The Teleological Argument (The Argument from Design)



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The Teleological Argument

(The Argument from Design)
The world is an intricate mechanism whose parts are extremely well “fine-tuned” to one another to function together in a harmonious way. Every mechanism (e.g., a watch) is a product of an intelligent designer (a watchmaker). Consequently, the world is the product of Intelligent Designer.


  • Aquinas’s “Fifth Way”

  • British “natural theology” (1700-1800’s): William Paley (1743-1805)

  • Contemporary physics and cosmology

We can distinguish two kinds of design arguments. They are global design arguments and local design arguments.

A global design argument cites some general feature of the whole universe and argues that this feature should be explained by the hypothesis that it the product of intelligent design. And example would be the argument that proposes to explain why the laws of nature are quite simple. Newton himself argued that the simplicity of natural laws is evidence there exists an intelligent and perfect God who was their author.

A local design argument focuses on a more specific feature of the universe and claims the hypothesis that God exists is the best or the only plausible explanation of that fact. An example would be the argument that concerns features of the organisms we observe on Earth.




  • Early evidence: organisms have the ability to modify their behavior so that they can survive and reproduce (adaptations in living nature).

Explanation: organisms are goal-directed systems. They act for an end because they have desires; these desires represent the ends of purposes or goals to which behavior is directed.


  • Is it true in living nature in general?

Human beings are capable of goal-directed behavior because they have minds. Non-human organisms (even bacteria), which evidently do not have beliefs and desires, do have the goal of surviving and reproducing. They are able to modify their behavior to achieve these ends.




  • Non-living nature?

Aquinas and others followed Aristotle in thinking that even inanimate objects like rocks and comets have goals. According this position, everything, whether it is living or not, should be understood teleologically - that is, as a goal-directed system.


However, notice that the design argument can be formulated either by saying that all objects are goal-directed or by saying that some objects without minds are goal-directed.

Paley's Design argument
Paley's most striking formulation of the design argument goes like this:

Suppose you were walking on a beach and found a watch that lay on the sand. Opening it up, you see it is an intricate piece of machinery. You see the machinery is complex; the parts work together to allow the hands to measure out equal intervals of time with considerable precision. What could explain the existence and characteristics of this object?


H1: By the random action of the waves on the

sand, a watch was accidentally produced.


H2: The watch exists because there was a

watchmaker who produced it.


O: A watch that was found is an intricate piece

of machinery; the machinery is complex; the parts work together to allow the hands to measure out equal intervals of time with considerable precision.


H1 (call it The Random Hypothesis) is possible, but not very plausible. H2 (The Design Hypothesis) is more plausible. If there were a Designer at work, then it would not be surprising that an intricate watch should be found on the beach. If, however, the only process at work were waves pounding on sand, then it would be enormously surprising that a watch should be found.

The observed watch is possible, according to either hypothesis. But it is rather probable according to one, and vastly improbable according to the other. In preferring the Design Hypothesis, we prefer the hypothesis that strains our credulity less.


The Surprise Principle says that O strongly favors H2 over H1 if H2 says that O is very probable while H1 says that O is quite improbable. O would unsurprising if H2 were true, but O would be very surprising if H1 were true.
So what we naturally infer here is:

(1) the existence of a watchmaker

(2) the watchmaker's characteristics: the designer must have been fairly intelligent to produce an object of such intricacy

(3) the watchmaker must have had an intelligence at least on the order of human intelligence, given the features of the watch we observe.


The Analogy: the living world is filled with organisms that are extremely intricate and adapted. Organisms are far more complicated than watches. And as well suited as a watch is to the task of measuring time, organisms are even better suited to the tasks of surviving and reproducing.
How can we explain the fact that organisms so amazingly intricate and adapted? Using analogy we can have two hypotheses: the Random Hypothesis and the Design Hypothesis.
H1: Life, living being including people came

into existence by a process akin to waves pounding on sand.



H2: The impressive pieces of machinery that we

call living things were made by an organism maker of considerable intelligence.



H1 is not very plausible. It says that existence of intricate and adapted organisms is very improbable (By analogy with the argument about the watch). H2 is more plausible (by analogy). On this way we inferred the existence of a designer of all life.
Finally, by the same reasoning like in case with watch (and watchmaker), we can infer that the maker of organisms must be far more intelligent than human beings are.
Paley: the intricacy and adaptedness of organisms are best explained by postulating the existence of an extremely intelligent designer, who goes by name God.

In Natural Theology (1836) Paley attempts to establish the existence and nature of God by the methods used in the natural sciences - observation and reasoning. He insists that eye is adapted to seeing and its parts cooperate in complex ways to produce sight. This suggests an analogy between such biological systems and human artifacts, which are known to be products of intelligent design.


Spelled out in mechanical terms, the analogy ground the claim that the world as a whole is like a vast machine composed of many smaller machines. Machines are contrived by intelligent human designers. Since like effects have like causes, the world as a whole and many of its parts are therefore probably products of design by an intelligence resembling the human but greater in proportion to the magnitude of its effects.

