The Reality of Goodness and Beauty
A "No Miracles" Argument for Qualitative Realism
A few weeks ago, I did an unscripted live stream in which I talked about the validity of “value judgments”, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a judgment assigning a value (such as good or bad) to something.” In this essay, I wish to expand on what I talked about in that live stream and why I think it’s so important.
I’d first like to reiterate a point I’ve made before: using the term “value” to refer to things like good or evil subtly begs the question against moral realism. Some dictionary definitions even state this explicitly. Any given value presupposes the existence of a valuer, so calling goodness a value implies that goodness is subjective. Moral realists would reject the assertion that our valuing something is what makes it good. Rather, the object’s goodness causes us to value it.
A moral realist like myself would hold that there is a real feature called “goodness” that causes objects to be inherently attractive to sentient beings. A non-rational animal like a dog or an insect would be attracted to some good thing through pure instinct. They would sense something and be either attracted to or repelled by it automatically. Rational animals like humans can gain knowledge of goodness itself and can act on that knowledge. Learning what goodness is requires knowing the natures of things in general, and this, in turn, requires an intellect capable of gaining new insights by classifying, generalizing, and recombining concepts. An agent’s ability to pursue what is good because it knows it to be good is what gives that agent moral status.
Similar to the attribute of goodness is the attribute of beauty. Beauty is like goodness in that it makes an object that possesses it inherently attractive to sentient beings. Goodness is attractive because it kindles the desire of sentient beings while beauty is attractive because it pleases the senses. While good things must be obtained by the agent for them to experience satisfaction, beauty can create delight simply by experiencing it. The distinction is subtle enough to cause minds as great as Plato to conflate beauty and goodness. Still, whatever one’s view on the matter, there’s enough of a similarity between the two that moral and aesthetic realism can be justly combined using the term “qualitative realism,” which I will use for the rest of this article.
To modern men, goodness and beauty are ethereal entities that only relate tangentially to reality. The reason for this being that, while we can empirically point to some good or beautiful thing, we cannot point to goodness itself or beauty itself, rendering the concept unverifiable. Moderns, therefore, regard goodness and beauty as the products of conscious minds trying to make sense of reality – in a word, qualia. These ephemeral entities are contrasted with the sureness of science, which modern man claims ultimately explains the secrets of the universe.
However, modern scientists are no less guilty of positing unobservable entities than ethicists and aestheticists. To remain consistent, some philosophers of science argue for an “instrumentalist” or “anti-realist” view of science, which holds that sciences like physics cannot give us real information. On this view, while science can give us tools for predicting and controlling the natural world, it cannot come to an accurate description of that world, and any attempted description will be a mere useful fiction at best.
By contrast, many philosophers of science defend scientific realism, the view that theoretical entities posited by successful scientific theories are a real and not mere useful fiction. The paradigmatic argument for scientific realism is the “no miracles” argument, which was given its influential formulation by Hilary Putnam in the paper “What is Mathematical Truth?”:
The positive argument for realism is that it is the only philosophy that doesn't make the success of science a miracle. That terms in mature scientific theories typically refer..., that the theories accepted in a mature science are typically approximately true, that the same term can refer to the same thing even when it occurs in different theories - these statements are viewed by the scientific realist… as part of the only scientific explanation of the success of science, and hence as part of an adequate scientific description of science and its relations to its objects.
The basic idea here is that scientifically proven theories exhibit impressive predictive and technological success, which is exactly what we’d expect if those theories were true. However, if the unobservable entities proposed by scientific theories were mere useful fictions, then we’re faced with a coincidence that defies plausible explanation – a miracle. The argument has the following syllogistic form:
(a) Scientific theories that exhibit impressive predictive and technological success behave as if the theoretical entities they posit were real.
(b) If those entities don’t exist, then we are faced with a coincidence that defies plausible explanation.
(c) The theoretical entities successful scientific theories posit are real.
If this argument is true, then there would be a presumption in favor of believing in the existence of theoretical entities posited by scientific theories with a lot of novel predictions or technological applications. While this assumption may be overridden by future evidence or by prior scientific or metaphysical assumptions that have surer grounding than the posited theory, the burden of proof is not on the realist to establish that the entities posited by a successful theory are real, but on the critic to show that we should not believe they are real.
