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.

*

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.

*

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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9 Comments

Filed under God, Music, Philosophy

9 responses to “The Argument from Aesthetic Experience

  1. Bach’s music is powerfully affecting for many people. His work is mathematically intricate in ways other music is not. Mozart also composed mirror fugues, for instance, but not that many other composers have managed it. Allow me a poetic conditional: If mathematics is the language of nature, then Bach’s mathematics-in-sound is the language of God.

    For the religious, I am told, the work of Bach is not so much a proof of God’s existence as a path for approaching the divine.

    After listening to Faure’s “Pie Jesu” for the thousandth time, I had the thought, “How could anything that beautiful not be true?” (Accord, Keats.)

    No one of your intelligence should give up on Bach. His work rewards study, whether or not through the lens of religion.

  2. Mark Chandler

    Hey William,

    As with most things religious I think that this is one of those irrefutable arguments. Like you exist therefore there has to be a God. I personally hate these sorts of ‘common sense’ things.

    Granted Bach’s music is great. I actually had his stuff on CD. My problem is that Bach created the music there wasn’t some sort of tablet inscribed by God finger. This was not something that happened by accident. Bach’s family was huge in the music business at the time. That and much like life itself music was evolving. Bach wasn’t the first musician there was a long line of people before him who had come as far as creating many musical instruments for which he could use in his compositions and a language and rules for which he could create music. If he hadn’t been born at that time period or in a different family I doubt that he would have made that music.

    As much as I love his music I wouldn’t say that it was proof of God.

    Since you said you were looking for other arguments: What about the taste of bacon. It is delicious. It is clearly a sign that pigs were put on this earth for us to eat by god.

  3. Consultus, good to see you around these parts again.

    I enjoy Bach. I own several CDs of his music, mostly from Die Kunst der Fuge, Some pieces, including the one I linked to, induce vivid mental images of complex geometric figures in motion — something like what an audio-visual entrainment device would produce. I don’t consider this to be a legitimate way of appreciating music; it’s more of an acid trip than an aesthetic experience. (Or so I would guess; I don’t actually have any experience with chemical hallucinogens.)

    On the one hand, I have some (limited!) intellectual understanding of the mathematically impeccable structure of Bach’s music. On the other hand, I have these intense but decidedly sub-intellectual reactions to said music when I hear it. There’s no connection between the two, nothing all-inclusive enough to properly be called comprehension. For me listening to Bach is like listening to a poem which I know only in translation recited in its original language; I get some superficial sense of the beauty of the rhymes and rhythms and alliterations; and in an indirect way I know what it means — but that still doesn’t add up to a true experience of the poem.

  4. Hey, Mark. Great to hear from you.

    I agree with you. If you wanted to make an argument from aesthetic experience for the existence of God, it would make more sense to use the beauty of nature rather than music. Natural beauty is deeply moving to human beings, and the reason for this is not immediately obvious; a possible explanation is provided by the idea that God created nature specifically for humans. In the case of music, though, it was obviously created by humans for humans, and it’s therefore not all that surprising that humans find it moving.

    As for your Argument from Bacon, I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong. God created pigs so that we could eat ham; bacon is just a coincidental side benefit. Roy Blount, Jr., explains it all in his “Hymn to Ham“:

    Ham’s substantial, ham is fat.
    Ham is firm and sound.
    Ham’s what God was getting at
    When he made pigs so round.

    A more serious response: Food is what keeps us alive, so it’s only natural that evolution built us to find it delicious — especially foods like bacon, which are high in historically hard-to-get macronutrients (fat and protein). Music has no obvious survival value, and our love of it is therefore less easy (though of course not impossible) to explain in naturalistic terms.

  5. Very good!
    i’m very much looking forward to all your reworkings of these arguments!

  6. Mark Chandler

    I’m glad you’re still here. I noticed you fell off of flickr and facebook. I eneded up posting some more of my pictures of Turkey on my fb account. I love the quote about ham! 🙂

    Something that I am constantly amazed by is coffee. Clearly not made by god. The process to turn a coffee bean into something that is edible is just too much and must not have been it’s original intention.

  7. John

    I actually think you covered the bases, but just to play devil’s advocate, I can give another possibility: supposedly, throughout the greatest of the masterpieces of both art and music, as well as architecture, the number “phi” (.618, also known as the divine proportion, golden ratio, etc) is demonstrated. Probably only math and maybe philosophy majors knew about phi up until Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code came out, but it has been a known quantity for centuries. Its supposed to be incorporated into the pyramids, the Parthenon, Stradivarius violins, Beethoven’s Fifth etc etc. Maybe K & T were aware of this, as Bach is supposed to one of these examples.

  8. Thanks for the comment, John — but in what way is Bach’s use of the golden section evidence for the existence of God?

  9. Pingback: The difficulty of becoming familiar with classical music « Bugs to fearen babes withall

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