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Intelligibility, Information, and Beauty

What is information?  Information expresses something.  It is intentional and so not random, right?  A Youtube collaboration between VSauce and Veritasium presents an interesting argument that information is random, or rather, entropy:

But is that right?  Information is random?  If so, wouldn’t it be unintelligible?

When transmitting information, you can compress all that which is a pattern or predictable.  This means that whatever cannot be reduced or compressed is pure information.  At the same time, pure information without pattern and order is meaningless.  It is just white noise.  So it seems that intelligibility is not the same thing as information, at least when it is defined as entropy (as it is in this information theory).  Meaning emerges from patterns of information.  The random must be ordered and patterned in ways that we can decode and understand.  So intelligibility or meaning is the confluence of information and order.

The video makes the neat point that our scientific theories are really just attempts to compress the information we find in nature.  It is interesting to note that scientists often prefer theories and equations that are described as “elegant” or “beautiful”.  In certain sense, the idea that intelligibility, or meaning, emerges from patterns of random information can help us to understand why we find these compressions beautiful.

In an earlier post, I had defended the beauty of the Trinitarian God over unitarian gods on the grounds that the Trinity has both unity and distinction, i.e. a simple unified divine substance that is three distinct persons.  I argued that we can objectively define that which is beautiful as that which is unified, harmonious, and ordered while admitting distinctions.

If information is maxim entropy, it contains an irreducible unity.  That unity of information becomes intelligible when it is ordered into patterns and brought into harmony with other bits of information.  It becomes meaningful.  So whatever is intelligible is inherently beautiful.  Thus, there may be something metaphysical underlying the idea that a scientifically true formula or equation is objectively “elegant” or “beautiful”.  We find that it is “elegant” or “beautiful” because it is a simple unity, yet it has the power to explain a wide variety of our data by revealing patterns.  The more unified and simple an equation is, and the greater amount of distinct phenomena it captures, the more beautiful it is.  This also hints at the fundamental unity between objective truth and beauty, which I believe we find in nature as a reflection of what is fundamental to the Godhead.

How is this fundamental to the Godhead? If God is Being itself, or Being must truly, then God must be perfect, simple, and irreducible.  Whatever is perfect in Being must be truly Good, and indeed, the Father is Good. Goodness is opposed to ignorance, as ignorance is a source of evil, so if the Father is Good, he must know His own Nature, and so must be thought thinking itself.  Since the Divine Substance is absolutely simple, the Father cannot abstract a genus or species to comprehend His Nature propositionally.  Instead, He must comprehend or grasp the Divine Nature Itself in a concrete way, or else He grasps nothing.  And in doing this, conceives of the Divine Substance distinctly from the One who is conceiving.  If God’s knowledge is accurate, he must conceive of the same exact concrete Substance that He is.  So his eternal conception of the Divine Substance is the same substance that He is, it is the grasp of the Truth of God’s Goodness.  And we call this eternal conception, or this eternally begotten grasp of the Divine Substance, the Son, who is the Truth itself.  As the Father knows the Divine Substance, the Divine Substance is essentially intelligible to the Father.  There is a distinction between knower and known and a pattern of sameness that makes the Divine Substance knowable to itself.  Thus, Beauty is intrinsic to Divine Substance in its self-intelligibility.  Since Beauty is that which is desirable in itself, the Will of God is directed towards the Divine Substance.  So another relationship exists between God’s Will and the Divine Substance, which is desirable because of the intrinsic beauty of the Divine Substance as a Self-Intelligible unity.  So the Divine Substance, which is the object of the Divine Will, proceeds from the Father (as Knower) and the Son (as Known), and must be distinct from these Two.  We call the object of the Divine Will, which is God, the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is true Beauty.  And so there is a Trinity of Persons that is the Godhead.

If the Divine Substance is Being itself, it is also the representative of the transcendentals of Being: Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  Interestingly, those three transcendentals are convertible with Being but remain distinct from one another.  So we find that the Persons of the Trinity are convertible with God, but are distinct from one another.  This is not to say that the Son is not Good or Beautiful, or that the Holy Spirit is not True or Good.  Rather, I am saying that the Persons of the Trinity relate to one another in terms of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  But they are far more than these transcendentals.  I think it is a helpful way of understanding the relationships among the Persons in the ontological structure of their relationships (unbeggotten, begotten, and proceeding). The relationship among the Persons of the Trinity and the Divine Substance is ultimately mysterious, but an analogy to the trinity of transcendentals is a helpful image to have in mind.

Of course, whenever I reflect on the Trinity, I fear that I might stumble into heresy.  Nonetheless, I am drawn to thinking about it, like a moth to the flame.  How could I not?  There is nothing more mysterious, more beautiful, and more true.  So, if my comments are in error, I humbly submit them as a mere reflection that is subject to revision.

