Sunday, September 16, 2012

Reformed Theology in the Real World: An Examination of Beauty and Presuppositionalism

I recently came across a video by our old friend James White regarding a debate he had heard between Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek. In this video, Dr. White gives some of his opinions on Professor Hitchens from the Reformed/Calvinist perspective. To sum it up loosely (watch the video, it's short), Dr. White believes that Hitchens is the "Poster Boy of the God Hater." Hitchens is not simply an atheist, or even a particularly aggressive one, but is in fact a glaring example of man as he is described in the first chapter of the book of Romans.

This particular section of scripture is a favorite of Dr. White, and he brings it up constantly when talking about unbelievers, both individually and as a culture. For the Calvinist, this passage is a sort of manifesto on man in his rebellion against God. It describes perfectly the state of the person who rejects the god of the bible, the motivations for that rejection, and the natural result of such a rejection on man's soul. At least that is what Calvinists interpret the passage as describing, and for the sake of argument I will go ahead and assume that they are correct.

Beyond Presuppositions

Generally speaking, when an apologist is engaging in dialogue with (or making a presentation to) unbelievers, these sorts of theological foundations are not brought out into the open. Even presuppositional apologists do not often lay it all on the table the way Dr. White does here. You may hear apologists make passing references to an unbeliever's supposed pre-commitment to the non-existence of God, or something along those lines, but rarely will they present their entire theological position with chapter and verse references like this. Granted, this video is not a debate, but Dr. White does reference "any atheists who may be watching," and there can be no doubt that he does not intend this video to be interpreted simply as an in-house discussion.

The interesting thing about the way Dr. White argues in this video is that he does not simply regurgitate Reformed presuppositions on the basis of the authority of scripture, as one would expect him to do. Instead, he actually points to people like Christopher Hitchens as living examples of man as the bible describes him. It's almost as if Dr. White is using those who seem to match the biblical description of man in his depraved state as evidence that such a description is correct. He even states that Christopher Hitchens is "described with almost eerie accuracy" in Romans 1 (13:32 in the video). If Dr. White wanted to make it clear that he was presenting Hitchens as a case in point, he could hardly have made it more obvious.

This puts people like myself in a strange position. If men like Hitchens are understood to be evidence of the truth of biblical doctrine, then it is entirely appropriate for an unbeliever like me to examine such evidence on its own grounds. These claims become fair game for analysis, as they have now left the realm of simply being "presuppositions of the Christian worldview" and can, at least in principle, be treated as potentially observable phenomenon. This is, quite frankly, an opportunity not to be missed.

What I want to do is go through some of the claims made by Dr. White regarding man as he is understood from the Reformed perspective. I intend to deal specifically with the following ideas at some length, as they are the ones that Dr. White seems to believe are evident, either in human behavior or in the world around us, and therefore, in my opinion at least, qualify as potentially observable data:

1. Man knows that God exists. God has revealed himself to man both in the natural world and in man's own heart, so that man has no excuse either for wickedness or for professed ignorance of the existence of God. Moreover, man knows more than just the fact that the world has been created by "something." Rather, the very character of God, his "eternal power and divine nature," is known to man. It is a knowledge that goes beyond the metaphysical realm ("there is a creator") and into the moral realm ("there is a creator, and he is good and requires my worship and obedience"). (Romans 1:18-20. NIV).

2. Man suppresses the truth about God. This he does through the aforementioned wickedness and professed ignorance of God's existence. Man wants to keep sinning, to continue in rebellion against God's righteous decrees. He wants to be his own god. Therefore, no amount of evidence can "convince" the unbeliever that the the God of the bible exists, because deep down he already knows that it is true. Man has to work very hard to keep this knowledge suppressed so that he may enjoy his sin in as guilt-free a way as possible.

3. Upon hearing God's word declared, the unbeliever will become at best flustered and incoherent in his objections, and at worst incredibly angry. Because he has to work so hard to suppress the truth of God, he simply cannot stand it when someone proclaims said truth. He does not want to hear it, and will say anything and everything in an attempt to counter it. This is the reason why so many atheists use "bad"' arguments against the truth of God's word. They are grasping at straws, wanting nothing more than to distance themselves from the truth, even if it costs them their integrity.

