A Transcendental Meditation

A while back, I began a new series of blog posts, taking as my launchpad C. S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity. We considered Lewis’s description of the Law of Human Nature – to what extent all human beings have the same inner experience of ‘the voice of conscience’. Lewis argued that we had a common sense of fair play because we all have some sense of The Good (which, he goes on to argue, comes from God.) This leads us to a philosophical question – is Goodness objective?

I was recently alerted to the Relit approach to Evangelisation, which is build around awareness of the transcendentals – Truth, Goodness and Beauty – and the expectation that for any given human being, one of these is a more meaningful “way in” than another person. This seems plausible, and certainly reflects the reality that there are different kinds of human mind, more attuned to Truth or to Goodness or to Beauty. But is this telling us something only about diversity in human minds?

Are Goodness and Beauty objective? A priori truths seem to have some kind of objective existence. Mathematical axioms follow logically from premises; mathematical models of the physical universe successfully (and therefore objectively) predict how the universe will behave. There is a meaningful sense of which we can speak of a priori Truth existing independently of the existence of conscious human beings. We can cautiously also speak of contingent Truth existing objectively: whether we accept Darwinian evolution or read Genesis literally, either way there was a time when the earth existed without human beings to observe it. The world was the way it was at that time – that’s contingent truth. An atheist could go further and argue that Truth exists with no mind to observe it; a Theist would say that all which is True is known by the mind of God.

As for Beauty, Bishop Robert Barron tries to argue that there’s a difference between subjective and objective beauty. He likes deep-dish Chicago pizzza, but says that’s his own subjective taste. Yet he says that certain works of art – a Beethoven symphony, Chartres Cathedral – are objectively beautiful. The trouble is, I can’t sense the beauty in Beethoven or Chartres. And if I can’t, that means one of two things – either the beauty of these great art works is as subjective as the flavour of Bishop Barron’s favourite pizza – or there’s an objective standard for beauty I ought to be able to learn to apply whether or not I can feel the beauty.

Here I need to borrow an unusual word from Lewis. In his Out of the Silent Planet, he imagined Mars to be inhabited by three quite distinct species of thinking beings who coexisted peacefully with one another. The term for an intelligent, reasoning creature was hnau. When a human being lands on the planet – not speaking the same language as any of the inhabitants – the native tribes first have to figure out if the human is hnau or a mere animal.

Would other hnau recognise Truth? We expect they would recognise a priori mathematical truths and contingent physical truths about the universe we both inhabit. When human beings have sent deliberate messages into space we have used these universal concepts – prime numbers, the properties of the hydrogen atom, the molecular structure of simple sugars.

But are Goodness and Beauty objective? Would other hnau agree with our sense of what is Good or Beautiful, or inasmuch as the human race has a shared sense of the Good and the Beautiful, is this telling us about a common property of the human brain, shaped by natural selection for the survival of the human race?

I have written earlier in this blog about my lack of intuitive sense of beauty and of goodness. If Goodness and Beauty are objective, it should be possible to teach me some rules I can apply to determine if something is Good or Beautiful, even though I cannot experience goodness or beauty through a working “recognition circuit” in my own brain. If I cannot, in principle, learn to do so, then these things must be subjective, and the common experience of humanity is telling us only about the average perceptive properties of the human brain.

“If most people agree that standard X is more moral, or more beautiful, does that prove that standard X objectively exists?”

No. If the only hnau we can converse with is our own species, it is only telling us that most human brains have a “Goodness recognition circuit” or “Beauty recognition circuit” which gives weight to X. There might be some evolutionary advantage to us having that trait.

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One thought on “A Transcendental Meditation”

  1. I’ve wanted to respond about beauty but my way of thinking kind of stops me. Im not neurotypical either, and I don’t usually think about this kind of stuff in words. I prayed about how to communicate perceiving beauty to you- the beauty recognition circuit- but trying to translate an essence and concept into words another person with Asperger’s will understand proves difficult. Especially in this case. After reading many of your posts, it seems like we process completely different senses.

    I do want to note that I don’t “feel” beauty either, I sense it. And not very often. Though, I’ve learned to be able to communicate about what most people call beauty (which usually feels static to me, like beauty was once there but is stagnant or even dead now..) To me, when most people refer to beauty, I translate it to myself as potential or what was once potential.

    Bishop Barron just posted a podcast of a homily for the 1st Sunday of lent and he mentioned beauty. There were a couple of things he said that are almost exactly words that came to me after praying about this.. I’m wondering if you’ve listened to that homily and have you received any clarity on beauty since writing this post?

    Like

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