Thursday, October 10, 2013

Aesthetic Atheism

Although Richard Dawkins seems to sometimes have bad taste in his defense of atheism I do think he is basically right in most things.  I particularly like it when he says "any creative intelligence, of
sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only
as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.
Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in
the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it."  (The God Delusion, pg. 52) There are many excellent arguments against the existence of God (my favorite ones presented by my old teacher from Boston University, Michael Martin, in his book Atheism:  A Philosophical Justification, Temple University, 1992), but this is certainly a lynchpin for a science-based atheism.  

However we still feel wonder at certain things in nature:  the natural world seems as-if designed.  Moreover, the great works of man and woman, including works of art, philosophy, science, and even, yes, religion, often leave us in wonder.  In a recent post I proposed something that I will now call aesthetic atheism.  Aesthetic atheism is not opposed to scientific or science-based atheism, as I just indicated.  However, it attempts to take religious experience more seriously than most contemporary atheists.  

My jumping off point here is Kant's idea of "aesthetic ideas" which he believes great works of art basically are.  Aesthetic ideas are the products of artistic genius.  They cause the appropriately receptive mind to have its faculties of imagination and understanding go into a free play that seems unending, sublime.  There are also, although Kant did not see it, geniuses in the appreciation of nature.  (Kant thought that appreciation of nature required taste alone, and that genius was limited to fine art.)  Allen Carlson, following George Santayana, has argued that the appreciation of nature requires that one compose it.  Emily Brady has added that in the appreciation of nature the use of imagination is often a key element.  Putting Carlson's and Brady's points together we get the notion of the appreciator of nature who, although not perhaps intentionally attempting to appreciate nature as if it were a work of art, nonetheless does, and in an active way, i.e. in the process of composing the object of appreciation.  I have no problem, by the way, with that composition taking as its ground a cognitive scientific perspective, although I also think that this needs to be bracketed at some point in the process, as Kant had suggested.  Kant failed to see that nature itself can provide us with aesthetic ideas, even though he talks about the design-like qualities of nature at length in the Critique of Judgment.  Kant also failed to see that such "ideas of reason," e.g. God, Soul, and Heaven, are themselves really aesthetic ideas, or at least they are when they are fleshed out by way of the imagination in its harmonious interplay with the understanding.  As ideas of reason alone, they are simply cyphers...holding places for possible aesthetic experience.  Religion on this view, then, can best be seen as a kind of ultimate art form, something on the model of Wagner's idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk.  As a total art work (although not known as such to itself) it incorporates within it many other art works and aesthetic phenomena.  Like opera, also, religion incorporates within itself both the idea of the beautiful and the idea of the sublime.  It contains also the important elements of tragedy (first worked out in its aesthetic dimensions by Aristotle in his Poetics) and redemption (first understood in an active way by Nietzsche through his idea of the Dionysian).  

Recognition of religion as an art of genius (perhaps the greatest one) is something that characterizes aesthetic atheism as opposed to traditional atheism.  (On a personal note, recognition of the aesthetic power of the catholic church was one of the main motives for the conversion of my Scottish ancestors to Catholicism.  I feel a certain affinity with them on this point.)  Aesthetic atheist also has some affinity with the small number of religious practitioners who do not believe in the tenets of their religions, but remain in the church, mosque, temple, in order to retain the benefits of seeing the world under the light of a vast, although fictional, drama.  

Aesthetic atheism denies the existence of God (based on the failure of proofs of God's existence and also based on the ways in which religious belief leads to various distortions, as Nietzsche saw) but at the same time affirms experiences of transcendence.  In this respect aesthetic atheism has a certain affinity also with Zen Buddhism insofar as it stresses a highly aesthetic organization of life for the achievement of enlightenment without necessarily positing a creative God. 

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