"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The death of beauty

It would appear I am going to have to do a slight shift in my earlier thoughts on the nature of beauty. I was attempting to make the case that beauty was objective. However, after further study I have come to the conclusion that this just can not be. Now before you write me off as a lousy flip flopper, hear me out.

Let's use a mountain for example. Some philosophers will tell you that this mountain will have primary and secondary attributes. The primary attributes are the ones that are objective. They are true of the mountain whether or not a mind is there to perceive them. These qualities would be it's shape, size, etc... The secondary attributes are subjective qualities that require a mind perceive them. Qualities of this nature are color, smell, taste, etc...

The interesting thing is that some people will have pleasant feelings towards these subjective attributes and others not so pleasant. For instance some people like the color blue, others prefer red. We are not all the same.

So where then does beauty fit in? Is it a quality that is independent of the mind that is perceiving it? At this point I am forced to say no. It does not look that way. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.

If I were to leave it at that it would seem to take a good bite out of my rants about inherent qualities of people, objects, and situations, but of course I cannot let it stop there! I am realizing something that is in my mind quite profound and should hopefully tie a lot of things together. So watch where this goes...

I have been saying over an over how I believe certain things actually warrant the titles we give them. I believe some things truly are beautiful. I believe people actually do have unsurpassable worth. I believe that love is real and is larger that simple feelings.

I will continue to use the beauty example here but what I am about to say could apply to any of the topics I just mentioned.

Beauty is a subjective feeling towards an object by a perceiving mind. Without a perceiving mind beauty does not exist. If the creator of all things was an all perceiving mind that actually felt certain things were beautiful, then would we as part of creation not be bringing our minds in congruity with our creator when we perceived an object as beautiful that also happened to be what our creator felt was beautiful?

In other words all these topics I keep railing on: beauty, love, inherent personal worth, objective right and wrong, are all totally dependent upon the existence of a personal God who actually feels certain ways about these topics. Without God there can be no perceiving mind for us to bring ourselves into congruity with and ultimately no higher truth behind any of these topics.

This was a rather complicated one and I'm not sure how clear I was. Let me know if that makes any sense.

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17 Comments:

Anonymous Matt M said...

Alex,

I'll focus on this post, as I think it may highlight the crux of our disagreement - if you feel I've overlooked anything raised in the previous posts, let me know.

Let's use a mountain for example. Some philosophers will tell you that this mountain will have primary and secondary attributes. The primary attributes are the ones that are objective. They are true of the mountain whether or not a mind is there to perceive them. These qualities would be it's shape, size, etc... The secondary attributes are subjective qualities that require a mind perceive them. Qualities of this nature are color, smell, taste, etc...

I'm not sure I agree with this distinction: even if there was no perceiving mind around to experience them, the light-rays which make up colour would still exist. The gases which make up odour would still exist. Can you really split up qualities such as size and taste? Surely there's no real difference between saying that something is X tall, and saying something has X ingredients, for example?

Anyway...

Beauty is a subjective feeling towards an object by a perceiving mind. Without a perceiving mind beauty does not exist.

Perfectly put, in my opinion. However, you lose me with the next part:

If the creator of all things was an all perceiving mind that actually felt certain things were beautiful, then would we as part of creation not be bringing our minds in congruity with our creator when we perceived an object as beautiful that also happened to be what our creator felt was beautiful?

This is, I think, a comment about the nature of God, not about the nature of the world. If you believe in Him then what you say is true. If you don't, then it isn't.

Without God there can be no perceiving mind for us to bring ourselves into congruity with and ultimately no higher truth behind any of these topics.

Here is where we seem to differ - I agree that without a higher being we can't bring ourselves into congruity with Him (or Her, or It, or Them), and so there can't be, as you see it, a "higher truth".

But, I've never felt the need for a higher truth. My actions and feelings are extremely meaningful to me, regardless of what else is out there, and I don't see the necessity of a divine being to give them validation or "real" meaning. The mountain appears beautiful (for whatever reason) - that for me is enough.

