The Beauty of Nature and the Meaning of Life – Without a God

2012-08-18 15.12.42

I love the above picture, and I thought I’d start with it. Taken in Austria on holiday in the summer of this year it is has since become the desktop background of my computer; the scene behind my twitter profile picture; and for a fairly long time it was the screensaver of my mobile phone too (or, rather, an annoyingly thin portrait section of it was). I place it in front of me constantly and purposefully, and it never gets old.

While away, when I get the chance, I take a lot of pictures. Of these, I’d say only about 1 in 100 are of people. The other 99 are of landscapes, animals, plants and other far more interesting sights. I’m constantly in awe of ‘nature’.

That’s not to say people aren’t interesting – they really are. However living in London I’m in no short supply of people, so they lose their allure after a while (especially when cramped onto a Tube carriage in perpetual rush-hour)… But back to the point: nature’s amazing.

I see no problem, no conflict between that seemingly spiritual assertion and my unbelief. In fact, I don’t feel that a feeling of amazement (or any other profound emotional response for that matter) is in any way attributed to, or in requirement of, spirituality. This position, which takes the view of necessity of soul with regards to emotional experience, was summed up quite nicely by a question posed to me by a friend recently:

If God isn’t real, why are there pretty patterns on kittens?

This query was put forward entirely in jest of course, but I think it’s a good starting point to seriously explore the answer to what a godless appreciation of existence actually means, and why it makes perfect sense. Let’s pick the question apart:

  • Firstly, the patterns on the kittens are only pretty because we judge them as such, and the animals have certainly been bred to appear as cute as possible, by our standards. That’s not to say infant mammals across the board who haven’t received a human intervention in the direction of their genealogy are not/cannot be cute, as features such as bigger eyes proportional to head size or a round-ish face are not hard to find. Our swooning stems from the fact that the non-human infants share characteristics with the human – characteristics it evolutionarily benefits us greatly to identify with vulnerability and need of care (as it most probably does with other mammals too).
  • The ‘aww cute‘ response is down to the firing of neurological impulses and release of chemical messengers in the brain and so sheds no light on whether a God drew up the patterns or not. The point is: the markings are pretty because people think they are, and no amount of concentration on ideas to the contrary will bring an imaginary friend to life.
  • Without anyone around to think the patterns beautiful they would not be pretty, they’d just exist (with or without a god).
  • Acknowledging the patterns as being ‘pretty’, as it makes sense for them to appear to us, by no means provides evidence for a ‘creator’ of the universe (especially not a god specific to any one religion).

I hope that answers it.

I enjoy systematically answering such questions greatly, and love the scientific process as a whole. Whether the question is entirely genuine or laced with a touch of humour it’s the same – fully understanding the answer, as best I can, is what I aim for.  There is a joy in understanding what’s going on around me, and I think that joy underpins most (if not all) of science and scientific thinking. Instead of seeing a rainbow and simply smiling at the pretty colours, I find true appreciation in knowing that each raindrop is acting somewhat like a prism separating out all of the different wavelengths of visible coloured light contained within the ‘white’ light of the sun at different angles, and thus causing the position of each raindrop relative to my eye to change the way I perceive the colour coming off of them. Now, (as that was quite the mouthful) most would rather I shut up and allow them to continue gazing aimlessly at the sky, but I think that true beauty comes in the understanding of why something is beautiful. I don’t necessarily have to let everyone know why all of the time, but it pleases me to ponder silently to myself.

Everyone thinks like this to some degree, but they then tend to stop once they hit a certain barrier. This barrier, I am going to call the ‘insignificance barrier’, and it tends to come about after extensive silent pondering. The paraphrased words of the great Tim Minchin sum the thinking underlying it well, so here they are:

We are all tiny, insignificant, ignorant bits of carbon

And this scares a lot of people. Hardly anyone can look up at the stars experiencing anything but awe (or tiredness), and where a significant few would pair the sightings of great distances, masses and abundance of stellar objects with a genuinely pleasurable sense of big-scheme-of-things worthlessness others are threatened by any ideas of unimportance on a universal scale. Many people feel they need meaning, but the universe provides none. Call all things bright and beautiful godly in origin (as well as being specifically existent for human pleasure) and the ‘meaning’ quandary is solved… But this is as untrue a conclusion to draw as it is an unnecessary one.

To those who see a lack of emotion or poetry in the idea of a godless universe I would ask why an empirical understanding of their existence – along with the inevitable realisation that it is in itself not extremely meaningful as far as the laws of physics are concerned -  is any less poetic than one in which all manner of sufferings and hostility have to be accounted for before the beauty of it all is even considered. Realising an absence of soul does not take away meaning from life, it provides it (at least on the human scale). A singular shot at living, instead of driving a person to madness, should allow them to reflect on just how important living life to its fullest really is – ever more than if this life is a simple wait in the foyer before we are allowed to check in to a better existence.

