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« Dawkins and Delusion, Continued | Main | The Problem of Beauty, Continued »

The Problem of Beauty

One reason why many of us can’t believe in God—at least as conceived within Judaism, Christianity and Islam--is the problem of evil. If God really loves us, then why is life often so painful and unfair? No one has answered this question adequately. But the flip side of the problem of evil is the problem of beauty. If there really is no God, if the world was not in some sense designed for us, why is it so heart-breakingly lovely?

Dawkins addresses this issue in Climbing Mount Improbable. He recalls driving with his six-year-old daughter when she pointed out all the “pretty” wildflowers in a field. When Dawkins asked what she thought wildflowers are for, she replied, “To make the world pretty, and to help the bees make honey for us.” Dawkins—bless his rational heart!--writes: “I was touched by this, and sorry I had to tell her it wasn’t so.” I actually laughed reading this passage. No Santa Claus in the Dawkins household!

Dawkins points out that his daughter’s logic resembles that of Christian fundamentalists who claim that God created the AIDS virus to punish sinners. True enough.

But Dawkins still never explains in Climbing or elsewhere the aesthetic response evoked in us by nature. His colleague Edward Wilson has suggested that natural selection may have instilled in us a “biophilia,” or reverence for nature, that benefits both us and those creatures with whom we enjoy mutually beneficial relationships. But why do we respond to rainbows, sunsets, stars, phenomena from which we extract no tangible, utilitarian benefit? As the atheist and Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg writes in Dreams of a Final Theory, “I have to admit that sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.”

The problem of beauty is one reason why I call myself an agnostic and not an atheist.


John Mejia

Beauty, or God, are nothing else but a joke; let’s amuse at them when possible, but never count on them.


Anyone who would say that to a 6 year old kid has some personal issues that need dealt with.

Fred Jones

"If God really loves us, then why is life often so painful and unfair?"
To cut the explanation short, the answer is "right to rule". Is living God's way the best or as Satan proposed, can we do better ourselves? By your question, "painful and unfair" shows how well we can do it our way.

nigel cook

Being Catholic, I have a different view.

First, as Dawkin's does rightly say somewhere, "God" whatever you take that word to mean (ie, either the laws of nature + initial conditions, or mechanism of the universe by the completed standard model and loop quantum gravity dynamics) is extremely extravagant and uncaring: there are billions of stars but there is no help from prayer or the metaphysical ("God helps those who help themselves" if you see what I mean), God doesn't help anyone win lotteries etc.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When the snow falls, kids go out to play but a lot of animals are finished off and freeze.

Dawkins points out that millions of animals are always eating others. It is not a picnic in the jungles.

Ultimately, string theory is successful because it replaces religion. I recently read Hawking and Mlodinow's 2005 "A Briefer Histor of Time" (the 1988 original version was on the London Sunday Times best-seller list for 237 weeks and has sold about one copy for every 750 men, women and children in earth), which states on p125 of the UK edition:

‘In string theories, the basic objects are not point particles but things that have a length but no other dimension, like an infinitely thin piece of string.’

How can something be ‘infinitely thin’? Is this a joke? Surely the Emperor’s New Clothes were woven out of infinitely thin cloth? Clearly, I’m thick because I think they mean they mean the width was 1/infinity metres = 0 metres. If my bank balance is X, that doesn’t mean I have any money, particularly if I have infinitely little money, X=0. A mere quantitative difference, ie, the difference between having 0 width string and 1 mm width string, is a QUALITATIVE difference, because it is the difference between having the Emperor’s New Clothes thread, and having real thread! Clearly, even string theorists can’t be that dumb, so Hawking and Mlodinow are bad explainers.

Most important, they don't even mention loop quantum gravity! Only string theory.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the "explanation" is, as we see at . That link shows how good the stringy explainers are!


I remember reading somewhere that ill people respond to a view of nature in a positive way. If one ill person is put in a hospital room with no view he
gets better. But, another ill person is put into another hospital room with a view that shows grass, trees, and singing birds and that ill person shows gets better faster than the first person.


