But how? Part six: Love and Beauty

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 6

I probably should have tackled this one sooner, but I’d gone through a period with too few discussions on religion and this favored argument had simply slipped my mind. So for the next part of the “But How?” series of posts (and in honor of the date,) we examine the question, “But if there is no god, how do you explain love and beauty?”

There are variations of this question too, such as, “Doesn’t the majesty of nature speak of god?”, but this isn’t significantly different. All variations are great examples of leading questions, implying a particular condition that isn’t readily apparent. The question never varies so much as to be, “How do you explain hate and ugliness?”, and this is telling all by itself. The ultra-mysterious concepts of love and beauty certainly have to be attributed to a creator, so the questions imply, but a moment’s thought reveals that everything else must fit the same bill too. The devastating natural disasters, diseases, predation by and throughout the other animals, and in fact, even our own species’ tendencies towards conflict and outright sadism, all must be credited towards the supernatural being that created it all. Somehow, though, we’re supposed to recognize only the good bits.

I’ll take a quick moment to address the return argument that may come up, where the blame for all the bad bits goes to satan, demons, or even human nature (which doesn’t explain nature’s ugly parts,) and point out that these were all created by the same being too.

The point of these posts, however, isn’t to try and deflect the questions in another direction, nor to highlight the inconsistencies, but to show how a worldview devoid of religion answers such things. So it is incumbent to explain why we have love, or see beauty, if these are not transcendent properties.

Love is an easy one, of course, and at the same time the one that will be the most difficult to accept. Our species, like most, survives by sexual reproduction, requiring a member of the opposite sex to procreate. The desire to choose an optimal mate, one that increases the survival chances of the offspring, is an evolved trait itself; when something works better, it tends to get passed on. I feel the need to point out that such feelings did not appear full-blown in our species, all at once (any more than the tornado blowing through a junkyard assembles a 747); what almost certainly happened is that some small variation developed way back in our past, something that encouraged selecting a mate that appeared more capable than others in terms of child care, health, or survival. Such things are readily apparent in other species, where mate selection may rely on physical size, competition among other contenders, apparent health, ability to obtain proper housing, or even a large repertoire in mating calls that signifies experience. Because such things, even in highly simplified forms, give an edge to any offspring, the numbers of offspring with these traits gradually increases, outcompeting the others, and the traits get strengthened and refined.

Right alongside this we also have the terrible state of newborn humans, which are pathetically helpless and require huge amounts of care for the first several years at least, necessitating at least one parent, but doing much better with two. While we tend to concentrate on the conscious aspects of our minds, the parts that make (so we like to think) the rational decisions, what is going to be passed on by natural selection are the internal functions that reward us for behaviors that strengthen our survival. Most of our emotional system revolves around glands and chemical stimuli, and just like the avian species that have instincts to build nests, humans have instincts to seek mates for a strong family unit, driven by the physiological demands of our bodies. The purposes and usefulness of hormones and endorphins have long been established.

This is not to say that culture does not play a part in what criteria causes us to react with approval, since we also have instincts to remain in ‘tribes,’ which are also strong units; getting along with the other members of the tribe or village is an important survival trait too, since we achieve much more cooperatively rather than individually, so we are also influenced by social pressures. If some particular trait is viewed favorably by the ‘tribe,’ then we can obtain the same internal reward when selecting for such, even though the reward does not (necessarily) come from the mating drive, but the social one instead. The process isn’t simplistic, and involves lots of different, sometimes competing, factors. But there isn’t any aspect that is not explained by known processes, nor readily visible in other species. ‘Love’ – at least the version that involves our spouses and families – is a behavior of distinct benefit to us as a species.

This doesn’t cheapen it as much as it might seem. Being driven by glands towards a strong family unit isn’t any different than being driven by, what, spirit or soul? Grace of god? What special property of love must be bestowed by magic? And I apologize for falling back on the tactic that I said I’d avoid, but wouldn’t it make a lot more sense for our sex drives to kick in only after we’d selected and bonded with a choice mate?

Emotions are simple things. They are internal reactions to external stimuli, providing rewards or punishments, essentially good or bad feelings, based on relatively simple criteria, and require no rational support. Much as we might like to view love as a special property, that produces lifelong commitments and soul mates and every last descriptive phrase found in romantic comedies, the reality is that many, many people make commitments, no matter how big or small, yet find they were mistaken later on. As a transcendent emotion, love misses the mark really often, frighteningly so if we’re honest with ourselves. Whatever is supposed to tell us that we’re perfect matches seems none too accurate. Who hasn’t known someone, if not themselves, that fell head over heels for what turned out to be a really bad choice? Or, imagined personality traits for someone based solely on their appearance? Moreover, how often were such errors obvious when viewed with a practical, critical eye? In such circumstances, it needs to be asked how the rational parts of human minds were overridden by something that turned out to be totally wrong. How, for instance, can god’s gift be thwarted by pickup lines or insincere platitudes?

