Chapter 8: Beauty

The Cosmic Adventure: Science, Religion and the Quest for Purpose
by John F. Haught

Chapter 8: Beauty

In the previous chapter I suggested that the possibility of purpose in the universe may be understood in terms of a hierarchical conception of the cosmos. It was especially Michael Polanyi’s thought that provided the central ideas I developed there. In this chapter I shall fall back upon aspects of White-head’s philosophy once again in order to provide yet another way of thinking of our universe in teleological terms. In both instances the kind of teleology being proposed is what must be called a "loose" teleology. I use this expression, another which I have taken over from Polanyi, in order to distance my approach from the restrictive opinion that the universe has built into it some rigidly pre-determined destiny.1

Let me state what I mean by a loose teleology in rather simple terms. If our universe were to start all over again with the Big Bang there is no need to hold that it would have unfolded in its evolution in a manner anything like the present one. The role of chance and indeterminacy, the specific choices of the natural selection process, and even possible alternative sets of physical laws would have caused a quite different world to evolve. Or if we were to turn back the evolutionary clock two billion years and reconstruct the "primordial soups" from which the molecules of life were fashioned, we would have no guarantee that eventually there would have been fish, reptiles, birds, monkeys, or . . . humans. There is no necessity that evolution take one and only one course.2 What does seem quite possible, though, is that the cosmos would still have embarked upon a course of complexification. There still might have been a straining toward the further realization of more intensely complex arrangements of physical reality. In other words our universe would still have been an adventure of evolution. But there is no a priori necessity that the cosmos have developed in one particular fashion. That it aim toward more intense forms of ordered novelty may be a metaphysical necessity, even if the actualization of this aim is often frustrated. But it is not essential for cosmic teleology that the universe have arrived at precisely this present state of evolution.

I think the best way of understanding cosmic purpose in our loose sense is to propose that it consists essentially in the aim toward beauty.3 Perhaps from the limitedness of our own perspective we can say no more, but at least we can say this much. An aesthetic notion of cosmic purpose is capable of embracing the mythic and religious representations of human aspiration as well as accommodating the modern scientific understanding of the universe. An aesthetic rendition of cosmic teleology allows us to speak of a pervasive cosmic aim without having to be too restrictive in specifying the exact goal toward which cosmic process may be oriented.

Within this very broad scheme centering on the notion of beauty it is still possible to entertain more specific proposals as to the ultimate meaning of things. For example, a number of teleological theories attempt to understand the cosmic process as one that aims toward the enhancement of consciousness.4 I have no objection to this teleological perspective. And there is increasing evidence from the sciences that our universe has evolved from rudimentary toward more intensely conscious structures. However, I shall attempt to show that an aesthetic reading of cosmic purpose is more comprehensive than consciousness-oriented teleologies (such as that of Teilhard de Chardin). It is more comprehensive since it takes into account more caringly those segments of cosmic process that appear to us to be regressive, to move away from further enhancement of consciousness and away from the ideals we set up for our human existence. The universe is not in every way directional in the manner we would perhaps like it to be. Thus if we are to speak of cosmic purpose in a plausible way we must remain fully cognizant of the meandering and confusing nature of its evolutionary trajectory. I think an aesthetic perspective is comprehensive enough to accommodate and salvage all the waywardness of this evolutionary complexity.

The purpose of the cosmos, then, is its aim toward beauty. How would such an aim render the cosmic process purposeful? In response to this question we must point out first of all that beauty is a value.5 And it is the struggle to realize value that makes any process purposeful. Thus if the cosmic process is dominated by an urge toward realization of beauty, it may be called purposeful. The question though is whether and how we can understand value in aesthetic terms. We are so conditioned to think of value in moral or ethical terms that we may be bewildered by any attempt to express ultimate value in terms of criteria of beauty.6

