What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?

In many essays of this blog I discuss what philosophers in prior centuries called values:  truth, beauty, and goodness, distinguishing them from facts. I have to sketch these over and over because my approach to a philosophy of mind, in particular any discussion of what distinguishes human from animal mind has to bring up the values. It is the ability to distinguish the values, that is to grasp that truth, beauty, and goodness exist and are discernible, that separates human from animal mind. This essay focuses on the values as such.

Is goodness (or beauty or truth) objective or subjective and relative? This is a question that has vexed philosophers for more than two thousand years. The answer, grounded in my theology (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”) is that it is both. It is the point of this essay to show why and how that is the case. What the values are falls out of my theology as does the distinction (made by almost no one in the philosophical community) between what values are and what has them. Goodness is a value. Justice (to take an example I will use below) is usually taken to “be good”. Justice is good (if indeed it is) because it has, embodies, or is an instance of goodness. This distinction holds for all three values. A sunset has beauty, and a proposition like 2+2=4 has truth. In the English language we normally say that justice is good, sunsets are beautiful, and propositions are true. It is this construction that blurs the distinction presented just above just as, pointing at a lit lamp and saying “that is light”, would blur the distinction between light and what is lit.

In the Prolegomena (linked above) I note that from a rational first-principle theism we infer there are three fundamental joints in reality: Matter-energy, mind, and spirit. Matter-energy is the familiar stuff of the material universe, including time. Mind refers not to individual human (or animal) mind, but the phenomenon of mind in the universe. To our experience of course mind manifests individually. see “From What Comes Mind”). The reason mind so well represents the material world is that mind and the material world both originate in spirit. The point of mind is to represent matter-energy (in the human, biological case, on middle scales) to a subject. The subject is yet another matter I will not much deal with here. See “Why Personality”.

Human mind can, and animal mind cannot, sense something of antecedent spirit-reality, a thin something that is, in effect an inkling of “the character of God” or more precisely qualities of God’s character. Values, their reality, not what exhibits them, are that of which we are aware, by means of mind, is spirit. It is the only such awareness (of spirit) we have. Mind represents the material world to a creature having an individualized subjectivity. The phenomenon that catalyzes a brain’s evocation of a subjectivity is the same everywhere. The quality of spirit that humans can sense and further discriminate in their mental arena is present (everywhere) in the field I have called (again see above linked “From What Comes Mind?”) Cosmic Mind. The lion, or the dog, or the ape, simply do not notice it, do not detect it as a distinguishable facet of consciousness. Animal mind is not up to the task. Being “up to the task” is the identity criterion for human mind.

Values are the unified quality of God’s character refracted into the three primary joints: beauty into the material world, truth into mind as such, and goodness into the intentions (and intentional behavior) of persons (personality being the only spirit-component of our otherwise blended identity — see “Why Personality”). They also happen to be the root concepts of three major branches in philosophy,  aesthetics, epistemology, and ethics respectively.

Beauty is something we experience in sensory qualia and they, in turn are our window on the mind-independent material world. We find truth by mind in mind. To philosophers it is a property of propositions. Propositions are abstractions, mental phenomena, that either do or do not conform to the structure of the world as a whole, spiritual, mental, and material. There is a “fact of the matter” about the relation between General Relativity and quantum mechanics, and about the existence (or nonexistence) of God. Like beauty, truth is not about what is true or which abstractions have more truth, but rather the conviction that there is a consistent way the world is.

Goodness is about the intentions, and subsequently behaviors, of persons. Again it is not about what purposes are good, or how much goodness they have, but that it is possible to align (more or less) our individual purposes with God’s. Goodness is the most difficult value to grasp intellectually because it is the value refracted through reality’s “spirit joint”. Of matter we know much, of mind we have immediate experience, but of spirit we have only the mind-discriminated values themselves and personality which we cannot find (see “Why Personality”).

At the same time goodness is the value with which we most often engage. Persons, by extension their behavior, have (or do not have) goodness, but this is also the case with social institutions which are impersonal, but created by persons. Unlike the other values we project goodness strictly outside (though of course it remains related) its domain, the person. In doing this we invent new words for it, for example ‘justice’, fairness, or fitness. But in each case, though we speak of impersonal institutions, we refer to the doings, present or historical, of people.

There is something to note about the values taken together. As God is unified, the values, while refracted to human apprehension in reality’s three primary joints, must also be unified. Each must be consistent with the quality of the others. Beauty must be both true and beautiful, goodness beautiful and true, and truth beautiful and good. This interrelation between the values, recognized in classical treatments of them, has sometimes been identified with ‘love’ (Christian Agape) and is consistent with the view that they are what we apprehend as qualities of “God’s character”.

