Does it Matter If Beauty Is Just In the Eye of the Beholder?

We often talk in terms of our tastes. “I love that band or that movie franchise. You like Marvel, I’m more of a DC guy.” (does anyone say that?) This makes it sound like beauty – what we think looks or sounds aesthetically pleasing to us – is purely subjective. It is only about my tastes, my likes and dislikes. Like ice cream. You love rocky road, and I love mint choc-chip.

But are we right? Is beauty ONLY in the eye of the beholder?

Imagine you are looking out to the horizon at the end of a beautiful day. “That sunset is beautiful,” you say. Or you stop on a hike at the sight and sound of a waterfall. “It’s just so beautiful,” you agree with your friends. One day, your spouse does something for you that is wonderfully sensitive and touching and you cannot help but comment, “They are such a beautiful person.” It seems that we also talk as if certain things – sunsets and waterfalls and people – contain the property of “beauty.”

No one has a thought about something horrible – like rats – and therefore concludes that they themselves ARE horrible. No – they conclude that it’s the rats that have the property of “horrible.” They are just observing that in their conscious mind.

So – if beauty is objective, what are we to make of the subjective side of taste that I mentioned at the top of this blog? When you like rocky road ice cream, but that stuff makes my nose wrinkle? Doctor Sean McDowell makes a helpful and piercing observation:

“Nothing follows for TRUTH from DISAGREEMENT.”[1]

Sean is saying that, just because we have different opinions, this does not mean there is no truth on the matter. We intuitively know this in many different areas of life. People disagree about the conclusions of scientific theories, mathematical theses and historical observations. Just because we disagree, this doesn’t lead us to conclude there is no truth. It just leads us to work hard to find the truth of the matter in these particular fields of study.

Lets apply this principle to the question of objective beauty.

1 – Just because we disagree on what is beautiful, this does not lead us to conclude there is no such thing as beauty.

2 – The very fact that we disagree on our opinion of what constitutes beauty means that we all agree there IS such a thing as beauty. For example, if we disagree on our music tastes, we agree that such a thing as beautiful music exists.

3 – Perhaps beauty is a bit like morality. It’s a standard, a functional framework within which we all live our lives? We may appeal to subjective moral feelings. But ultimately, when we think about it, we realise that morality is found to be something objective, pressing in on all of us.

 

So what?

Again – Sean makes great observations.

1 – Beauty has no apparent survival benefit. If the universe is only material and nothing else (Naturalism), we do not need beauty to survive. Naturalism does a bad job of accounting for the beauty we find during our lives.

2 – Beauty fits very well within the Christian worldview. A beautiful creation flows from the nature of a beautiful God. And so, its not surprising that we find beautiful technological intricacy when we explore the function of the cell in biology. Or the beauty of a mathematical theorem that predicts what we find in nature, or the kindness of a person to another person.

 

What about suffering? That’s not very beautiful. Yet Naturalism cannot explain why suffering matters to us. Under Naturalism, suffering just is. Yet within Christianity, suffering makes sense. Suffering and evil are the opposite of what is good and beautiful. A subversion of the objective beauty that was originally laid down by God.

 

So…does it actually matter if beauty is subjective? Sure it does – because a purely natural, subjective understanding of beauty does not account for it. On the other hand, I think there are good arguments for objective beauty, and this beauty reminds us that our world has been made beautiful by a beautiful creator who longs to be involved personally in our lives.

[1] Sean McDowell, Is Beauty Merely in the Eye of the Beholder? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIF48BhPCIk.

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I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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