Friday, December 14, 2007

Plantinga and the argument from Beauty

This discussion on Ooblick's blog uses Plantinga's brief reference to what he calls The Mozart Argument as a reason why atheists snicker at Plantinga. Not every atheist snickers at Plantinga--I wish people would read Keith Parsons' God and the Burden of Proof as a detailed and fair, though critical, treatment of Plantinga's ideas. In "Two Dozen or So Theistic Arguments" Plantinga was giving brief presentations of a number of theistic arguments,, without necessarily giving them a full endorsement. The treatment of the Mozart Argument was admittedly sketchy. But there are arguments along those lines that have been developed in more detail by Mark Wynn, and we discussed it a few months back.

http://dangerousidea.blogspot.com/2007/09/is-there-argument-from-beauty-to-god.html

11 comments:

Jim Slagle said...

This reminds me a bit of one of Kreeft and Tacelli's arguments from Handbook of Christian Apologetics:

"17. The Argument from Aesthetic Experience.
There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.
You either see this one or you don't."

philip m said...

Kreeft also points out that it's not him, but several of his ex-atheist friends who told him that. So atheists can't just blame people like Plantinga for being naive.

Ilíon said...

What's naive about seeing beauty, in whatever form, as evidence that there is a God?

How can one have an "aesthetic experience" unless there exists Beauty as an objectively existing thing/concept against which one's experience compares? How can one speak of this or that being beautiful if the term is devoid of content?

Can one speak this or that being good (or bad) if there is not Good?

Just as there really is no such thing as reason, or good ... or minds (or Mind) ... if 'atheism' were the truth about the nature of reality, so too, with beauty; it simply cannot exist in an 'a-theological' reality.

Yet, beauty ... and mind and reason and good ... do exist. And we all know they exist.

stunney said...

ilion wrote:

What's naive about seeing beauty, in whatever form, as evidence that there is a God?

I see significant parallels between the argument from beauty and the argument from morality:


George Mavrodes On the Weirdness of Moral Obligations in a Russellian World


...as well as the argument from reason.

The weirdness involved is the weirdness of the properties and relations involved----the fact that their normative character seems to fit so ill with the ontology presupposed and asserted by evolutionary materialism.

In addition we seem to be the only species which can appreciate beautiful music and moral obligation and study quantum mechanics. We can imagine a mathematically talented species which knew nothing of morality or aesthetics. Or a very ethical species which was hopeless at math. Or a wonderfully artistic species which was also amoral. But our species got all three. Hmmm. For more on this point, see here and here as well as other comments of mine in that thread.

I might as well add the laws of the physical world to the set of weird things, a point currently being talked about at that great bastion of ill-informed intellectual sophistication, the New York Times:
Laws of Nature, Source Unknown. Interesting to see that in that piece Weinberg, a well-known physicist and nonbeliever, is prepared to describe himself as 'pretty Platonist', since it shows that evolutionary materialism has great diffificulty even accounting for the staggering degree and mathematical intelligibility of order in matter itself, never mind accounting for aesthetic value generally.

I suppose I see the intelligible laws governing the material universe, mathematics, rationality, moral and aesthetic value as all being intrinsically bound up with an irreducible ontology of personal mindhood, and so I regard any ultimate theory of reality which denies such an ontology a central role as being simply unintelligible in the last analysis. Nor can I see that Platonism-----the idea of laws, and equations, and forms, and abstract structures, etc just being there independently of being the contents of any mind, any examples of which that happen to come along being deemed an unintended fact about the world----is an idea in the slightest more plausible or intelligible than is the idea theism.

This, of course, is a far cry from holding that Christianity or any highly specific religious belief-system is or must be true. But I often think that atheism is usually born of a rejection of specific religious claims rather than rejection of the more modest conceptual framework of claims asserted by philosophical theism.

Incidentally, Victor Reppert, your book is mentioned in the first part of that thread above at Telic Thoughts. And I see there's a complimentary post about your book at theolobloggy:


Victor Reppert's Argument from Reason for the Existence of God
.

While you maybe knew that anyway, theolobloggy seems to me like a worthwhile blog generally, so I thought I'd bring it to the notice of others.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Victor -- thanks for posting this link to Wynn's article. It has always been a mystery to me why anyone finds the argument from beauty appealing -- as opposed to other arguments like the cosmological argument -- so I have often wondered if I have failed to understand the argument from beauty properly. I look forward to reading an in-depth defense of it by an analytic philosopher.

