Beauty and Naturalism Part II

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 4, 2010 in Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.)

Last time, we looked at Carrier’s discussion of how our perception of beauty works, biologically. Now we turn to the question: is beauty subjective?

Carrier says yes. For him, moral values are universal, but aesthetic values must be personal. Moral value is about what is good for achieving happiness for everyone, while appraisals of beauty amount to personal opinions that are shaped by biology and culture.

Fine. So what’s the point of art criticism, then? The art critic does three things, says Carrier:

First… she calls attention to the merits or flaws, the features deemed beautiful or ugly, which an audience might otherwise not detect or appreciate. Second, a critic may write for a particular audience that shares certain aesthetic values in common… thus aiding like-minded people in seeking out what they enjoy… And third, by explaining why the critic likes or dislikes it… the reader will gain insight into the aesthetic values of the critic and whether he would agree or disagree with her, hence expanding our understanding of humanity and human variation…

Carrier then goes on to share what he values in art:

  1. Communication, often by analogy
  2. Education; an elucidation of the real
  3. Skill (thus, Carrier doesn’t much care for abstract art)

But of course, we all have our own opinions of art. I happen to really like abstract art.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh August 4, 2010 at 5:41 am

A lot of abstract art is good the first time. Duchamp was brilliant, Rothko was revolutionary… but people that do the same things that they did now are just pale imitations.


Reginald Selkirk August 4, 2010 at 6:02 am

Carrier says yes. For him, moral values are universal, but aesthetic values must be personal. Moral value is about what is good for achieving happiness for everyone, while appraisals of beauty amount to personal opinions that are shaped by biology and culture.

which immediately raises a few issues:

One reason why aesthetic values are similar, if not identical, for large groups of people is that we share a good deal of biology and culture with others.

On the flip side, his argument that moral values are universal can be seen to be weak, because “what is good for achieving happiness for everyone” is obviously also dependent on biology and culture and who is include in “everyone.” (Members of one family, one community, one race, one species, all animals, all eukaryotes, all cellular organisms, etc.)

Consider the morality of eating meat. Obviously, a carnivore, a vegetarian (such as a cow) and an omnivore may have different views on this. A carnivore is not likely to consider cattle as part of “everyone,” thus making his arguments easier.

Another example: the morality of eating a spouse after mating. Mantids might consider this to be good, and be able to point out the benefits it provides in nourishing the offspring, and the limited cost since life lasts only a single season anyway. They have a different biology than we have.


Hendy August 4, 2010 at 7:57 am

Slightly off topic only because I missed the last post about beauty… does Carrier provide any support of animal perception of aesthetics? This has puzzled me quite a bit… how we “evolved” a recognition/appreciation for beauty as it makes me wonder whether a predisposition for early man to stare at a sunset while standing out in the open of a hostile environment would have been beneficial. Perhaps this is too simplistic, though…

Based on this post combined with your last post, would you say that aesthetically pleasing things are so due to 1) personal preference and 2) perhaps more so, the perceptive abilities we have evolved which lie underneath our preferences from #1? By evolved abilities I mean the 8 points you listed in your first post which seem to suggest that beautiful = beautiful because it plays with our “recognition software” in the right way?

Is that even close to a reasonable read of your last two posts?

If so, are you aware of any studies on animal recognition of/preferences toward beauty you might link to?


Reginald Selkirk August 4, 2010 at 8:14 am

If so, are you aware of any studies on animal recognition of/preferences toward beauty you might link to?

There are plenty of studies of animal mating preferences, which are easier to measure. Consider the studies on tail length of male widowbirds, for example.

Female choice selects for extreme tail length in a widowbird
Malte Andersson, Nature 299, 818 – 820 (28 October 1982); doi:10.1038/299818a0
(May be behind a pay wall)


JS Allen August 4, 2010 at 9:33 am

@Hendy – “The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature” by Matt Ridley is a great book on the topic of evolutionarily hardwired concepts of beauty. Well, at least for things like plumage in birds, hourglass shape, facial beauty, neoteny and so on.

Carrier sounds like a bit of a Philistine in matters of beauty. The best book on the subject is atheist Roger Scruton’s “Beauty”. Scruton would reject the idea that art is about communicating, educating, or showing off skill — art is about expressing things that could not otherwise be expressed.

In line with the evolutionary basis of our perception of facial beauty, Scruton had an interesting discussion about one way to draw a distinction between art and porn, which is worth checking out.


Hendy August 4, 2010 at 10:49 am

Thanks, Reginald and JS.

Ridley’s and Scruton’s books will definitely be added to my long potential reading list! Ridley’s in particular looks fantastic. Thanks for the suggestions.


lukeprog August 4, 2010 at 11:00 am


Yes, that was discussed in the last post. Check the index for this series.


Eric August 4, 2010 at 12:00 pm

This documentary by Scruton, “Why Beauty Matters,” is well worth watching.


Hendy August 4, 2010 at 1:31 pm


I had read that post… but didn’t quite see my questions answered, namely how beauty would be advantageous in evolution. Perhaps hidden between the lines in your 8 points is that things like contrast-effect are there to help recognize predators or objects we need to pay attention to?

