Poiema

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The Madman’s Search for Beauty

by Zak Schmoll

How do we reason our way to that which is beautiful? Reason is a powerful tool when put in the right hands, but it can be twisted and abused to answer questions that it was never meant to answer. It can be the metaphorical hammer trying to drive in a screw; it is simply the wrong tool for particular tasks.

In his brilliant work Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton wrote, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Every madman believes that he is perfectly justified in his inaccurate worldview. He has constructed a reality where the world perfectly corresponds to his madness, and it is reasonable when it is framed in that way.

However, the madman’s world is missing parts of reality. He has come to believe what he truly thinks is in his world, but he is labeled mad specifically because those ideas do not correspond with the world around him. His world might logically make sense; he might be able to reason his way to provide justifications for every one of his incorrect beliefs. That doesn’t make him right.

His incorrect beliefs do not correspond with reality because he has actively blocked out parts of reality that do not fit into his chosen narrative. A man might believe that every time a black car drives up behind him, he is being pursued by the Mafia. His worldview does not have room for the truth that many people drive black cars even though everyone else around him understands this feature of the automobile market. Nobody else is worried about being followed by a black car; it is only this one particular man in the world that he has built for himself.

Consider a philosophical naturalist. This person has made the decision that everything about the world must be reducible to natural causes. Therefore, it is possible to look at a waterfall and believe it is beautiful, but that must be a personal reaction rather than an objective fact. To quote C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, “The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.”

For the naturalist, there needs to be some measurable quality in the waterfall if he or she wants to call it sublime. If that quality cannot be evaluated, then it must not be the case that the waterfall is sublime. It must be some chemical reaction in the brain of the individual that is stimulated by viewing the waterfall and is therefore back into the domain of observational science.

The uncomfortable truth that the materialist cannot get away from is that everything inside him or her is saying that the waterfall is sublime. There is something objectively beautiful about a waterfall that cannot always be logically shown via proof but is seemingly universally embraced across time and culture.

This contradiction puts the materialist in the same place as the madman. He or she must create a worldview that pushes certain facts away or explains these facts in such a way that they fit in the reductionist box of the material world being all there is. Because it is impossible to scientifically measure the amount of beauty a particular waterfall has, it must not have any beauty at all. The beauty must be simply the result of brain chemistry.

Experientially, that is just not true. Perhaps then the answer is not to change the rules and build a world that is conformed to our image of how the world ought to be. Maybe we ought to do our best to pursue truth and accept the world the way it is. If the waterfall is indeed objectively beautiful, then our worldview needs to have a way to account for the existence of objective beauty.

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Poiema is an online community of creative professionals who value the intersect of faith, culture, and creativity. Our focus is to teach writers to think wisely and thinkers to write eloquently about the human experience through a sustained engagement in the Great Conversation.