I think this is a pretty good summary of Dr. White's position. I'm sure there are things that need to be tweaked, but I hope it is clear that I have at least tried to be fair and comprehensive. My hope is that this summary can apply to Reformed theology in general, rather than only applying to the theology of Dr. White, but my main focus is getting his version right. I realize that there are as many theological positions as there are individual Christians, but I hope that this summary is broad enough to apply at least somewhat to the majority of Calvinists.

Common Grace: The Ace up the Sleeve

Before I go any further, I need to address the issue of Common Grace. As I understand it, Common Grace is the grace that God gives to man regardless of his position along the spectrum of salvation. It is called Common Grace because it is not limited to those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and because it does not necessarily lead one to salvation. It is Grace because, were God to exercise his Justice fully, everyone would simply be damned to hell upon being born. They would enjoy absolutely no benefits, pleasures, or joys. Again, this definition may not satisfy everyone, and I welcome corrections, but I think I got the gist of it.

The reason this is relevant to this discussion is that it is often played by the Calvinist as a sort of trump card. Whenever someone points to an exception to the rule of Total Depravity, the Calvinist simply appeals to Common Grace to explain it.

"Oh, you say so-and-so is a really good person? Well deep down he isn't, and if he appears to be, it is because of God's Common Grace restraining the sin that he would otherwise be committing."

Some of the things I write in the following pages may tempt the Reformed reader to counter with a claim about Common Grace. To do so, however, would be to misunderstand the nature of this discourse. I am fully aware of the fact that Common Grace is a presupposition of the Reformed worldview. I get that. You don't need to point that out to me. But my purpose here is not to examine the Reformed worldview for its internal consistency. My purpose is to examine specific claims made by a specific apologist regarding the observable manifestations of particular doctrinal ideas. If the Reformed reader wants to give me an example of Common Grace that fits this criteria, I will be more than happy to respond to it. I personally do not think that such an example is very likely to be forthcoming, but I welcome anyone to attempt it. In the meantime, if you feel that Common Grace is a good answer to one of my points, just go ahead and assume you got me. Enjoy your satisfaction. I can assure you that I will lose no sleep over it.

Man Knows that God Exists

What sort of evidence can there be for the claim that everyone actually knows that God exists? First we must ask how such knowledge would be imparted to man in the first place. I will let Dr. White give his explanation  of this phenomenon.

"Man knows about the existence of the One True God through what has been created. Some interpret that to mean through looking outward at the outward creation. Some see that as looking inward at our conscience. I think it's both." (15:28-47).

So there you go. The two avenues of general revelation of God to man are the natural world and the conscience. By the natural world, Dr. White means both the beauty of nature and the complexity of it. These he sees as "undeniable" proof of God's design and therefore as one of the means by which the inner knowledge of God's nature is given to man.

Natural Beauty as Proof of the God of Scripture

I am tempted to pass over the issue of beauty altogether, as Dr. White did not actually explain how beauty in nature points to the existence of God. But I think I'll take a stab at it anyway, as I think it is fairly easy to see where he is coming from.

In the case of beauty, we have to ask what the best explanation is for the beauty we find in nature. This means we must first understand why we find certain things beautiful at all, and why we even have such a concept of something called "beauty." One important thing to note is that we often mean very different things when we use the term "beautiful." A woman is beautiful to a man in a very different way than a sunset is beautiful to a man. Likewise, a jazz piano piece is beautiful in a very different way than an orchard is beautiful. We generally use the same word beautiful to describe the general desirability of a thing. If something is desirable to us in a way that is not immediately apparent, or if it produces certain recognizable emotional or (dare I say?) physical reactions within us, it is called beautiful, and the word will often stick long after we understand what made something "beautiful" to us in the first place.

If we really try to describe beauty, we find that such a description does not come easy. A beautiful thing is a thing which brings us pleasure to look at, hear, or experience in some way. In some cases, we do not seem to be able to point to any real reason why something brings us this pleasure, but in many cases I think that we can at least get started. We find beauty, for example, in the way colors work together in harmony. The sky is beautiful when it is blue or when it is red, and in very different ways. We also find beauty in a certain kind of order. People trim the hedges in front of their homes in order to make them look similar to one another, and this creates a harmony that is beautiful to us. So much of what we create exhibits this love of order, and we value it in the natural world as well. We also find beauty in the animal kingdom. When animals do what they are naturally programmed to do, they intrigue us. We are impressed by it, and find it beautiful. This goes across the board, from the lion chasing it's prey to the squirrel jumping through treetops. And of course we find beauty in the things that we do. The natural inclination to be artistic is universal among the human race.