The Problem of Beauty

JH: “One reason why many of us can’t believe in God—at least as conceived within Judaism, Christianity and Islam--is the problem of evil. If God really loves us, then why is life often so painful and unfair? No one has answered this question adequately.”

Painful (or not) relates to our choices. The only sane basis for choice becomes that which most sane people can agree on: choices supporting survival of the species. Survival is a very empirical standard for making choices, with the sciences providing the objective means.

But what does science actually tell us? Our best science cannot even account for the simplest observation if all: the boundless creativity, the indefinite evolution of system complexity (IESC) of cosmos, taken as a whole. If cosmos is a closed system, the second law of thermodynamics makes impossible the IESC. If cosmos is not a closed system, how can there be an objective TOE? As Gödel reminds us, science cannot tell all. What it cannot tell us is at least as meaningful as what it can.

An object is a closed system whose principal characteristic is decay and dissolution. What is an open system whose essential characteristic is indefinite creativity? What else but a subject? We subjects are The Subject pursuing endless novelty from out of endless sameness. It often hurts. We haven’t got our choices coherent, harmonious yet. Beauty in its countless fractal expressions is the subjective impression of the essential symmetries that motivate (and sustain) creativity. Miraculous intervention would imply a duality: instead, we are “It.” Beauty is the light at the end of the tunnel; the feeling and vision that motivates and directs choices of the creative agent of the Subject.


Belief-wise, I'm one of those people on what I call the ugly edge. I'm basically agnostic, yet people who are vehemently atheist irritate me hugely for their close-mindedness.

That said, my take on this is we find nature beautiful because we are part of nature. Tourism to coastal areas and warm sandy beaches is heavy because that is where we evolved to live, and so we find it beautiful.(humans require more omega-3 acids in their diet than other primates, which fish provide in abundance)
Does this explain why we sometimes find utter wastes like Death Valley or Antarctica beautiful? No, I suppose not. But I'll chalk it up to some form of "aesthetic masochism"

A rainbow is attractive because humans react positively to color. Color is wired into our brains as a good thing because of the basic instinct to eat a variety of different-colored vegetation , to get the largest variety of nutrients. This is why multi-colored candy sells so well. In other words, the slogan for Skittles candy, "taste the rainbow" is partly right.

Why do we find stars beautiful? Who knows. But I'm sure if they had higher brain functions, the Sea turtles who rely on starlight to lead them to the ocean when they hatch would find stars beautiful.

Andrei Kirilyuk

One CAN Understand and Know Everything, IN ADDITION to Feeling and Believing

So there are two news, a good and a bad one. But in this particular case everybody decides subjectively which is which. One idea is that God has a serious problem because what he created is not as good as one could expect from a force of Good. It's an old one but becomes indeed increasingly important because life conditions and knowledge in extended enough parts of today's world are “infinitely” better for almost everybody than they were everywhere at biblical times. Another, “opposite” conclusion is that atheists have a serious problem because beauty is still there and as unexplained “scientifically” as it was before. And of course, by “God” one could imply here “everything (philosophically) irrational, assumed but imperceptible” (including “mind”, “spirit”, “soul”, “psi”, “ESP”, “mathematical” reality, string theory, ...), while “beauty” can be extended to “everything clearly perceptible but not reducible to simple logic” (including “feelings”, “desires”, morals and conduct, science practices, learned community standards, ...), with basically similar conclusions. John Horgan wisely leaves his “final” choice of bad and good news somewhat open...

I have two good news (that can be subjectively bad for many!). First, God (whether real or hypothetical) does not need to be “good” in usual human sense and second, beauty can be (and is) universally and “scientifically” understood (without any corruption of “feelings”). In general, a consistent “rational” idea about good/evil and beautiful can only be based on their complete (i.e. “noncontradictory with respect to ALL major observations”) understanding. It is such kind of understanding that is a good news in both cases, rather than various related “practical” or subjective aspects (some of these can be quite sad, in fact).