The Beauty of the Trinitarian God

One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple (PS 27:14).

It seems that beauty is a kind of perfection.  So if God is a being that has all perfections, it follows that God is beautiful. Furthermore, beauty is found in the natural world. If God is the cause of the natural world, then God Himself must be beautiful, given the metaphysical principle that there cannot be more reality in the effect than in the cause. But what is beauty? Is something beautiful merely because it is deemed to be so by a mind?  Is it entirely subjective?

I think not.  Thomas Aquinas agrees:

Thomas maintains the objectivity of beauty, in the sense that beauty resides in the object. In other words, beauty is not a concept in the mind of the beholder imposed onto a given object. If beauty is objective, then there must be some criteria by which we discover whether something is in fact beautiful. 1

What might the criteria for beauty be?  Unfortunately, beauty is difficult to define. Indeed, if it is one of the transcendentals, it is impossible to give an essential definition for it. Nonetheless, there are some great pre-modern theories about the beautiful. The great theories of beauty generally agreed that it consists of unity, proportion, equality, harmony, and order. (Tatarkiewicz 1972, 168-9)2

I would distill the great theories of beauty down to this.  Beauty is a sort of harmony, equality, or order among those which are distinct in number but which are somehow formally unified.

How could God of classical theism be beautiful, or rather, most beautiful according to this theory? For, the God of classical theism is divinely simple.  And in being simple, he satisfies one of the necessary conditions for our theory of beauty.   But, there is no diversity in God, nor parts to be arranged in any sort of harmony, proportion, order, or equality.  So it seems that God cannot be beautiful.

If God is not beautiful, then either creation is in some way more perfect than the creator, or beauty is not really a perfection. But, even if beauty is not a perfection, or some sort of “divine” perfection, there is still the problem of how it could be caused by God. For to deny that beauty is caused by God is to deny God’s aseity.  And to say that God is the cause of beauty but not beautiful Himself undercuts our metaphysical principle that the cause must have at least as much reality as its effect.

If there is supreme beauty, it would be in that which is most unified and which nonetheless has genuine distinction. It seems to me that the Trinity offers us an example of a classical theistic God in whom there are a number of persons in perfect harmony, equality, order, and unity. If the Trinity is coherent, then it offers an answer to the question of divine beauty. We can maintain that beauty is a perfection, that God truly is beautiful, and is the cause of beauty in nature. Nature, in effect, is beautiful insofar as it reflects the unity and harmony of the Trinity. Aquinas would not say that the Trinity is a diversity within God, but he would agree that the persons are distinct and three in number. His hesitancy of saying that God is a unity with a diversity of persons is due to his strong emphasis on the doctrine of simplicity. Nonetheless, the distinctness, unity, harmony, equality, and order of the Trinity is a perfect expression of beauty.

One might go so far as to press this a a problem for those who conceive of God as a singular person. It seems to me that the unitarian has the following options:

A) Deny that God is beautiful, and offer a theodicy for why there is beauty in the world.
B) Grant that God is simple and beautiful, but that beauty does not involve harmony, equality, or order among distinct members.
C) Grant that God is beautiful, but not simple. And hold that there are distinct parts to God to which harmony and order can be predicated.

There are problems with all three of these positions. Consider option A form a moment. Perhaps beauty is a property of matter, and since God is not material, God doesn’t have such a property. But beauty is often ascribed to immaterial things like equations, abstract object, and theories.  So why can’t an immaterial god be beautiful? Perhaps beauty, then, is some sort of privation, like evil? Of what is it a privation, ugliness?  This seems to have things backwards and only introduces another question regarding the origin of beauty’s contrary. Or perhaps one might maintain aesthetic anti-realism. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder and not a fact about anything, including God. But while there may be some subjective aspects to aesthetic experience, it just seems wrong when someone thinks that this picture by Chris Jordan:

is more beautiful than that:

2014-03-16 14.50.44

I don’t think I could take someone to be serious if he were to insist that the picture of a decaying bird engorged with litter is more beautiful than the picture of blossoming almond trees.  I would simply take such a person to be a contrarian, akin to the moral relativist who blushes slightly when he bites the bullet and says that segregation wasn’t really wrong for the societies that endorsed it.  Bite the bullet all you want.  If you think the bird is more beautiful, there is something wrong with you.

Next, there is option B.  But it denies a theory of beauty that seems to make sense of much of our experience of the beautiful, i.e. that it is a harmony, proportion, or equality of sorts. So if it is to be preferable to the Trinitarian explanation, if should offer a theory of beauty that explains the data of our experience at least as well as the “great” theories of old.  Absent an alternative theory of beauty, it is not clear that this option will be superior.  And if the alternative theory is merely fitted to the idea that God is beautiful, but that there are no distinctions in God, then this option simply comes across as ad hoc.  On the other hand, trinitarianism and the great theories of beauty are independently motivated, yet nicely converge.