What is Beauty?

It is not hard to see why human beings would develop an impulse to find things generally desirable. On the Darwinian model of human development, the desire to be close to something, to experience it in some way or another, makes perfect sense when doing so would provide us with a benefit of some kind. If something in nature is found to be beautiful by the majority of people, we can be fairly certain that there is a good reason for it, and that it likely has its ultimate origin in our evolutionary history.

Consider landscapes. Philosopher Denis Dutton points out in his book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (here's the accompanying TED Talks presentation) that there is a certain type of landscape that appeals to virtually everyone, and it just so happens to be exactly the kind of environment our ancestors lived in during critical stages of their psychological evolution. Watch the video if you want a good description of it. Basically it is an open, grassy area between hills that is populated with a few trees with low hanging branches, and that has a stream or path running through it. We can picture it fairly easily, and the beauty of it does take our breath away. Even people who have never been to such an environment find it appealing. What makes it so appealing, on a practical level, is obvious. It is an ideal location for human flourishing if one is to live off the land as our ancestors did.

At bottom, our impulse to be attracted to certain types of natural environments has to do with their habitability. There is a good reason why people find a grassy meadow, or a peaceful forest, or a lake surrounded by greenery more desirable than an empty desert or a landscape covered in nothing but jagged rocks. Obviously some environments are more habitable than others. The Shire is always preferable to Mordor, and for good reason. Our ancient ancestors would have been in trouble if they found uninhabitable environments more generally desirable than inhabitable ones. It is actually shocking how easy it is to account for what we find desirable about our planet when you understand the way natural selection programmed our desires in the first place.

The same can be said about our love of order. The edge that humans had in evolution was the brain. We developed the ability to use our brains to solve problems, to use reason in our interactions with our world. The fact that we find order beautiful is exactly what we would expect on the evolutionary model. We are intrigued by order because it is useful to us as rational creatures. If our reasoning abilities developed over time through evolution, then the impulse to appreciate and be intrigued by order would have been absolutely essential. In fact it is hard to imagine an evolutionary model of the mind that could make sense without the assumption that such an impulse would be needed.

I'll try an analogy, but I'm not sure how far it will go. It is not enough that we be rational, just as it is not enough that we be sexual. We are aroused and intrigued by sex whether we are personally engaging in it or not. Pornography and erotic fiction are in high demand, as we all know. We desire to experience sexuality in a variety of ways, and it often matters little whether or not we are actually participating directly in a sexual act. It's nature's way of keeping our priorities in line, and it works the same for our reasoning abilities. We have an impulse to be attracted to things that display order, even if we are not personally involved in it in any way. With sexuality, the goal is more specific, so we are more easily able to understand our positive reactions to these more passive forms of sexual interaction (plus we have very telling physical responses). Our appreciation for order and for the rational does not have this obvious goal in mind, so we are simply left with an often mysterious sense that what we are experiencing is a positive thing. Again, on the evolutionary model, this is no mystery.

We know even more about the way color effects our brains. Pale greens have a relaxing effect on our mood.  Blue lowers blood pressure, while red increases it. Given the fact that color impacts us in this way, it is not surprising that certain arrangements of color intrigue us. If our brains developed over time, as evolution suggests, we should expect this. Is it strange that green should make us feel relaxed and secure when it is the most common color found in the most secure environments? Again, beauty is seen to be founded not in something mystical or transcendent, but within our own minds.

But what about the fact that beauty can often be found in places and things that do not seem to fit the mold? After all, an empty desert can be quite beautiful. This has to do with the way we categorize specific aspects of things we naturally find beautiful and then extend those categories to other things. Let's stick with the desert example. We have all seen the images of a vast ocean of sand sitting gently under a moonlit sky and covered in beautiful patterns carved out by the passing winds. I think it is safe to say that most people would find this beautiful. Why would it be? Well, the beaty of the night sky is not dependent on what is under it, so that is no problem. Furthermore, we know that humans have, for quite some time, found symmetrical, artistic patterns beautiful (as explained above), so it is no surprise that such patterns in the sand contribute to the general desirability of the desert landscape.

