The Argument from Ugliness

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Kinkade Disney BambiThe theistic argument from beauty is an instance of a broader class of arguments for God’s existence known as teleological arguments. The basic form of this kind of argument is as follows:

1. The universe (or parts of it) exhibit property X.

2. Property X is usually (if not always) brought about by the purposive actions of those who created objects for them to be X.

3. The cases mentioned in Premise 1 are not explained (or fully explained) by human action or non-intentional events internal to the universe.

4. Therefore: The universe is (likely) the product of a purposive agent who created it to be X, namely God.

The variety of teleological arguments is as broad the range of properties one can reasonably substitute for X. Traditional teleological arguments plug in for X the claim that some feature of the universe is fine-tuned for life, or that the universe has whatever is required in order to support creatures capable of consciousness, or moral responsibility. The argument from beauty, by contrast, begins from the premise that the universe exhibits beauty. This, the argument runs, entails that the universe must have been created by God, and thus that God exists. But teleological arguments have what we call evil twins. These are arguments that are teleological in structure, but proceed from premises concerning the imperfection or nastiness of the universe to the conclusion that there is no God. The universe, after all, is a mixed bag. Thus, for every theistic argument from, say, fine-tuning, there’s an atheistic challenge beginning from the observation that precious little of the universe is inhabitable and that living creatures are actually poorly designed. Similarly, for every theistic argument from consciousness, there’s an opposing atheistic argument that contends that consciousness deeply flawed and in any case not much of a boon. And for every theistic argument from the fact of moral responsibility, there’s an atheistic argument from immorality. This is what we call the evil twin problem: if theists contend that teleological arguments are valid in their logical form, then they must confront the atheist versions.

Here we will pose the evil twin problem for the argument from beauty: the argument from ugliness.

The theistic argument from beauty has been around at least since Hesiod, who explains the grandeur of the world as a product of Gaia and Ouranos’ love. Plato, too, invokes the divine to account for beauty in the Symposium. Augustine gives an explicit version of the argument in his Confessions: We look upon the heavens and earth, and they cry aloud that they were made. . . . It was You, Lord, who made them: for You are beautiful, and they are beautiful; You are good, and they are good: You are, and they are. (XI. 4) In the twentieth century, F.R. Tennant proposed a version of the argument, noting that the world is “saturat[ed]” with beauty (1930:91). He continued, “Nature is sublime or beautiful, and the exceptions do not but prove the rule” (1930, 91-2). Nature, Tennant then infers, must be the product of a mind with the purpose of aesthetic fulfillment, intent on producing something beautiful. Mark Wynn, extending Tennant’s line of thought, notes that: Most believers, it seems to me, are more likely to be impressed by the beauty of nature, when considering whether the world answers to providential purpose, than by mere regularity or order. (1999: 15) Wynn, however, is modest about how much the case from beauty can actually prove; he holds that it cannot be “persuasive in isolation from other [theistic] arguments” (1999: 36). Nonetheless, Wynn does take it to be a positive case. Finally, Richard Swinburne holds that “God has a reason to create a beautiful inanimate world – that is, a beautiful physical universe” (2004: 121). Swinburne claims that God, being the source of good, will be instrumental in producing as much good in as many varieties as possible. So, he reasons, if God creates a universe, it will be beautiful. Since the universe is beautiful (and a universe without a creative god would likely not be quite as beautiful as this one), we therefore have reason to believe that God exists and has aesthetic values (2004: 190).

Again, the general problem for theistic teleological arguments is that the world is a mixed bag. Yes, there is order, pleasure, goodwill, and beauty aplenty. But there’s also disorder, suffering, hate, and ugliness. Now, if we are reasoning from effects to a cause, then the cause of the mixed-bag universe must be a mixed bag as well. But God can’t be a mixed bag. You get the idea. Like the argument from beauty, the argument from ugliness proceeds from a few key cases. Consider terrible art. We have some in mind, for example songs by the 1980s rock group Ratt and Thomas Kinkade paintings. They are schlocky and stupid, things merely to endure. Yet these are human products. So consider instead the harsh call of crows, or the unsightly leaking of sap from a splintered tree limb. Or take the human form and the insipid and unwieldy elbow – even the most graceful can only but manage its awkwardly hinged angularity. The anglerfish of the deep and the aruana of the Amazon are hideous creatures, and spiders are so awful, it is hard for many to contain themselves when up close to them. In addition, there are sticky and stinky swamps, boring groupings of trees, misplaced shrubbery, and intermittent villages filled with sticky and stinky children. Yuck. A friend of ours recently stopped smoking, and he remarked that, as an unfortunate consequence, his sense of smell had returned: “Most of the smells in the world are disgusting.” And, of course, there’s also vomit, puss, bile, phlegm, and feces. The world is tolerable only in small and selective doses, or perhaps from very far away. Why so much ugliness? Is it that there’s a God who has inverted aesthetic sensibilities and wishes to impress them upon us? Is God ugly and so causes earthly ugliness? The argument from beauty contends that since there is beauty in the world there must be a God who is beautiful or prefers beautiful things. By similar reasoning, one might conclude that God either is ugly or likes ugliness. But there’s a third possibility: Perhaps God created such an ugly world because he hates us. Consequently, given the amount of ugliness in the world, we have reason to believe that God either is ugly, likes ugliness, or hates us and torments us with ugliness. However, given that God must be a perfect unity of all good things, a being that either is ugly, likes ugliness, or inflicts ugliness on others cannot be God. Therefore there is no God.