I do not feel there can be any beauty in nature with God, and it most certainly does not provide evidence for one (unless all of the miseries in nature are recognised as counter-evidence). The only true source of  ‘meaning’ and ‘beauty’ in nature is from coming to terms with just how brief each and every person’s shot at experiencing it is – and that is the atheistic standpoint on such issues.

So to close, in the words of Christopher Hitchins:

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

Well said Hitch…

Carnun :P

I apologise for the lateness in the week of this post’s writing, the holidays have made me lazy. Nevertheless, as always, have a nice week.

Oh, and feel free to add to the ‘kitten’ bullet points (or respond to any section of this post) with a comment – I’d love to see feedback.

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6 thoughts on “The Beauty of Nature and the Meaning of Life – Without a God

  1. Thanks for this great post. It is such an important point, as so many theists (and even a few freethinkers such as existentialists) seem inclined to deny meaning or beauty to human life – simply because it ends?

    I especially loved your statement: “A singular shot at living, instead of driving a person to madness, should allow them to reflect on just how important living life to its fullest really is – ever more than if this life is a simple wait in the foyer before we are allowed to check in to a better existence.”

    My way of looking at it goes something like this:
    So a slice of cake isn’t tasty – because I can finish eating it?

    Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks very much for the feedback. I’m starting to realise that I’m continuing to write not out of what’s left of the initial spur-of-the-moment burst of excitement that started this whole thing out, but rather due to the odd bit of friendly encouragement from people like you. So, thanks again.

      It’s a very important point, which I feel needs repeating from time to time… And your way of expressing it is certainly more concise :P
      I’m not very good at concise – hence the blog…

  2. First let me start by saying that you are very eloquent in your delivery of very interesting idea. I would suggest however that you have derived to that conclusion through the instruction and influence of others. Which is fantastic as it demonstrate that we can trade in ideas and exchange in world views in a logical way. And I appreciate that intellectual beauty and understanding of such complex ideas.

    There are few problems in saying that we judge them to be pretty yet this idea of where that comes from seams to be unaccounted in your argument.

    We know from Biology that some organisms are not classed as pretty by most people (I’m thinking of vultures) and whilst this may sometimes give rise to some to think that this invalidates Christian idea of beauty and God as its originator in fact it does not. It’s the ability to appreciate that is the amazing part. Secondly functionality and complexity can be just as equally beautiful. As can mathematical equations’ etc. etc.

    Idea that we have neurological impulses and that our brain recognises beauty is nothing short of miraculous in my opinion. Knowing does not reduce but in fact increases Christian’s appreciation of beauty.

    Your idea about the patterns being in existence but no one there to appreciate is not really valid if we are to suppose that God is there (Hypothetically) then this pleaser could be incurred by spiritual beings and God himself. And would not in any way contradict the ability to appreciate beautiful things.

    If this is the true assessment which is by all means possibly and is not discounted by your argumentation I would say it makes perfect sense that God could be the source of our appreciation ability.

    Secondly, Bible says that God give rain and sunshine to the believer and non-believer in equal measure then equally he would work precisely the same on the sense of appreciation of beauty. One of the things that Bible also says is that we can recognise the works of his hand.

    I notice that you are very eloquent and in fact beautifully espouse your ideas. My appreciation of those is equally God given. As for the sense that we evolve, how about the fact that we have mathematical beauty which never evolves it simply is. Physical laws that are complex and beautifully show that there is a need for a designer.

    Whilst I did like Christopher Hitchens I always use to wonder how can it be that such intelligent man could not analyse the origin of his ideas? Some of them very complex. Just think of this his Brother Peter Hitchens equally bright has come to a completely different conclusion and has written book about it.

    I conclusion you do not have to be Christian to appreciate beauty, but recognition of beauty is a big sign pointing to God. I will bundle in there several things, appreciation of music, general art, nature, complexity, mathematics and ideas. Which you so lovely presented.

    Kind regards

    Defend the Word

    • Thank you, for the first bit.

      After the flattery though, I can’t help but disagree with most – if not all – of what you say. Sorry.

