What a lovely thing a rose is! There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.
These words come from the finest detective fiction ever produced, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In the middle of the story, “The Naval Treaty,” Holmes breaks out of his interrogation of the client to examine a rose. As he does so, he waxes eloquent about the nature of the flowers. Perhaps Doyle chose to break Holmes into this reverie in order to astonish Watson once again and portray Holmes as a more complex character beside the intellectual.
This may indicate Holmes’ or even Doyle’s interest in Christianity. Nevertheless, it represents a rather intriguing apologetic argument for the existence of God. Coming from Holmes, it seems predicated on logic and deduction. Even so, the argument requires aesthetic evidence.
Let us trace the argument. First, Holmes presupposes Providence, that which we call God. Instead of the existence of God, Holmes wrestles with the goodness of God. We understand why this concerns him. For a detective who regularly sees every evidence of human depravity, he must wonder at the goodness of that providence that permits the world that exists. Thus, the flower.
Second, Holmes presupposes certain corollaries regarding beauty. He deduces that beauty does not meet any of man’s basic necessities or appetites. It would not support his existence what color the flower was or if it was beautiful. Beauty is an extra, unnecessary to sustain human life. Thus, beauty falls into the category of the good. It demonstrates the goodness of the world despite evidence to the contrary. The baseness of man cannot contradict the foundational goodness of the existence of beauty.
Finally, from these two premises, Holmes deduces the goodness of Providence. Follow the summary. Providence ordained the world that exists. That world includes beauty. Beauty demonstrates a fundamental good not contradicted by human baseness. Thus, Providence must be good.
We may also use this argument not merely to defend the goodness of Providence, but also the existence of Providence or God. The competing explanation for existence limit itself to matter in motion. (or chance) If so, the evolutionary process struggles to explain beauty. In any explanation that limits itself to naturalistic reasoning, it cannot resort to any aesthetic evidence. You can explain the color or shape of the rose by mathematics and evolutionary adaptation to the attraction of insects for the purpose of pollination. This makes logical sense, but cannot explain human attraction. Why should evolutionary adaptation encourage a larger being to kill (pick) the organism?
Let’s take another example. Why do people go outside and gaze dumbfounded at the stars? Turn away from the evolutionary explanation of the stars and ask why evolution would cause us to look up with wonder. We might explain that man has habituated himself to that which is larger than he, but that has not explained the aesthetic reality. What is that thing in us and where did it come from? True, it does not provide positive proof of the existence of God, but the defeat the only other communicated proof leaves the original reason the only one that explains the data.
This is the remarkable feature of Holmes’ argument, the combination of the logical and the aesthetic, the right and left brain. This is only the beginning of the discussion. We must look plainly at the weaknesses of Holmes’ argument advanced by his detractors. We must understand what those arguments say, not about the evidence but about the person advancing them. We must struggle with our tendency to limit our own understanding. We will then wrestle with the mystery of beauty. Finally, we will examine the apologetic repercussions of beauty.