A key feature in the “definition of (any) God” is that God has the (real) ability to create, or control “natural” creation, (at least) at a scale of a universe with many (potentially) living and conscious “local” worlds. I try to be “scientifically” precise, but a “simple” point to emphasize is that it is the ability to CREATE (worlds) that really matters, rather than various assumed God's “feelings” and other “subjective” properties (inevitably simplified, although often looking “attractive”). One should distinguish here between major, intrinsic and secondary, external (practically oriented) features of real religious concepts. First reflect the “eternal” and “infinite” parts of divinity, while second serve to adapt the former to realistic, feasible comprehension by real (potential) “believers” (humans cannot really understand infinity, but usually also many quite finite and not so complicated things...). The ability to control creation of “worlds” (universes) is intrinsic because without it God loses completely His status as such (He can't fall down to that of a “democratically elected president”!). By contrast, universal and unconditional God's love of “his” creation results and their related “perfection” (even as a moderate tendency) are extrinsic, assumed features, maybe a necessary, but temporary “decoration” conceived just for THESE, quite IMPERFECT “subjects” (and often, why not, BY THEM).

Knowing what ANY creation actually, OBJECTIVELY means (e.g. ), it is not very difficult to understand why creation of ANY scale cannot be perfect, or at least “generally good”, everywhere. It is because every creation is a “dynamically random” INTERACTION process: non-small local deviations from any desired purpose CANNOT be excluded by ANY influence (because the latter is also a case of interaction and any real interaction has too many possible outcomes to fix them into a single result, ). One can only try to properly SHAPE randomness (that's what God and ourselves are painfully doing all the time!), more efficiently (He, though not always, apparently...) or less efficiently (believers in Him and against). A part of that “generalised entropy growth law” (valid for closed systems too) is that the “result perfection” of any creation, at any scale, is naturally, sustainably split into “more perfect” and “less perfect” parts (major creation product as such and its waste matter, respectively).

Of course, it is quite “natural” for any “thinking waste matter” of creation to assume that it is at the centre of the universe, or at least at the centre of its local planetary system, or in the very least at the centre of God's creation. Unfortunately for inhabitants of this particular planet, none of it appears to be true for them. Two first assumptions were painfully falling during previous centuries, the last one painfully falls in our “modern” epoch (showing that it is not yet completely modern!). No chance, baby! Even in the USA you are not at the centre of either universe, or divine creation! Du courage, amis! It may be easier to understand such “injustice” while living in a country like Ukraine, with its EXPLICIT waste-matter structure: each “developed” (?) and “strong” (?) world of USA, Europe, etc. exists also DUE to effective degradation of many such “small” ukraines, russias, or indias, even apart from any deliberate “exploitation”: the best, “suitable” elements are “naturally” selected into one place, while worse, “unsuitable” ones are left in another place (and how can ANY creation, or “structure formation”, else be possible?!). While looking at a “magnificent” art work, do we really think about piles of waste matter having inevitably appeared during its creation, its various unsuccessful versions, etc.? It is the chef-d'oeuvre that should be and actually IS (quasi) perfect, while all the rest is but a necessary payment for its very existence (entropy, entropy...). It's flattering to represent oneself as a “crown of creation”, but an objective, “average” probability to be at that privileged position is essentially smaller than unity, always and at any scale. No, you're not the chef-d'oeuvre of divine (or “natural”) creation, just another unfortunate version, a broken test tube... (don't be too upset, such “advanced” scrap also represents certain interest, for collectors...). It may be subjectively disappointing but it's true (supported by strong evidence), and the truth is always more interesting and eventually positive (contrary to “comfortable” lie!).

