Posts Tagged ‘Darwinian aesthetics’

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The Evolution of Design?

Monday, July 16th, 2012

(This month, Renewed Thoughts has the pleasure of featuring an article by my good friend and Christian apologist, James Umber).
As one who practices architecture (though I am not yet a licensed architect), I have often thought about the purpose of architects. And you can be certain that anyone who has had to pay an architect’s fee has asked, “Why do we need an architect anyway?” While architects bring to a project a technical knowledge about building codes, materials, systems, construction methods and environmental factors, the fact of the matter is that many general contractors have very much the same knowledge. Fortunately for the future of my discipline, there is an additional skill that architects uniquely bring to the table. Namely, it is art.
The architect is supposed to create art with the building materials. While a painter may use a knowledge and experience of water colors and a sculptor may use a knowledge and experience of marble, the architect uses the knowledge and experience discussed above to create beautiful and meaningful forms that, simultaneously, have a practical purpose. This is why many architecture schools devote much of the instruction time to helping students cultivate a sense of beauty, or in philosophical terms, an aesthetic sense. And this is the unique skill that the architect brings to a client. But this skill is quickly losing its value in our culture. While our society increasingly rejects a theistic worldview, we are eroding the very foundation of aesthetics.
This cannot be illustrated any better than by simply pointing to the cumbersome attempts by many modern scholars to explain aesthetics without any reference to a transcendent creator. One such example is the following short video lecture by the late Dr. Denis Dutton:
http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/01/beauty_explaine055681.html
Dr. Dutton’s aesthetically captivating presentation correctly identifies that many aspects of aesthetics are universal. How does he explain this universality? Does he give any credibility to the idea that objective aesthetics might be grounded in an author of aesthetics (i.e. a Creator as the locus of certain aesthetic “laws,” if you will)? Does he even mention the idea? No. Instead, he laboriously tries to take the long way around the obvious answer, to explain aesthetics as a byproduct of evolution, all the while assuring us that this is the best explanation. The only other alternatives he gives are relative aesthetics.
But, here is the real irony. Even a Darwinian aesthetic is a relative aesthetic. It is relative to “that which helps us pass our genes on more efficiently.” If cheap, ugly buildings (like the ones linked, below) help people save money, which helps them survive better, which helps them pass their genes on more efficiently; then, such buildings are (by definition) beautiful.
Yet another problem with Darwinian aesthetics is that it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It is intended to explain (in retrospect) why we found something to be aesthetically pleasing. It does not explain why we ought to see things as aesthetically pleasing that we don’t already see as such. It is a variation on the “is / ought” fallacy (i.e. You can’t get an “ought” from an “is”). A Darwinian theory starts with what “is” aesthetically pleasing and posits what “is” causing it. A theistic theory of objective aesthetics starts with a ground or locus of aesthetics that has the authority to prescribe what we “ought” to find aesthetic.
You see, under a theistic theory of aesthetics architects can discover aesthetic principles, go to school to learn aesthetic principles, hone their aesthetic sense, and they can even make recommendations to their clients about what will be beautiful and what will not. Put simply, aesthetics is a legitimate discipline in which architects specialize. Under a Darwinian theory, each person’s aesthetic sensibilities are what they are for evolutionary reasons. There is no need for training and there is no need for guidance from anyone else. Each person’s sense of beauty is just as valid as anyone else’s. Aesthetics is not a discipline, but a matter of personal preference. So, save yourself some money and have the contractor build what seems beautiful to him. It might even help you survive better.

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Posted in Philosophy | 2 Comments »

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  • In today's world, there is a great deal of confusion when it comes to matters of truth, meaning, morality, our origin, and our destiny. The purpose of Renewed Thoughts is to bring clarity to such issues by examining them in light of a Biblical worldview, using the tools of science, philosophy, and critical thinking.