I was watching a debate between David Silverman and James White on Youtube a while back, and James White invoked a common theistic theme: to the atheist/naturalist/materialist, I don’t see how they could have any way of assessing morality, beauty, etc.
I found Silverman’s responses to White’s cliches unsatisfying, but I understand his disinclination to engage this logical clusterfuck of red herrings, considering that it would allow deviation from the topic of the debate (Is the New Testament Evil).
I’d never given much dedicated thought to the idea of whether beauty is objective, but after reflecting on it a few seconds, I have a similar response that I would have to the question of whether morality is objective. The answer is clearly no!
Does that mean that an individual’s interpretation of beauty is not influenced by their culture, and that everyone’s response is simply a function of personal taste? No.
Beauty standards differ over time, geography, and the individual. There of course are consistent trends in humanity’s assessment of beauty, but there’s a point I’d like to make, before digging into that.
There’s a theme here, in terms of this line of argument put forward by people who assert there is objectivity in these matters. The problem is that many of the theists making these arguments don’t understand evolution, and this lack of understanding has crippled their capacity to honestly assess these matters, and it’s forcing reasonable people to clean up the logical messes they’re making. They’ve spent so much time with their heads in the sand, in terms of these processes and underlying mechanisms, that their logic in assessing the validity of a materialistic worldview (and their own) is deranged.
How could it be that Beethoven,Cleopatra, Venus De Milo, or Shakespeare could have such a long shelf life, in terms of our assessment of their beauty?
Isn’t evolution and common descent the perfect answer to this question? Similar genetics lead to similar phenotypes lead to similar behavior lead to similar tastes. Do 100% of people love Beethoven or think Venus De Milo is beautiful? Of course not. But a decent percentage do. That alone is evidence beauty is not objective.
So what is beauty? A quick Google search renders the following: a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.
What shapes, colors, or forms are universally, 100% preferred, and which shapes, colors, or forms are universally shunned? There’s no answer to this question, because there is no universal beauty. It’s completely fucking subjective, and derived via a hodgepodge of input variables that are different for everyone. Some people like symmetry, and some people appreciate asymmetry. Some people like yellow shades, and some people more prefer red shades.
Me: Knock knock
Theist: Who’s there?
Theist: Beauty who?
Me: Beauty is fucking subjective!
Let’s step back to the question of morality for a minute: suppose 50% of the human population (women in particular) doesn’t care about their offspring, while the other 50% does. It takes a long time for human children to get to the point where they can survive on their own. In the population that does not care about offspring, they will either avoid having children, or the children they have will die, or they’ll give their children to people who won’t kill them. Of the 50% of the humans that don’t care at all about their offspring, how many of that population will end up having grandchildren? Similarly, how many of the 50% that do care about their offspring will have grandchildren?
Isn’t it likely that the individuals within a population that meet or exceed minimum requirements for their children to survive will be the ones most likely to see their genes live on into future generations? Is this really a difficult thought experiment to work through?
It’s nonsense, pure fantasy, to imagine a world where the individuals that don’t care about their offspring will have an equal chance of having grandchildren as their counterparts, particularly for a species that takes so long to reach adulthood. It’s amazing people need this explained to them.
What does the ratio look like 5 generations later of individuals in the population that didn’t care about their offspring, compared to individuals that did? The populations and individuals that setup an infrastructure designed to care for and protect their offspring will be better off than the populations and individuals that didn’t. If individuals don’t take care of their babies, they’ll have fewer surviving children than the population that does over tens of thousands of years. Consistent care for offspring is an evolutionary necessity for species that take a long time to grow up.
What does the mechanism of caring look like? It could look like a lot of things, and indeed it looks different across time and populations. It could be more of a dispassionate pragmatism, or humble consistency, or tenacious pride. But I think, in general, it manifested in humans as the love emotion; humans aren’t unique in their capacity to express this sentiment, which means that this emotion was present before humans, and humans are inheritors of it. The love emotion improved individuals’ success at reproducing, and Individuals (particularly women) absent of the love emotion for their offspring did not reproduce as much, or as successfully, as the individuals that did posses the emotion. There was, and continues to be, a benefit for the individuals who held that emotion towards their offspring.
Given this background, is it really much of a stretch to consider the notion that transcendent beauty is really just a result of tastes derived through shared genetics, common ancestry, and cultural programming?
Do we really need to invoke a supernatural deity to explain this stuff?