I've just started reading Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith by Douglas Groothuis. He says on page 25:

This definition of apologetics invokes both rational legitimacy (objective truth) and emotional appeal (subjective attractiveness). This harks back to Pascal's programmatic comment on his own never-finished apologetic project.

"Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is to first show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and show them that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true god." [emphasis added]

My question is: can objective truth be completely symbiotic with what Groothuis calls "subjective attractiveness"? To my uneducated mind they don't seem mutually exclusive, but does that make it fair to say they go hand-in-hand?

  • 1
    "... make it attractive ..." That's why churches have bingo games. – user4894 Aug 3 '14 at 20:53
  • It sounds something like Harman's "allure" maybe – Joseph Weissman Aug 3 '14 at 21:32

Nowhere is it more obvious than in mathematics that objective truth and subjective attractiveness are not one and the same. Take for instance the four color theorem: in any map drawn on a 2D sheet, four colors are enough so that no two adjacent countries are the same color. It is a simple and attractive result, but the reason it is true, as far as anyone can tell, is a horrific mess of individual evaluation of 633 special cases.

Beautiful truths can be true for ugly reasons (thus making the trueness itself rather un-beautiful), but what about beautiful falsehoods? There are plenty of those, also. For instance, Fermat conjectured that numbers of the form 2^(2^n)+1 are prime. That would be a lovely result. Alas, 2^(32)+1 is not, as Euler showed.

It is certainly convenient when truth and beauty align, as that makes it easier to accept and remember, and if there are multiple paths to some truth, there is wisdom in selecting the more beautiful. Also, if we tended to find too many commonplace true things loathsome, we probably wouldn't do so well, so pragmatically it's not terribly surprising that aesthetics and correctness align a decent fraction of the time.

But they don't go hand in hand.


I'm sure there are many out there that will disagree with all this, but hopefully this establishes that there is a rational, well-thought out tradition that expresses that (1) beauty is objective (and not subjective) and (2) it is not a coincidence that beauty and truth are both considered objective in that tradition.

I haven't read the book you mention, so I am not sure if I have the full context. I will assume that he means "attractiveness" as the same as "beauty."

It has long been part of the Christian tradition to lay down criteria for "objective beauty." Father Robert Barron has a good lecture summarizing why beauty is objective in the Christian (specifically Catholic) tradition. Most of his argument ultimately comes from Acquinas (summarized here, originally here):

Beauty includes three conditions, "integrity" or "perfection," since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due "proportion" or "harmony"; and lastly, "brightness" or "clarity," whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color.

I don't know enough to know exactly when this argument was first introduced, but in the 20th century, due to primarily to the work of von Balthasar, the understanding among Catholic Philosophers (and maybe other Christian philosophers, I'm not sure) is that Beauty, Goodness and Truth are realizations of the same reality via different means (Beauty through the physical senses, Goodness through the moral sense, Truth through the rational sense, reason).

The question wasn't asked, but the passage brings up another point: when trying to persuade someone, which do we begin with: the true, the good or the beautiful? Father Barron (again, taking his argument from Aquinas and Balthasar, as well as experience) argues that one should start with beauty. Barron gives an interesting example: when trying to get a 7-year old interested in sports, you don't give him or her a rule book or stat sheet. You bring him or her to a game, observe the spectacle, consume the experience with the senses.

In a religious context, some churches will try to bring people in with, for example, bingo games. But, looking again at Aquinas's definition of beauty, this does not make the church attractive: bingo games distract from what makes something a church. Instead, consider how Churches have a particular architecture, paintings, sculptures, use particular music, etc. These physical things are beautiful and appeal to the senses, and represent the same reality that the Church (one hopes!) presents (as truth and goodness) to those who participate in it.

  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder (because it is the beholder who experiences it and that is how we define it, regardless of what rules we seem to notice about why we find things beautiful), but the beholders are similar to each other, which allows one to bridge the subjective-objective gap with respect to a generic beholder. So I agree that it's objective in a sense, but and not subjective seems to go too far, unless we are to say that chocolate is objectively and not subjectively yummy. – Rex Kerr Aug 4 '14 at 18:25
  • That certainly is a common belief. Given that the premise of the question supposed a God as the ultimate source of truth, taking God as the ultimate source of beauty shouldn't be far fetched. That's the point of the above: one tradition answers OP, reconciling truth and beauty by saying that neither is in the eye of the beholder, and that both come from the same source, and that they are as a result both objective. – James Kingsbery Aug 5 '14 at 11:53
  • What if wether beauty is subjective or objective is dependent upon the system that you are studying it in: namely, the "human-human" spectrum (humans subjectively judging things and sharing those views with others), and the "self" spectrum. (the set of rules that each human uses to judge things, making this spectrum objective) – user8676 Aug 5 '14 at 17:59
  • @JamesKingsbery - Even if you assume that God exists and is the ultimate source of everything, you don't have access to a beauty-detector that allows you to do for beauty what you can do for color (e.g. find the wavelength of light, calculate excitation of various cones, etc.). One can just say well, too bad, this is beauty; but then the response you are not using the same word I am when I say beauty is perfectly reasonable. It's the same issue with God defining what is good: if no level of torture and murder is anything but "good" if God does it, it's not the "good" most people mean. – Rex Kerr Aug 5 '14 at 19:24

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