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Awe and beauty

| Monday, April 27, 2020

Last Wednesday, as many of you know, was the 50th Earth Day. Breathtaking snapshots of all that nature has to offer abounded on social media in celebration of the occasion. If we take the time to stop and look at them, photos like these are truly quite spectacular. They give us pause and make us wonder. They lift us off the ground and take us outside ourselves, if only for a moment. It’s rather odd, isn’t it, that we who have seen all the colors nature has to offer our entire lives should still be so amazed by it? Take the beach, for example. We see pictures of it all the time, and we perhaps go there often, but it’s strange we should still find such a place breathtaking every time or an area of intense competition and predation so peaceful.

Or, take the vastness of the cosmos. No matter how many times I look at images and renderings or gaze at a night sky filled with stars beyond counting, it gets me every time. I know very well what stars look like, so why do I continue to find it so amazing? It makes you wonder and ask the most profound questions a human can ever contemplate: Why am I here? Where am I going? What is my purpose? Who and whose am I?

These are the questions that no other creature in the universe asks. Why is that? Because this so happened to evolve only in Homo sapiens? What benefit would that even have?

Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, however, suggest “that awe is the ultimate ‘collective’ emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good.” But what is “the greater good?” Any basic study of history shows people can’t agree on anything close to a definition (not to mention who gets to decide what “the greater good” actually is), but even if we did agree, it seems against the laws of evolution to sacrifice the power and advantage of the strong to sustain the weak. As Christian Smith points out, in “natural selection … reproductive fitness is most evidently enhanced when individuals seek their own material advantage and that of their local ‘in-group’ — those on whom safety, security, health and future depend” — not those of the outside group. If awe makes us want to help those outside our family and tribe at our expense, as Keltner and Haidt seem to suggest, then awe is contrary to the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Thus, the presence of awe reveals a significant difficulty to those who wish to explain the world through a solely materialistic lens.

Beauty presents a similar problem. We have a sense of it, too, that it is real and not subjective. We hear a stirring song or we are moved by a breathtaking piece of artwork or a line of poetry, and something in us says it is beautiful not just because I think it is or because a lot of people do, but because it simply is. But maybe this, too, can be reduced to something from our evolutionary ancestry, something that does not require God to justify it. But people like Timothy Keller are right to point out that it would be rather strange in the evolutionary perspective for us to be so entranced by environments not conducive to human life, such as spectacular deserts like the Mojave or the frigid arctic which boasts those fabled northern lights. And for those who suggest that our concept of beauty simply arises from sexual selection, David Bentley Hart rightly points out “being stirred or excited by broad shoulders, shapely hips, displays of physical prowess and so forth is not the same thing as being moved or fascinated by a particular alignment of hues, or a haunting refrain, or a happy poetic image.” While it is certainly true instincts play a part in what we find attractive, the fact that naturalism is hard-pressed to find an evolutionary explanation for the other types of beauty we perceive should give us reason to suspect its explanation of sexual selection might not be complete either.

And what of objective beauty? Certainly, many aspects of what we might refer to as beauty are subjective, a matter of taste or personal preference. But there are aspects of beauty that are indeed objective. If beauty is wholly subjective, then if I think an orange and magenta sunset is not beautiful at all but ugly, who are you to tell me it really is? It is true for you but not for me. The term “beautiful,” then, if subjective, would lose all meaning. There’d be no point in saying something is “beautiful” except to state your personal preference. And yet we look at stunning sunsets, wonderful beaches and the majestic stars above and say it simply wouldn’t be human to look at them and say they are revolting, disgusting, ugly. It is this objective side of beauty that we simply cannot escape without denying our innermost emotions and most precious beliefs.  

But in the materialist view, it might be wrong to say that anything is actually beautiful, objectively or subjectively. Attractive, maybe — but beautiful? Not really. Some definitions might help. Merriam-Webster defines “attract” as “to draw by appeal to natural or excited interest, emotion or aesthetic sense,” but “beauty” is “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing which gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” Attraction seems a much more mechanical or physical process, and while beauty includes those things, it also transcends them.

But if Richard Dawkins is right, that we are merely dancing to the music of our DNA (to borrow his phrase), then it is hard to see how genuine beauty and love, and not just attraction, can arise from such a situation. In Dawkins’ view, we are attracted to certain things only because of a long cascade of chemical reactions going on in our bodies. I don’t choose to feel a certain way; my genes do. We find such explanations wholly unsatisfying and inconsistent with our shared experience. Love requires choice, the freedom to say yes or no and exclusively physical processes cannot produce things like beauty and love which transcend physical attraction. If beauty is an illusion, then we shouldn’t be persuaded or moved by images and strains of music that seem to stir our souls. If beauty is an illusion, why should we write and enjoy flowery language and poetry when it does us no evolutionary good and actually diverts energy away from it? Why should we ask ourselves the questions of meaning, value, purpose and love unless we actually believe such things might exist? It appears art and literature, music and poetry are all but a waste of precious breath (ah, but what makes it precious?).  

But there’s something else I haven’t discussed yet, something Penn Law Professor David Skeel rightly points out: “Beauty has a physical effect on us that ideas alone ordinarily do not, an admixture of longing and a sense that beauty is not as enduring as it should be.” If this is it, if we live but one life and are gone forever, Skeel’s statement is most baffling. But if Christianity is true, we were made for eternity. Life does not end at the grave nor was it intended to be so. We were designed to live in the presence of the living God and to have a personal relationship with him. We look at this vast universe with awe and call it beautiful because it is God’s creation, because he created it “good” (see Genesis 1). Sin has distorted our lives and the universe, yet through the creation we see but a glimpse of the majesty, power and glory of God (see Romans 1:20). Something about it reminds us this is not our home and our innermost being awaits eternity and that day when God will establish “a new heaven and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17, Revelation 21:1).   

When reflecting on our astonishment at the speed of time, C.S. Lewis wrote that phrases like “how time flies” are “as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water.” “And that would be strange indeed,” he goes on, “unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.” The same is quite true for awe and beauty. To explain them in solely evolutionary or scientific terms is to make a gross caricature of these things we hold so dear, akin to visiting the world’s most majestic cathedrals or listening to a violinist’s stirring performance and simply concluding, “it was pretty.” Something calls out to us from beyond our houses and neighborhoods, from beyond ourselves and beyond our universe. As the psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). We awe at his creation because he is awesome, we wonder because he is wonderful and “[w]e love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Isn’t that beautiful?

Andrew Sveda is a freshman at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh intending to major in Political Science. Besides politics, Andrew enjoys acting, playing the piano and tennis. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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