Many objections can and have been raised by scientific anti-realists, but none of them are successful. Some scientific anti-realists argue that scientific realism is unjustified because, for any given body of evidence, there are always alternative incompatible theories that are equally consistent with that evidence. However, good scientific theories don’t just posit unobserved entities whose existence is consistent with the evidence. Rather, a good scientific theory will generate novel predictions and account for new evidence that was not available and perhaps not foreseen by the original theorists. As the Aristotelian philosopher Edward Feser once put it: “When a scientific theory not only accounts for previously known evidence but generates novel predictions on the assumption that the entities it posits are real, and those predictions are confirmed, it is even less plausible to doubt the existence of those entities” (Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science, p. 153).
Now, some instrumentalists might fire back that a Darwinian theory of scientific acceptance can account for the success of scientific theories. On this account, scientific theories compete with one another, and the ones that survive are those having instrumental value. The reality of the entities scientific theories posit is irrelevant to their success. But this only raises the further question of why these theories have this instrumental success. The Darwinian account explains the acceptance of scientific theories by way of their usefulness to making predictions and creating better technology, but it doesn’t explain the usefulness itself. By contrast, scientific realists have a ready-made answer: successful scientific theories display instrumental success because the theoretical entities they posit exist.
The most common objection to scientific realism is that, because scientific theories with great predictive and technological success are abandoned in favor of some even more successful theories, success does not suffice to establish realism. The idea is that, because so many past successful scientific theories have eventually been abandoned, we can draw the inference that current theories are likely to be abandoned as well. The success of a theory thus does not give us a good reason to believe that the theory is true or that the entities it posits are real.
However, this argument presupposes that the vast majority of abandoned scientific theories in the past were successful, fails to distinguish between the specific parts of successful past theories that were abandoned and those that were retained and incorporated into replacement theories, and whether the abandoned parts had anything to do with the older theories’ successes. When these historical nuances are kept in mind, the argument from theory change loses much of its bite.
Scientific realists would also point out that scientific realism does not require all scientific theories to be true, only that they aim to be true. Because science in general aims at being true, a scientific realist can be selective in his realism. It’s entirely consistent to believe that one theory succeeds in establishing the reality of the entities it posits while at the same time holding that some other theory fails to do so and ought to be interpreted in a non-realist way. A thoroughgoing anti-realist who denies the reality of all scientific theories cannot justify his view by pointing to this or that theoretical entity that turned out to be false.
The “no miracles” argument for scientific realism is a powerful argument that makes a great deal of intuitive sense. Saying it’s wrong would be like saying that the suspect in a murder case who had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime, faced a mountain of incriminating circumstantial evidence, and had confessed to the murder itself was not the culprit at all. Sure, such a thing can occur, but it’s not plausible. Yet this is the unenviable position the anti-realist is placed in.
Could a similar argument be constructed for qualitative realism? Perhaps, but only if we had a way of delineating between a successful qualitative theory (that is, a theory about what is good or beautiful) and an unsuccessful one. The best possible way to delineate such things is human flourishing. Now, one’s exact idea of human flourishing will depend on one’s view of human nature, but most moral theories throughout history posit that it consists of the development of our potentials as humans. Every other living thing generally acts for its flourishing as a species. What makes humans different? Even atheistic nihilists admit this insofar as they act for the betterment of their living conditions in the here and now. Let us examine the thought of perhaps the most pessimistic of such thinkers: H. P. Lovecraft. If the concept of human flourishing can find purchase given his nihilism, then it must be valid.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an interesting fellow, certainly. People the world over love Lovecraft’s work – his dark depiction of a universe crawling with cosmic horrors has captured the imaginations of readers and writers for a century. What sort of outlook inspired him to put to pen all those great works of horror fiction? To put it simply, Lovecraft was an avowed atheist and materialist who nonetheless took this view in a very different direction than most modern atheists.
Like many modern atheists, Lovecraft believed that, from the perspective of the blind, unconscious cosmos, humanity’s existence is trivial and accidental. All of mankind’s greatest achievements are mere blips in the timeline of eternity. The material cosmos, which he personifies as “blind gods of the ultimate abyss,” are indifferent to our highest ideals of beauty and fitness. Striving for some kind of ideal happiness and justice is a fruitless effort, for they are mere illusions. It’s best then to settle for emotional contentment, which Lovecraft identified with the life of moderate pleasure advocated by Epicurus.