There is one thing I wonder, though, which is whether beauty is an objective property of the world, or a subjective property that exists only in our minds.

(I should mention that I see no conflict between believing "There are objective moral values" and simultaneously believing "There are no objective aesthetic values." I'm aware that some people view those two statements as being at odds with one another, but I've never seen a good argument for that position.)

Ilíon said...

Stunney:
"I see significant parallels between the argument from beauty and the argument from morality."

Of course. And both are inexplicable if reality were indeed 'a-theological.'

Everything that matters to us humans is inexplicable if reality were indeed 'a-theological.' That fact, by itself, isn't sufficient to establish that Christianity is the correct (or least erroneous) view on reality. BUT, it is more that suffieient to establist that 'atheism' can never be the correct view.

stunney said...

In reply to debater and ilion, I think the argument from beauty, like the arguments from morality and from reason, essentially boils down to the issue of anti-realism with respect to the relevant phenomena. Below are some thoughts I’ve previously written on this basic issue, though focusing more on moral value than aesthetic value or reason.

The anti-realist in each case is saying:

"There's really no such thing as beauty (or morality, or rationality, or---in the case of eliminative materialists---consciousness); and here's my error theory which explains why these phenomena arise and appear to be objective realities which disclose a distinct and irreducibly non-material ontological realm, and why in fact that’s an illusion, there being no such realm."

The anti-realist admits that nobody denies the vast witness to experience of normative phenomena, such as rationality, moral value, and aesthetic value, but declares that this testifies only to the reality of the relevant subjective states of apparent but actually non-veridical and illusory perception with which we associate those sorts of phenomena. The anti-realist denies the vast witness to the objective reality of reason, aesthetic value, and moral value, and typically because only a materialist ontology is welcome to typical anti-realists about reason and value.

To illustrate: content is the object of intentionality. Moral value is a particular type of content of intentionality. It's the object of the aboutness relation, the thing experience is an experience of. Moral content is the content that moral anti-realism denies exists, substituting for it a non-moral, non-normative content, and declaring no really moral content exists in reality, objectively. This is like being an anti-realist about heat. One asserts that, sure, there are plenty of sensations of heat, experiences of heat, perceptions of heat, references to heat, the heat language game is played, etc-----but does heat exist objectively? Hell, no (says the anti-realist about heat).

The anti-realist’s confusion is like that of the person who thinks that if 5 billion people testify to perceiving objectively real aircraft flying in the sky (in person when they went to Mallorca last summer, or on TV, or in a film, or in photographs, or hearing them roar overheard; in technical books about aeronautics by Boeing engineers, in the recounted memories of retired Sikorsky manufacturing workers told on the porch after Sunday dinner to the grandkids, or in the war memoirs by military pilots, or in musicians singing "I'm Leaving On A Jet Plane, Don't Know When I'll Be Back Again", or in travel writing, used aircraft tickets, witness interviews to the 9-11 Commission, references to aircraft in novels and short stories, the existence of 'air traffic' control towers etc); and if one is an anti-realist about the objective reality of aircraft, then all one has to do to justify one's aircraft anti-realism and defeat the 5 billion is to label this vast witness to the objective reality of aircraft as nothing more than merely a vast witness to 'subjective aircraft', i.e., to subjective experiences of aircraft, and insist instead that aircraft don't objectively exist in reality. And so one aircraft anti-realist defeats the testimony of everyone else. Perhaps the aircraft anti-realist even has an error theory of aircraft. Oh sure, the anti-realist will readily concede, we certainly have loads of aircraft-related words and concepts. Oh sure, it certainly seems as if there really are aircraft that fly in the sky. Oh sure, he'll say, I'm not denying that vast numbers of people have experiences which lead them to believe in the objective existence of a class of physical objects, to which we appear to refer to by using words like 'helicopter' and 'fighter jet' and 'Lufthansa 747', etc. Oh certainly, he'll point out, there is a language game we play involving aircraft talk. And so on.