Once we have these general impulses to find beauty in certain things, and in certain combinations of things, we can find it virtually everywhere. There are artists who understand this, and produce works that leave us dumbfounded and unsure how to react. We have all seen paintings or heard musical arrangements that left us with mixed feelings. There may be joy, or dread, or confusion, or some combination of all of these. When it comes to the way we respond mentally or emotionally to things that we find beautiful or sublime or awe-inspiring, the possibilities seem to be endless.

Is this principle just a sneaky way out of a possible objection? Is the idea that beauty can be found in things that do not contribute to survival just a way of avoiding falsifiability? It this the Common Grace of Darwinian aesthetic theory? Not at all. This principle is useful because it just so happens to work with what we actually see in regards to degrees of general desirability. The desert may still be beautiful when the right features are present, but it will never be as beautiful to the vast majority of people as the grassy meadow with the stream running through the center. The fact of the matter is, the environments that are most beneficial to human flourishing are the ones that human beings find to be the most beautiful, and exceptions, once they are properly understood, simply prove the rule.

Now, is every single person on the planet going to agree on what aspects of nature are more beautiful than others? No, but that's the nature of Darwinian evolution. It is an imperfect system, and it there will always be inconsistencies. One cannot expect every person to experience beauty in the exact same way. But again, when you look at what is generally true of people in their opinions about beauty, it fits the Darwinian model very well. In fact, were everyone to agree perfectly on what is beautiful, we might have cause for suspicion. Evolutionary psychology cannot expect these kinds of absolute results, as evolution is a process that produces dynamic results.

Dutton has devoted much of his life to understanding beauty from the Darwinian perspective, and he has come to some fascinating conclusions regarding the ways in which human beings understand beauty, both in the natural world and in our own endeavors. In his video, he discusses the origins of artistic beauty in early human culture, even going as far back as our ancestors' use of stone tools over 2 million years ago. When we look at early stone hand axes, for example, we find that they were valued for more than their practical use. The fact that we have so many of them, and that they often have no signs of having been used, indicates that there was something else going on in the minds of those who made and valued these artifacts.

According to Dutton, these early tools are best understood as primitive works of art. They have a symmetry and beauty about them that is compelling even today. But why would our ancient ancestors have developed an inclination to create these tiny pieces of art? Dutton argues that they would have served as what evolutionists call "fitness signals" (11:54 in the video). The ability to create something, and to do a good job at it, would be a good indicator of fitness in the realm of reproductive competition. According to Dutton, "we find beauty in something done well." (14:23).

This is likely the reason we find animal behavior beautiful. Seeing animals do their job well reinforced our own desires to do the same thing. Why else would we find predatory animal behavior beautiful? If our sense of beauty comes from God, for example, we would have no reason to see the slaughter of an antelope by a lioness as a beautiful thing. But we do see beauty in it. It intrigues us. On the evolutionary model, this is exactly what we would expect. The most compellingly beautiful thing about the animal kingdom is not just the grace that animals exhibit, but the incredible "skills" that they display.

What we find beautiful in human activity, then, is often directly related to the way such activity reflects skill and talent. In his Authors@Google video, Dutton points out that part of what makes a piece of art beautiful is the amount of work it took to create it. And even when specific pieces of art take very little time to produce, they remain valuable if we see evidence of the hard work required to develop the skills needed for their production (here's a good example of what I'm talking about. Consider how different you would feel about it if it were simply a slideshow of images, rather than a process shown in real-time.). According to Dutton, this is the reason why art made by human hands will always be more beautiful to us than art made by a computer, even if the computer is able to exceed our abilities in things like symmetry, realism, etc. It is therefore easy to conclude, especially given the vast amount of time during which these values were able to develop (just think of how much longer hand axes were the peak of human artistic ability than were things like songwriting and movie making), that our understanding of artistic beauty has a firm foundation in our evolutionary heritage, right alongside our understanding of natural beauty.