Primarily I guess I was looking for an explanation of the evolutionary roots behind the why of beauty. As itself, like I said, I get the image of homo ______ staring at the sunset as a pack of hyenas sneaks up behind him.

What is more probable is that all of our evolved recognition software for safety, hunting, and mating preference combine when we see art, which is really catering to “embedded appeal mechanisms”, but perhaps isn’t usually recognized as that.


Matt K August 5, 2010 at 12:52 pm

I’m glad that you address the aesthetic question in these posts, however perfunctory they are. It’s always troubled me, in discussions by and among atheists, how little thought goes into art, literature, music, etc. It seems as though these aspects of culture are simply written off (as some of the comments to these posts confirm) as reducible to some facile evolutionary explanation–like Dawkins’s memes. Hitchens, of course and along with Scruton, is a notable and glad exception. But why so little general interest in these questions, which have been so important to people throughout history?


JS Allen August 5, 2010 at 2:43 pm

@Hendy – The Ridley book doesn’t discuss evolutionary basis for beauty of landscapes, but that’s a topic I’ve researched a lot and can make some quick comments (I’m not aware of a book that gathers the info in one place).

Here’s the thing — recognition of location is one of the oldest evolved parts of the mammalian brain, taking place in the hippocampus. We share the hippocampus with squirrels, dolphins, and all other mammals. Lots of research shows that our hippocampus constructs a sort of 3D contour map of our world; so it’s contours more than landmarks and coordinates that we remember. Our brain operates very similar to TERCOM navigation in cruise missiles.

Now, why was location important to ancient mammals? We didn’t have maps, so how do we remember where we stashed some food, tools, or weapons? How do we get back to the location of a watering hole? The hippocampus takes us there. The squirrel’s tiny hippocampus is enough for the starving creature to find the exact location of a nut he buried 6 months before.

The hippocampus accomplishes this by imprinting the location in moments of primitive emotion. Emotion and hippocampus are deeply intertwined. Since it’s so old, it’s tied to the more primitive things — hunger, fear, sex, etc. It’s part of the limbic system which deals with the primitive emotions. All of those things get anchored to our contour maps of the world *very* easily. You can probably navigate by instinct to awesome restaurants you discovered when starving, and you can probably still navigate by instinct to the former residences of every girlfriend or boyfriend you’ve ever had. It’s also the reason that we have ghost stories — our brains anchor fear to geographic locations based on the contours of the land, and we perceive that land to be “haunted”.

So taking all of this into account, think of being an ancient shepherd who is out tending his flocks on the hillsides of Canaan every night for decades, living on the land of your father’s father. The contours of the hills will be burned in your mind, and anchored with every primitive feeling you’ve felt there; but particularly with peace and tranquility. That’s what beauty in a landscape is.

Of course, there are other things, like the sense of alien wonder when confronting the grand canyon or smith rock the first time; the first few times of vertigo standing on the side of a steep mountain.


JS Allen August 5, 2010 at 2:52 pm

BTW, appreciation for the hourglass shape and neoteny evolved long after the hippocampus, and it’s unclear whether we’ve had maps for long enough to significantly blunt the power of the hippocampus. Take any ex-junkie who’s been sober for 10 years, and walk him through his old hood where he used to do crack or heroin. The moment his brain processes the contour map of the old alleyway or underpass, you’ll see the power of location. It’s incredibly overwhelming. That’s why I think the beauty of a landscape is more powerful than the beauty of a physique, at this point in human evolution.


al friedlander August 6, 2010 at 10:31 am

JS Allen, that’s absolutely fascinating


piero August 6, 2010 at 11:12 am

Yes, JS: fascinating. Thank you for opening new avenues to explore.

I must say, however, that I lost all interest in art after the restoration of the Sixtine Chapel. Thousands of pages about Michelangelo’s “dark, ominous tints” went down the drain when centuries-worth of grime were removed. What a joke.


Hendy August 6, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Hi JS: thanks for the comments. Quite fascinating to read! Interesting note about addicts. AA teaches to avoid “old people, places, and things” — good wisdom based in a science they might not have even been aware of!


JS Allen August 6, 2010 at 2:22 pm

@al, piero, Hendy – It’s very cool stuff. After reading “Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot” several years ago, I also became curious if it would be possible to make your hippocampus bigger. It turns out cab drivers in London and Tokyo (2 of the most complex cities) have hippocampi much larger than average. Then experimentation with fMRI has shown that hippocampus is activated when you perform a goal-oriented navigation of a new route via landmarks only (which describes what cab drivers do). So I am convinced that regular practice at any video game that involves goal-oriented navigation of novel routes by landmark, will make your hippocampus bigger. So this could be the driving games that have wide open maps and lots of random challenges, or first person shooters with random capture the flag and spawn points. I don’t have brain scans to prove it, so it’s just speculation right now, but I think it’s a pretty solid thesis. And a good excuse to play video games :-)


Hendy August 6, 2010 at 5:06 pm

@JS — that is freaking awesome. Finally, something we can control! And it’s fun at the same time? Almost to good to be true!


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