The Tentative Apologist
6/4/10 at 01:54 PM 0 Comments

Objective aesthetic judgments and naturalism

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I am in the midst of reviewing John Loftus's book The Christian Delusion but I am also permitted the occasional excursus. After all, it's my blog and who are you to tell me what to do? (Sorry, that's a bit too aggressive. It's been a busy morning and I'm a bit on edge.)

Anyway, I digress. In the last thread the question of aesthetics has arisen. It's relevant because aesthetics is one of the many dimensions of reality that falsify naturalism in either the metaphysical or research form. (There are so many other areas that falsify naturalism that I have run out of fingers and toes counting them all, but let's focus on aesthetics.)

Those who believe science can explain everything or that the material world is all that exists take a subjective view of aesthetics. As EssEff declared in the last thread: "Aesthetics can never be objective, only subjective." Or in popular parlance: "beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

There is a strong motivation for the naturalist to claim this, since taking an alternative view and conceding that aesthetics is at least in part objective commits us to recognizing objective aesthetic properties. Just as we can perceive objective shape, texture, or mass we can perceive objective beauty. But once we recognize the objective truth of certain aesthetic judgments we find ourselves grinding the gears of naturalism.

So what reason is there to think that beauty is not all in the eye of the beholder (even if some of it is)? Let me give two examples and with each case let's consider which is more likely: that the distinction between each of our two examples is purely subjective or that there is an objective dimension as well?

So on to the first example. I have included two pictures for your critical inspection, one of the so-called "elephant man" and the other of popular actor Brad Pitt. (I would have used a pic of myself instead of Brad Pitt for the high quality aesthetic side, but then I might be charged with immodesty. Or, even worse, some people might have retorted: "what's the difference?")

Now I'm not a big Brad Pitt fan, but I must say the suggestion that his features are only subjectively more aesthetically pleasing than the Elephant man's is, to my mind obviously false.

So while cultures may establish some cultural norms of beauty (e.g. is a sumo wrestler the height of masculinity? Is Marilyn Monroe feminine or fat?) there are nonetheless some indisputable objective standards. What makes a face or body physically attractive? Symmetry, balanced proportion, et cetera. And to perceive beauty as such is to perceive something more than matter in motion, something more than the stuff of scientific theory.

So even if culture and personal judgment inevitably feeds into judgments of aesthetic quality, it is completely fallacious to move from there to the fully subjective judgment that beauty is all in the eye of the beholder.

But once we concede that there is an objective dimension to aesthetics, that entities can exemplify this property to a greater or lesser extent, then we already have a dimension of reality which falsifies naturalism. Why? Because as Plato recognized, we are faced with a transcendental, a quality which transcends its material exemplifications.

Next, let's turn to music.
Again there is inherent subjectivity in musical appreciation. Everybody has their own preferences in music. As for me, some days I listen to smooth jazz, others to classical (albeit very few) and still others to reggae, 70s MOR, disco or metal core.

But the fact that I like a particular music doesn't mean that I perceive the music to be beautiful. Sometimes I may be in the mood for a little cacophony.

So here's my challenge. Listen first to Agnus Dei. Next, listen to "As I Lay Dying's song "Losing Sight". And then draw your conclusions. Not which do you like to listen to more, but rather which is more aesthetically pleasing. As for me and my house, we perceive the first piece of music to be far superior in terms of objective aesthetic quality, even if many days we opt to listen to the latter.

Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. It is discovered. It is objective. It transcends the material world but is often found within it. The poet and artist grapple with objective reality as surely as the particle physicist. And beauty falsifies reductive naturalism.

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