Unless love is a nonspecific drive that responds to simple criteria, like beauty, camaraderie, touch, and eye contact – or first impressions, “intuition,” “kind eyes,” physical shape, and even hair, eye, or skin color, voice, scent, dancing ability, and whether or not we feel the compliment was honest. And if the very desire just to have someone around can color our decisions – who hasn’t heard the phrase, “biological clock”? Which brings up our sex drive, which many people really don’t like to see in such discussions, but cannot realistically be left out; only the hopelessly naïve can try to ignore it. The glandular impetus towards reproduction isn’t quite the same thing as the impetus towards selecting a long term mate, but both remain so close together that one is mistaken for another far too often, and from a species standpoint, they have to work together. The fact that they can stand alone, that the sex drive is often more intense than the ‘spouse drive,’ raises even more questions about a supreme being’s intent, or even competence. As an evolved trait, however, it makes perfect sense – while offspring surviving to adulthood is important, it cannot happen without reproduction to begin with. A child with one parent can still survive; a child that is never born probably has the odds stacked too firmly against it. This has nothing to do with the religious ideas of ‘love,’ but everything to do with basic biology.

Let’s tackle ‘beauty’ now. I feel obligated to point out that, as a supposed gift from god, it seems quite odd that it’s so subjective; is it pristine woods, or a well-manicured lawn? A spotless ’57 Chevy Bel Air or a ’10 Lamborghini Murciélago? Supermodel or milkmaid? Even more interesting is that the passages within scripture extolling the virtues of beauty are few and far between, perhaps because word limits would have meant cutting out more important bits regarding rules, punishments, and begats. Come to think of it, I’m not really sure why beauty is brought up as an argument at all…

No, that’s not true – I know exactly why. It’s because emotional reactions are the prime evidence anyone has of the existence of a god in the first place. Anything that causes feelings of awe in us gets seized upon because there’s little else that can be used. Besides images in tortillas, I mean…

Awe is a curious thing, to be sure, because we’re really not sure why we have it. It’s interesting to note that, if someone thinks they’re seeing a classical painting, they’re more in awe than if they think it’s a forgery, regardless of what they’re actually seeing. The same can be said for musical experiences, like hearing a Stradivarius or a tubed amplifier, or for meeting a celebrity – it’s not the quality of the experience in such cases, but the impression that the experience is special or unique. While these aren’t what are being referred to when someone mentions ‘beauty’ as a magical thing, it does bear noting that we can experience feelings of awe over a very wide variety of stimuli, some of which are fostered only by how we perceive them internally.

The beauty of nature is something that I tend to work with a bit, as you might have noticed, and I’ve spent no small amount of time trying to define what, for instance, makes a better image, and what people respond to the most. Nobody argues when I point out that lush foliage, clear water, and brilliant skies are good photo subjects, and it also doesn’t take long to figure out why we, as an evolved species, would value such things; gosh, healthy plant life and clean water with good weather, who would want to live there? And we respond to colors too, most likely because brilliant colors often signify health and ripeness. In fact, pause right here for a moment, and think of ‘brilliant colors.’ Did you think of brown, grey, or black? Can these be any less ‘brilliant’ than red or green? Even when we think of ‘color,’ we think only of certain select colors – unsurprisingly, ones that often denote healthy and ripe plants for food. Once we stop and examine what it is about a scenic area, for instance, that we find ‘beautiful,’ it begins to make sense as to why we might be inclined to see it as such.

There’s also some interesting indications that awe is often invoked by unique or rare experiences. By itself this doesn’t seem very useful, until one realizes that, to achieve such, we have to seek such things out, which means exploring, and trying something different. We already know how much we like exploring, and that drive is enough to help us cope with increasing populations as well as changing environment; most birds, and a handful of other species, do much the same through migration. It remains a possibility that the awe we feel over unique experiences is a left-handed method of goading us in directions that let us survive a variable environment, and could also be one of the significant differences that sets our brains apart from others’; we may not be any less creatures of ‘instinct,’ if one of the instincts is to learn.

