BEAUTY: REVEALING THE DESIGNER Bernard Brandstater
The existence of beauty in our world may be seen as evidence of design, of intelligence at work. How could unguided random events produce the exquisite formulations that we regard as beautiful? But beauty is more than that. I suggest that it points to the identity of the designer and tells us what is his character.
That's a bold claim. It enters into today's debates about intelligent design and Darwinism. And we might ask: Would C.S.Lewis take sides? Well, he did so, and firmly. Though an atheist in early years, he became a Christian at age 33, and an avowed supernaturalist....read his book "Miracles". In late writings he wholly abandoned Darwin. (See notes.)
With that salute to Lewis, I can say that most arguments for divine Creation speak from a negative approach. They dismiss other theories of origin which leave out God, and show that those theories don't work. They lack direction, and they require chance mechanisms that are essential yet do not exist in nature. And if chance can't do it, a Creator-God wins by default. That may be a victory of sorts for theists, but default is scarcely a resounding victory. Instead I see beauty as positive evidence with its own forcefulness. It speaks compellingly of a cosmos that is intentional, that must come from a purposeful Creator. This approach deserves a closer look.
We can think of beauty as the signature of God, his unique identifier.
When I sign my name on a document, my signature identifies me; it has meaning and authority. It shows I am an intelligent, deliberative person. And I am placing my identity, my judgment and my intentions there on paper for all to see. Further, the content of the document I am signing, and even the flourish in my writing style, reveals my nature, my purposes and my personality.
I suggest that beauty in nature, and in all living things, is also persuasive evidence. It identifies a great First Cause, a Creator who thinks, who deliberates, who is a person. Further it shows that in Planet Earth which he made, he has placed his identity out there for all to see. And through the content of his work and the manner of its display he has revealed some of his nature, his taste, his purposes and his personality. It is made visible to us so we may know him.....as a person. It's a breathtaking thought: I can even have dealings with him.
First let's get clear what beauty is. It is a quality of existence, of being, in nature and in ourselves. It defies easy definition, though we can recognize it confidently, and at the same time it leaves room for differences in our taste, preferences and choice. Observers can experience beauty through their senses and through their minds, within their physical and mental capacities. Beauty satisfies and gives pleasure. Its constituents seem right to us; they fit coherently together within their proper context. Beauty comes to our awareness usually from an outside source, but it may also come from within our own minds, our own creative inventiveness.
Beauty is commonly visual: colors, patterns. arrangements, proportions.....beautiful when they fit together agreeably. In part, beauty is subjective; it IS in the eye of the beholder. But it is not only there in our heads. The light we observe is outside of us, arising from physical entities that produce the light radiation. It is their qualities of being that evoke our pleasurable response, but they exist independent of our minds. Beautiful patterns are there and remain, even when we are not watching. Gray's magnificent Elegy says it well:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear.
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
We may say much the same about auditory beauty, the lovely sounds that may please or excite us.
How amazing it is that vibrations in the air around us can be fashioned into patterns that delight us! And we find ourselves equipped with astonishing mechanisms for hearing: eardrum, ossicles, cochlear and nerve pathways that bring sound to our consciousness. Whether it's classic Bach or it's blue grass, music well performed gives us pleasure. And audible speech and comely language make human community possible, social life that gives us pleasure. These vibrations in the air around us, including natural birdsong, have patterns that have order, beauty and meaning, whether or not we are listening.
We must consider also the beauties of touch and taste and smell. My pleasurable response is in my senses and in my mind, but the beauty's source lies in the thing itself, in the chemical properties of whatever I am tasting or smelling. Those molecules interact with my receptors to convey to my awareness subtle differences of flavor and aroma. These subtleties could not have appeared through a process of natural selection that cared only for survival fitness. Nor could they be invented within my own mind.
There is yet another beauty of a different sort: beauty of thought and imagination derived from the creative minds of men and women. We are able to create our own beauty. Fine poetry is an arrangement of words that fit decorously together. It comes from mind and purpose, never from accident. I may write the lines myself, and then take pleasure in what I have myself created, its rhythm and its sonority. Beethoven could enjoy in his mind the beauty of his own compositions, even after he was deaf and could hear nothing. I enjoy in anticipation my own piano improvisations, even before I touch the keys. Logic and rhetoric were beautiful to the ancient Greeks and Romans. An elegant mathematical equation can be beautiful, experts say. In its own special context it provides beautifully coherent, satisfying answers. The same may be said for a choreography or a software algorithm. These beauties may be expressed and communicated through a carrier medium: language conveyed in print or voice or a silicon chip, or whatever we choose as vehicles. But their content and meaning, their order, exists independently. They are patterns of ideas and thought that critic-author David Berlinski lyrically calls "the ineffable inimitable". In our dull prose we might describe such beauty simply as information.
