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Peonies, Butterflies and Design

How Aesthetic Recognition and Intelligibility are Evidence for Design


Henry Ford's Peony Garden

Not far from where I live is the Henry Ford Estate. In the yard across from the mansion to the NW is a beautiful flower garden in an otherwise open space. It was designed in the 40s for Clara Ford by their gardener Jens Jansen and covers an area about 50x50ft.  There are two interesting things about this garden. First, it’s a peony garden, a type of perennial whose flowers resemble roses (with no thorns).  These days there are only peonies in the garden that come up every summer with minimal tending or none at all.  The second thing is more relevant: the garden is in the shape of a giant butterfly.  But nobody ever had to tell me that, I recognized it as a butterfly the first time I saw it.  Does that surprise you?  Of course not. 

You know in your mind that you would recognize it too, and most people would (but no animals would).  Similar to the kinds of features we readily identify, this garden has certain features which are complementary to our powers of visual recognition and reveal to the observer things about its nature.  Aside from the kind of flowers in it (which might be telling) I think it there are three, the shape and the symmetry. That is to say, the shape of this garden is one we ordinarily do not see in untended nature, even if we do find patches of peonies in some places.  Indeed, the curves seem way too perfect for a patch of any kind of flowers in nature (which we would not call a garden at all). Although we have not seen all flower patches in the world, inductive reason allows us to know that natural, uncultivated patches of flowers do not have such well-defined curves and do not exhibit elements of recognizable design.  Among other things the edges of a flower patch are always random and variegated.  Second, the two sides of the entire shape are perfectly symmetrical to each other.  Now, we do find symmetry is nature, but only in some things, not in uncultivated flower patches.  Third, the entire shape of this flower “patch” closely resembles the shape of a generic insect we know as butterfly, or moth. 


Because we have a mental image of such an insect stored in our brains we can instantly recognize and associate the shape of this garden with the insect.  This is a visual function of reason that is amazing to me.  Because we have all seen one or many insects like this the mind stores a mental image of its distinctive body plan, and we intuitively group all insects that have this body plan into the category of butterfly/moth.  Thereafter, when we see any insect with this basic body plan we know it as some type of butterfly/moth.  Further, once we learn certain facts about them (e.g. their unique way of morphing from caterpillar to winged insect by way of the crysalis) we rationally infer by inductive logic that every one we see possesses these same developmental characteristics.  We also rationally distinguish other winged insects such as the dragonfly from this particular category. 

Because its basic body plan is different, a dragonfly is not in the butterfly/moth category.  But that’s not all.  When the basic visual features of the living insect are represented in non-living images or models of this insect with this body plan, such as the peony garden, the rational function of the mind enables us to associate them with the actual insect category.  When asked to identify the image/model we normally and casually call it a butterfly.  But the rational mind also gives us the power of visual differentiation.  We know the peony garden, or pictures or plastic toys, are not real butterflies because the mind easily distinguishes the mere representative features of the butterfly-like things from those of the real insect by virtue of “visual reason”.  Again, this is amazing.  The very same functions apply to a great many things in human experience, without which life as we know it would be impossible.  This is yet another aspect of intelligibility.


The visual features of the Jansen peony garden immediately tell us that that this is not just a natural flower patch; it is a garden, designed and cultivated by an intelligent being—a human, not by any other creature.  It was designed deliberately, not by chance, to resemble the contours of a butterfly to be immediately recognized as such by other humans, not animals.  That is to say, humans design most things for other humans, especially things with recognizable aesthetic qualities.  We do so with the full expectation that our aesthetic designs will be intelligible to other intelligent beings that can recognize, appreciate, understand and enjoy them as such.  Therefore, when we see something with obvious design (especially with aspects of beauty) we know with near certainty that it is the product of an intelligent mind with an artistic flare for the pleasure of human beholders that can recognize and appreciate the beauty and forethought of its design.  It does not matter to us if we never see the gardener.  We do not need to. The Jansen peony garden, because of its artistically designed features, is intelligible to us by virtue of the same kind of reason that exists in all of Reality, what I call “rational complementarianism”. 

Point: Aesthetic Intelligibility is a product of Rational Intelligence for beings with rational intelligence. The fact of intelligibility in general is a defining axiom of Reality.  Reason and logic work because of this axiom, and only because of it.  So fundamental to our Reality is this axiom that we presuppose it as a priori in every aspect of life and in every discipline, for we must. This is the Logos principle.  

Consider the words of former pope Joseph Ratzinger:

"Finite being is marked through and through by intelligibility, that is to say, by a formal structure that makes it understandable to the inquiring mind.  In point of fact, all the sciences—physics, chemistry, psychology, astronomy, biology…rest on the assumption that at all levels design can be known…The only finally satisfying explanation for universal, objective intelligibility is a great Intelligence who has thought the universe into being." 

"In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. …And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."  

Bible, Gospel of John, vv. 1-4;14  ESV

*This post was condensed from a slightly longer, chapter-length version which is the last chapter of my self-published book called The Logos Principle: The Reason of Reason.  It can be found here:

Scott Cherry

  • 8 August 2016
  • Author: Scott Cherry
  • Number of views: 2399
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Categories: PhilosophyDearborn
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