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The argument from beauty is an argument for the existence of God as against materialism.


Outline logical structure

Its logical structure is essentially as follows:

  1. There are compelling reasons for considering beauty to exist in a way that transcends its material manifestations[1]
  2. According to materialism, nothing exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations.
  3. According to classical theism, beauty is a quality of God and therefore exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations[2]
  4. Therefore, to the extent that premise (1) is accepted, theism is more plausible than materialism[3]

Points 2, 3 and 4 are relatively un-controversial, so discussion focuses on the premise (1).


Suggested reasons for accepting the premise

The principal arguments for the premise are:

  1. We have a strong intuition, especially when in the presence of great art or extreme natural or human beauty, that the beauty is real and transcends its material manifestations[4]. Although such intuitions are not always correct, they are strong enough prima facie evidence that very compelling arguments to the contrary would be needed to cancel them out.
  2. Creative artists generally experience their efforts to create great art/literature/music in terms that assume the objective existence of beauty, albeit mediated by their subjective experience[5].
  3. Although one can make plausible evolutionary explanations for finding beauty in potential sexual partners and in healthy animals that might be food or predators, the experience of beauty is much wider than these categories and includes visions of things for which there can be no direct evolutionary advantage (like clouds seen from aeroplanes, or images from telescopes).
  4. Scientists, especially physicists, have found that mathematical beauty is a very useful guide to a valid theory.[6]
  5. It is very difficult to speak of beauty in a coherent way without assuming its objective existence, albeit mediated by highly subjective and cultural factors.[7]

Suggested reasons for disputing the premise

  1. Our intuitions may be mistaken.
  2. Creative artists may be mistaken or culturally conditioned.
  3. Given that important brain circuits have evolved for detecting beauty in potential sexual partners, food or prey, they may be "misfiring" to detect beauty in other places. The evolution of the brain may create this impression as a byproduct of its main function.
  4. Ordinary language is not always a reliable guide to objective reality.
  5. Beauty does not actually exist in the observed object or scene. Instead the sense of beauty exists within the observer, as does the sense of "transcendent" beauty.


Richard Swinburne

Richard Swinburne advocates a variation of this argument:

"God has reason to make a basically beautiful world, although also reason to leave some of the beauty or ugliness of the world within the power of creatures to determine; but he would seem to have overriding reason not to make a basically ugly world beyond the powers of creatures to improve. Hence, if there is a God there is more reason to expect a basically beautiful world than a basically ugly one. A priori, however, there is no particular reason for expecting a basically beautiful rather than a basically ugly world. In consequence, if the world is beautiful, that fact would be evidence for God's existence. For, in this case, if we let k be ‘there is an orderly physical universe’, e be ‘there is a beautiful universe’, and h be ‘there is a God’, P(e/h.k) will be greater than P(e/k)... Few, however, would deny that our universe (apart from its animal and human inhabitants, and aspects subject to their immediate control) has that beauty. Poets and painters and ordinary men down the centuries have long admired the beauty of the orderly procession of the heavenly bodies, the scattering of the galaxies through the heavens (in some ways random, in some ways orderly), and the rocks, sea, and wind interacting on earth, ‘The spacious firmament on high, and all the blue ethereal sky’, the water lapping against ‘the old eternal rocks’, and the plants of the jungle and of temperate climates, contrasting with the desert and the Arctic wastes. Who in his senses would deny that here is beauty in abundance? If we confine ourselves to the argument from the beauty of the inanimate and plant worlds, the argument surely works."[8]

Here it is not so much the (alleged) transcendent existence of beauty that is in evidence, as the overall level of beauty, and premise (1) is replaced by:

1. There are compelling reasons for considering the level of beauty in the universe to be greater than that would be expected under materialism.

The difficulty with this variation of the argument is that it depends on an essentially subjective assessment of whether the overall level of beauty in the universe is greater than might be expected if God (or gods) did not exist.


The argument as stated is for theism against materialism. It is possible to be an atheist without being a materialist. According to Midgley "Atheistic Idealism like Hume's is a perfectly possible option, and may be a more coherent one. At the end of the 19th century many serious sceptics thought it a clearer choice (Russell's liflelong ambivalence is quite interesting here)"[9] The classic view of Christian Neo-Platonists was that God is the perfection of the Idea/Form of the Good that included a perfection of Beauty, and that if an Idealist was philosophically committed to the existence of the Form of Beauty it was reasonable for them to accept the existence of the perfection of that Form in God[10]. Keith Ward suggests that materialism is quite rare amongst contemporary UK philosophers "Looking around my philosopher colleagues in Britain, virtually all of whom I know at least from their published work, I would say that very few of them are materialists"[11]

Truth, Beauty and Science

There is a related question that bears on this argument. Scientists and philosophers often marvel at the surprising congruence of nature and mathematics. In 1960 the Nobel Prize winning physicist and mathematician Eugene Wigner wrote an article entitled The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. He pointed out that “the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.” [12]. In applying mathematics to understand the natural world, scientists often employ aesthetic criteria that seem far removed from science. Einstein once said that “the only physical theories that we are willing to accept are the beautiful ones.” [13]. Of course, scientists realize that beauty can sometimes be misleading. Thomas Huxley wrote that “Science is organized common sense, where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” [14]. Beauty seems to be a necessary prerequisite for physical truth, but it is not identical to truth.

When framing hypotheses, scientists use beauty and elegance as winnowing fans. The more beautiful a theory, the more likely is it to be true. Interestingly, the more rarified the study such as higher forms of mathematics and quantum physics, the more likely is beauty found to be a reliable guide. The famous mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl said with evident amusement, “My work has always tried to unite the true with the beautiful and when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful.” [15]. The quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote to Einstein, “You may object that by speaking of simplicity and beauty I am introducing aesthetic criteria of truth, and I frankly admit that I am strongly attracted by the simplicity and beauty of the mathematical schemes which nature presents us.” [16].