Objective Beauty

Given that beauty can be understood very well from a naturalistic perspective, one has to wonder how it can be considered a source for the inner knowledge of God that all men supposedly have. Remember, the claim we are going up against is not simply that an aesthetic theory based on Christian theology is superior to an aesthetic theory based on naturalism. It goes much further than that. The claim is that the beauty we see in nature is part of the natural revelation that clearly reveals the "invisible qualities" of the Christian god (Romans 1:20. NIV).

How does Dr. White explain this? In his debate with Dan Barker in 2009 ("The Triune God of Scripture Lives." It can be purchased on Dr. White's website), he gives us a taste of what this little piece of natural revelation looks like. Unfortunately I will not be able to give exact quotes, as I no longer have the audio file and have no intention of dropping $3.75 on another one. But I have listened to it multiple times and I think I can sum it up fairly accurately. Again, I welcome corrections.

In the cross-examination portion of the debate, Dr. White asked Barker a very simple question: "Will jazz piano cease to be beautiful when you die?" The implied alternative seems to be that the beauty of music is somehow objective in nature. It is not dependent on human opinion, but is really beautiful, pointing creatures to the beauty of God. Barker attempted to give the naturalistic answer by pointing out that, as long as there are human beings who enjoy the sound of jazz piano, it will be beautiful to someone. This is, of course, completely accurate from the naturalistic perspective. But just in case Dr. White wants an answer that's a bit more to the point, here it is. Yes, Dr.White. Yes it will cease to be beautiful once there are no longer any humans left to hear it.

And this is not at all surprising, nor does it invalidate the beauty of jazz piano for those who enjoy it. The things that make jazz piano beautiful are entirely dependent on the way humans think. We respond emotionally to the patterns of the music, to harmony and dissonance. Musicians know what chord formations to use in order to stimulate certain emotional reactions. I am a musician myself, and am very familiar with how this works.

One can see this displayed very well in modern mega-churches. I used to play in a band in one of these churches when I was young, and I have seen first hand how things work. Music is used to guide the emotions of the congregation. The goal is to push their thoughts in certain directions, to create a "spirit of worship" or a "sense of God's presence." But in reality it is all emotional manipulation. Have you ever noticed how the piano or guitar starts playing at just the right moment when the preacher is speaking? It's a very effective performance, and it is no surprise that so many people feel "spiritually fed" after Sunday worship. I'm sure Dr. White would hardly contest these criticisms.

There could hardly be a better example of something that is not objectively beautiful than jazz piano. I am living proof of this, because I personally don't enjoy it. It's too random and dissonant, and often just sounds like noise. But of course, there are exceptions. And that is really what the whole problem here is. The things that I find beautiful in jazz piano are things that resonate with my musical tastes, which are themselves dependent on a whole host of factors, as described above. I may not be a fan of the genre in general, but there are some pieces that I enjoy, and I do appreciate the skill involved in making the music.

It simply will not do to claim that jazz piano is objectively beautiful. I'll assume that "objectively beautiful" is meant to be understood as beautiful whether there is anyone there to hear it or not. One must wonder what would make it beautiful in such a circumstance. Are the sounds waves bouncing around the room beautiful? Are vibrations objectively beautiful in themselves? Perhaps we are to understand that it is beautiful because God thinks it is beautiful. But what about jazz piano appeals to God exactly? Do the rhythms and harmonies impact his mind the way they impact ours? Furthermore, if God thinks things like music are beautiful, would that not make God the objective standard by which beauty is measured? If so, how do we apply that standard to making music? What sort of inferences can we make from God's nature to aid in the process of producing music that is objectively beautiful? And if God does find jazz piano beautiful, am I in rebellion because I do not agree with him?

Perhaps one could argue that what makes music beautiful is the fact that it is a creation by a person who has creativity within him as part his nature due to him being made in the "image of God." Therefore, anything that man uses his natural creativity to produce is objectively beautiful by default. Dan Barker's music is beautiful because he is a creature made in God's image, and he reflects that image in his creativity. If a thing that is created by man is not beautiful, for one reason or another, we can blame it on the corruption of man's nature due to sin. The problem with this is that it begs the question. If an outside standard is applied to determine the distinction between created things that are beautiful (due to the image of God) and things that are not (due to sin), then the standard cannot be man's creativity. This is only a problem, of course, if one insists that beauty is objective.

