Friday, May 02, 2008

Is beauty in nature evidence of God?

Have you ever been in absolute awe at the apparent beauty of the universe? I remember, in my last year of high school, being part of a mission trip to Swaziland. On one of the evenings we ran a service at a rural mission station; we conducted short plays, a sermon, worship and an alter call. The little chapel which we used was overflowing with people from surrounding villages, and many in the audience committed their lives to the Lord that night.

As a young Christian, this was incredible. For the first time I had been directly involved in 'leading people to the Lord'. That night, after the service, the mission team lay outside on the grass, looking up into the clear African sky and talking excitedly about the evening. I suddenly realised how beautiful the night sky was, and how clear and colourful the stars were. Together with the spiritually charged events of that evening, I was convinced, then and there, that there was a God, and that all the surrounding beauty was the result of his handiwork.

So I can relate wholeheartedly to the following comment, left by Trevor on an earlier blog post of mine:

Then one day I looked outside from the classroom and saw Table Mountain in its splendour with a white cloud over it and I was very moved. I somehow got convinced that God existed.

As a Christian, this is exactly how I felt. But since my de-conversion, I've been bothered by the following question: is beauty something that humans discover in nature, or is it something that we impose upon nature?

Focussing on art, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, has suggested the latter: the emotional response to beauty is purely neurological. He proposes ten neurological principles of beauty that explain why we gain aesthetic appeal from certain images. Here is a fascinating summary of his work.

Basically, the argument proposes that the human brain is wired, through evolutionary and cultural forces, in such a way so as to be stimulated by specific visual patterns. For example, the brain is especially stimulated by images that are exaggerated from the norm (i.e, the 'peak shift effect'), as well as by patterns that are symmetrical. The brain also experiences a pleasing experience when it discovers patterns in noise (i.e, the 'grouping effect').

This kind of work lends weight to the argument that humans impose their idea of beauty on the universe, rather than the universe inherently possessing some sort of overarching beauty waiting to be discovered. A sunset is not inherently beautiful, our brains simply perceive it as being so.

Does this make the significance of the night sky less inspiring or awesome? No it does not. I look into the sky on some evenings and still feel a sense of awe and wonder. It makes no difference to me knowing that the beauty I perceive more likely comes from within, rather than from without.