Let’s change tracks a little to examine music, another aspect of beauty. Again, this is an area that isn’t firmly explained in biological terms, but let’s try to avoid seizing on this as significant – there is no default answer of “god” when we’re confused about scientific explanations, and the very wide variety of music that people find appealing makes it hard to find religious roots in the subject, not to mention the lack of scriptural emphasis. Many people like to point out that a world without religion would have resulted in great losses in the musical and art world, since much of our classical works revolve around religious themes. Except that, they also revolve around love, fear, family, and drama, and countless of the religious themes were of the wrong religions, ones that the very same people would maintain were mere myths. If god creates or inspires beauty, why do we even have statues of zeus and horus? Why do we have operas about valkyries and fairy tales? And can we reasonably proclaim that, without religion, such indicative works of art would never have been created, or could they simply have been about something else?

Music is enigmatic, but there are plenty of potential explanations as to what role it plays in our lives. We have remarkable abilities to recognize specific pitches, even in ridiculously noisy environments, and this lets us hear someone we know calling to us in a crowded room, or determine who is on the phone without them having to announce their name (as long as no one uses an iPhone, anyway.) As social animals, this makes perfect sense, and as hunters, it really helps to be able to identify what might be making a particular sound. The ability to vocally produce, and aurally detect, ‘pure’ tones is a way of differentiating sounds intended for communication from the cacophony of natural sounds, which rarely produce a steady wavelength. Imagine how difficult it would be if we could differentiate only volume, without pitch. And note that birds, who rely on song more than most other species, are remarkably good not only at recognizing pitches, but repeating them as well. While this certainly could be said to be god’s gift, the birds make much more of it than we do.

Note, too, that bad music is easy to accomplish – it takes skill to produce good music. With some exceptions like the aforementioned birdsong (and how many religious folk actually spend any time listening to that anyway?), we have to make a lot of effort to produce tones and pitches that we want to hear. It’s hardly a natural thing at all – it exists because we put a lot of effort into it. Is this because we get a specific feeling from certain, distinct tones or sounds? Is there a particular reason why any piece of music should give us chills? As I said, “god” is not a default answer; I personally want to hear why I like listening to Adiemus or Heartbreak Beat.

There’s another little thing to consider too, often expressed as “correlation is not causation.” How can we determine, for instance, that the appreciation of music (and art, and beauty, and so on) is not a natural part of us, conditionally evolved into our species, and religion did not co-opt it for the weight and reaction it could lend? Can we be sure that, like the dramatic music in every movie soundtrack, our response to ‘beauty’ isn’t being used to underscore and enhance the importance of religion in the first place?

We come back around to a point made earlier, in that ‘beauty’ is often selected from what we experience every day, and arbitrarily assigned to god’s work, even when those scriptural records of god’s work (the only thing we have to indicate gods at all) not only don’t emphasize beauty, they are continually edited to downplay the hugely ugly bits. No one ever gives a sermon on Lot offering his daughters for rape, or the proper attitude towards your slaves. There are no children’s versions of entire cities being slaughtered. To find the beauty in scripture, we have to know what it is first; it is not defined by the scripture itself. Which is probably a good thing, because a society actually based on most of the actions of gods and their followers throughout the ages would be pretty horrendous.

It would be nice, perhaps, if those that felt that love and beauty were bestowed by god’s grace actually treasured these more than others, but the statistical or even personal evidence of such is decidedly lacking. Good artists, composers, writers, poets, and such are not markedly religious, any more than the general population, and quite possibly even less so. Religious sects are not more likely to promote love; they’re far more prone to divisiveness, even among similar factions, and very frequently set firm restrictions on love and relationships. The abrahamic religions emphasize wives as possessions and servants, which doesn’t jibe with how love is usually considered to work. In fact, one of the few religions that gives great weight to love and beauty, buddhism, doesn’t even have a god.

Love and beauty are pretty cool things, pleasurable experiences that require nothing special, and are available to everyone regardless. They can serve as nice counterbalances to the various frustrations and trials that we face, and in fact are in many ways defined by such – ‘true love’ is expressed by someone who stays faithful through the tough times, and we can derive satisfaction from even simple expressions of beauty in the midst of ugliness, like the window flowerbox in the tenement house or the city purchasing new buses (feel free to examine what ‘clean’ means as well.) But these aren’t particularly mysterious, any more than competition and violence are, and they certainly serve as least basic purposes to our survival, if not more speculative and involved ones. To assume that such things, simply because we like the emotions, are evidence of divine intent is a leap of faith without any kind of logical background.

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