Nature, Beauty and Wonder

Psalm 19:1:
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
 and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

Steven Weinberg:
“To King David or whoever else wrote this psalm, the stars must have seemed visible evidence of a more perfect order of existence, quite different from our dull sublunary world of rocks and stones and trees. Since David’s day the sun and other stars have lost their special status; we understand that they are spheres of glowing gas, held together by gravitation, and supported against collapse by pressure that is maintained by the heat rising up from thermonuclear reactions in the star’s cores. The stars tell us nothing more or less about the glory of God than do the stones on the ground around us.” (emphasis mine)

What the Psalmist seems to be saying — and what Weinberg fails to grasp — is that beyond any account of nature in terms of efficient and material causes there is a qualitative dimension to nature: nature furnishes in us a sense of beauty, majesty, and wonder that spontaneously points beyond itself, toward “a more perfect order of existence”. Weinberg seems to think that to speak of nature as beautiful, wondrous, grand, and so on is only legitimate in the absence of an exhaustive causal-scientific account of nature. If only the Psalmist had known something about astrophysics!

What is the sense in which nature is said to ‘point’ to God? First, consider what the claim is not. The theist does not say that it is natural substances as such that occasion in us a certain knowledge of God, as if we could look at a mountain or a star and immediately conclude that God exists. Rather, there is a beauty and wonder to much of nature, from the night sky to the smallest of flowers — indeed, to the world as an ordered whole — that points to a transcendent Source. Weinberg’s objection is not so much the inference from the beauty and wonder of nature to God, but whether it is even reasonable to speak of nature as beautiful and wondrous in light of contemporary science.

On one level, it is just obvious that even in the presence of a complete causal-scientific account, we would still find — and indeed do find — beauty and majesty in the natural order, whether in ordinary events such as sunsets, or extra-ordinary events such as polar lights. Indeed, no one in their right mind would say: ‘I know people say that the polar lights are a sight to behold, and I’d love to believe them, but, you see, according to science polar lights are caused by the interactions between the magnetosphere and the solar wind.’ One would be bewildered to hear such a thing, since it doesn’t even rise to the level of an argument. Formalized, all we have is the following:

1. Science tells us that polar lights are caused by X, Y, and Z.
∴ There is nothing special, nothing qualitative, about polar lights.

But suppose that we strengthen the argument in the following way:

3. Science qua science does not give us a description of nature in terms of ‘beauty’ and ‘wonder’. It can only tell us something about the efficient and material causes of things.
4. One should not believe in anything beyond that which science reveals to us.
∴ We cannot believe in the beauty and wonder of nature.

Now we have an argument, albeit not a very good one. For premise 4 is no more than a presumption of scientism, the self-refuting thesis that all of reality is exhausted by empirical explanations. As most philosophers will grant, this old horse has been beaten to death: the very claim that ‘all of reality is exhausted by empirical explanations’ is itself not an empirical claim, but a philosophical one. It should be said, then, that questions regarding the beauty and wonder of the world do not rest on scientific considerations — at least not primarily [1] — but rather on philosophical, aesthetic, phenomenological, and, I dare say, theological considerations.

Addendum: it is worth noting that science presupposes the very thing Weinberg thinks it sets out to erode. All scientific investigation begins with a sense of beauty and wonder, and so the very enterprise that is supposed to eliminate the sublimity of nature could not in principle exist without it.

[1] One could argue that, just as knowing the background conditions behind a work of art — such as the artist’s vision in creating it — serve to enhance our aesthetic response, so knowing the background causes behind a sunset or an intricate landscape will further contribute to the beauty and wonder occasioned by them.