Daily Archives: November 14, 2012

The Argument from Aesthetic Experience

After a break of a few months, it’s time to get back to my project of evaluating Kreeft & Tacelli’s 20 arguments for God. Since I’m not feeling up to plowing through the Kalam Argument at the moment, I’ll jump ahead a bit to the shortest argument in the series: the 17th, the Argument from Aesthetic Experience.

Here it is in its entirety, as it appears in K & T’s book:

There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.

You either see this one or you don’t.

And if you don’t (this is what the “argument” not-so-subtly implies), you’re a philistine. If Bach’s music doesn’t move you at a metaphysical level, forcing you to rethink the ontology of the universe, you are obviously incapable of appreciating the full power of his art.

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Well, I readily grant that I am a musical philistine, one who has received more genuine pleasure and inspiration from third-tier rock-and-roll acts than from most of the greatest music ever composed. After several unsuccessful attempts to cultivate a taste for classical music, I wear my Midas-ears, if not with pride, at least with a certain resignation.

(Bach himself may be the one exception. When I give his music my full attention, the reaction it induces in me is extraordinary, though I’m not sure I’d call it “aesthetic.”)

Anyway, I’m not one of the people who automatically “see this one.” I’m not even sure it’s intended to be a serious argument. Does anyone really believe that God’s existence somehow logically follows from whatever intense aesthetic experience they may have had, or is this just a way of saying that Bach is awesome, an upmarket version of “Clapton is God”?

At the risk of making a fool of myself, I’m going to give K & T the benefit of the doubt, treat this as a serious argument, and try to make sense of it. Even if the argument is mostly just a joke or a pose, the fact that people can be expected to get the joke — the fact that people naturally understand the underlying idea that the existence of awesome things proves there is a God — suggests that this line of thinking has some grounding in common sense and may therefore be based on some underlying, unarticulated logic.

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Here are some possible ways of unpacking K & T’s elliptical little syllogism.

  1. Our capacity for intense aesthetic experience, especially when induced by things that have nothing to do with inclusive fitness, makes no evolutionary sense. Therefore we must have been created with said capacity by a God, perhaps as a means of increasing our happiness or of giving us intimations of heaven.
  2. Intense aesthetic experience is spontaneously interpreted in otherworldly terms, and we naturally reach for otherworldly metaphors when we try to describe it. Instincts generally have some grounding in the way things really are.
  3. Bach was a serious Christian who dedicated all his music to the glory of God. So were many other great musicians and other artists. That has to mean something.
  4. The feelings that Bach induces in some people are so powerful and so unlike ordinary feelings that it is reasonable to hypothesize that they come from some out-of-the-ordinary — supernatural, even — source.
  5. The existence of God is part of the content of some aesthetic experiences. They are as inseparable from the idea of God’s existence as a visual image of a tree is inseparable from the idea of that tree’s existence. No bridge of induction from one to the other is necessary.

If anyone has any other ideas for possible “Bach, therefore God” arguments, I welcome comments. I’ll try to evaluate the various arguments in a later post.

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