Fallacy Files #1: Dawkins on “The Argument From Beauty”

The God Delusion was one of my favourite reads in 2006. It’s a fantastic book, although not for the reasons the author intended. For not only does it illustrate in glorious technicolour the intellectual superficiality of modern atheistic apologetics, it’s also a treasure trove of fallacies for anyone seeking case studies for a course in logic. Abusive ad hominem, argumentum ad populum, ignoratio elenchi, equivocation — the attentive reader can find all these and more.

Here’s a particularly blatant example of petitio principii — that is, begging the question — from chapter 3. Dawkins is attempting to knock down one by one what he takes to be the most influential or popular arguments for the existence of God (understood in the classical theistic sense). What follows is his pocket-sized refutation of “the argument from beauty”:

I have given up counting the number of times I receive the more or less truculent challenge: ‘How do you account for Shakespeare, then?’ (Substitute Shubert, Michelangelo, etc. to taste.) The argument will be so familiar, I needn’t document it further. But the logic behind it is never spelled out, and the more you think about it the more vacuous you realize it to be. Obviously Beethoven’s late quartets are sublime. So are Shakespeare’s sonnets. They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t. They do not prove the existence of God; they prove the existence of Beethoven and of Shakespeare. (p. 86)

Now, leave aside the fact that Dawkins’ only source for this argument is anecdotal. It’s reasonably clear that the argument he has in mind runs along these lines:

  1. Beethoven’s quartets, Shakespeare’s sonnets, etc., are beautiful.
  2. If there were no God, then there would be no beauty (and thus no beautiful things).
  3. Therefore, there is a God.

Clearly the premise enlisted to do the heavy lifting in this argument is the conditional (2). One might explore why anyone would believe (2) to be true; indeed, that would be the most obvious route to discrediting the argument. A few promising lines of support for (2) spring to mind (for example, one might reason that metaphysical naturalism is the most consistent alternative to classical theism, but also conclude that there is no place for abstract entities, or objective aesthetic norms, or mental states such as perception, within a strictly naturalistic ontology). In any case, surely a responsible evaluation of “the argument from beauty” ought to probe a little deeper; it ought to ask why the argument is so common (if indeed it is) and what sort of reasoning typically lies behind it. At a minimum, it ought to try to present the most credible version of the argument. (If there’s no credible version of the argument, why waste ink on it?)

But the world’s leading public intellectual of 2004 has a far more streamlined refutation up his sleeve. Here, in essence, is his counter to the Beethoven/Shakespeare argument:

“They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t.”

Yes, that’s it, folks. Dawkins’ refutation of the notion that beauty point us to God is merely to assert, without any argument, that beauty doesn’t depend on God. In other words, to beg the question entirely.

4 thoughts on “Fallacy Files #1: Dawkins on “The Argument From Beauty””

  1. theshippingnews

    I don’t know what I think of Richard Dawkins’ argument, but I was struck by one one comment you made: “…it ought to ask why the argument is so common (if indeed it is)…”

    The (if indeed it is) statement seems a little disingenuous to me. The argument from beauty has been around for a very long time and persists today. It’s possible that its expression has become such a common part of our discourse that it seems less apparent than it really is.

    I doubt that most people would couch the idea in the obtuse language of theorists – but I certainly have heard many people, looking at a newborn child or a sunset, say something as simple as, “It really does make you believe in god.”

    I doubt the folks I’ve heard say that are trying to prove a point, but the argument from beauty is still there.

  2. Thanks for the comment. You may be right that this kind of argument is more common in popular discourse, but I’m not aware of any significant Christian thinkers who have made it a prominent element of their apologetic.

    Moreover, it’s not obvious to me that folk who see a sunset, etc., and exclaim, “It really does make you believe in God,” are thinking in terms of an argument for God’s existence (i.e., an inference from some observation about beauty). As Plantinga suggests, they may just be articulating non-inferential beliefs produced by a sensus divinitatis that has been ‘triggered’ by certain experiences.

    In any case, whether the argument is common or not, Dawkins’ response still leaves much to be desired. :)

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