Note: In May Ignatius Press published Who Designed the Designer? A Rediscovered Path to God’s Existence by Dr. Michael A. Augros (’92), a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and a member of its teaching faculty. Who Designed the Designer is a direct, concise antidote to the “New Atheist” arguments against the existence of God. The book draws upon universal principles to demonstrate the logical necessity for an intelligent, uncreated first cause of the universe. In so doing, it relies heavily on the works of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, placing a renewed emphasis on great minds that have thus far received little attention in the ongoing public debates about theism, intelligent design, and evolution. The result is a profound yet highly accessible investigation, beginning with the world as we encounter it and ending in the divine mind. The passage below is adapted from Chapter 6, “The Ear of Whittaker’s Daughter.”


Dr. Michael A. Augros (’92)
“The Harmony of the Beautiful and the Intelligible”

Here is an odd fact: The universe is beautiful. It is beautiful not only overall, as a grand entirety; it is beautiful in nearly all its parts. Not only a galaxy, but speckish earth, is beautiful. Not only the whole panorama of life, but the elegance of one lone eagle in its flight stirs the soul. Not only the outwardly sensible appearances, but the intelligible laws and relations inherent in the structure of the world — in a solar system, in an isolated star, in a snowflake — excite our fascination and wonder. The hardheaded physicists themselves, even the atheists among them, are frequently moved by nature’s graces to abandon their accustomed modus operandi and to adopt instead the language of the poets, as if on fire to win for nature new admirers.

This is surely a very odd fact. It is as if the whole universe turns out to be just as one would have hoped, or rather much better. What were the odds?

Charles Darwin saw that he could not hope to explain the beauty of most animals by his principles. To insist on the sufficiency of his principles, then, he had to deny the reality of beauty, which is just what he did. If it seems an “odd fact” for the whole universe to be revolving around us at the center, perhaps one can explain this by denying it is a fact: the motion we so easily attribute to the heavens actually belongs to ourselves. Likewise, if it seems an “odd fact” for the whole universe to be so pleasing to us to behold, both with the eyes and ears and also with the mind, perhaps one can explain this by a similar Copernican revolution: Is the beauty we so easily attribute to the universe perhaps nothing else than our subjective reaction to it, some side-effect of our own evolution? Is beauty something unreal, merely a subjective human response to a world which is not really beautiful at all?

Not likely. For beauty to be something real, no more is required than for us to admit that certain realities are such as to please the human eye or the human mind in the mere beholding of them. It has long been popular to say that beauty exists only in the eye of the beholder, witness our disagreements about what is beautiful out there. But our disagreements are usually about subtleties and about human things like faces and fashion and art, where our other feelings tend to cloud our judgments. When it comes to the beauty of the world, however, we humans agree far, far more than we disagree.

The human eye and human mind have pronounced preferences. They do not find all things equally beautiful, and universally find some just plain ugly. Few have praised the tapeworm for its aesthetic qualities, disgusting to contemplate both in appearance and in its manner of making a living. It is well adapted for its line of work, like other organisms, and there is a sort of elegance in the coordination of its parts for the benefit of the whole — a magnificent piece of engineering, one might say. But it is still a nasty sight. We are not, then, simply programmed to gape in awe at everything we see.

Nor are we usefully drawn to beautiful things, so that the attraction could be neatly explained by natural selection. Poison dart frogs are magnificent. They even look good to eat. In fact, many of the most beautiful animals and plants are also the most deadly. The humble potato, by contrast, is very useful indeed, but that lumpy tuber provides little inspiration to painters. Thundering cataracts, even were they not deadly, are not particularly useful for us to stare at. Rainbows even less. It is simply incredible that any tale of utility told in terms of natural selection could be an adequate explanation of the beautiful. It could only sweep beauty under the rug. Besides, all of that is fable-making. It is much more honest to take the beauty of the universe for a reality than to try to dismiss it as a subjective quirk of the human brain in order to safeguard the sufficiency of our preferred ideas. If someone is an ardent admirer of the form of the tapeworm, he might well be the subject of a quirk, if not mental illness. If someone shrugs off the stars with indifference, we safely label him a trousered ape.

If we face the odd fact of beauty, it is only natural to wonder what is its cause. It is not just our good luck. It nearly permeates the world and its fabric. And the beauty of a single thing consists in a million ingredients cooperating toward an overall pleasing effect. One tiny detail gone wrong can wreck the whole thing, like an otherwise beautiful face missing its nose.

Why is beauty just about everywhere? Most things are beautiful, both in particular, and in their mid-scale and large-scale associations. But if all things were beautiful without exception, we might think it was a condition of existence — nothing can be at all without being beautiful. Instead, not all species of animals and plants are beautiful. It is almost as if most of them are, in order to make the world as a whole beautiful, but just enough of them are not, in order to make it clear that the beauty is an added grace, and not just de rigueur.

The intelligence of the first cause harmonizes very nicely with our oddly beautiful world. What other kind of cause, if not an intelligent one, could be intent on producing beauty as such, rather than as a side-effect or an accident? The beauty of the world is the signature of an intelligence — of someone’s taste and generosity, one might say. It is so much underscored by our experience that the word “cosmos” comes from the Greek for “adornment.” If its beauty were not produced by a mind that delights in things seen, then it would not truly be an adornment. And then it would not be what it seems. And that would make the beauty of the world an ugly thing after all — an illusion.

Richard Dawkins demonstrates much good taste in his admiration for the beauty of the universe. But he feels no need to explain it. In The God Delusion, when he takes “the argument from beauty” to bits, he considers only the beauty of certain manmade things, such as sonatas and paintings and sonnets. He is quite right to say that the musicians, the painters, and the poets are causes of these beauties. But he does not offer any reason to suppose they are the first and only causes of them — is the human mind itself, for instance, due to any external cause? And not just a past-existing cause, like natural selection, but a presently existing and sustaining action? And why are natural things, not just paintings and poems, beautiful? Could paintings and poems be beautiful if the natural things from which they draw inspiration, and which they represent in myriad ways, were ho-hum? These questions did not occur to him, it seems. On one of the first pages of his book, he quoted his departed friend, Douglas Adams, asking:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful
without having to believe that there are
fairies at the bottom of it too?

Presumably this is meant to resemble an argumentative question: “Isn’t it enough to see that the universe is beautiful without having to believe that there is some sort of unusual intelligence responsible for it?” Well, frankly, no.

Composite beauty, ephemeral beauty, surpassable beauty, beauty which did not need to be and yet came to be, which requires many things to go right and which disappears when any one thing goes wrong — all that sort of beauty is unintelligible and incapable of existing on its own. And that is the only sort of beauty we ever find in our universe. It bears every sign of being an effect, a work — one might even say, an expression.

On the other hand, perhaps Adams’ remark is not meant to be an argument, but just a bit of scolding along these lines: “What sort of spoiled children are we, not to be content with the beauty of this garden we call the universe, but who would rather look for something more beautiful and amazing still? Such ingratitude!” Hm. I don’t know. It seems to smack more of ingratitude not to bother wondering whether there is anyone to be grateful to.