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The Argument Back to Top

The Teleological Argument (also popularly known as the Argument from Design) is perhaps the most popular argument for the existence of God today. It suggests that the order and complexity in the world implies a being that created it with a specific purpose (such as the creation of life) in mind.

The universe is an astoundingly complex but highly ordered system, and the world appears fine-tuned to provide exactly the right conditions for the development and sustenance of life. Proponents of the Argument from Design argue that to say that the universe (and complex natural objects within it, such as the eye or the brain) is so ordered by chance is unsatisfactory as an explanation of the appearance of design around us, and that this implies the existence of a divine Being capable of designing, creating and ordering such complex sytems.

The 13th Century medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas was perhaps the most famous subscriber to this argument, but the most cited statement of the argument is that of William Paley in the 18th Century who likened the universe to a watch, with many ordered parts working in harmony to further some purpose. Paley’s analogy asserted that if someone found a watch on a beach they would never conclude that it had been produced by any means other than intelligent design and purpose. In the same way, he continued, a system as complex as nature can only have been created by a process of deliberate purposeful design by a master designer, God.

The more recent concept of Intelligent Design and the idea of a Fine-Tuned Universe are attempts to couch the Argument from Design in more up-to-date scientific terms, and they are considered under a separate heading.

The Refutation Back to Top

In the 18th Century, David Hume counter-argued against the Argument from Design by pointing out that, although we know that man-made structures were designed because we have seen them being built, the analogy does not necessarily hold for non-man-made structures. For the analogy to hold, the theist must be able to demonstrate that natural objects in the universe (such as trees, rocks and humans) were manufactured in some way. This in turn requires the demonstration of the existence of an intelligent designer, the very thing the argument purports to be trying to prove.
To say, that all this order in animals and vegetables proceeds ultimately from design, is begging the question.
- David Hume (1779)

In fact, our ability to recognize design depends on our ability to discern characteristics that are not found in nature, and designed objects such as watches and airplanes stand in stark contradistinction to the characteristics of natural objects such as rocks and trees. When we see a watch, we may look for a watchmaker, but when we see a dog, it does not follow that we would look for a dog-maker, because we know that dogs are produced through the well-understood natural processes of mammalian reproduction. Proof of design cannot therefore be produced within the context of nature itself.

Hume also pointed out that certain phenomena and events in the world (e.g. natural disasters, diseases, etc) suggest that God did not do a very good job of designing the universe, which rather belies the concept of a perfect being. He asked what can God’s purpose have been in designing the micro-organisms that cause malaria, polio, typhoid, cholera, syphilis, AIDS, etc? Are these merely trials deliberately sent to test us in some way?

Others, who reject the argument in its entirety, dispute whether the order and complexity in the universe does in fact constitute design. There is no prima facie reason to conclude that the existence of various aspects of nature could only come about through the design and purpose of some kind of intelligence. The mere fact that something is enormously improbable does not by itself give us reason to conclude that it occurred by design. Indeed, an orderly universe is precisely one in which there is no need, and no room, for God.

Certainly, there is no justification for answering one mystery with an even greater mystery (see the Argument from Ignorance). If the initial problem is one of explaining statistical improbability, it is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. Furthermore, a lack of evidence for one view does not of itself constitute proof of the correctness of another view.

If a design has to have a purpose - and identifying a purpose seems to be essential to recognizing design - then we need to know the intentions of the designer. But, before we can know God's intentions, we must first prove that he exists, so it is necessary to begin by assuming as true the very thing in question, the existence of God (a fallacy known in logic as “begging the question”).

The argument also begs the question of how, if orderliness in the universe requires the existence and intervention of God, God’s mind itself can be orderly. Was God’s mind created by an even greater God? Certainly, to say that God’s mind is in some way self-explanatory or necessarily existing begs the same questions already refuted in the Cosmological Argument. Insisting that it is just a brute or ultimate fact is unjustifiable, and the same claim could be equally made for material orderliness.

Order appears to be an inherent characteristic of the universe itself, and the assumption that a god of some sort is needed to impose the order is unwarranted and indefensible. Additionally, order and complexity are very much dependent on subjective judgments: where one person may see order, another may see chaos; where one person may see indecipherable complexity, another may see elegant simplicity.

The implicit assumption in the Argument from Design is that we humans are somehow the purpose of the universe, rather than ants or bacteria or star systems or black holes, and that we are not in fact just some irrelevant and rather unfortunate by-product. This in itself seems an unlikely scenario and certainly an unjustifiable conjecture.

The theist argues that, when blind chance operates, there are billions of different possible combinations of atoms that could come into being and, if out of all those billions the one successful one that we see occurs, then it must have been the result of divine interference. However, we should be very wary of jumping to the conclusion that the existence of a galaxy or of an eye, for example, is a planned event just because it is statistically improbable. Winning the lottery is statistically improbable, but someone wins it almost every week.

The spontaneous origin of life on Earth, for example, may have been improbable, but it only had to occur once. Indeed, in the billions of galaxies throughout the immense reaches of the known universe, over a period of billions of years, it would be extremely unlikely if such an unlikely event did not occur. Even if the odds against it were billions to one, that would still point to life arising in billions of planets throughout the universe. In fact, it is quite possible that it occurred several times independently on the very early Earth, when conditions finally became propitious.

The Earth is located in the so-called Goldilocks zone (not too hot, not too cold, just right) for the development of life, in a largely circular orbit around a single sun, with a relatively large moon to stabilize its axis of rotation. These are all improbable coincidences, as creationists are quick to point out, but do not point to anything other than chance, and such coincidences are statistically likely to occur many, many times throughout the universe.
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.
- Charles Darwin (1860)

By far the most conclusive counter-argument to the Argument from Design, though, is evolutionary theory (or Darwinism), which convincingly explains the appearance of biological design in nature. Scientists have shown how the spontaneous chemical origin of life is compatible with certain natural laws. By appeal to mutations and natural selection, they have also explained the mechanisms by which life developed from simple to complex, and how it continues to develop and evolve to this day. It is one of the most extensively and rigorously tested scientific theories of all time, and has held up well under testing, and, with the benefit of more advanced scientific techniques, many of its early predictions have since been proven correct.

The important factor introduced by evolutionary theory is that blind chance is NOT the only alternative to divine design, as creationist literature usually claims. The real alternative is the cumulative process of natural selection, a self-contained and comprehensive solution which makes more sense than the random proliferation of yet another level of unexplained phenomena and which obviates the need to then consider who designed the designer.

It seems strange to speak of present conditions as designed when these conditions differ, sometimes radically, from those of the distant past, and are in constant transition under the evolutionary forces of mutation and natural selection. The Argument from Design is forced to assume that all parts of a complex system must always have functioned expressly as they do today. Otherwise, it would imply a designer who is always at work adjusting or fine-tuning his creations, which were presumably faulty to begin with. The theory of evolution gives a much more convincing explanation of the constantly unfolding changes observed by science, and provides a workable and testable explanation of how complexity arose from simplicity.

Although science would never claim to understand everything about how the universe was created and how it works, we certainly understand much more than we did five hundred years ago (or even a hundred), and phenomena which then seemed miraculous turn out to have rather mundane scientific and natural causes and mechanisms. While we may never completely understand the workings of the universe, it seems likely that we will continue to progress in explaining apparently unexplainable things.

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