A better kind of beauty, or: Why some people mistakenly reject Intelligent Design as unaesthetic
|December 30, 2010||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
This post is intended as a follow-up on the post, Children of a better god? by idnet.com.au.
I would like to suggest that the real reason why some people (including many Christians) dislike Intelligent Design is an aesthetic one. Their notion of beauty is overly influenced by mathematics: they define beauty as a delicate and interesting balance between variety (or plenitude) and simplicity (or economy). This kind of thinking goes back to Leibniz and beyond. Both qualities are needed: a very simple world containing just one object would be simple but intolerably boring, while a world lacking simple laws would appear messy and mathematically inelegant. It follows that according to this account of beauty, a beautiful world should contain many different kinds of things, governed by just a few underlying laws or principles. The variety of elements in the periodic table is a good example: it is aesthetically pleasing, because they can all be explained in terms of just a few underlying principles: the laws of physics and chemistry, whose underlying mathematical simplicity is evident in their regularity, symmetry and order. Many people would like to think that living things possess the same kind of beauty: an ideal balance between variety and underlying simplicity. Because the underlying laws are mathematically simple in this model of beauty, these people reason that the act of generating things that possess the attribute of beauty should be a simple one. Neo-Darwinism appeals to them as a scientific theory, because it purports to account for the variety of living things we see today, on the basis of a few simple underlying principles (natural selection acting on variation arising stochastically, without any foresight of long-term goals).
But living things aren’t like the periodic table. The phenomenon that characterizes them is not order but complexity – and complexity of a particular kind, at that. The beauty you see in a living cell is more like the beauty of a story than the beauty of crystals, which are highly ordered but still not very interesting, even when you contemplate them in all their variety. Stories have a much richer kind of beauty: they have parts (e.g. a beginning, a middle and an end; or the chapters in a novel), and these parts have to be ordered in a sequence specified by the author. The idea of writing a mathematical program that can generate a meaningful story from a “word bank” is comically absurd. Even a master programmer could not do that, unless he/she “cheated” and pre-specified the story (or a data bank of stories) in the program itself. But that wouldn’t save any effort, would it? And one cannot even imagine a simple procedure for writing a story. Stories are inherently complex; so the notion that they could be generated by a single, simple act makes no sense. The same goes for living things. They cannot be produced by a single, simple act. And just as one story cannot be changed step-by-step into another while still remaining a coherent story, so too, it is impossible for one type of living thing to change into another as a result of a step-by-step process, while remaining a viable organism.
Stories are not like mathematical formulas; and yet, undoubtedly they are still beautiful. They require a lot of work to produce. They are not simple, regular or symmetrical; they have to be specified in considerable detail. Who are we to deny God the privilege of producing life in this way, if He so wishes? The universe is governed by His conception of beauty, not ours, and if it contained nothing but mathematically elegant forms, it would be a boring, sterile place indeed. Crystals are pretty; but life is much richer and more interesting than any crystal. Life cannot be generated with the aid of a few simple rules. It needs to be planned and designed very carefully, in a very “hands-on” fashion. In order to facilitate this, God needs a universe which is ontologically “open” to manipulation by Him whenever He sees fit, rather than a closed, autonomous universe.
The beauty found in living things, then, cannot be defined as a balance between plenitude and economy, as Leibniz thought. It is a different kind of beauty, like that of a story. That is why life needs to be intelligently designed.