Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Beauty and awe for an atheist

My theme for the day is why I simply cannot understand theists. This is not necessarily a belittlement of theism; I am admitting that the way I instinctively view the world is very different from the way that a theist views the world. Admitting these fundamental differences goes a long way in avoiding fruitless arguments.

This time, I’m talking about beauty and awe. I have heard theists deride atheists for their nihilistic view of the universe. I have heard the arguments that without god, our lives are without meaning and without joy. I have paid little to no attention to these claims because I am an atheist, and I know that my life is full of meaning and joy. In fact, I’ve gotten to the point where I feel that the joy and awe of religion cannot hold a candle to the joy and awe of atheism.

I can only think about the immensity and complexity of the universe for a short time, and then I physically shutter and have to shake my head to clear my mind.

Theists and atheists have similar views of what is beautiful and what is not. Mozart’s “Symphony no. 25 in G Major” is beautiful; fingernails on a chalkboard are not. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is beautiful; smeared shit on a bathroom stall is not. The Rocky Mountains covered in fresh snow are beautiful; the remnants of a ravished New Orleans are not.

The difference is in how these things (the beautiful ones) came to be. For a theist, the beauty is the direct intention of a single, omnipotent being. For atheists, the beauty is the result of an infinite string of mutations and survival of the fittest. There is no intention involved.

Humans are more aware of intent than any other creature on our planet, and intent seriously changes how we view something. A simple melodic string of single notes is not nearly as beautiful as a Mozart symphony. But if a bird—which we view to have less intent than a human—produces that simple string, it becomes much more beautiful. If the pitter-pat of a rainfall—which we view to have no intent at all—produces that melodic string, it becomes even more beautiful than the bird.

Of course, intent can make some things more beautiful, rather than less beautiful. This is often the case in intentional art. A blank slate of paper is not beautiful in itself. But if we understand that blank slate to signify the artist’s feeling of emptiness, it becomes more beautiful. If a movie follows a conventional format and then breaks away from that format at the last minute, we admire the director’s intent to break the format, not the break itself.

Intent can make something both more and less beautiful and amazing. It is not inherently a negative or positive quality, but it certainly affects how we view everything from a spill on the floor to a great piece of art.

But in the case of the universe, intent detracts from the beauty and awe, at least for me. If the entire universe is the intent of God, then all of our admiration and awe must funnel back to the creator, just as our admiration for a good piece of art funnels back to the artist.

In situations where we are admiring the artist, we not only take intent into consideration, but also handicap. Beethoven’s music is beautiful. It is even more beautiful when we consider that he was a mortal human being with flaws and limitations like the rest of us. It is even more beautiful when we consider that he had a limitation (deafness) that would severely handicap most people from doing exactly what he specialized at—writing music. A drawing of stick people standing outside a house is unimpressive if done by a 20-year-old fully capable woman, but if it is done by a two-year-old girl it is much more impressive. Watching a normal, grown man walk is hardly an act worth noticing. But when Kevin Everett walked into Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, it brought some of the toughest football players to tears. So handicap matters. A lot.

The problem is that if the creator is omnipotent, then how impressed can we really be? If God has no flaws and is all-powerful, I am not overly impressed that he could create something so beautiful and complex. If I was immortal and omnipotent, I could have done the same thing.

On the other end of the scale, if the universe was created without any intent at all, it becomes infinitely more beautiful and awesome. Not only is there no intent, but the handicap is nearly infinite. The chances of things coming together exactly as they have to create sunsets and mountains and bird songs is are so small that they are virtually impossible, not to mention our existence and our ability to appreciate all of this beauty. Our appreciation of beauty does not seem to serve an evolutionary purpose (not that I know of anyway…I would love to hear a theory that explains its advantage) so it seems to be an accident of evolution. And what a wonderful accident it is.


Unknown said...

We are aqll connected

Unknown said...

By the logic of your argument, if I argue that there is no cook, even though people believe in cooks, I can find that if the cupcake was not a creation of a physical being, than it is all that more delicious. Does it validate my argument that cooks do not exist? Do I prove myself as an intellectual because I state there is no cook?

Having laid said foundation, because you deny that God exists, changes not the fact that he does. Your attempt to create a higher existence of beauty and awe fail miserably in comparison to the perfect love a God has by giving his Son for mankind. And that His Son came and died for mankind.

If you want to be educated then read. Read the Holy Bible. Read the History of the Roman Empire. On both sides of the argument in the Divinity of Jesus, there is documentation of a man who called himself Jesus of Nazareth and was accused by the Jews and condemned as claiming he was the King of the Jews. He was horrifically beaten to a bloody pulp, then nailed to the cross, by account of the Roman Empire. Read about how they nailed him to the cross. Its not through the hands and middle of the feet as popularized in pictures. It was through the wrist bone and the heel.