Another way that theists argue for objective beauty is by arguing that human beings naturally interpret beauty as something that transcends the both the natural world and ourselves. They tend to use the same tactic to argue for objective morality. William Lane Craig often makes the claim that objective morality exists, and that "deep down we all know it." The idea is that human beings, when we have intense experiences of beauty, do not naturally interpret such encounters as being subjective experiences based only on our evolved nature. Instead, we have a natural inclination to see beauty as something greater than us, or as pointing to something beyond ourselves.

This argument is based on a misunderstanding of the way our evolved psychology works. We should not expect our evolved desires and inclinations to have developed with the understanding of how they work built in. In fact, we should expect the exact opposite. Just think of the way instinct works in the animal kingdom. Animals do not know why they do what they do, and they are no worse off because of that ignorance. If our sense of beauty, the feelings a beautiful landscape produces in us or the desire we have to be around it, is something that we developed through evolution, then it makes perfect sense that it would seem to be somehow transcendent. When we experience beauty, we know that we get a sense of pleasure out of it, but we cannot quite put our finger on why. Once we do have a good explanation for it, we will not suddenly lose this sense of awe, because it is not a reaction that depends on our understanding. It's a part of our evolved psychology, and cannot simply be switched off once we comprehend it.

Experiences that seem to take us beyond ourselves but actually do not are quite common. When you listen to the way people describe drug trips, you will hear a lot of talk about what a transcendent experience it is. There have been religious cults throughout history that used mind-altering substances in their rituals, and who actually believed that they were having experiences of the divine. But we know how drugs work. We know why they do what they do to our brains. No matter how powerful the experience is or how convinced a person becomes that they are going beyond themselves, there is no reason to assume that anything other than chemistry is at work. That's the power of the brain.

It is not at all surprising, then, that people of the past saw natural beauty as God's handiwork. They knew comparatively little about the nature of man's desires and preferences. All they knew was that particular aspects of nature left them with a sense of awe, and that such a sense must have an explanation. Once you add human artistic development into the equation, it becomes even easier to conclude that God must be the great artist of the natural world. Our ancestors found beauty in things that were created, and projecting that idea into nature is a short leap of reasoning.

It seems that the theist is left with nothing more than the simple assertion that beauty, however it developed as a concept or whether or not it is objective, points to the existence of God simply because God wanted it to be his calling card. God wanted us to know that he exists, so he made us in such a way that we would find nature beautiful and therefore see the proof of his existence. Therefore he can assert that we are "without excuse" for our disbelief.  Even if the reasons for our concept of beauty have a natural explanation, beauty still serves its purpose in pointing us to God.

This idea, however, means that God has actually made himself untraceable. Once we do look below the surface of our understanding of beauty and see that there is no good reason to assume that a god had any part to play, the purpose that God created beauty to serve disappears. The fact is, even if a god did design beauty in this way, we have no way to track it once we understand how it works. Far from being "without excuse," we actually have no good reason at all to believe in the God of the bible on the basis of natural beauty. The only way out of this seems to be to appeal to special revelation, but then the idea of natural revelation actually becomes meaningless, because it is insufficient to serve any purpose whatsoever.

The ease with which the concept of objective beauty falls apart makes me worry that I may be shooting a straw man. If I am, someone please correct me. As I said before, I do not want to misrepresent anyone's position. As it stands, however, the concept appears to be complete nonsense.


If beauty can be understood perfectly well as something developed naturally through human evolution, and if the concept of objective beauty is seen to be nonsensical, is there any precedence left for claiming that the beauty we see in the natural world is proof of God's "invisible qualities?" One can hardly see how. In the end, the Reformed apologist is left with little more than his presuppositions. Natural beauty is evidence of the God of the bible because the bible says so. Once the apologist starts trying to appeal to any external evidence, his claims are seen to be without merit. If someone wants to claim that natural beauty, to use Dr. White's terminology and emphasis, clearly reveals the existence of a creator, he had better be able to back up such a claim, and not simply retreat back behind the presuppositionalist line.

I'll be dealing with the issue of design as evidence for God in another post, and a few of the same ideas I have discussed here will be brought up. In the meantime, I welcome anyone to correct my understanding of Dr. White's position, or of the Reformed position in general.

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