      Your first qualm, that I have “have derived to [my] conclusion through the instruction and influence of others”, doesn’t sit well with me as a criticism. I mean, for one, everybody alive is a product of their surroundings. The very fact we’re doing this in English – not Afrikaans, Urdu, Polish or any other language – is direct proof of the influence of others on us… So why is the fact that I had to learn (or learn how to learn) to value evidence a point to pick at?
      Is it that my argument becomes less credible because it’s not original? Is it that I’ve been brainwashed into thinking that I’m right by a group of evil, decisive (or perhaps ignorant) fellow Atheists? That, because my thinking doesn’t claim divine inspiration it is automatically struck off in your mind? I don’t know what you meant by the comment, to be honest. But what I do know, is that it is extremely patronising to simultaneously praise me and the “exchange in world views” while using the fact that I had to learn something from others as an argument point against me.

      Your second point: ‘Where does beauty come from?’. I know I touched on this, and I know you read it.
      You say that it is “nothing short of miraculous” that, due to a series of electrical neurological impulses (and, of course, the transfer of messenger chemicals), we can recognise beauty. But, when recognising that this is due to wholly natural, physical phenomena, why superimpose ‘God’ in to the picture?
      Put it this way. Let’s assume – since you like making assumptions – that consciousness is a construct of an entirely physical brain (which, by the way, is orders of orders of magnitude more likely than a ‘soul’ having anything to do with it). If we accept this to be true, then ‘God’ is an irrelevant, unnecessary, wasteful construct with an essentially non-existent genuine explanatory worth.
      To answer your point that there are animals some consider ugly, I would say that the reaction of labelling ugliness is, again, reliant on the same hardware as the appreciation of beauty (generally speaking, of course). Plus, I’m sure it’s worth mentioning that Vultures themselves probably look at each other seeing beauty (or ugliness) in some broad way, as it makes complete evolutionary sense for pairs of Vultures to be attracted to each other when needs be.
      And I’m very glad you brought up mathematics. I love maths. I, like many others, do see beauty in maths itself from time to time, but I’d argue that this appreciation also has no reason to require divine warrant (or, vice-versa, justify a belief in a divine legislator). But maths, I feel, contrary to a significant number of people, is nothing special in of itself. Like language, maths is defined by nature – not the other way around.
      What do I mean? Well, suppose we did all of our calculations in base-12 (as a few mathematicians themselves would like to be the norm). The ‘numbers’, or ‘answers’ we’d get would be entirely different for the same calculations done metrically, but their actual value would be the same. Again, back to the language analogy, what we try to express can be done in many different ways – but however we do it, we get essentially the same result – a description of some form of reality. That ‘result’, when it comes to the mathematics of reality, only needs to be measured (with whatever system – but the more widely used the better), and it becomes beautiful because it is true. It holds up.
      Recognising patterns is a beautiful thing to many people too, but the patterns themselves cannot be considered beautiful in any objective sense. That’s to say, until these naturally occurring patterns are noted down by a pattern-loving human brain they have no intrinsic ‘meaning’.

      I like your next point: “if we are to suppose that God is there (Hypothetically) then this pleaser could be incurred by spiritual beings and God himself.” – which is true, of course.
      Where the truth begins to degrade however, is where this extremely hypothetical proposition is used, essentially, as argument for the non-hypothetical, supposed reality of itself. In simpler terms: let’s assume God exists. Therefore God exists.
      There is a huge leap of logic here – but I can’t say that that’s surprising coming from a person who calls themselves ‘defendtheword’ online. I don’t mean for that to sound bitter, it’s just true – it’s the nature of faith itself.
      I like, also, how you declare that this point is “not discounted by [my] argumentation”, and therefore assume the position of that being so. Again, that doesn’t shock me.

      After that, discounting the Bible quotes which mean nothing to me (as they provide no physical evidence for anything other than a distasteful and distastefully widespread book) and the dragging of me into your belief that the appreciation of beauty is God given, you argue that – since there are physical ‘laws’ which exhibit complexity – that there is a need for a designer. What you are showing is an example of two classic arguments. The first: “Physics has ‘laws’; ‘laws’ tend to be decided; therefore God exists”. And the second: “Complexity is hard to understand; therefore God exists”.
      Both are equally intellectually lame, I’m afraid. To avoid going into the actual, extremely difficult (in places) physics of the first argument I will say this: as an introduction to the science of the physical laws – and existence in general – I urge you to read ‘A Universe From Nothing‘ by Lawrence Krauss. You seem like a guy willing to discuss – why not understand the opposition to your opinion?
      For the second argument: see answer to the first.

      As I feel that, so far, this has been a relatively intellectual venture, I do not wish to go into your opinion of Christopher Hitchens and his (rather detestable) brother. I do disagree with you, though.

      So, in my counter-conclusion, ‘no’. Recognition of beauty does not give evidence for ‘God’ any more than recognition of suffering gives evidence for Satan… Not that that likely means anything to those out to ‘defendthe(supposedlyliteral)word’.

      Carnun :P

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