Our thin sense of these qualities is only a hazy pointer. It is not a reliable arbiter of what about particulars in the world (human art, propositions, or acts of persons) has these qualities or more exactly to what degree they have them. Values are apprehended in mind, but we recognize they belong to broad categories in the physical (a sunset), mental (a proposition) or personal (some exhibition of human intention) world. Subjective interaction with the world is always perspectival, it has a viewpoint. Perspective is unique to every human being who’s history, not to mention a unique physical ground (the brain) of the mental, ensures that uniqueness.

Each of our individual, already unique by different brains, perspectives color our general value awareness. There is room in the human perspectival range for both broad agreement and much disagreement about what is true, beautiful, or good. Suppose we face a palette of colors and must classify each into one of only three groups, red, yellow, and blue. We might agree about many of the various shades, but when it comes to an orange, I might say it belongs more to the red and you to the yellow. It is because of this colorization effect that we can have different views of say the value content of a sunset (or work of art), proposition, individual act or social policy; whether, for example a particular human action or policy enforced by law, is just.

There is another phenomenon that, to human mind, relativizes the values, time itself. Time, of course, is an ingredient in our own individual perspectives, but it is also a part of the social perspective we share as a culture. We are conditioned not only as individuals but also as a culture. Almost all humans agree there is often beauty in sunsets, but art is a different matter. The people of 17th century Europe expressed a wide variety of views on what makes up beauty in art. Faced with 19th century impressionistic art they might have had the capacity to extend their view of beauty-in-art to include it. But show any one of them a painting by Picasso or Pollack and few would find any beauty in them as many do today. What has happened here? The capacity of present-day individuals (some of them) to respond to beauty in a wider variety of art forms results from broadening this capacity within the evolving culture. The same holds for truth. There was “more truth” in Newton’s theory of gravity than what came before him, but still more in Einstein’s General Relativity.

For another example lets look at justice, not retributive justice but social justice. We take for granted nowadays that universal (in adults) and equal suffrage with regard to selecting political representatives is good because it is just. Justice, in other words, has goodness. But even in the Earth’s best models for the social evolution of universal suffrage (England and the United States) achieved today’s notion of what is just over several (in England’s case many) generations. At each stage of the evolution, the people who lived in those stages thought of them as just compared with prior stages. The situation in the late 18th Century and early 19th when only adult male property owners had an acknowledged political voice was “more just” than the prior condition when only aristocrats had a say, and that in turn more just than when kings alone made all the rules. Fifty or so years later when all adult males could vote there was yet more justice, more goodness (or at least we think so today), in the arrangement and so on.

Political inclusiveness was just, had goodness, in 1800, 1900, and today when all adults can vote. This is possible because cultural relativity conditioned what was just for that time. What was just in 1800 was good in the same way as it is today, yet what framed its just-ness varied from one age to the next. Philosophy’s inability to reconcile the relativity of value as we find it in the world with its seeming objectivity, the nagging suspicion that it is not, at least, purely relative stems from the philosophical failure to distinguish between what the values are and what has, embodies, or instantiates them in the world. This failure in turn results from philosophy’s rejection of God who would be the only possible source of the values as we know them (truth, beauty, goodness) that could ground their existence independently of minds which discover them.

Unlike the qualia set up by physical senses, values are found in human mind as such. No physical pathway connects an “outside source” of value to its discrimination in mind. Because of this it seems plausible to suppose (most philosophers do suppose) that we just invent the values in the sense that they spring into consciousness out of the froth of mind; they are epiphenomena! Humans all recognize them (some more than others) because human mind-froth is, after all, similar from one brain to the next. While this theory does account for different qualities-of-discrimination in different minds (brains differ), it does not account for some of their objective-like qualities.

Beauty seems to be in or of the sunset. 2+2=4 seems to be mind-independently true, while one can argue that slavery is unjust always even if there was a time when it was a compassionate alternative to murder. In our experience, mind-froth produces many mental states: epiphanies, novel idea combinations, fantasies, and so on that we do not take to be mind-independently real. The values are different in this way. Their mind-independence, unlike fantasies, is controversial. This alone suggests that something different may be going on. Cosmic Mind explains both how it is values are mind-independently real, qualities of God’s character, while present only, and differently felt (brains differ), in human mind.

While not epiphenomena, values themselves, like ideas or qualia, are not causal. Values can however, like the others, be reasons for intentions. Indeed if God exists and the physical universe, consciousness, and the interaction between the two is purposeful, the values must be a linchpin of that purpose. See “Why Free Will” for a further elaboration on this point.

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