However, Lovecraft was no misanthrope, even if he disliked the tendency of the masses toward sadism and irrationality. Although humanity meant nothing to the cosmos as a whole, mankind means a good deal to itself. Thus, mankind can work for its benefit, even if it requires a bit of willful ignorance. According to Lovecraft, contentment or tranquil pleasure is the ultimate good, and such pleasure can only be achieved by worshipping and creating beauty. Human beings have a complex array of mental, emotional, and aesthetic needs which must be fulfilled if we are to be content, and such things can only be accomplished through the project of civilization, which allows for the creation of great works of art.
The locus of civilization, according to Lovecraft, is tradition. Since our tastes vary, the only working pseudo-standard of values that can act as an anchor for a collective is tradition, the emotional legacy bequeathed to us by our ancestors. Tradition may be arbitrary, but from the perspective of the cosmos, all human values are arbitrary. Tradition, at least, is tailored for each particular culture, so it’s best suited to aiding us in obtaining human flourishing.
Where modern atheists would discard traditional values as being fake, Lovecraft would reply that the modern atheist’s commitment to ideas like “social justice” are equally arbitrary. Pursuing beauty at least gives us a chance to create great works of art. What would the pursuit of equality give us? Lovecraft would encourage his fellow skeptics to at least pretend that tradition was real because, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters to us is the little bit of life we can enjoy before the blind idiot god Azathoth dispassionately pulverizes us into nothingness. As the opening to The Call of Cthulhu notes, the inability of the human mind to fully understand the world is a kind of mercy. Why not enjoy it?
Though Lovecraft was a relativist when it came to beauty and goodness, truth was, for him, certain and scientific. Tradition may give life meaning, but it was no substitute for rational thought. Lovecraft was a militant rationalist who, while proclaiming that tradition had the ultimate authority in deciding matters of taste, argued that allowing such things to interfere with the pursuit of the truth would be to invite bias and prejudice into scientific inquiry. Lovecraft only believed what he believed because of science and reason, and he was willing to change his mind according to the evidence. Lovecraft held that maintaining the strict division between science and tradition is key to having both intellectual honesty and purposeful existence. Even so, he pondered now and again whether it would’ve been better had humanity remained ignorant of scientific truth.
If you’ve been in the Dissident Right spheres of the Internet for a while, you might find this point of view sounding rather familiar. This sort of atheistic traditionalism is commonplace among its denizens. Many ethnonationalists justify their preference for their ethnic group with this relativistic brand of traditionalism. If morality is subjective, then why not embrace Nordic Supremacism? This view is often coupled with a rigid adherence to science – especially genetics. Funnily enough, I never see these people quote Lovecraft despite how much their views overlap with his.
People in the NRx sphere also tend to embrace atheistic traditionalism. In particular, the discussions of Gnon and “the wrath of Gnon” invoke Lovecraft and his stories – it’s no wonder that my friend Tom cited Lovecraft in his video on the subject. Gnon, for those of you not in the know, is a catch-all term used by atheists to describe semi-religious concepts like natural law. It’s sort of a placeholder for those who cannot believe in God but cannot find another explanation for such regularities in nature. To the neo-reactionaries, Gnon is more like the blind idiot god Azathoth or the incomprehensible Cthulhu than the Christian God. The will of Gnon is indifferent to human affairs, but that doesn’t mean that we can safely ignore it. Gnon will crush all those who suffer its wrath.
That said, the goal of civilization is not merely to live according to Gnon’s will. Gnon is indifferent to humanity and thus, any human that follows Gnon’s laws blindly will cease being human. A man who follows Gnon’s will is a psychopath like Anton Chigurh. Gnon is the blind forces of the cosmos that we must plan around rather than obey or ignore. To live fully human lives, we must create institutions that allow us to capture Gnon. H. P. Lovecraft couldn’t have put it better himself.
Yet there’s something wrong with the worldview of the atheistic traditionalists. How can qualitative judgments – judgments about the goodness or beauty of a thing – be legitimate in any sense if the cosmos lacks beauty and goodness? How can the pursuit of beauty create great works of art? How can the pursuit of virtue create good men? Doesn’t this seem… miraculous?
Thinking about how important qualitative judgments are for human flourishing – even if one defines it in Epicurean terms like Lovecraft and other atheistic traditionalists do – led me to consider the parallels between science, ethics, and aesthetics. If science was proven true by its successes, why not appeal to the successes of ethics and aesthetics? After watching Tom’s video, I began laying out a “no miracles” argument for the validity of qualitative (that is, moral or aesthetic) theories that I think is important.