When critics of teleology reject the idea of purpose in the universe their suspicions are almost always framed according to ethical criteria. For these critics the universe is condemned for not corresponding in its behavior to that of the ethical person: therefore, it is not good. If it is not ordered toward the ethical good, then it is not purposeful. In its evolution it displays a marked disregard for life, allowing all living beings and species eventually to pass into oblivion; and in its relentless laws of inertia and natural selection it exhibits crude indifference toward the dignity of persons. Nature seems to operate more by caprice, indifference or malice than by concern for its children. Its cruel experimenting with various forms of life in order eventually to discard them certainly makes it less than an adequate model for our own conduct. This is why Bertrand Russell says that the universe is unworthy of us. Our own goodness far outshines that of the universe in which we live. How can such a universe be purposeful?7

If we were to evaluate the universe purely in terms of ethical criteria of value we might be tempted toward cosmic pessimism. Even according to such ethical criteria, however, I think in all fairness we have to acknowledge the extent to which the universe also manifests what we may call "care." For the most part the universe sustains us instead of crushing us. Although the evidence is not unambiguous there is an aura of sustenance throughout nature. There are catastrophes of course, resulting from the varying degrees of hierachical independence of one level from another. But more remarkable than these episodes of chaos is the overall environing affirmation given to species and individuals. We cannot overlook this fact nor fail in gratitude toward it.8

Even after making this qualification, however, I think that it is a mistake to argue for cosmic purpose on the grounds that the cosmos conforms to our ethical ideal of care. For the fact is that this care is not all-pervasive. There are no guarantees for our safety. There is tragedy, suffering and death. There are logical and ethical contradictions in our worldly experience. There are the absurd oppositions existing between life and death, growth and decay, pleasure and pain, ecstasy and sorrow, light and darkness, good and evil, order and chaos. It would be naive to build a cosmological perspective without acknowledging these tragic conflicts.

The problem with the ethical perspective is that it cannot deal with these contradictions as such. It measures everything in terms of moral order and remains baffled by the chaotic. On the other hand an aesthetic perspective is quite at home in the realm of contradictions, for its very nature allows it to transform them into a harmony of contrasts. And I shall propose that the caring aspect of the cosmic process can be better expressed in aesthetic than in ethical terms. Although, no doubt, an aesthetic understanding of cosmic order is less than adequate also, I think that it is superior to and broader than the ethical model as an approach to understanding what may be meant by cosmic order or purpose.

Aesthetic Value

When we use the term "aesthetic" we are talking about beauty. Is it possible to put into words why things strike us as beautiful and why some things strike as more beautiful than Whitehead’s thought provides the concepts for just clarification.9 First of all, beauty entails a synthesis of contrasts. Without contrasting elements there is sheer monotony, and monotony is not beautiful. At the same time beauty implies a resolution of contradiction or conflict, that is, it requires a harmoniousness or order that overrules chaos. When elements in a painting, poem or musical composition clash so as to destroy overall harmoniousness then the aesthetic quality of the work of art is diminished or lost. Therefore, we call beautiful any expression, entity or experience that transforms or resolves contradictions into contrasts. In order for such a resolution to take place, however, the conflicting elements must be situated within a framework of harmony that transcends and, therefore, softens the local clash of contradictory aspects. Within such a wider framework the localized disharmony can become a nuance that enriches the whole instead of a clash that destroys it.

Beauty, we have said, requires a harmony of contrasts. But at times the harmony may tend to overrule the contrast and melt it down to homogeneity. When this occurs beauty has given way to monotony. The beautiful is threatened on two sides, by chaos on one side and monotony or triviality on the other. Beauty is a balancing act between the extremes of chaos and banality. It is precarious, and therefore is precious. Beauty is a synthesis of harmony and complexity, order and novelty, stability and motion, form and dynamics.