6:42 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
First a comment or two on our little side track.

"I'm not sure I agree with this distinction: even if there was no perceiving mind around to experience them, the light-rays which make up colour would still exist. The gases which make up odour would still exist. Can you really split up qualities such as size and taste? Surely there's no real difference between saying that something is X tall, and saying something has X ingredients, for example?"

I struggled with this concept as well when I first read it, but I believe the truth of this concept is in a rather subtle form. I'm not sure if I'm talented enough to reveal it, but I'll try. I would agree with you when you say:

"Surely there's no real difference between saying that something is X tall, and saying something has X ingredients, for example?"

The ingredients are part of the objects primary attributes. Light will be light whether or not anyone is around to perceive it. Gases would still exist as well. The difference is if there was no nose/or brain to interpret the "smell" of the gasses the interpreted oder does not exist. For instance if something were to happen to a person's interpretation "software" as to make the smell of a rose smell more like mint, we certainly would not take that as a flaw in the chemical make up of the rose. Smells, colors, tastes all require an interpretive action on the part of the mind. Shape, size and motion do not.

That may have cleared that up, or it may have just confused it further. I'm sure there's much more that could be said on that, but it's really secondary to the topic at hand. Having said that...

"But, I've never felt the need for a higher truth. My actions and feelings are extremely meaningful to me, regardless of what else is out there, and I don't see the necessity of a divine being to give them validation or "real" meaning. The mountain appears beautiful (for whatever reason) - that for me is enough."

We really are boiling down to something here, but I feel like I'm really struggling to put into words as fluently as I'd like to. Beauty, good & evil, personal worth, reason and love are all very closely related in this conversation, but each is worthy of an entire exposition of it's own. So I'm torn about which direction to take this...

I think to help you see what I'm getting at I'll have to ask more questions of you, rather than simply trying to explain myself. We start to depart from the rational at bit at this point. It's deeper than that. We also may be getting very close to the "agree to disagree" point. That's more up to you than me.

When you say that " My actions and feelings are extremely meaningful to me" Why? What do you mean by "meaningful"?

10:48 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That may have cleared that up, or it may have just confused it further.

I think I get what you mean.

Primary qualities are qualities of the external world (assuming it exists for the moment), whereas secondary qualities arise from our interaction with the world. So sulphur atoms (molecules?) have primary qualities in terms of their structure, and secondary qualities in terms of the rotten eggs smell associated with them?

I think here we're stepping into the perceptions/external existence question, which has kept philosophers busy for centuries. Might be wise to leave that for now and come back to it later.

When you say that " My actions and feelings are extremely meaningful to me" Why? What do you mean by "meaningful"?

I'll take the latter question first: By meaningful I simply mean they have value to me, they're worth experiencing/doing. A meaningless action would be one I see no point in doing.

As for why... I'm afraid I'm going to have to go with: They just are. I can put forward rational arguments for the things I do, but at the base of them is pretty much instinct and intuition.

For example, I'd love to have kids one day. Now, I can argue about wanting to leave a legacy and stuff like that, but ultimately the real reason I want to have kids is because the idea simply appeals to me. Partly due to my biological makeup, partly due to social influences.

11:12 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As another example - although I value this debate in terms of it making me think and clarify my views, the main motivating factor for my doing it is the simple fact that I enjoy it.

11:14 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
I do believe I'm going to have to rename my blog the "Matt & Alex Debate". A debate I also very much enjoy. However, I do find it irritating that even with all the thought we are putting into this conversation seems incapable of changing the way either one of us "feel" about this topic. I could see us reasoning over this until we are both blue in the face but that doesn't change that fact that I "feel" there's more to life than a beyond all odds fluke, and you "feel" no desire for anything larger. Your logic is sound. So is mine, but our ultimate presuppositions are worlds apart.