Now, I think such anti-realism is logically indefeasible (strictu sensu), just as solipsism is. But we have no stronger reason for being anti-realists about morality à la J. L. Mackie and sundry high school and college freshmen moral relativists, than we do for being anti-realists about matter à la Berkeley, or anti-realists about minds à la eliminative materialists, or anti-realists about other people à la solipsists, or anti-realists about aircraft à la someone who is off his rocker and regards aircraft not as aircraft but as some kind of weird supernatural 'latter days sign', along with UFOs, of the impending destruction of the Earth by the gods, whom we have angered by our Promethean hubris.

As smarter atheists have understood, there's really no way out except via an error theory. But, error theories aren't just restricted to morality. They've been endemic in philosophy since the days of Locke , Berkeley, Hume. Thus the last named was an error theorist not just about morality, but about causation, inductive reasoning, and the self. Descartes was an error theorist about non-human animal consciousness. He thought that dogs, horses, etc experienced no pain, but were mere zombie machines, like very complex robots.

So anti-realism may take on the character of what one might call ‘equal opportunity anti-realism’, and evolutionary materialism is, upon inspection, no less vulnerable to such anti-realist reasoning. For instance, I’ve perceived moral value, but have never perceived an electron or quark. Naturalism rests on experience. But experience is simply not confined to things that make it into a naturalistic ontology---experience includes other stuff, like the normative properties of reason and value.

Consider this: people who subjectively favor grisly torture and mass extermination are, on the moral anti-realist’s theory, as basically mentally sound as the rest of humanity. On the theory of moral anti-realism there’s nothing mentally unsound in loving grisly torture and genocide. In fact, it's worse for the moral anti-realist side than that. The anti-realist side has to say that people who insist that they perceive no moral value at all, ever, in anything (since, like unicorns, it does not exist) are epistemically superior to those who claim to perceive moral value. On the moral anti-realist view, the psychopath is correctly detecting the complete absence of moral value in human beings, and it's the saint who is suffering from a systematic cognitive illusion to the effect that every human being objectively possesses intrinsic moral worth.

Obviously that's a horribly unpalatable conclusion, but it follows from anti-realism about moral value. Certainly the anti-realist will say "Oh, no, I do believe that preferences we generally use moral language to refer to actually exist." But then he says (typically) that these preferences or conscious states are just our brain-states doing what our brain-states have evolved to do. There's nothing beyond that, and hence the extreme psychopath is not mistaken in his perceptions.

Ilíon said...

Stunney:
"The anti-realist in each case is saying:
.
"There's really no such thing as beauty (or morality, or rationality, or---in the case of eliminative materialists---consciousness); and here's my error theory which explains why these phenomena arise and appear to be objective realities which disclose a distinct and irreducibly non-material ontological realm, and why in fact that’s an illusion, there being no such realm."

The anti-realist side has to say that people who insist that they perceive no moral value at all, ever, in anything (since, like unicorns, it does not exist) are epistemically superior to those who claim to perceive moral value.
..."

Yeah, I'm familiar with the type -- with the type of person and the type of argumentation.

For example, at the ARN discussion board, a particular 'atheist' who does much of the thinking for the other 'atheists' there, is much given to proclaiming The TrVth that there is no such thing as objective morality. You may recall from a few years ago the case of the German sex-cannibal (as I recall, there were actually two cases at about the same time, but the one that happened to come up for discussion at ARN was the one involving homosexual sexual-cannibalism). Naturally, in keeping with his declarations that “morality” is merely a word for subjective preferences, that there are no such objective things as “right” and “wrong,” he could not denounce this act as being “wrong” … or even refer to it as “murder.” Now, interestingly enough -- and not at all surprisingly to one who has experience with folk of this sort -- a year and a half ago, during the Israeli-Hezbollah War, this very same individual was quite able to denounce the Israelis as “murderers” and “in the wrong.” If I recall correctly, his exact words were “It is always wrong to murder children” -- the “murder” being that when the Israelis took out a missile launch facility intentionally sited to use women and children as “human shields,” women and children naturally died.