Contemporary Design Arguments.

  • The Anthropic Cosmological Principle: Laws of nature and physical characteristics of the observable universe are constrained by the fact that they must be compatible with the existence of “observers” in the sense that a slight departure of any of them from its actual form or value would render the existence of complex material structures in the world (and, consequently, of human beings capable of observing the universe) physically impossible.




  • A design argument based on the Anthropic Principle: Laws of nature and physical characteristics of the observable universe are part of an overall Divine Design.

The Teleological Argument

(in formal outline)
1. All mechanisms are products of intelligent designers.

2. The world is a mechanism.

3. The world is the product of an intelligent designer.

4. Given the complexity of the world, only God will do as its Designer.



Critical Reflections

  • The argument crucially depends on drawing the analogy between the world and the products of human contrivance, in particular, those having a machine-like structure.

  • “The world is a mechanism”? From the resemblance of effects to the resemblance of causes.

  • Arguments “by analogy” and their pitfalls.

  • Are we in a position to draw an analogy, required for the Teleological Argument, between the world as a whole and the products of human design?



Arguments by analogy argue from one specific case or example to another example, reasoning that because the two examples are alike in many ways they are also alike in one father specific way.
Analogy requires a relevantly similar example.
One famous argument uses an analogy to try to establish the existence of a Creator of the world. We can infer the existence of a Creator from the order and beauty of the world, this argument claims, just as we can infer the existence of an architect or carpenter when we see a beautiful and well-built house.
Spelled out in premise-and-conclusion form:
Beautiful and well-built houses must have "makers": intelligent designers and builders.

The world is like a beautiful and well-built house.



Therefore, the world must also have a "maker": an intelligent Designer and Builder, God.
It is the similarity of the world to one example, a house, which the argument wishes to stress.

Is the world really relevantly similar to a house?
It is not so clear. We know quite a bit about the causes of houses. But houses are parts of nature. We know very little, actually, about the structure of nature as a whole, or about what sort of causes it might be expected to have.


  • Hume’s objections:

David Hume (1711-1776) subjected the design argument to sustained criticism in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Discussing the argument about houses he asked:
Is a part of nature a rule for the whole? ... Think (of how) wide a step you have taken when you compared houses ... to the universe, and from there similarity in some circumstances inferred a similarity in their causes. ... Does not the great disproportion bar all comparison and inference?
The world is different from a house in at least this: a house is part of a larger whole, the world, while the world itself (the universe) is the largest of wholes. Thus Hume suggests that the universe is not relevantly similar to a house. Houses indeed imply "Makers" beyond themselves, but - as far as we know - the universe as a whole may contain its cause within itself. This analogy, then makes a poor argument.


  • Hume’s objections to Design Argument (summary):




  • We don’t have access to the working of the world as a whole. We only have access to a tiny part of it at a late stage of its development. How can we say anything about the huge whole and its origin? What if the world has a certain principle of development within itself? What if the current state of the world is a result of a long series of “trials and errors”?




  • The universe is unique. There is no other universe with which to compare this one. But we need to compare in order to see whether our universe is of a certain kind, namely, the “machine-like” kind, or of the kind of things that develop on their own.




  • Resemblance of effects does not always imply the resemblance of causes.







  • Another strategy is no admit tentatively its validity and to accept that the author of nature is much like human designers. If so, one immediately gets into another difficulty: human designers are not very much like God. This casts doubt on step 4 of the argument: “Given the complexity of the world, only God will do as its Designer.”




  • Anthropomorphic image of God:




  • “By this method of reasoning you renounce all claim to infinity in any of the attributes of the Deity.”

  • “You have no reason, on your theory, for ascribing perfection to the Deity, even in his finite capacity; or for supposing him free from every error, mistake, or incoherence, in his undertakings.” The world is manifestly imperfect.

  • Even if the world is perfect, “it must still remain uncertain whether all the excellencies of the work can justly be ascribed to the workman. . . Many worlds might have been botched and bungled . . .”

  • The unity of God?

  • “Men are mortal, and renew their species by generation...” Why not be completely anthropomorphic?

  • Hume’s (Philo’s) conclusion: this image of God is hardly preferable to none at all.




  • Summary:

Hume think that the Design argument warrants only the very weak conclusion that the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence. As this way of putting it indicates, the argument does not rule out polytheism. Moreover, the analogy with human artificers suggests that the designer or designers of the universe did not create it from nothing but merely imposed order on already existing matter. And on account of the mixture of good and evil in the universe, the argument does not show that the designer or designers are morally admirable enough to deserve obedience or worship.
Since the time of Hume, the Design argument has been father undermined by the emergence of Darwinian explanations of biological adaptations in terms of natural selection that give explanations of such adaptations in terms of intelligent design stiff competition.


  • More on Darwinism and the modern theory on evolution, stemming from Charles Darwin's (1809-1882) ideas is to find in Lecture 6 of the textbook.


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