It would seem that if my position was adopted I am left with a satisfying sense of ultimate purpose, a reality where loving people more than I "feel" they deserve really, actually and truly does matter. Not just to me, but in relation to all known reality and with God's ultimate nature that is beyond it. My "reasoning" and "free will" now make sense, because I know that I'm more that simply and animal organism. There's an aspect of me that is supernatural. An aspect that is above the chemical sack I live in. Sure I am left with a colossal mental wrestling match to try and bring this view in line with many of man's teachings or worse yet with man's interpretations of religious texts, but even in light of that I am completely incapable of changing my feelings on this topic.

With the atheist position you have an existence that has been brought about by pure chance by blind "natural" "forces". This leaves you free to side step any mental struggle revolving around religion, meaning, or purpose. There are none. The fact that so many do believe in God/gods can easily be explained away using the advancing field of social biology. So what are we left with at that point? Well, I guess since we are organisms with no truly free will, (you don't believe in that do you?) we will really just do what we do, because that's what we are programed to do. Sure we react to and absorb stimuli that is far and away more complicated than any other living organism, but in the end we really can't do anything other than react. Atheism demands that we are completely meaningless matter. By logical extension, meaningless matter cannot have meaningful thoughts or interactions. So let's quit yapping about this and go get some nachos... and maybe one of those tasty whisky flavored cigars.

Matt, I know you don't believe that, but I still cannot see why. Could it be that it's simply not true?

12:46 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do believe I'm going to have to rename my blog the "Matt & Alex Debate".

Heh. I imagine some late night show, tucked away on some obscure cable TV channel. We'd be sat in large black chairs, facing each other across the studio, with some austere lighting effects.

"Hello. Tonight, we'll be looking at religion, atheism, and the issue of free will..."

I'm also enjoying this immensely. In a way, I see convincing you to come over to the Dark Side as secondary to getting my own views in order. I'm still struggling to make some kind of sense of life, and there's no better way to do that than to engage in an intelligent and thought-provoking debate. Maybe I'll discover some unforeseen angle on life, or maybe I'll realise I'm wrong about it all. Either way, I'll probably be better off than I was before.

I disagree with you characterisation of the atheistic viewpoint, in that I don't think that meaning/purpose needs to exist externally in order to be valid. Life, for me, is about finding our own meaning and purpose.

As for the issue of free will... I honestly don't know what I think about it. I remember reading something interesting about it - I'll try and dig that up and get back to you.

1:05 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

"Hello. Tonight, we'll be looking at religion, atheism, and the issue of free will... ...brought to you by two amateurs with an over active thought life and far to much time on their hands"

I've sent this address to many of my friends and family members. I have a feeling I will be disowned soon enough. =) Once you win me over to the Dark Side we will really have a problem on our hands. I will then begin using my craftyness to begin manipulating all those around me to my personal ends... Ultimately I will bring all the ignorant populations of the world under my control!!! But for now I still believe I should be nice to people, so I'd be careful how far you push me.

Life, for me, is about finding our own meaning and purpose.

What if another guy decided his meaning and purpose will revolve around visiting the sex shops in Cambodia so he can fulfill his long entertained fantasy of molesting young boys?

On what grounds can you condemn him?

2:17 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On what grounds can you condemn him?

On the grounds that individuals shouldn't be forced into acts against their will in that way.

I suspect that might lead to the question: Why shouldn't they?

To which I'd answer: Because a) seeing others suffer offends me, and b) a society (or world, in these globalised times) that allows people to suffer in that way is a threat to those I care about.

I want a just world because I want to live in a just world.

(That's rationalising it - my main reason for condemning it is probably the same as yours: I consider the molestation of children to be a disgusting act which should be stamped out wherever it occurs.)

Sorry for being so brief, I decided to quickly check in on my way to bed and felt compelled to respond.