The dry logical output from the above: the co-existence of (any kind of) God (this world creator) and real, human evil of our world is not only possible, but inevitable, only the “degree of evil” may vary for different worlds (and ours does not seem to be at any centre of anything and therefore we're all potential “emigrants” here, “ukrainians of the multiverse”, so to speak...). This is NOT a usual religious apologetics (“God's not to be blamed for evil, it's all due to humans influenced by devil”). On the contrary, “our” earthly evil comes basically and inevitably just from God's (outside) creation, our “humanity” in the whole is its not enough successful version, and quantitative dominance of SUCH unfortunate creation versions is yet more inevitable (and biased) than terrestrial ratio of 5:1 between “poor” and “rich” country populations. God cannot change that fundamental law (“symmetry of complexity”) ensuring the meta-order of reality, and that's exactly why He may be good, at least “in general” (compare with some clumsy terrestrial efforts to “make everybody happy”, such as communism or today's “forced democracy”).

The case of beauty is somewhat harder but solvable within the same universal concept of (unreduced) dynamic complexity ( ). While Good can be RIGOROUSLY (“exactly”) and universally defined as a PROCESS of progressive complexity GROWTH (its transformation from “potential” form of dynamic information to explicit form of dynamic entropy), the related quantity of beauty is defined as already ATTAINED (or at least temporarily fixed) level of unreduced dynamic complexity of a system, often as “measured” by results of its interaction with another complex-dynamical process, the brain (“eye of the beholder”): in the last case beauty is actually the unreduced complexity (now a WELL-DEFINED QUANTITY) of “beholding” brain dynamics, initiated by interaction with the estimated “beautiful” (or ugly) object (which explains OBJECTIVELY the well-known essential SUBJECTIVITY of such dynamic estimate). It is important here that beauty is well determined both as an objective system property (it may be better to specify it as “explicitly observable” complexity-entropy of a system), which is there even without any “beholder”, and as a result of subjective “perception”. All the observed properties of the latter are properly reproduced, and I shall not go into details here.

The dry residue for the emerging UNDERSTANDING of “divine” issues is that (hidden) interaction complexity can well produce quite “beautiful” patterns (in any sense) by its own, (quasi) autonomous development, but the initial, or “critical”, shape-controlling interaction configurations should be created, or at least essentially assisted, “from the outside”: chaotic fluctuations will remain only chaotic fluctuations (and will become ever more homogeneous) by their “natural” development. I show that the underlying law of the “symmetry (or conservation and transformation) of complexity” is absolutely universal and therefore is confirmed by all existing observations (including usual conservation laws and entropy growth, which are but its particular cases). In this sense the mere world existence entails, with scientifically rigorous inevitability (and without ANY assumption), the necessity of certain “outside effects” of its creation: in order to produce any action, electric charges should first be separated by “something” (where “its” complexity MUST be greater than that of the resulting interaction). Needless to say, “separation of charges” found in a DNA system of a conscious species is a bit too complicated for a blind play of “natural forces” alone (in fact, every single electron is too complicated to be properly understood within all “great” doctrines of modern official science...).

In summary, EVERYTHING can be properly, consistently understood, today and in real time, if only one takes into account the unreduced, “dynamically multivalued” structure of any real interaction process. The official science thoroughly, artificially and incorrectly avoids that way in favour of its superficial symbolism (cabbala or mnemonic rules), and therefore it cannot solve interaction problem starting from only three interaction bodies! It prefers to manipulate with its INCREDIBLY misleading, ultimately simplified “models” of reality (see also my comment “The End of Mechanistic Psi-ence”, ). Then why being so “serious” or surprised about ITS OWN, inherent “barriers of cognition”, etc.? It is but a child's game (but where the “child” is too big now, while his “game” is definitely too stupid!). Instead of assuming that today's dull, imitative results of that game are there because “some mysteries may lie forever beyond our ken”, isn't it much more consistent and RATIONAL to UNDERSTAND that it's simply the right (and last!) time now to pass to another, “adult” game (intrinsically complete, adequate knowledge) corresponding to our quite adult abilities to PRACTICALLY MODIFY this world, now within the WHOLE DEPTH of its complexity (but always WITHOUT correct understanding of a single electron origin!)?