Unquestionably many aspects of mathematics are arbitrary and obviously invented by humans, but many other deep relationships seem independent of culture and as true to a space alien as to us on earth. The human sense of beauty may well have evolved along with the human brain as the result of eons of exposure to nature. Perhaps that is all there is to the mystery of beauty in science. Why, however, does beauty become all the more important the more remote the science is from human experience. If the sense of beauty is some type of epiphenomenon of the human brain’s interaction with perceived nature, one would expect a divergence between the sense of beauty and realms of science and mathematics far distant and even contrary to everyday experience. So far that has not been the case.


The argument implies beauty is something immaterial instead of being a subjective neurological response to stimuli. The argument fails to explain why some things are beautiful to some and not to others and fails to consider the enhanced beauty perception people can have under the influence of some drugs. Critics have labeled the variant of Argument based on the level of beauty (as per Swinburne above) as a seeing the world in an overly optimistic fashion, incapable of seeing the ugliness as well as the beauty. Joseph McCabe, a freethought writer of the early 20th century, questioned the argument in The Existence of God, when he asked whether God also created parasitic microbes.[17] Bertrand Russell had no trouble seeing beauty in mathematics. In the Study of Mathematics, he wrote: "Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry."[18]. However, he often failed to see beauty in lesser creations. He stated that he was "unable to see any great beauty or harmony in the tapeworm."[19] H. L. Mencken stated that humans have created things of greater beauty when he wrote, "I also pass over the relatively crude contrivances of this Creator in the aesthetic field, wherein He has been far surpassed by man, as, for example, for adroitness of design, for complexity or for beauty, the sounds of an orchestra."[20] More recently, Richard Dawkins dismissed the Argument as "vacuous", claiming that "[i]f there is a logical argument linking the existence of great art to the existence of God, it is not spelled out by its proponents."[21]

Notes and references

  1. ^ This view goes back at least to Plato and has been a staple of Christian and other philosophers ever since. St Augustine was a major exponent. The most important 20th century Christian writer on this was Hans Urs von Balthasar whose monumental works on the subject (14 volumes) explore most philosophical and theological aspects of the topic! see e.g. [1]
  2. ^ Heavily explored in Von Balthasar op cit.
  3. ^ Polkinghorne makes the point like this: "how does it come about that [experiences of beauty] convey to us an encounter with a dimension of reality too profound to be dismissed as merely epiphenomenal froth on the surface of an intrinsically valueless world?... Theistic belief offers an explanation" Science and Theology SPCK 1998 ISBN 0281051763 p82
  4. ^ for example Polkinghorne suggests "If you want to make a materialist reductionist feel uneasy, ask one what he or she makes of music, and insist on a response that corresponds to the actual way one lives and not to an ideologically glossed version of it. 'Neurological response to vibrations in the air', seems totally inadequate as an account of listening to a performance of the Mass in B Minor." Faith, Science and Understanding p.14. However, Richard Dawkins, an "ardent materialist" (Gifford Lectures website), shows no hint of unease in choosing the St Matthew Passion as an exemplar of beauty in music or in finding Beethoven's late quartets "sublime". The God Delusion, Ch.4.
  5. ^ Dorothy L Sayers The Mind of the Maker gives an extensive discussion of this, and of creativity from a metaphysical point of view
  6. ^ As John Polkinghorne (a FRS in physics who studied under Dirac) puts it: "In fundamental physics it is an actual technique to seek theories whose expression is in terms of equations endowed with the unmistakable character of mathematical beauty" Faith Science and Understanding SPCK 2000 ISBN 0281052638 p21
  7. ^ This is part of the logic of Thomas Reid's argument for the real existence of beauty. See the discussion of Reid's position in the Stanford Encyclopedia
  8. ^ Swinburne, The Existence of God Chapter 6
  9. ^ Mary Midgley The Myths We Live By Routledge 2004 ISBN 0415340772 p40
  10. ^ see e.g. the special introduction by Prof Maurice Francis Egan of The Catholic University of America to the Dialogues of Plato published by the Colonial Press 1900 "God and the highest good are the same; the highest idea is good. [Plato] believes in the living soul and in the Deity who pervades the universe" (p vii)
  11. ^ Is Religion Dangerous? p 91
  12. ^ "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences," in Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. I (February 1960). John Wiley & Sons.
  13. ^ quoted in Graham Farmelo, It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science, Granta Books, 2002 pg. xii. Farmelo provides an extensive discussion of this topic and gives numerous examples from the history of science.
  14. ^ quoted in Ian Stewart (mathematician), Why Beauty is Truth, Basic Books, 2007 pg. 278
  15. ^ quoted in Ian Stewart (mathematician), Why Beauty is Truth, Basic Books, 2007 pg. 278
  16. ^ quoted in Ian Stewart (mathematician), Why Beauty is Truth, Basic Books, 2007 pg. 278
  17. ^ Joseph McCabe (1933), The Existence of God, p75
  18. ^ Russell, Bertrand (1919). "The Study of Mathematics". Mysticism and Logic: And Other Essays. Longman. pp. 60
  19. ^ Egner, Bertrand Russell's Best, p. 33
  20. ^ Minority Report, H. L. Mencken's Notebooks, Knopf, 1956
  21. ^ Richard Dawkins (2006), The God Delusion, pp. 86–87, ISBN 0-618-68000-4

See also

Further reading


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