(d) Qualitative theories that successfully lead to human flourishing (i.e., the individual achievement of contentment and tranquility through collective civilization-building) behave as if goodness and beauty were real.
(e) If truth, goodness, and beauty don’t exist, then we are faced with a coincidence that defies plausible explanation.
(f) Goodness and beauty are real.
Immediately, one can see many parallels between scientific and qualitative theories that make this argument appealing. If you accept (a)-(c) as valid, then you must accept (d)-(f) as valid, and much of the intuitive force behind (a)-(c) applies to (d)-(f). How else can successful qualitative theories assist in human flourishing if goodness and beauty did not exist?
If this argument is sound, then qualitative theories would have objective validity – that is, goodness and beauty would not be mere useful fictions but real entities. It would then be possible to discover the best qualitative theory, similar to how it’s possible to discover the best scientific theory. While prior assumptions may be overridden by future evidence or by prior assumptions that have surer grounding than the posited theory, the burden of proof would not be on the realist to establish that the entities posited by a successful qualitative theory are real, but on the critic to show that we should not believe they are real.
The arguments made against qualitative realism are similar to those against scientific realism, and they can be responded to in the same way. Anti-realists may argue that qualitative judgment is unjustified because multiple perspectives on good, evil, beauty, and ugliness can be valid in the same circumstances, but good qualitative theories are not only consistent with traditions that aided in human flourishing. They also guide us in making decisions going forward, even in circumstances the original theorist hadn’t foreseen. The works of great moral theorists like Plato or St. Thomas are still relevant in modern contexts hundreds of years later, and the great works of art from the past are still widely recognized as beautiful.
A Darwinian might fire back that the success of such qualitative theories can be accounted for by Darwinian evolution. Qualitative theories that aided human flourishing were passed on to later generations while those that didn’t were consigned to the dustbin of history. However, much like the Darwinian account of scientific theories, the Darwinian account of the success of qualitative theories fails to explain why those theories helped create human flourishing in the first place. The Darwinian account explains the acceptance of qualitative theories by way of their instrumental usefulness, but they don’t explain the usefulness itself. Qualitative realists can explain the usefulness by the reality of goodness and beauty.
Another possible objection to qualitative realism is the wide variety of successful qualitative theories abandoned in favor of some even more successful theories. The idea is that, because so many past successful qualitative theories have eventually been abandoned, we can draw the inference that current theories are likely to be abandoned as well. The success of a qualitative theory in helping achieve human flourishing would give us no good reason to believe that goodness and beauty exist. Like the argument from scientific change, this presupposes that the vast majority of abandoned qualitative theories in the past were successful, and it also fails to distinguish between the specific parts of successful past theories that were abandoned and those that were retained and incorporated into replacement theories and whether the abandoned parts had anything to do with the older theories’ successes. Historical nuance thus defangs the argument from changing qualitative theories.
Like scientific theories, qualitative theories aim at being true, though the aspect of reality these theories explore differs. Moral realism does not require that all moral theories be correct, and aesthetic realism does not require that all aesthetic theories be correct. One particular qualitative theory might be a matter of personal opinion just as another is objective. Each theory must be taken on a case-by-case basis. What is not justifiable is a thoroughgoing nihilism – the kind displayed by atheists like H. P. Lovecraft and the neo-reactionaries.
I hope that this brief discussion about qualitative realism begins a greater discussion about the importance of qualitative judgments. Increasingly, we find that many of the civilizing institutions that ordinary people rely on for guidance are failing us. Our public officials subvert law and order rather than maintain it, and our churchmen are bowing to the latest political zeitgeist. It’s tempting then to simply spiral into solipsism burying yourself into something like Qanon or something equally crackpot. Yet the consistent witness of Western civilization teaches us that good and evil, beauty and ugliness are real and discoverable for ourselves. Once we know that they are out there, it’s up to us to look for them. Only they can save Western Civilization and our very souls.
The dissident right needs to develop theories of ethics and aesthetics grounded in first principles that run counter to the mainstream. The opportunity for intellectual flourishing is upon us, but it requires us to reject the nihilistic urge to reduce goodness and beauty to mere opinion. The modern age is hateful because it’s evil and ugly. The sooner we recognize this and escape from the modern relativistic mindset, the better. With an objective standard, we can engage in constructive critique, something that all true Leftists recoil from. We might not have the ability to physically exit from the system, but we can exit from it mentally.