3:52 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Good morning Matt,
Sorry I didn't stay up into the wee hours of the morning last night. Twas about time I actually slept a little. (it's an annoying habit of mine.) So now that I'm back among the living, let the battle rage on!

"Because a) seeing others suffer offends me"

From the atheist perspective that is not a moral statement. It is just a statement of your feelings. Seeing a child disciplined offends some people as well. Does that make it wrong? I believe this goes back to what Tom was saying here:

"...we can’t ground moral statements in purely factual descriptions. We can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. But then the trouble is that you can’t ground morality in anything at all – if you want to make a firmly supported moral statement, it has to be grounded in another moral statement, which in turn…"

I don't believe that there is nothing at all to ground morality in. I would say that ground is God. Of course you saw that coming a mile away, but does it not make sense?

You go on to defend your moral judgment here:

"...a society (or world, in these globalised times) that allows people to suffer in that way is a threat to those I care about. I want a just world because I want to live in a just world."

Here again if there is no ultimate standard of morality, or God, you have nothing on which to base these assertions. You are basically saying, "I don't want people to act certain ways because I don't want them to infringe on me or what I feel is important." Look at the situation from our hypothetical "guys" perspective. He could say the EXACT same thing. You have nothing more to say to him unless you want to throw down fisticuffs.

You are left there standing with the question: Who is right? If there is no ultimate standard or God, no one is. You cannot say, "such and such is right or wrong" All you can say is "such and such feels right or wrong TO ME." You cannot judge anyones actions or choices, even our child molesting friend. It's not right or wrong. It's just different.

God changes all that. If God is real and he is the ultimate consciousness and we who are created out of him we can feel his will to a degree. If he has chosen to reveal it in other ways we can learn of his will by those means as well. Of course this is not simply a matter of "because the bible said so". It's much larger than that. It's much more complicated. Reality generally is.

Going back to our molester example, you now truly can say that his actions are wrong. Not just wrong to you, but truly wrong because we were created to be in harmony with our creator and molesting children is about as far from his character as you can get. The field of ethics opens up because you actually can progress from a lower morality to a higher one. It's worth talking about because there's a real truth to be found. If there is no God it's a total and complete waste of time.

Do you see that in order for there to be anything said about morality there MUST be a God? Atheism DEMANDS Nihilism. You cannot be an atheist and a humanist and do that honestly. Humanism appeals to values and right conduct. Right conduct and values are all fine and good, but unless there is an ultimate foundation for them they are simply YOUR impressions of right conduct and values, which are ultimately meaningless. Your cherished feelings really have no more value in this world than indigestion. I can't accept that. I don't think you can either. Why is it easier for you to assert there is no God?

9:35 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

There's a lot to consider in what you say...

From the atheist perspective that is not a moral statement.

A moral statement is simply one which declares an action "right" or "wrong". What we're after here is the *root* of such statements.

Here again if there is no ultimate standard of morality, or God, you have nothing on which to base these assertions. You are basically saying, "I don't want people to act certain ways because I don't want them to infringe on me or what I feel is important." Look at the situation from our hypothetical "guys" perspective. He could say the EXACT same thing. You have nothing more to say to him unless you want to throw down fisticuffs.

If someone truly doesn't care about anyone else (which is extremely rare), then no moral dialogue is possible.

However, such a person would be classed as psychopathic, so I doubt that anyone, regardless of what they believe, would be able to reason with him. Most people have innate feelings of empathy for others, it's part of our biological makeup, and that's the basis for moral dialogue. The hypothetical molester, unless he suffers from some kind of defect or disease, will have the same moral sense that the rest of us have, which allows us to reason with him, and show him the suffering he's caused. (A lot of rapists, or child molesters claim that their victims were willing participants - they need to justify what they do in this way because they know that such actions are wrong).

If someone simply refuses to listen to any arguments on the matter, and insists on continuing with behaviour that others find disgusting, then force is the only option - the existence of God changes nothing about that.

Going back to our molester example, you now truly can say that his actions are wrong.