Option C leaves classical theism behind, and raises new questions about the nature of the divine.  Diversity is introduced into the divine substance, and it seems we must now explain why these diverse parts are unified as a substance.  We must also explain why this complex divine substance is ontologically necessary, and impossible to separate.  Additional explanations that try to regain the attributes of the God of classical theism will appear to be ad hoc unless there are independent reasons to accepting them.

If one holds to i) the doctrine of divine simplicity, ii) beauty as an objective fact and perfection, and iii) a theory of beauty the convergence of unity and harmony, then Christian Trinitarianism best explains those commitments.

1M. Spicher. “Medieval Theories of Aesthetics”. In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed on March, 18, 2014. http://www.iep.utm.edu/m-aesthe/
2 W. Tatarkiewicz. 1972. “The Great Theory of Beauty and Its Decline” In The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 31, no. 2. http://www.jstor.org/stable/429278

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

The PhilPapers Survey was a survey of professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views, carried out in November 2009. The Survey was taken by 3226 respondents, including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students.

The PhilPapers Metasurvey was a concurrent survey of professional philosophers and others concerning their predictions of the results of the Survey. The Metasurvey was taken by 727 respondents including 438 professional philosophers and PhDs and 210 philosophy graduate students. (PhilPapers.org)

The PhilPapers Survey never asked me for my philosophical views, but that’s not stopping me. So here is my stab at the survey, one post at a time.

Question Three

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

Accept or lean toward: objective 382 / 931 (41%)
Accept or lean toward: subjective 321 / 931 (34.4%)
Other 228 / 931 (24.4%)

I accept the objectivity of aesthetic values.

This is an important question for me. It is the question which by which I first realized my interests in philosophy. When I was a senior in high school I went with a couple of friends to see the movie American Beauty. After the film, I made the comment that I didn’t think that a plastic bag floating in the breeze was particularly all that beautiful. My friends both agreed that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that if the boy in the film thought that it was beautiful, then he was entitled to that opinion. For some reason I vehemently disagreed and for the next four hours or so we debated the objectivity of aesthetic values. Of course I didn’t know we were debating such a heady metaphysical topic at the time. I just kept insisting that certain things were simply more beautiful than other things, no matter what the opinions of people happened to be. If everyone were to agree that Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville is more beautiful than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, I would say that they were wrong. I think there is an objective reality that grounds the judgment that the Ninth Symphony is the more beautiful work and those who disagree are insensitive to the reality of that objective beauty.

Beauty is one of the great transcendentals along with truth and goodness. Though they are transcendentals, I think they are as much objects of our senses as there are objects of sight, sound, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Admittedly there is a subjective component to these sensation, but the question is whether the “value” of these components is the subjective part. I don’t think so. If there is a red apple in front of me, it is objectively red. We might say that it ought to be evaluated as red, because its color-value is red. If I say that I see the apple as green, then my subjective experience of the objective reality is wrong. Likewise, if I see a hungry homeless man begging for food and do not sense that I ought to bring him something to eat, my subjective experience is off-kilter from the moral-value which ought to be impinging upon my moral sense. So also, if someone were to see Botticelli’s Primavera and not judge the work to beautiful, such a person must have a dysfunctional sense of beauty.

Now, it might be true that a person does not particularly like Botticelli’s Primavera. A person can freely admit that they enjoy Brittney Spear’s Hit Me Baby One More Time to O God Beyond All Praising. I don’t think aesthetic value has to do with whether one derives pleasure from an object. I could say that Botticelli’s Primavera is objectively more beautiful than Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, but that I enjoy Pollock’s painting more. What I am admitting is that my feelings do not always accord with that which my senses ought to sense. So I want to distinguish between matters of taste and matters of aesthetic values. To compare back with the other two transcendentals, I might also prefer some moral evils to some moral goods, or falsities over truths. But my preferences do not change objective values.

So, I think it is possible to think a beautiful object is not beautiful by being insensitive to beauty. I also think it is possible to enjoy something less beautiful over something more beautiful because the passions do not always accord with reason. Ultimately, I would argue the following:

1. Truth, goodness, and beauty are eternally and essentially attributed to God.

2. God is simple, i.e. without component essential attributes.

3. Truth, goodness, and beauty must not be essential parts, but different ways of describing essentially the same attribute of God.

4. If something is an objective reality, it differs in its fundamental reality from something that is a subjective reality.

5. If beauty is essentially the same as truth and goodness, it cannot differ in its fundamental reality from them.

6. Truth and goodness are objective realities.

7. Therefore, beauty is an objective reality.

I think this argument would need to be developed and defended further, but I think this is sufficient to ground my belief in the objectivity of aesthetic values. How would you respond to this question?

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