Beauty is a harmony of contrasts. Let me illustrate this point beginning with a very simple example. When I simultaneously strike two adjacent keys on a piano the half-note interval between them causes a rather disharmonious, even unpleasant and unsatisfying sound to emerge. The sound amounts more to "noise" than to harmony, and so I would refrain from calling it beautiful. However, if in the course of playing a musical composition I strike the same two keys again simultaneously, then their local dissonance may actually contribute to the overall aesthetic intensity of the whole piece. The orderly patterning of sounds that makes up the whole musical composition resolves the local contradiction (dissonance) into an aesthetically satisfying contrast. This resolution of contradiction into contrast is of the essence of beauty.

A second example may be taken from the art of painting. If I were to isolate a small segment of a great painting (say a few square inches) and prescind momentarily from the whole canvas, I would find in the fragment shades of color, texture and theme that added up to chaos or to monotony. In its isolation I would not find the fragment aesthetically satisfying. But when I resituate this isolated segment back onto the whole painting I find that its formerly chaotic or monotonous qualities are resolved by the overall harmony and nuance into factors that contribute to the aesthetic value of the whole. A wider perspective can transform locally unaesthetic elements into aesthetic ones. There is no reason for us to reject the possibility that in a similar way the chaotic and monotonous episodes of all experience, ours as well as nature’s in general, may also contribute to the value of the whole when viewed from a cosmic perspective (to which of course we do not ourselves have access).

A third example may be derived from literature. In reading a novel I may find that several episodes are independently developed early in the novel in such a way that they seem to have nothing to do with each other. Taken in themselves these fragments may appear either boring or unintelligible. I may find it a torture to go through them and may even be tempted to overlook them altogether. Yet by the time I reach the end of the novel I am glad I took the time to explore them. For in the final analysis the episodes which in themselves seemed monotonous or unintelligibly complex now enhance my appreciation of the novel as a whole. They have a significance and a connected-ness when viewed from a wider perspective that they do not appear to have when I am too close to them.

Now from the Whiteheadian point of view the cosmos is such an aesthetic reality. Both in its constituent occasions and in its overall reality the universe is a process of synthesizing and unifying its composite aspects into novel moments of present aesthetic "enjoyment." As each occasion feels its past it "orders" the diversity entering into it from the past into a novel feeling of aesthetic harmony and contrast. And as the creative advance of the universe brings more and more novelty into the picture, the events of the past are continually given a new and unanticipated significance. As the sea of events that make up the cosmos broadens and deepens, the meaning of each individual happening is itself intensified and widened. Its final meaning, therefore, cannot be determined from its own limited perspective any more than we can determine the meaning of the early episodes of a novel without reading it to the end.

The purpose of the universe, therefore, cannot be adequately stated from within our own situatedness. We are ourselves part of the canvas. We are characters in the story. We do not have the perspective whereby to give a final assessment of our own significance, or that of any phase of evolution, in the total scheme of things. We may in part understand the idea of God, however, as the cosmic artist or story-teller by whom the significance of every event and every life is guaranteed, though we cannot articulate exactly in what this significance consists.

Thus an aesthetic understanding of the universe is able to express the religious sense that all things are "cared for" in an ultimate though hidden way. And it can do so more plausibly than can any ethical vision of things. The ethical vision is governed by the concern that justice be done, if possible here and now.10 And, of course, such concern is absolutely essential in the maintenance of civilization and the quality of life. Yet, as most great religious visionaries have themselves taught, the ethical vision is not ultimate. It must be transcended. Our ethical standards are not the final judge of the significance of things, neither of human lives nor of history, nor of the universe. In placing the cosmos in an aesthetic perspective we are following the impulse of a religious vision which acknowledges the inadequacy of our ethical criteria of good and evil. We must revision "good" and "evil" in an aesthetic manner and evaluate the universe according to a deeper understanding of these usually ethically biased terms.