Now find me a man who would endure this claiming he was the Son of God, and never once recanting his claim. Find me one man on this earth ever who has endured such horrific turn of events and suffered it without falter.

Then come tell me how it is just something I was told as a kid by my parents like you do in your sidebar: Why I write these things...

My opinion on why you write these things is because you have heard the voice of God, and have rebelled against it. Run from it. Denied it. But it does not go away.

So by saying He doesn't exist or discounting the possibility of his existence through the use of Charles Darwin's Evolution theory which was based on the 100 or so species documented at the time of his revelation, you put up a futile fight. We know that fish don't come from mosquitoes, just as we know apple fritters don't come from cakes.

If indeed the human race has come to know enough about our world that we no longer need to explain things away with a default "God" answer, then create me a hydrogen atom from nothing. There are tons of them around that came from somewhere. Create me just one from nothing. Use all of what science has to offer. Then balance the Standard Model to include gravity as a force of nature, and maybe then we can start to talk about moving away from the God argument. But you will find less in your search for why they cant define the force of gravity on the standard model, and how its weak force holds planets in place, than you will if you read just one book on Apologetics. Especially if you buy it and sell it like you do evolution which was a theory based in the dark ages on wholly incomplete information.

I mean seriously I could see you buying into global warming because the scientists lied and created false information. But then again just knowing what impact Jupiter could have on our weather system, by understanding gravity and how it pulls us away from the sun, or maybe pulls us when its on the other side... you know logical explanations should rule out that barrel of hogwash. But this is the science you put your faith into. Stuff created by man.

I will take my Jesus. You can keep your stock of scientist who devise new ways to kill fellow man in pursuit of money.

Itarion said...

First, you have clearly put some thought into your argument. Good for you. I just want to thank you for thinking before posting – we all appreciate it. However, you made a single mistake, specifically that of understanding the order. The blogger does not use natural beauty to refute your God. Rather, it is his refusing God that makes his appreciation so much greater.
As for your comparison of God to a cook – there is no absolute empirical evidence for a God-Creator. There is absolute empirical evidence for the cook. And I’m not referring to his cupcake. If you walk into a bakery, and get yourself a cupcake, you can ask to meet the guy who made it. Sometimes, the guy who made it is even the guy selling it to you. I can’t ask to meet God, and still be alive. That is the fundamental error with your analogy, and the flaw that renders it invalid.
Next up, the histories you mentioned. The Bible was NOT, in fact, written during the life of your lord Jesus. Nor was it written shortly after his death. No, the copies that ALL CURRENT BIBLE EDITIONS are derived from were found in the MIDDLE AGES! All Bibles are derived from imperfect copies of imperfect copies, continuing on back for over a full millennium. That’s more than a little bit of time. The Roman archives have some 1500 years, at least, to become lost, destroyed, decayed, or whatever. I’m not going to comment on your descriptions, because they aren’t pertinent to the argument.
Yes, the Jesus that is believed to be the Son of God did exist. That presented a problem to the Emperor back in Rome, who was supposed to be a divine creature. So, when another mortal starts claiming to be a god, there’s an issue. And whoever can control the most resources wins. Which, had this Jesus been a real god, would have been this Jesus. It wasn’t him that won. It was the Emperor Tiberius, through his little finger Pilate, likely without even knowing something happened. So, was Jesus a madman, an idiot, or the actual son of a god who couldn’t get his holy halo working?
Your personal opinion of the author is also impertinent. Leave him alone.
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was incomplete. He said so while he was alive. The reason Darwin is important is because he had the first commonly known theory. The one we have today is a direct descendant of his. AND, the one we have today is accurate in describing the history of the progression of organisms. But, you’re right. Apple fritters don’t come from cakes. They, and apple pies, and probably apple turnovers, too, all have a common ancestor pastry which is now no longer made, but was made with cooked apples and dough. That’s how analogies are supposed to work.
Global warming is not a lie. Really, it’s not. The data on world temperatures that have been monitored worldwide have been slowly creeping higher over the past ten to twenty years. This is called a trend. When temperatures trend warmer globally, it is called (wait for it…) global warming. Scientists are not crazy people. They are very intelligent. What, then, would be the point of convincing nearly seven billion people that temperatures are rising? I don’t know either.
To your closing sting, I’m going to say “The Crusades.” Most people know what those are, and that there was really no point to them. I’m quite sure that you are making a reference to the atomic weapons that were used at the very close of WW2. I would like to point out that of the several thousand manufactured, by the US, Russia, Israel, Britain, and a whole slew of other countries, only two have ever been used. And the country that used them (the US) then spent a freaking assload of money to rebuild the country that got them used on (Japan). Of the nine or more Crusades that got made, nine or more of them got used. And a grand total of zero dollars was spent in aid of the countries that they got used on.
Now that that has been cleared up, I’d like to leave you with a final, biting truth. Hitler believed that what he was doing was the will of God. The Christian one.