Sunday, 11 November 2012

Objective beauty

I have written to you before on the subject of the relationship between personal experiences and brain activity (i.e. the question of whether love simply amounts to an increase in dopamine or oxytocin).  I was hoping I might ask both you and Dr. Polkinghorne to elaborate on said relationship, given a different scenario.

Both of you have advocated for the idea that there exists objective beauty in the world, though our experiences of said beauty will not repeat themselves. However, how does one interpret euphoric reactions to drugs?  Many purport to experience 'highs' of a sort in response to various drugs, ranging from illegal substances like cocaine to something as innocuous as an anti-depressant.  Some even claim that drugs are the main instigators of religious experiences!!  Given this reality, how can the existence of objective beauty be defended?  I am not simply asking whether the experience is more complex than a simple drug reaction, but how beauty can exist outside of us if many so-called beautific experiences can be instigated by a simple pill.

There is also my concern with beauty in light of research on mirror-neurons.  I've recently read studies, including one mentioned here, suggesting that many experiences of beauty (especially in music) are due to mirror neurons.  They imply that, just as mirror neurons produce what we think are a person's genuine emotions when they are actually our subconscious reactions to their facial expressions, what we mistake for the 'meaning' in a piece of music is really just the 'feeling' of singing or playing the song ourselves.  Does this finding threaten the idea of beauty as an immaterial aspect of reality?

Response: Certainly anything that we perceive or think has some implication in our brains. But the fact that a whole load of neurons are involved doesn’t mean that the underlying phenomena are not objective.  It is not reasonable to (seriously) doubt the existence of the things we see, even though undoubtedly we perceive things with the optic nerve, the visual cortex (and numerous other systems). Similarly the fact that mirror neurons are involved in our perceptions of beauty (and many other things besides) doesn't imply at all that beauty doesn't exist.

Similarly the fact that we can sometimes be misled by our brains, or that our perceptions can be distorted by injury, chemicals or other interference with the 'proper function' of our nervous system doesn't mean that what we perceive is unreal.

The emerging understanding of mirror neurons is certainly fascinating (I very much enjoy VS Ramachandran's writing on this subject) but it's worth remembering that this field is still in its infancy and there is LOTS LOTS more to learn. In no way do they show that anything is "really just" anything.

What is pretty clear is that if you want to follow the "New Atheists" down their path then you have to abandon, not only God, but beauty, free will, love, meaning and much else besides. Including, of course, the idea that our brains are capable of finding truth - Plantinga's famous Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. It is a "path that leads to destruction" in more ways than one.

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