From an aesthetic perspective the goodness or value of an entity or event is measured by the degree to which contrasting elements are harmonized. The intensity of anything’s value is determined by the extent to which its polar components are unified in an orderly pattern. Aesthetically understood, value entails a synthesis of complexity with order, novelty with continuity, nuance with harmony, richness with stability. An aesthetic pattern transforms these apparent contradictions into pleasing contrasts. And we spontaneously tend to value things that combine these contrasts more than we do things that are homogeneous and monotonous in their make-up. We appreciate the human brain more than we do a lump of clay because the brain integrates into an intense unity an incredible complexity, nuance, richness and novelty. Similarly we value art, literature and music in proportion to the intensity of their balancing nuance into satisfying contrasts. Somehow we sense that the complexity of a great work of art could easily have gotten out of control and undermined any efforts toward harmonizing its many facets into an intense unity. And so we inwardly applaud the precious achievement of balance and order when there are so many ingredients that could have led to imbalance and disorder. The more intense the aesthetic achievement, the more we value it.

The hero or genius arouses our admiration for essentially the same reasons as a work of art. Heroism, for example, is beautiful because it is the result of integrating a multiplicity of contrasting experiences (strength and frustration, joy and tragedy, rebellion and resignation, life and death) into the unity of a single person’s story. Genius is beautiful because it requires the integration into a creative unity of a multiplicity of ideas, feelings and experiences that could lead to madness in a narrower personality. Because of the precarious nature of heroism and genius we esteem them more than the everyday modes of human existence. Similarly we might value a universe in which contradictions are constantly being unified into an aesthetic whole: entropy and evolution; order and chaos; novelty and continuity; permanence and perishing. In the following chapter I shall return to this theme of perishing.


The beauty toward which the universe strives is enough to imbue it with purpose. Yet from the limited vantage point that I occupy in this evolving world it often seems that discord is more prominent than harmony. Much of my immediate environment is unintelligible. And as I extend my imagination and questioning beyond my situation outward toward the universe I become even more bewildered by what it is all about. I may be tempted to take my own confusion and project it onto the universe. I may read my own intellectual, moral, and especially aesthetic insensitivity into the cosmos as a whole. I may see the cosmos as lacking purpose.

However, the aesthetic model of cosmic purpose suggests that my own experience may be lacking in perspective. Perhaps there is a vantage point on the universe that I do not have, given the confines of my own extremely limited situation. I cannot exclude the possibility that my own experience is only an infinitesimal segment of a universal canvas, only a fragmentary movement in a cosmic composition, a brief episode in nature’s narrative. For perhaps there is a wider angle of vision on the universe to which I do not myself have access. Perhaps this wider perspective, lying hierarchically above my own level of comprehension, is able to unify into an aesthetic whole those contradictions, monotonies and absurdities that I deem most insurmountable. Perhaps from this perspective my life has a significance, a purpose, a meaning which I cannot grasp hold of in a controlling manner. Perhaps, though, if I risk the surrender to such a possibility I may feel, even here and now, a portion of the peace that comes with the resolution of contradictions into contrasts. I may feel perhaps only briefly and episodically the beauty toward which the universe tends, the beauty of which I am only a small but significant part.


1. Cf. Polanyi and Prosch, Meaning, pp. 162 and 223n.

2. Cf. Hoimar v. Ditfurth, The Origins of Life, trans. by Peter Heinegg (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982), pp. 219-36.

3. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 265.

4. This is especially true of the works of Teilhard de Chardin.

5. Whitehead gives priority to beauty over truth and goodness in Adventures of Ideas, pp. 241-72.

6. Cf. William Dean, Coming To: A Theology of Beauty (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972).

7. See Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961).

8. Cf. Dean Turner Commitment to Care (Old Greenwich, Connecticut: Devin-Adair Company, 1978).

9. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, pp. 252-96; Process and Reality, pp. 62, 183-85, 255 and passim; Modes of Thought, pp. 57-63. Cf. also Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God (Chicago and New York: Willett, Clark & Company, 1941), pp. 212-29.

10. For an elaboration of this "ethical vision" see Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations, edited by Don Ihde (Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1974), pp. 425-67.