Now, I think such anti-realism is logically indefeasible (strictu sensu), just as solipsism is. But we have no stronger reason for being anti-realists about morality à la J. L. Mackie and sundry high school and college freshmen moral relativists, than we do for being anti-realists about matter à la Berkeley, or anti-realists about minds à la eliminative materialists, or anti-realists about other people à la solipsists, or anti-realists about aircraft à la someone who is off his rocker and regards aircraft not as aircraft but as some kind of weird supernatural 'latter days sign', along with UFOs, of the impending destruction of the Earth by the gods, whom we have angered by our Promethean hubris.
.
As smarter atheists have understood, there's really no way out except via an error theory. But, error theories aren't just restricted to morality. …
.
So anti-realism may take on the character of what one might call ‘equal opportunity anti-realism’, and evolutionary materialism is, upon inspection, no less vulnerable to such anti-realist reasoning.
…”

‘Atheism,’ ‘materialism,’ ‘naturalism,’ ‘physicalism,’ whatever one wants to call it, always resolves to self-referential incoherence.

Consider this “error theory” concept (in regards to anything). Is not the very concept of “error” meaningless, indeed incoherent, in the first place, if there is no such thing as truth-which-can-be-known?

I try always to take Wikipedia with a grain of salt; still, it’s (seductively) handy; moral skepticism: “The strong version of moral skepticism says that the claim that it is wrong to kill, for example, is false because ethical claims implicitly presuppose the existence of objective values, and that these do not exist. The weak form of moral skepticism, however, would go no further than saying that we are not epistemically justified in asserting that it is wrong to kill.
.
The stronger position is exemplified in J. L. Mackie's book
Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977). Mackie does not deny that there is moral goodness in the world. His point is that "goodness" of any sort is always relative to certain desires or interests that are relevant to the context. For example, a sharp, durable knife is usually considered a good one, but it counts as good only because knife users have an interest in cutting things, such as food. Sharpness and durability are properties of knives that make them more efficient for such a purpose. Mackie believes that moral discussion typically assumes that there is an objective kind of moral goodness, which transcends any actual desires and interests, and that this assumption is an error.
.
Mackie's position is also known as an "error theory" of morality. Strictly speaking, a more agnostic position that we simply cannot justify ethical claims is also an error theory, as acknowledged by Richard Joyce, who defends such a theory in
The Evolution of Morality (2006). In this case, the alleged error is the common belief that moral claims are justifiable. …
.
What I’m getting at is that to even advance an “error theory” against the claim that there exist objective moral truths, the error theorist has to smuggle into his “argument” (via the basement window) the very claim he means to deny. That is to say, the position of the “moral skeptic” or “moral anti-realist,” whether “strong” or “weak,” is shot through with, and depends upon asserting (though, as obliquely as possible), objective moral claims. The position is inherently incoherent. The position self-referentially defeats itself.
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Consider the "conclusion" of the error theorist; strong: "the common assumption that there exist objective moral truths is erroneous;" or weak: "the common belief that moral claims are justifiable is erroneous."
.
Let us suppose that either (or both) these "conclusions" are correct. Well, then what? Or, to put it more bluntly, "So what!" -- Both positions contain and depend upon the hidden proviso: "One ought not knowingly hold erroneous and/or unjustified beliefs." Both positions are making a moral assertion; they both are doing the very thing they deny can even be done!
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According to their own positions/reasonings, all one need do to defeat them is to say: "So what!"
.
.
Or, let's look at this from a slightly different angle, and try to tie it back into the topic. The moral anti-realist presents what he considers to be an elegant (i.e. intellectually beautiful) argument (i.e. reasoning) against the position that there exist objective moral truths and that (at least some of) these truths can be known via reason.
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His attitude seems to be: "Here is this beautiful reasoning against your position. Since you cannot refute it (and let's agree to overlook the state of its assumptions), you *must* accept it as being the truth about moral claims; you *must* stop making moral claims."
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So, it seems to me that, at a minimum, the 'moral anti-realist' is asserting that 'reason' is objectively real, that 'beauty' is objectively real ... and, once again, he is making an assertion of objective 'morality,' of *oughtnes*
.
.
It seems to me that our concepts of truth and reason and morality ... and beauty ... are inter-related, and stand or fall together, really, because they are different ways of thinking about the same Unity.

Ilíon said...

Come to think of it, the 'atheist' at ARN may even have said: "It is always immoral to murder children."

Anonymous said...

'Come to think of it, the 'atheist' at ARN may even have said: "It is always immoral to murder children."'

What is the definition of 'murder'? (Don't bother looking in the Bible, it won't tell you what is murder and what is not)

By definition, it is always immoral to do something that is defined as something that should not be done.

Ilíon said...

Anonymouse,
You simply don't have the first clue as to what you're talking about, do you?