So there are many beautiful patterns of matter and thought that are matched by our ability to perceive and enjoy them. This brings us to the big question: Where did these beautiful patterns, these complex states of being, come from? How can evolutionary theory, which excludes God and the supernatural, account for the diverse entities we perceive as beautiful? What First Cause, other than a purposeful mind, could cause them to appear? And further, how does evolution account for our possessing an ability to perceive and enjoy them all? Here are two separate entities with no physical connection: the beautiful objects or patterns and our conscious capacity to appreciate them. Darwin could not explain the parallel but separate development of these entities during vast eons, by increments of natural selection. We have a system of two co-dependent parts, and each part is meaningless without the other. How did such a system arise?
Strict naturalists have trouble here. If the cosmos came from random events in the emptiness of space, the widely quoted quantum fluctuations in a vacuum, plus an undirected Big Bang, the result should be chaos. So why is their order? Why is that order exceedingly complex, and why is some of it beautiful?
In my view this is a decisive question for which naturalists give no satisfying answer. It is a debate stopper. If living things developed through an unguided evolutionary process, as Darwin declared, the mechanism for development could only have been his vaunted natural selection, driven by fitness for survival. That was the core of Darwin's theory: survival of the fit and extinction of the weak. But order that is beautiful cannot arise as an accident out of nowhere. And in Darwin's world, neither can it survive. NeoDarwinian theory rests wholly on survival usefulness, on toughness, not on loveliness or any perception of aesthetics. So evolution has no explanation for either beauty's existence or its survival.
We must grasp the full weight of this. There are no mechanisms in raw matter to produce exquisite order by chance alone. Darwin could not explain the origin of a delicate orchid in the jungle or the extravagant beauty of a peacock's feathers. In his world we should be surrounded by life that is tough, ugly, functionally efficient but brutal and savagely competitive. Could we enjoy a world where Dawkins' Selfish Gene was in control?
So explaining beauty remains a puzzle. The question has worried atheists, who must find natural undirected explanations for everything. Steven Pinker, outspoken atheist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, admitted this. He has referred to beautiful music as a puzzling gift, and described it as "auditory cheesecake". It enriches our lives, he said in Nature (March 2002),but it makes no contribution to survival.
My answer is close to Pinker's. Beauty is indeed a gift, and it must come from a Great Giver whom we identify as God. That is a huge leap into the supernatural. But for me that is the only feasible answer. Some questions do permit only one answer. The faces carved on Mount Rushmore could possibly have been carved by wind and rain. But intuitively we know they are man-made; no other answer makes sense. So it is with beauty. Undirected chance mechanisms cannot carve beauty out of chaos. Beauty must have come from a purposeful designer-fabricator.
If there is another conclusion I do not find it. Beauty is a gift from a Creator who, at the very beginning, provided us human creatures with an enriched existence, with more than the basic necessities. He put us in a world whose qualities fit together in ways that we see as beautiful. These qualities, many of them magnificent, are embedded in the natural world around us. But in addition he gave us a towering enhancement: he equipped us with marvelous vision, with intricate hearing, and with unfathomed mental processes that can perceive these beauties and find delight in them. On one hand is the beauty out there, and on the other hand is our ability to perceive and enjoy it. Again we see two distinct entities, fashioned separately by a purposeful Creator, and each needs the other to have meaning. It's a co-dependent system; it had to be designed.
The words still echo in my ears that I heard once in Washington while inspecting the new Mormon Temple: "He created us that we might have joy."Over the years these words have helped shape my worldview. Human joy was part of the divine purpose. The joy that beauty gives us is our intended inheritance. Beauty is a gift for us to enjoy and to create. The aesthetics of Creation grips me when I pause in the daily race. God's vast wisdom and power can surely be seen in the efficient functioning of the world and its life. Seen in nature, this wisdom and power show us his identity as the ultimate Source. That's who he is, the Maker and Master of all. That's how the Apostle Paul identified the Unknown God for the pagan scholars in Athens. Who is this Unknown God? I'll tell you, said Paul: "God who made the world and all things therein" (Acts 17:24). No Greek god made such a claim. At this level God may appear as an engineer-Creator whose handiwork hangs together efficiently. It works well.
