Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Meaning and Beauty

Michael Baruzzini writing at First Things recalls the recent exchange between Richard Dawkins and Archbishop Rowan Williams in which Dawkins admitted that he was an agnostic about God, not, strictly speaking, an atheist. Much was made of the admission in the media despite the fact that it was a trivial distinction as Baruzzini explains:
This admission, though it caught the notice of the media, was not really anything new for Dawkins, who has made similar concessions in the past. Dawkins’ approach to all knowledge is strictly scientific. And since scientific knowledge is always technically tentative, so too must his ostensibly scientific opinion of the non-existence of God. Dawkins dismisses God because he finds no scientific evidence for God, but he must make allowances for the fact that scientific knowledge is always expanding.
Dawkins is still an atheist, after all, because agnosticism is simply a species of the genus atheism. Atheism is the lack of belief in a God and agnostics lack a belief in God. They are what might be called soft atheists because, unlike the hard atheist, they don't make the very strong and undemonstrable claim that God doesn't exist. They simply hold that the evidence is insufficient to justify believing that He does.

It was another comment that Dawkins made in the same discussion that I found much more interesting:
Speaking to his believing conversational companion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Dawkins said, “What I can’t understand is why you can’t see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that life started from nothing—that is such a staggering, elegant, beautiful thing, why would you want to clutter it up with something so messy as a God?”
I don't think Dawkins is quite right about this. Beauty ultimately depends upon meaning. Meaningless form and color may please the senses, it may be pretty, but it doesn't rise to the level of beauty unless there's meaning to it. Just as a meaningless sexual experience, though it may afford some degree of pleasure, is hardly beautiful, a world full of things for which we've evolved an aesthetic appreciation may be intriguing, but it's ultimately beautiful because it exudes meaning from every nook, cranny, and pore.

Baruzzini puts the point somewhat differently:
The archbishop, rather than disputing, agreed with Dawkins about the beauty of the scientific description of the development of life. But he then explained that God was not an extra that was “shoehorned” onto the scientific explanation. Dawkins’ mistake, the archbishop attempted to show, was to suppose that the scientific explanation suffices, and the religious one is an unnecessary complication. The beauty that Dawkins finds in science is not challenged by belief in God; it presupposes it.

Beauty is something reasonable. The beauty of scientific explanation comes from seeing that the arrangement of things is so ordered to produce the phenomena we observe. The scientist begins with a mess of clues and an unfinished puzzle. He begins with a mystery. He seeks that moment when the pieces fall into place. Dawkins’ picture of scientific beauty comes from seeing just this arrangement in evolution, in the material development of the universe. But where creation presents a unified theme returning, finally, to reason, atheistic scientism must insist that at bottom [there] is only unreason.
If it all has no meaning, no purpose, if it's all simply the effluent of a cosmic belch, the beauty drains out of it.

Baruzzini goes on to make a further point about Dawkins' views that should be emphasized. He asserts that:
Dawkins supposes that the doctrine of creation requires a Divine Tinkerer, interfering with or co-opting the natural beauty present in the workings of the natural world. Whether or not God tinkered with creation in the manner envisioned by creationism or some versions of intelligent design, such tinkering is neither necessary to the doctrine of creation nor is it the source of the beauty seen by the believer.

To use an analogy previously developed by Stephen Barr, to ask whether God or evolution created life is like asking whether Shakespeare or Hamlet killed Polonius. If there is no Shakespeare, Hamlet’s act is meaningless. It is merely the accidental arrangement of ink on a page. If there is a Shakespeare, however, his existence as the creator of the literary Denmark does not obviate the drama of the play. It is rather a necessary prerequisite for it. Shakespeare, as a playwright, is not a competitor with the drama of the play.
There's more at the link, but I want to return for a moment to the matter of beauty: Philosophers going back to Plato have affirmed that the highest ideals are the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, but if the world is nothing more than atoms spinning in the void then there really is no Good, no Truth that matters, and no Beauty. The awe we feel when we look at mountains or a sunset or a galaxy is just the perturbations of chemicals in our brains triggered by a particular visual pattern.

It's only when we somehow see meaning in what we observe that we experience its beauty, but there can only be meaning if behind the experience there is a mind that has intentionally created it. Take away the author, the painter, the composer, the architect and there is no meaning and thus no beauty for us to enjoy. A novel filled with eloquently turned phrases and well-crafted sentences nevertheless lacks beauty if the story makes no sense.

The world and life are beautiful because they're filled by it's composer/author with deep, profound meaning.

What Is Philosophy?

Plato gives us perhaps the earliest definition of philosophy when he has Socrates say in The Republic that philosophy is the love of wisdom. Unfortunately, that definition doesn't shed much light on exactly what it is philosophers actually do.

Paul Pardi pitches in to help provide a fuller explanation and thereby does a service for introductory philosophy students everywhere by tackling the question of what philosophy is (and isn't) in a post at Philosophy News. He begins by explaining why philosophy is not science, psychology, linguistics, nor theology even though philosophers address issues common to those disciplines.

What philosophy is, Pardi writes, is a practical framework that leads to truth and which constitutes the foundation of all other subjects. This by itself might not help much, but in his post he explains in more detail what he means by this.

His explanation should be helpful to students trying to figure out what the heck it is they're supposed to be learning in philosophy class.