The history of philosophy has seen many “theistic proofs” or arguments for the existence of God, dating at least as far back as Plato in the 4th century B.C.  Some of the standard arguments reason to God’s existence from apparent design in nature (the teleological argument), human consciousness (the argument from mind), the causal dependence of the cosmos (the cosmological argument), the existence of moral values (the moral argument), and the very concept of God (the ontological argument).

There is another line of reasoning which I believe holds much promise as an argument for theism—the argument from beauty.  While aesthetic evidence for God may be presented in a variety of ways, I prefer to appeal to beauty as an argument against naturalism.  If successful, such an argument serves, ipso facto, to prove the truth of supernaturalism, which in turn provides strong evidence for theism.  Succinctly put, my argument is as follows.  According to naturalism, the entire physical world is fully describable in scientific terms (statements about the physical world).  However, beauty and other aesthetic features cannot be captured in purely scientific terms.  Therefore, it is not the case that the whole of reality can be described scientifically.  So naturalism is false.

Here is a modified version of the argument which makes explicit a crucial assumption about the nature of beauty. 

1. Beauty is an objective quality in the world.

2. Beauty is an evaluative concept—specifically, an aesthetic value.

3. Therefore, there are objective aesthetic values.  [from 1 & 2]

4. If naturalism is true, then there are no objective aesthetic values.

5. Therefore, naturalism is false.  [from 3 & 4]

Propositions 3 and 5 each follow validly from prior premises (1 & 2 and 3 & 4, respectively).  Proposition 2 is a widely accepted observation about the meaning of the term “beauty”—that to describe something as beautiful is to recognize that it has significant aesthetic value.  And proposition 4 follows from the meaning of naturalism, which asserts that the physical world can be completely described in terms of physics (i.e. assertions about physical entities and relationships).  Clearly, beauty (and other aesthetic features, such as “ugly,” “elegant,” “insipid” and “poignant”) cannot be physically analyzed.  Thus, according to naturalism, aesthetic values cannot be a real or objective quality of things.

So, then, what about the crucial first proposition—that beauty is an objective quality of certain things?  What grounds do we have to believe this?  In my next post I will defend this claim, but for now it seems that I have at least shown that the naturalist must reject the first premise—and thus deny the reality of beauty.  That is, if my argument works, the naturalist must accept the implication that neither the world as a whole, nor anything in it, is beautiful (or ugly) in itself—from artworks such as the Mona Lisa to a Shakespearean sonnet to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos to aspects of nature such as a tiger, butterfly, sunset, or human face.  This is a significant—I would say unacceptable—price to pay for naturalism.  But, again, as I will show later, even this option is not open to the naturalist.

8 Responses to “An Anti-Naturalist Argument from Beauty”

  1. Marc


    Dr. Spiegel:

    This question might best be asked after you present your argument for premise (1), so I hope you’ll forgive me if that’s the case.

    I’ve read that Michael Martin affirms pluralistic naturalism, which seems to be another way of saying he’s a naturalist who’s also a realist about abstract objects. I believe he wishes to ground immaterial concepts such as moral values and the laws of logic in various abstract objects, which, according to him, allows these values and logical laws to be objectively grounded in something else other than God’s nature.

    Suppose Martin were to claim that beauty is an abstract object. Would you attack whatever argument he might advance in favor of this claim (perhaps his pluralistic naturalism itself), attempt to demonstrate the superiority of nominalism or some version of anti-realism, or locate a more effective defense in your case on behalf of premise (1)?


    — Marc

  2. Scott Coulter


    Jim, I look forward to hearing more from you on this.

    1) I don’t think everyone who wants to be called a naturalist will accept your definition of it. I have a professor, for example, who argues that the concept of “fitness”, which is crucial to Darwinian biology (i.e., “survival of the fittest”) cannot be reduced to the subject matter of physics. You would probably be justified in simply saying she isn’t a naturalist (especially if I specified other facts about her beliefs) but the usefulness of your argument will certainly be restricted by the limited appeal (to my experience) of your definition of naturalism. (I encounter it in books, and in one prof here, but have not among other real philosophers, even non-theists.) (Granted I have limited experience).

    2) A lot obviously will turn on your understanding of “objective reality”. But I’m sure you will take that up in your next post.

    3) While I had to be off campus that day, a visitor at a colloquium at UT a couple of years ago made a case for an atheistic conception and practice of gratitude (to nature, not to human beings individually or socially). I think it might be relevant to your argument insofar as it touches on aesthetic appreciation of the natural world. I have a copy of his (short) paper from that presentation, would you be interested in it? Actually, it’s online here:

  3. Marc



    I hope you don’t mind if I interact with one of your remarks.

