F. R. Tennant’s Arguments for God from Intelligibility and Aesthetics

Frederick Robert Tennant (1866-1957), a philosophical theologian and apologist with keen interests in science and religion, authored Philosophical Theology (1928) and offered two arguments that have been considered worthy of consideration (1). 

Tennant believed that the argument from design offered by William Paley (1743-1805) could no longer be held or justified in light of Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution. But Tennant was far more interested in the evolution of the cosmos and conceded that Darwin’s theory of evolution accounted for apparent design in biological organisms as a result of natural selection. Tennant thus turned to present other arguments for God, this time from the intelligibility of the universe and our aesthetic awareness. 

The argument from the intelligibility of the universe affirms that (i) the universe is intelligible and (ii) we are intelligent enough to understand many things about the universe. However, as Tennant argues, the universe need not have turned out this way and we can easily think of other alternatives:

  1. It could have been that the universe was so different from how it is presently that it was unintelligible to us.
  2. It could have been that the universe was as it is now but that we were not intelligent enough to understand it.
  3. It could have been that the universe was unintelligible and that it contained no intelligent creatures. 

The claim is that these three scenarios are not only conceivable but would not be unlikely should the universe be the product of blind, mindless forces. By contrast, what we see, Tennant claims, is directivity in the cosmic process. Tennant thinks such a universe highly unlikely: “Presumably the world is comparable with a single throw of dice.”

However, from random, mindless processes we should not expect the kind of steady progress in complexity that we see in the history of the cosmos. Instead, the history of the universe, from the Big Bang up till the present, strongly suggests that its development from one level to another has been under the guidance of an intelligent being. Not only does the intelligibility of the universe point in the direction of a designer, but so does the universe’s cosmic evolution. The intelligible universe we experience now using our intelligence seems likely if it was created by an intelligent being or creator. 

Tennant offers a second argument from beauty and aesthetics. Tennant claims that the universe is full of beauty that we are capable of appreciating. But does this not also point to an intelligent creator who made things this way? Tennant thinks so writing that “the case for theism is strengthened by aesthetic considerations”. Consider the alternative and conceivable possibilities:

  1. It could have been the case that our aesthetic sensitivities were exactly as they are now but that the universe was devoid of beauty.
  2. It could have been the case that the universe contained all the beauty that it now contains but that we were incapable of appreciating it.
  3. It could have been the case that there was no beauty in the universe and no one capable of enjoying beauty.

Again, any of these three conceivable possibilities would not be surprising in a universe created by blind, mindless forces. But a fourth possibility exists and this is that we would expect the universe to have been created by a supreme being who appreciates beauty and wanted to make it possible for others to enjoy and treasure it too.

For Tennant, these provide good reason to think that God exists and that the universe was created by a powerful, intelligent, aesthetically sensitive being, and is not the product of mindless, insensitive forces. In both cases, the universe that does exist is one that it is plausible to think a supreme being would create. Tennant saw these arguments for God not as “rational and coercive demonstration” but rather “grounds for reasonable belief”.

References

1. Creel, Richard. 2013. Philosophy of Religion: The Basics. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. p. 110-118. 

Hick, John. 2006. “Tennant, Frederick Robert (1866–1957).” Encyclopedia of Philosophy 9(2):392-394.

2 comments

  1. The argument Tennant makes rings true with my current perspective about the world. I currently visited Masai Mara in Kenya Africa, and was amazed by everything I saw. My mind kept telling me that all the animals, with different coats and colors, must have been designed by a master artist and designer.

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