Well, for me his actions are *truly* wrong - in that I don't think I'm mistaken - anyway.

Besides, all you're really doing there is shifting the goalposts. To use your own point against you: What if he says there is no God.

All my moral argument rests on is the assumption that he's similar to most human beings - yours needs to establish an entire view of the world.

12:07 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Right conduct and values are all fine and good, but unless there is an ultimate foundation for them they are simply YOUR impressions of right conduct and values, which are ultimately meaningless.

Whoops, almost forgot this.

As I've said in a previous post - why does value and meaning have to be external in order to be valid?

12:08 PM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Hi Alex – I’ve finally had a bit of time to read things through over here. You and Matt have some very funky highbrow stuff going on. I think I’ll wade in on this thread.

“I don't believe that there is nothing at all to ground morality in. I would say that ground is God. Of course you saw that coming a mile away, but does it not make sense?”

I love being able to give an absolutely straight and complete answer to a straight question. No, to me at least, it doesn’t make sense. (Not the answer I’d like to give, but hey, that’s incomprehension for you.)

OK. We’re looking for a way to understand, say, a child molester as being absolutely, objectively wrong in a way that isn’t just a question of going against our opinions. You think that God is the answer to this: “you now truly can say that his actions are wrong. Not just wrong to you, but truly wrong because we were created to be in harmony with our creator and molesting children is about as far from his character as you can get. The field of ethics opens up because you actually can progress from a lower morality to a higher one.”

I’ll try to explain why I don’t see how this works. What I was trying get at back here was that for morality to be absolute and objective, it would to be utterly fundamental. In saying that “you can’t ground morality in anything at all”, I wasn’t suggesting that it’d be made of flimsy nothingness but rather that it’d be standalone, dependent on nothing else.

If morality is grounded in God, then it’s not fundamental; he is. And if he’s fundamental – with his own character and his wishes being the principles that we’re created to be in harmony with – then where’s the room for saying that his wishes are genuinely moral ones? What makes his commandments objective moral principles rather than mere rules based on personal preferences?

People who believe is God overwhelmingly believe that he’s morally good. But if morality is defined in terms of him, then a statement like ‘God is good’ becomes immediately circular and meaningless. But I don’t think it is meaningless, and I don’t think most Christians would either. Sure, there are some theistic philosophers who go through manoeuvres like ‘The being of God is identical with the essence of morality’ but to me, that just seems like waving their hands and mucking around with semantics.

So, this is what I don’t get: how does God ground morality in a way that makes it objectively, truly moral and not just his personally favoured and enforced rules?

9:04 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Tom,

Bertrand Russell makes the same point to dismiss the argument from morality in 'Why I Am Not a Christian' - It didn't quite ring true for me then, and it still doesn't now.

I agree that *true* objectivity is impossible in that sense - but surely once you begin to think in terms of *degrees* of objectivity the problem goes away?

If God is near-omniscient (as a lot of modern day theologians hold), then the gap between His perceptions and the external reality is almost non-existent, which would make Him the most objective being in the universe. (Assuming His nature is also benevolent).

It makes sense then, if you believe in Him, to try to line up your views as closely as possible to His, in order to achieve the greatest degree of objectivity possible - as near-omniscient beings will make fewer mistakes than the rest of us. So a God-based morality is as near an objective system as can possible exist.

9:50 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Although, having thought about that, you still have the problem of basing an objective system (the universe as God sees it) on subjective knowledge (the existence of God itself - as you can't objectively prove the existence of the basis of objective knowledge)

10:21 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Guys,
Sorry, now I'm all booked up with life and still don't have time to dig in! I'm away from home at the moment. My mother is having heart surgery tomorrow and I need to be there for her. Wish us the best.

12:23 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

I hope it goes well Alex. I remember how worried I was a few years ago when my dad was having chemo. Good luck to her.

3:33 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Yeah, I hope everything goes okay too.

4:46 AM

 

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