    Just as I would assert that someone like Michael Martin isn’t an authentic, thoroughgoing naturalist, I agree that one would be justified in regarding your professor as affirming something other than naturalism. (Since Martin endorses a version of realism about abstract objects yet denies other immaterial entities, specifically divine ones, I’d prefer to label him an atheist, not a pluralist naturalist.) If your professor holds that “fitness” is a substance or an object or enjoys extramental existence, then this seems to nullify any assent to naturalism, classically construed. Though there are several versions of naturalism, it appears to be a necessary condition of naturalism simpliciter to affirm that every real state of affairs is ontologically reducible to physical material. If you hold that something can simultaneously be real and be non-physical, then I think you’ve left the reservation. =)


    — Marc

  4. Jim Spiegel


    Marc and Scott,

    Thanks for your excellent comments. Your professors are lucky to have you guys as students. :)

    First, Marc makes an excellent point about the claim some would make to being pluralist naturalists. Either reality is wholly physical or it isn’t. And to affirm the existence of abstract entities, whether numbers, concepts, or the principle of survival of the fittest (if any of these are such), commits one to something other than naturalism. And once supernatural entities are admitted among the furniture of one’s ontology, it is a clear (logically inexorable?) step in the direction of theism. Anyway, it seems to me that the attempt on the part of some self-confessed naturalists to allow abstract entities under the rubric of naturalism is itself a sort of concession to the case for supernaturalism.

    Second, I agree with Scott’s professor that natural selection as a principle of biological explanation cannot be reduced to the subject matter of physics. But that is not the sense in which physicalism is commonly defined (and in which I define it in my argument from beauty). Note my parenthetical clarification where I define my use of “physics” as “assertions about physical entities and relationships.” (I added this clarification to preclude precisely the confusion we’re discussing here.) In this generic sense of the term, all assertions about the world made in biology, chemistry, and even empircal psychology and sociology, are physical descriptions of the world. So this standard definition of physicalism does not commit one to the controversial reductionist thesis in science, namely that all of the sciences reduce to the science of physics. That’s probably the worry on your professor’s mind, and I share her rejection of this notion.

  5. Scott Coulter


    Marc wrote: “If your professor holds that “fitness” is a substance or an object or enjoys extramental existence, then this seems to nullify any assent to naturalism, classically construed.”

    She’d point out (quite rightly) that “fitness” is a RELATION, not a substance or an object. :)

    I don’t see why anyone should be compelled to accept that naturalism=materialism. I think there is more than one definition in the running for naturalism. The major contender to naturalism=materialism or naturalism=physicalism (of which I am aware) defines naturalism in epistemological rather than ontological terms. On this definition, naturalism denotes the view that philosophy is continuous with science. (Cf. Quine?)

    Jim, on your view, what makes an object or property or relation count as supernatural? Does it have to relate to God (of conceptual necessity)? What demarcates the supernatural from the natural? I’m not sure, if I say I’m a supernaturalist, that I can explain what makes certain things “natural”, any more than I could, if I say I’m a naturalist, explain what makes certain things “supernatural”. Does it just come down to theism vs. non-theism/a-theism?

    What if someone were to assert that properties and relations are non-material abstracta, but all entities (existents that instantiate properties and relations) are physical? We could say beauty is a relational property, but that only physical things exist which could be beautiful. Although perhaps it would be better to say beauty is a higher-order relational property; since beauty is plausibly an attribute of form. But you still need (says the materialist) material particles to actualize a form, and the resulting complex object that is beautiful or has other aesthetic properties, is still a physical object.

    It seems, prima facie, to me that defending aesthetic realism against a form of expressivism (especially if cognitivist expressivism is tenable) will be more difficult than defending moral realism against expressivism. Because I am not so sure that aesthetic judgments are categorical or objective in the same way. (But, Jim, I recall you identify the Good and the Beautiful?)

  6. Brad Seeman


    I don’t have time to enter into this the way I would like to. Let me just throw an article into the mix that you all might find interesting. Barbara Montero, “The Body Problem” has an interesting take on some of the problems facing physicalists in regards to defining what is at the heart of their ontology.

    BTW, I thoroughly enjoyed the Valentine’s day post, Jim. A lot of that sounds like our house. It was good to laugh. It reminds me of something I’ve got on my door: “How to be a Postmodernist… or just talk like one.” The “Modernist equal-time response” is what really makes it.

  7. Teague Tubach


    Dr. Spiegel,
    I really enjoy reading your blog (etc.) but I have a hard time swallowing this argument. I don’t think that naturalism necessarily rules out other descriptions and judgements about the world that are unscientific. In fact, I think the only requirement for being a naturalist, strictly speaking, is that one is not a supernaturalist. I am a naturalist and I cannot fathom a scientific explanation for why I think the presentation of my sushi dinner last night had some grand aesthetic quality, nor why I prefer certain prose based on elegance. If I am right, then your argument is left as a two step — beauty, therefore God, which begs the question.

  8. Jim Spiegel



    I agree with your observation that naturalism doesn’t rule out all sorts of descriptions and judgments about the world, so long as those are factual assertions, that is, statements about how the world IS. But where naturalism has problems is in making sense of judgments of objective VALUE, whether those values are ethical (e.g., “X is morally good,” “It is morally wrong to do X,” etc.) or aesthetic (e.g. “X is beautiful”). Now I don’t deny that naturalists make moral and aesthetic judgments all the time, but the question is whether these can be made coherently, given a naturalist worldview. Since they presuppose the existence of an objective moral or aesthetic standard, respectively, such judgments imply something that transcends this world, and there’s the rub for the naturalist.


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