This is the super-intelligence that is asserted convincingly by intelligent design advocates. I admire those scholarly colleagues immensely. Their founding leader Phillip Johnson was once my house guest, gracious and incisive. He and his associates have built a powerful case for design that has transformed the origins debate. Planet Earth and all that's in it, they say, could not have come into being without a designing intelligence. Mechanisms for origin by random chance do not stand up when examined critically. These advocates are brilliant in analysis and argument, yet they are cautious theorists. They will not go further and identify the designer. They decline a creationist label; too easily it can invite derision. Johnson insisted to me that we don't yet know enough to characterize the designer. Intelligent design remains a big tent that can accommodate a variety of people who have different concepts of God.
This is the point at which I part company with the design advocates. For me they stop short. In my view we CAN form an opinion about the designer's persona because we have his signature. And it is beauty. Beauty points beyond intelligence and beyond efficient design. The system that God brought into being tells us what kind of person he is, what is his nature, and therefore how we may relate to him. Nature's content, and the flourishes in his signature, reveal his style and his taste. He planted in the Garden not only fruit trees for food, but also fragrant flowersfor sensory delight. And he made silver-toned songbirds with magnificent plumage, far beyond any process of mate attraction. He was not content with efficient function. His personhood comes through. He shows himself to be an artist God who takes delight in the beauty he creates.
But there is even more to the story, as it unfolds in the Bible. God chose to share his artistry with us. He endowed his human creatures with an imponderable gift: some of God's own capacity for delighting in beauty. Can we grasp this? Could it be that he seeks our company in his aesthetic pleasure! I can enjoy what he enjoys! I can know him! My response can only be an astonished awe. This generous God is one I must fear and worship and adore. I like the Bible's picture of God walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden. They point delightedly together at the beauty all around. God the Artist puts his signature stamp there. So Adam and Eve can resonate with him. And so also can we; as Peter says, we are "partakers of his divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). It is too wonderful for human minds to grasp. It is true: "He created us that we might have joy." The Bible says we are made in the image of God. But what is this imago dei? In what way can frail, limited humankind be like God? Surely not in any physical resemblance. It must be in the realm of mind. If we dare contemplate the mind of God, we may inherit some of God's capacity for delighting in beauty, and even creating it ourselves. It is an ultimate life-enriching gift.
My philosopher friend John Mark Reynolds once described beauty to me as an idea in the mind of God. But that God-idea has been implanted in our minds also, an immeasurable gift. You and I, too, can walk in the Garden with God. We can open our senses wide to see and exult in all the magnificence God has made. Our tastes are like his. The full range of aesthetic pleasure has been opened to us, both God-made and man-made. It includes the splendors of the cosmos, but also our music, our art, and our dance. King David loved exuberant dance; and so does God. He enjoys what we create: our sculpture, our poetry and our rhetoric, and exalted flights of inventive fancy. All are ours to explore and enjoy. Lewis would revel in the blessedness of today's arts.
Nature surely reveals design, but it also reveals the character of the Creator-God. As we rejoice in our aesthetic gifts, let us acknowledge the Giver. Our Artist-God will take pleasure in this flowering of joy amongst his creatures. Human joy itself will be seen as a thing of beauty, some of God's own signature. And he may declare, as he did at the beginning: It is very good.
Author: Bernard Brandstater
Loma Linda University
SOME C. S. LEWIS QUOTES : On Naturalism and Creation For a fuller treatment see: C.S. Lewis: creationist and anti-evolutionist, by Jerry Bergman
1. "....since men were able to think, they have been wondering what this universe really is and how it came to be."
Mere Christianity, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1980; p. 31.
2. "...what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know. That is to say, it is conscious, and has purpose, and prefers one thing to another. And on this view it made the universe , partly for purposes we do not know, but partly ... in order to produce creatures like itself---I mean, like itself to the extent of having minds. "
Mere Christianity, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1980; p. 32.
3. "It will be a comfort to me all my life to know that the scientist and the materialist have not the last word; that Darwin and Spencer undermining ancestral beliefs stand themselves on a foundation of sand; of gigantic assumptions and irreconcilable contradictions an inch below the surface."
Letters of C. S. Lewis, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Harcourt, New
York 1988; p. 213.
4. In an essay titled "The Funeral of a Great Myth" published after his death, Lewis wrote
(1951) that evolution was:
"..... the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives."
Ferngren, G.B. and Numbers, R.L. C.S. Lewis on creation and evolution:
the Acworth letters, 1944-1960, The American Scientific Affiliation 49(1):
28-34, 1996; p. 28.
5. "Does the whole vast structure of modern naturalism depend not on positive evidence, but simply on an a priori metaphysical prejudice? Was it devised not to get in facts, but to keep out God?"
The Weight of Glory, Simon & Schuster, New York, p.113, 1954.