And finally, it seems, paradoxically (and fortunately!), that “unaware” Dawkins child can be much closer to that genuine, intrinsically complete rationality, than her “wise” and “scientifically advanced” father (actually representing here the whole official science attitude)... "Santa Claus" is not a lie, but a free (though maybe a bit “idle”) play of unreduced human complexity (“useless but true” and therefore “promising”). By contrast, string theory, or loop quantum gravity (spin networks), or evolution theory (rather than facts) a la Dawkins are all examples of straightforward and the more and more dangerous lies of modern official science (= destructive reduction of huge world complexity to zero). Beware, the beholder!

Mike Cook

Whoops, forgot it is John Horgan and not Michael. At any rate I have always felt that blind watchmaker production breaks down not because a blind process can not make a good watch and even wind it up with a supply of energy now and again, but at the point where the miraculous watch has to reproduce itself.

My analogy is an infinitely long river flowing down out of mountains that are infinitely rich in all kinds of resources. The river itself has all kinds of interesting properties, like eddies, waterfalls, blind estuaries that lead to warm ponds, even volcanic vents in the river bottom.

Given all these features, the infinite river is eventually able, completely by chance, to produce a functioning paddle wheel steam boat equivalent to a gaudy, proud 19th century Mississippi river steamboat.

This random-built steamboat was assembled completely from material that just floated by. It even has evolved a metabolism. Logs that float downstream are hoisted aboard, dried on deck, then chucked into the boiler. Against the flow of entropy the steamboat thereby can chug upstream, or at least hold its place in the current with the help of an anchor and toot its steam whistle now and then just to show the world it is alive.

The accidental steamboat, however, has two glaring deficiencies. To go either up or down river it needs a pilot who has masterful understanding of the river and its quirks because he has been up and down the river so many times he can even anticipate what it will be like after heavy rains or in a drought season.

To be such a pilot you have to have a human brain or at least the brain of a migratory bird or a swimming amoeba, which presumably swims to more advantageous situations. Probably an amoeba level "brain" would wreck a steamboat pretty quickly. It really would help to have eyes with which to see the shoreline and sandbars and some type of evolved depth finding rope on which one knot would be Mark Twain.

At any rate, we are suddenly talking billions of interacting parts to make a brain, versus the maybe 150,000 different types of parts it takes to make a steamboat.

The other unlikely trick the accidental steamboat must pull off is to reproduce itself. Making little steamboats that grow up to be big steamboats is a lot more complex than a crystal replicating itself.

Our universe bountifully produces all the precursor molecules of life. As Fred Hoyle noted, it isn't easy just to get past carbon. It wasn't that easy to get an imbalance of matter over antimatter. Without galaxies swirling in incredibly complex fashions and colliding (or nearly) with each other now and then, it would be hard to get all the heavier elements mixed up enough with carbon precursor molecules. What a marvel our Earth has all the natural elements. What a marvel we human steamboats have evolved eyes, ears, taste, smell, touch, a brain, appreciation of color hues and musical notes, the ability to communicate with other steamboats either directly or through written material or HDTV or the Internet! We are even hopefully trying to communicate with other model steamboats across the vastness of space! It won't be too surprising if such alternative models light years away also happen to believe that the universe was created by a force that really wanted steamboats around to play with.

Roy Waidler

Like NDE's, experiences of aesthesis have their flipside of which we hear little, and that is an overwhelming experience of "ugly," for lack of a better term. Sartre was one of these as he made plain in 'Nausea" and other writings, but hey, anyone who thought he was being chased by a giant lobster after using mescaline cannot be blamed for such an experience. There is a book by a Catholic laywoman named Bernadettte Roberts, The Experience of No-Self, in which she illustrates how a portion of her time in a 'union with God' experience was drained of all life, beauty, meaning; it is quite graphic and makes clear that she was not experiencing a field of wildflowers.

Having had both kinds (without the lobster, thank you) I have a suspicion that there may be an underlying mechanism somewhere in our heads that produces extreme experiences, which may be of beauty or of ugly. What would determine which way this extreme experience goes is another matter altogether and is probably tied to what the brain chemistry is at the moment.

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