6.2.1 Teleological Arguments for the Existence of God


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • What is meant by a “teleological” argument for the existence of God.
  • Strengths and weaknesses of the teleological argument.

Teleological arguments suggest that the seeming order and purposefulness of the natural universe suggests the existence of a “designer.”

Intelligent Design: Crash Course Philosophy #11

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“Telos” is Greek for “purpose” or “goal,” and the teleological argument takes as its starting point the appearance of purpose or design in the world. If there is design, there must be a designer. This is an ancient and cross-cultural idea, appearing in classical Hindu thought … and in the Psalms: “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord, and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

The Teleological Argument rests on an analogy. It says that the apparent complex design in the universe is comparable to the complex design of something like a watch.

A photograph of the insides of an antique pocket watch.
A photograph of the insides of an antique pocket watch

An influential formulation comes from William Paley (1743-1805). In Natural Theology, Paley offers numerous instances of apparent design, focusing primarily on biological organisms. Paley argues that organisms are analogous to human-created artifacts in that they involve a complex arrangement of parts that serve some useful function, where even slight alterations in the complex arrangement would mean that the useful function was no longer served. An eye, like a watch, evidently serves a useful function. The function is only achieved by a very complex arrangement of parts, which in turn serve various sub-functions, all ordered towards the higher function. Had this arrangement been different in any minute detail, the eye would not successfully serve its higher function. To explain this feature of the eye, we should, in an analogy with the watch, refer to a designing mind’s activity, rather than the blind play of causal forces. As we are to the watch, so God is to the eye. To Paley, God is a powerful and simple hypothesis that must be invoked to explain the design resplendent in nature (Paley 1802).

Formulations of the teleological argument like Paley’s have been subjected to searching criticisms, not least by David Hume (1711-1776). In his fabulously written Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume questions how close the analogy of design really is. For example, we produce artifacts by acting on pre-existing materials, but God is supposed to create from nothing. Most artifacts have a purpose that is evident to us, but God’s purpose in having created this or that creature, or the world at all, is unclear. We have seen artifacts being manufactured on many occasions, but never an organism, or the world. Even granting unequivocally that there is design in the world, we would not be justified in inferring God to explain it. Hume notes that artifacts are usually the result of collaboration by many people. Nor is there any connection between the qualities of an artifact and the qualities of its designer; one need not be a giant to build a skyscraper or be beautiful to make a beautiful painting. So, the design in the world need not be the design of one being or an especially exalted being. Rather, the evidence of design is equally consistent with the hypothesis of polytheism (Hume 1779). Perhaps as devastating for Paley’s formulation, Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution by natural selection is widely taken to show that the complex arrangement of parts and the functions of the parts of organisms can be accounted for without reference to a designing mind. The appearance of design is merely appearance; the analogy between artifacts and organisms is a misleading one. God is an obsolete hypothesis so far as the explanation of these phenomena is concerned. A distinct minority, the proponents of “Intelligent Design” contest this claim by offering examples of biological phenomena that supposedly cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution…. Barbara Forest argues that “Intelligent Design” theories lack a serious methodology, given that they invoke miraculous intervention in an unprincipled way to explain various phenomena….

However, teleological arguments continue to thrive in other forms. One line of thinking is the fine-tuning argument. Our universe seems to be governed by a batch of laws of nature—e.g., gravity, the strong nuclear force. It seems possible that these laws of nature could have been different in an unfathomable number of ways—e.g., we can conceive gravity as a billion times stronger than it is, or a billion times weaker. It seems that most of the ways that the laws of nature could have been would not allow for embodied moral agents (or, more broadly, life) by not allowing for the emergence of complex matter. Now, arguably God is a being who wishes there to be embodied moral agents. So, if there is a God, this predicts a universe with laws of nature that allow for the emergence of embodied moral agents, laws that are finely tuned for such a purpose. By contrast, if there is no God there is no particular reason to predict that the laws of nature will be like this. Our universe seems to be one with laws that allow for embodied moral agents. Therefore, our universe is more consistent with the theistic hypothesis, so probably God exists. Finally, putting aside the fine-tuning of the physical laws we enjoy, Richard Swinburne contends that the fact that our universe is governed by laws at all, rather than being chaotic, is something that demands a design-based explanation….

Ponder if you will…

There is an ongoing debate among scholars regarding whether God created the universe ex nihilo (from nothing) or brought order to an already existing chaos (ex materia).

At first glance, this debate may seem somewhat trivial, but it has significance for arguments like the Teleological and Cosmological arguments, as well as the Problem of Evil.

Some problems with the concept of creation ex nihilo include:

  • There is no evidence that the universe came from nothing.
  • We cannot conceive of nothingness.
  • It is not supported by scriptures. For example, Genesis, 2 Peter, and some Psalms suggest creation ex materia (from the material).
  • David Hume’s critique of the Teleological argument assumes creation ex nihilo.

What if creation ex nihilo is a faulty assumption?

How would creation ex materia change the Teleological and Cosmological arguments?

Whether such arguments really identify phenomena that stand in need of a special explanation, and whether the explanations they offer are vulnerable to being supplanted by non-theistic alternatives, is a matter of ongoing debate

(Hunt, Marcus William, in Branson, Introduction to Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Chapter 2: Reasons to Believe–Theoretical Arguments).

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Teleological Argument

There are many examples of how our world seems to be designed in such a way that it works according to a blueprint. For example,  trees take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen; the earth is uniquely placed in the solar system so that it can support life – not too close to the sun that we burn up, not too far from the sun that we freeze. It’s hard for many to imagine these as the outcome of mere chance.

The design argument uses analogies that are familiar to everyone, to make it both simple and persuasive.

Some have argued that the statistical probability of something like human life occurring in the universe is so high that its creation must have been intentional. Others have argued that an organ like the human eye is so complex that it could never have occurred as a random development in nature.

On the other hand, complexity does not necessarily imply design. Darwin’s theory of evolution can, it may be argued, explain the way the universe currently is by recognizing natural forces of selection without a blueprint or designer.

Hume was right to remind us that our sample size is too small. With only our known corner of the universe to study, we may be making assumptions that are too large. What if the universe operates differently in other galaxies? What if there are other universes that operate on principles completely different from this one?

And designed for whom? Many teleological arguments are anthropocentric, meaning that they focus on how the universe seems to accommodate human existence. However, not only may this view be challenged based upon the human condition–a more perfect designer would not likely have given us an appendix or a body that degenerates and dies—but also, based on the observation that human beings are but one species of a multitude of creatures (perhaps even creatures in a multitude of solar systems), the apparent design of the universe may not be as compatible with non-human beings.


Works Cited

CrashCourse. Intelligent Design: Crash Course Philosophy #11. YouTube, YouTube, 25 Apr. 2016, https://youtu.be/7e9v_fsZB6A. Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.

Hunt, Marcus William. “Chapter 2: Reasons to Believe – Theoretical Arguments.” Introduction to Philosophy Philosophy of Religion, Rebus Community, 11 Dec. 2020, https://press.rebus.community/intro-to-phil-of-religion/chapter/reasons-to-believe-theoretical-arguments/.

Prunk. “Zenith Pocket Watch Inside.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 10 Oct. 2010, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zenith_pocket_watch_inside.jpg. Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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