relate to core human beliefs such as God, reality, and knowledge?
It’s particularly interesting that Kant, as well as other secular philosophers like Anthony O'Hear and Roger Scruton, acknowledge the connection between aesthetic judgment and our moral and spiritual dimension, despite not having any religious beliefs themselves. O’Hear and Scruton recognize that aesthetics is powerfully linked to religious experience. They come to this conclusion not only academically but also by their own lived experience. They admit to feeling a strong spiritual pull toward ‘God’ when marvelling at some aesthetic phenomena. However, the personal biases and presuppositions which keep secular philosophers from concluding that God exists, have not made room for a proverbial ‘divine foot’ to step into the discussions that inform our view of aesthetics. Ironically, our view of aesthetics in turn, informs our view of God, the world and ourselves. The Christian worldview affirms that, since humans are made in God’s image, we have a unique awareness of reality and a capacity to discover truth in the four basic dimensions of life: the moral, intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic. Being made in God’s image affirms that our affinity for beauty and our aesthetic sense are just as foundational to our humanity as our moral, intellectual and spiritual dimensions.Our lived experience tells us that our humanity is not merely confined to our moral, intellectual and spiritual nature, but that our existence and knowledge of reality are also deeply shaped and informed by our awareness and appreciation of beauty.The exclusion of God in our understanding of aesthetics has serious implications on how we view the world, ourselves and how we approach the question of God’s existence. Often, competing explanations exist for the most fundamental questions of life. Each explanation has its merits and flaws. Whether-or-not one considers one explanation to be superior to another depends on a number of factors, including one’s already existing views about the world. This is especially true when exploring the argument that has been made for God’s existence from beauty. I’d like to explore some of the most prominent answers to the questions the field of aesthetics raises, from both a secular and theistic viewpoint. By examining how well their explanations correspond to our lived experience, I hope to form an honest and compelling case for how the Christian worldview not only best explains the origin and existence of our aesthetic sense, but also, how it best advocates for the value, meaning and purpose of beauty and aesthetics as an integral and unique part our humanity that instinctively informs our experience of reality.
What gives human beings the capacity to know or experience beauty?
From the secular viewpoint, naturalistic evolution attempts to explain the origins of our aesthetic sense in the same way that it seeks to explain the origin of life, through the evolutionary process of natural selection. This is the process by which species from earlier life forms undergo change over a long period of time, resulting in changesto the characteristics of a species over several generations. This theory is used to explain the origins of our aesthetic sensibilities in two ways; emerging as a result of adaption or as an evolutionary biproduct (genetic junk).
Some of the claims supporting the adaptation explanation stem from the thought that our aesthetic sense aided our human survival by helping us identify the best habitats which would promote our survivability and reproductive success, resulting in a desire to live in admiration worthy settings such as near fresh bodies of water, lush vegetation and shelter (mountains, trees).This explanation doesn’t account for our attraction to settings that make it difficult to thrive and present a constant threat of destruction (i.e., living near seas or oceans leaves us vulnerable to the threat of flooding or destruction caused by tropical storms or near mountains which are prone to volcanic eruptions). These settings are hostile, yet we are often enamored with their majestic beauty. This explanation also fails to explain why we feel compelled to develop our aesthetic capacities far beyond the basic skills needed to survive and reproduce. The drive to become a skilled expert in the field of visual arts, drama, music, architecture or literature detracts from our survivability, as it involves difficulty, pain and sacrifice, requiring time and effort that would otherwise be better spent trying to survive and reproduce.
Evolutionary Bi-Product & Genetic Junk
Another explanation proposes that our capacity to appreciate beauty is merely a biproduct or accidental outcome emerging out of our evolutionary process, genetic junk if you will. These theories are offered as genuinely scientific explanations, however because these theories are largely untestable, it prompts the question of whether they can genuinely meet the evaluative standards of the scientific method. Once again, the problem with these explanations is that they don’t explain how our aesthetic sense contributes to our survival. If our aesthetic sensibilities don’t strengthen our survivability as a species, shouldn’t it have resulted in the ‘adaptive’ elimination of this gene trait? Our involvement in the arts appears to be largely an intrinsically rewarding activity, without any apparent usefulness and thus could be properly seen as maladaptive behaviour not conducive to our survival. Instead, we see the opposite emerge, our aesthetic sense becoming one of our most dominant traits as human beings.
Is Beauty Merely ‘In the Eye of the Beholder?’
One last question I’d like to explore deeply impacts not only our experience of beauty, but also how it informs the way we see the world, ourselves and address the question of God – the question of whether beauty is subjective or objective. If beauty is merely subjective, then it’s up to every individual to decide what they consider is beautiful. If this is true, it seems then that, whatever we mean to communicate when calling something beautiful, would be meaningless as it fails to convey anything about the thing itself to anyone else except perhaps our approving personal attitude. However, experience tells us that beauty is much more than just a heart emoticon signaling our approval or our degree of ‘likeability’ about an external thing. Though It is possible to disagree with others about whether something is beautiful, or even show them (or learn from them) why something is beautiful, when looking at features of the natural world all, they seem to exhibit real, objective beauty. Consider how rare it would be to encounter someone that denies the seemingly objective, beautiful nature of certain features of our natural world. Whether it is in starry night skies, emerald-coloured oceans that extend for miles, lush rainforests, mesmerizing desert sand dunes or even in microscopic worlds - we find a splendour so compelling that moves and touches us our very core. A Christian Response to the Naturalistic, Evolutionary View of Beauty The naturalistic, evolutionary explanations given for the existence of beauty simply can’t account for there is such a splendor of beauty which leads to no real benefit to the survival of our species. One philosopher puts it this way:
“Why think this overwhelming beauty should exist given naturalism? Why isn’t everything functional, monotonously textured, and a battleship-gray color?” - Paul Copan
A secular, naturalistic viewpoint doesn’t give compelling answers to anyone who wants to retain a reasonable belief in aesthetic value. Unlike the naturalistic world view, the Christian worldview does provide an account for our aesthetic sense. If human beings are made in God’s image- the creator of the cosmos and beauty itself– then our aesthetic sense is a built-in, defining feature that allows us to uniquely recognize, engage with and appreciate beauty in a way no other creature can. The beauty we experience in the world acts as the fingerprint of its creator, revealing God’s identity much like how the particular brushstrokes, style or specific color palette of an artist cements their identity within an artwork without even having to sign it. The Christian worldview goes further to explain that as result, our aesthetic affinities allow us to be creators ourselves, and the art, music, and stories we create are a manifestation of God’s image within us. Since only persons can impart meaning to things, so only through persons can art and beauty have any meaning at all. Humankind’s fallen condition, however, has negatively impacted our ability to recognize and appropriately embrace reality as he intended. Yet redemption in Jesus Christ allows Christians to see the world through corrective lenses that bring everything into its proper focus, uniting our moral, intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic dimensions so that we may properly appreciate and embrace the truth, goodness and beauty in the world as he intended. As C.S Lewis wrote: