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Teleological argument

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A teleological argument, or argument from design[1][2][3], is an argument for the existence of God or a creator based on perceived evidence of order, purpose, design, or direction — or some combination of these — in nature. The word "teleological" is derived from the Greek word telos, meaning "end" or "purpose". Teleology is the supposition that there is purpose or directive principle in the works and processes of nature. Immanuel Kant called this argument the Physico–theological proof[4].

Basic concept

Although there are variations, the basic argument can be stated as follows:

  1. Nature exhibits complexity, order, adaptation, purpose and/or beauty.
  2. The exhibited feature(s) cannot be explained by random or accidental processes, but only as a product of mind.
  3. Therefore, there exists a mind that has produced or is producing nature.
  4. A mind that produces nature is a definition of "God."
  5. Therefore, God exists.

Other forms of the argument assert that a certain category of complexity necessitates a designer, such as the following...

  1. All things that are designed were preconceived, intended, purposed or contrived.
  2. Preconception, intention, purpose, and contrivance necessitate an intellect, mind or will.
  3. All things that are irreducibly complex display intention and preconception.
  4. The universe contains non-man made things that are irreducibly complex
  5. Those things display intention and preconception.
  6. Those things necessitate an intellect, mind or will.

In the first argument, nature can be exemplified by the universe as a whole, its physical constants or laws, the evolutionary process, humankind, a particular animal species or organ like the eye, or a capability like language in humans. Sometimes the argument is specifically based on the fact that physical constants are fine-tuned to allow life as we know it to evolve.

While most of the classic forms of this argument are linked to monotheism, some versions of the argument may substitute for God a lesser demiurge, multiple gods and/or goddesses, or perhaps extraterrestrials as cause for natural phenomena, although reapplication of the argument would still lead to an ultimate cause.

A whimsical version of the teleological argument was offered by G. K. Chesterton in 1908: "So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot."


Classical and Early Christian Writers

Sanzio 01 Plato Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle, depicted here in The School of Athens, both developed philosophical arguments based on the universe's apparent design.

Socrates (c. 469-399 B.C.) argued that the adaptation of human parts to one another, such as the eyelids protecting the eyeballs, could not have been due to chance and was a sign of wise planning in the universe.[5]

Plato (c. 427–c. 347 B.C.) posited a "demiurge" of supreme wisdom and intelligence as the creator of the cosmos in his work Timaeus. Plato's teleological perspective is also built upon the analysis of a priori order and structure in the world that he had already presented in The Republic.

Aristotle (c. 384–322 B.C.) argued that all nature reflects inherent purposiveness and direction. In his Metaphysics, he demonstrated the existence of God, not a creator (for Aristotle the cosmos always existed) but as a "Prime Mover" who kept nature in motion. He described the prime mover as 'self-thinking thought," but believed that it did not lower itself to consider nature or relate to human beings.


Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero (c. 106–c. 43 B.C.)presented an early teleological argument in De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods). He stated, "The divine power is to be found in a principle of reason that pervades the whole of nature".

"When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers?" (Cicero, De Natura Deorum, ii. 34).[6]

Marcus Minucius Felix (late 2nd-3rd c.), an Early Christian writer, argued for the existence of God based on the analogy of an ordered house (Letter to Octavius, chap. 18).

Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354–430) presented a classic teleological perspective in his work City of God. He describes the "city of man" and essentially posits that God's plan is to replace the city of man with the city of God (at some as-yet-unknown point in the future). Whether this is to happen gradually or suddenly is not made clear in Augustine's work. He did not, however, make a formal argument for the existence of God; rather, God's existence is already presumed and Augustine is giving a proposed view of God's teleology. Augustine's perspective follows from and is built upon the neo-Platonic views of his era, which in turn have their original roots in Plato's cosmogony.



The Muslim philosopher Averroes developed teleologic arguments based on the thought of Plato and Aristotle and helped make their works available to other medieval scholars.

Averroes (Ibn Rushd) was writing on teleological arguments in Moorish Spain from an Islamic perspective in the latter half of the 12th Century, and his influence was very considerable in interpreting many of Aristotle's ideas for the first time in Latin, thereby directly helping to make Aristotle available through a new school of thought known as the Averroists. Averroes was a transitional philosopher, partly a priori neo-Platonic, and partly a posteriori Aristotelian. As a result of his overlapping of the two modes in interpreting Aristotle, and also as a result of what would be known today as a strong disagreement between a deistic and theistic viewpoint in religious circles of that era, Averroes' work was highly controversial and fairly quickly was officially banned in both Christendom and Islamic Spain.[7] Despite the lingering Platonic influence, Averroes' teleological arguments can be characterized as primarily Aristotelian and presuming one god. He argues based mainly upon Aristotle's Physics, in essence that the combination of order and continual motion in the universe cannot be accidental and requires a Prime Mover, a Supreme Principle, which is in itself pure Intelligence.



The fifth of Thomas Aquinas' proofs of God's existence was based on teleology.

The most notable of the scholastics (c. 1100–1500) positing teleological arguments was Thomas Aquinas. The translations of Averroist works would set the stage for Aquinas in the 13th century, whose arguments were much more thoroughly Aristotelian, a posteriori and empirically based than his predecessors. Aquinas makes a specific, compact and famous version of the teleological argument, the fifth of his five proofs for the existence of God in his Summa Theologica:

"The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God."

The British empiricists

The 17th century Dutch writers Lessius and Grotius argued that the intricate structure of the world, like that of a house, was unlikely to have arisen by chance.[8] Their arguments proved popular in England. The empiricist philosopher John Locke, writing in the late 17th century, revived the Aristotelian view the only knowledge humans can have is a posteriori (i.e., based upon sense experience) and that there is no a priori knowledge whatsoever. In the early 18th century, the Anglican Irish Bishop George Berkeley came to believe that Locke's view opened a door that led to atheism. In response to Locke, he advanced a form of "radical empiricism" (not to be confused with William James' use of the words "radical empiricism", mentioned below) in which things only exist as a result of their being perceived (and God fills in for humans by doing the perceiving whenever humans are not around to do it). In his Alciphron, Berkeley gave a teleological argument in which the order of nature is the language or handwriting of God.

David Hume, in the mid-18th century, presented arguments both for and against the teleological argument in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The character Cleanthes, summarizing the teleological argument, likens the universe to a man-made machine, and concludes by the principle of similar effects and similar causes that it must have a designing intelligence. Philo is not satisfied with the teleological argument, however. He attempts a number of refutations, including one that arguably foreshadows Darwin's theory, and makes the point that if God resembles a human designer, then assuming divine characteristics such as omnipotence and omniscience is not justified. He goes on to joke that far from being the perfect creation of a perfect designer, this universe may be "only the first rude essay of some infant deity... the object of derision to his superiors."

The Watchmaker Analogy


William Paley's "watchmaker analogy" is one of the most famous teleological arguments.

The watchmaker analogy, framing the argument with reference to a timepiece, dates back to Cicero, whose illustration was quoted above. It was also used by, among others, Robert Hooke[9] and Voltaire, the latter of whom remarked: "L'univers m'embarrasse, et je ne puis songer Que cette horloge existe, et n'ait point d'horloger (The universe embarrasses me; I cannot think that the watch exists, but does not have a watchmaker)".[10] Today the argument is usually associated with theologian William Paley, who presented it in his Natural Theology (1802).[11] As a theology student, Charles Darwin found Paley's arguments compelling; he later developed his theory of evolution in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, which offers an alternate explanation of biological order. In his autobiography, Darwin wrote that "The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered."[12] Even so, Darwin held that nature depended upon "designed laws" and commended Asa Gray for pointing out that Darwin's work supported teleology.[13]

The Fine-tuning Argument

A modern variation of the teleological argument is built upon the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle is derived from the apparent delicate balance of conditions necessary for human life. In this line of reasoning, speculation about the vast, perhaps infinite, range of possible conditions in which life could not exist is compared to the speculated improbability of achieving conditions in which life does exist, and then interpreted as indicating a fine-tuned universe specifically designed so human life is possible. This view is shared by John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986)[14].

John Polkinghorne pointed out in 1985 that just one factor among many in the cosmos, the difference between expansive and contractive forces in the expanding cosmos according to then-currently accepted theory, depends upon an extremely fine balance of the total energy involved to within one in 1060 , a sixty-one digit number equivalent to taking aim from Earth and hitting an inch-wide target at the farthest reaches of the observable universe. George Wald, also in 1985, wrote in the same context that the conditions for something as fundamental as the atom depend on a balance of forces to within one in 1018. Proponents of the fine-tuned universe form of teleological argument typically argue that taken together, the various fine-tuned balances appear quite improbable, and hint strongly at something designed rather than accidental.

Many highly regarded scientists, mathematicians, philosophers and a few theologians have weighed in on both sides in debate. A counter-argument to the anthropic principle is that one could manipulate statistics to define any number of natural situations that are extremely improbable, but that have happened nevertheless. By the critics' view a key problem in terms of being able to verify whether the hypothesized probabilities are correct, is that the improbable conditions were identified after the event, so they cannot be checked by experiment. And very importantly, there is no ability to sample a large enough set of alternatives (indeed we know of no other cosmos to sample) in order to be able to properly attach any odds or probabilities to these natural situations in the cosmos. Moreover, observations of the cosmos to date indicate that the conditions on Earth are but one of widely varying conditions on many, many planets in many, many star systems, all 228 [15] of which to date do not appear to have met the conditions necessary for life. An analogy from common experience where the odds can be readily calculated is given by John Allen Paulos in Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences (1989), that the probability of a very mundane event such as that of getting any particular hand of thirteen cards in a game of bridge is approximately one in 600 billion. It would be absurd to examine the hand carefully, calculate the odds, and then assert that it must not have been randomly dealt. This perspective on the issue of improbability appears to bolster the position that characteristics of Earth that allow it to sustain life could be just a fortunate and/or accidental "hit", so to speak.

Another variant makes an argument centering on consciousness. Physicist John Wheeler's assertion that the universe seems to require an observer reflects on design not as an external phenomenon, but intrinsic to consciousness. There thus is no search for a criterion of intelligence outside the universe being imposed on it or capable of revealing whether an intelligence has been injected into it; but rather, that consciousness recognizes itself as present in all of existence. Alfred Whitehead had made a similar argument in the early twentieth century. In defense of Whitehead's approach, Charles Hartshorne has written that the panentheism implicit in this argument evades the logical difficulties of the arguments from design of traditional theists. He asks how can a universe that is considered outside of the deity display the design of the being that is outside of? But in Whitehead's view, echoing that of George Berkeley, our very act of what he calls prehension provides us with first-hand evidence of the deity.

The intelligent design movement

In the wake of the "fine-tuned universe" observations and arguments published in the 1980s, the intelligent design movement picked up some of the above concepts, added some additional ones such as irreducible complexity (a variant of the watchmaker analogy) and specified complexity (closely resembling a fine-tuning argument) and attempted to cast the resulting combined form of the teleological argument as scientific rather than speculative. The vast majority of scientists have disagreed with the assertion that it is scientific, as have the findings of a federal court in the United States in a 2005 decision, which ruled that the "intelligent design" arguments are essentially religious in nature. (See Other issues below.)

Proponents of the Intelligent design movement such as Cornelius G. Hunter, have asserted that the methodological naturalism upon which science is based is religious in nature.[16] They commonly refer to it as 'scientific materialism' or as 'methodological materialism' and conflate it with 'metaphysical naturalism'.[17] They use this assertion to support their claim that modern science is atheistic, and contrast it with their preferred approach of a revived natural philosophy which welcomes supernatural explanations for natural phenomena and supports theistic science. This ignores the distinction between science and religion, recognised by both scientists and the clergy, that developed in the centuries since the scientific revolution, that science is obliged to restrict its attention to the natural world, not through any atheistic intent, but because developing a more complete understanding of nature required testing explanations against the natural world.[18]. This viewpoint was encapsulated by Stephen Jay Gould in his concept of Nonoverlapping Magisteria (NOMA), that proposes that science and religion should be considered two compatible, complementary fields, or "magisteria," whose authority does not overlap.

Formal objections and counterarguments

Complexity does not imply design

The first (and therefore second) premise assumes that one can infer the existence of intelligent design merely by examining an object. The teleological argument assumes that because life is complex, it must have been designed. It is argued that this is non-sequitur logic. Life or objects are described as "orderly" or "ordered", which implies that an intelligent designer has ordered them. However, in reality, there are examples of systems that are non-random or ordered simply because it is following natural physical processes, for example diamonds or snowflakes; however, these particular systems are repetitive in nature that are less complex than a non-repetitive system like DNA.

The design claim is often challenged as an argument from ignorance, since it is often unexplained or unsupported, or explained by unscientific conjecture. Supporters of design assume that natural objects and man-made objects have similar properties, therefore both must be designed. However, different objects can have similar properties for different reasons, such as stars and light bulbs. Proponents must therefore demonstrate that only design can cause orderly systems or the argument is invalid.

It is often claimed that a designed organism would contradict evolutionary theory. As most professional biologists support the theory of biological evolution by means of natural selection, they reject the first premise, arguing that evolution is not only an alternative explanation for the complexity of life but a better explanation with more supporting evidence. Living organisms obey the same physical laws as inanimate objects. A range of chemical reactions could take place, forming other chemicals with complex properties and ways of interacting. Over very long periods of time self-replicating structures could arise and later form DNA. This has in fact been demonstrated artificially via the Avida program, which can construct complex programs without being given any design (similar programs have had similar results with building machines). Thus biologists commonly view the design argument as an unimpressive argument for the existence of a god. Dennis Polis, who accepts evolution as sound science, points out, however, that the physics underlying evolution is deterministic (since quantum randomness occurs only in observations which were not possible until recently). Thus, the idea of fundamental randomness, on which the naturalist interpretation of evolution rests is incompatible with the physics biologists agree to be fundamental.[19] He also notes that evo-devo confirms a number of falsifiable claims made by Aristotle teleology for his teleology.

Does not prove the existence of God

D'après Nicolas de Largillière, portrait de Voltaire (Institut et Musée Voltaire) -001

Voltaire said that, at best, the teleological argument could only indicate the existence of a powerful, but not necessarily all-powerful or all-knowing, intelligence.

Another argument states that even if the argument from design proved the existence of a powerful intelligent designer, it would not prove that the designer is God. Voltaire observed in his Traité de métaphysique:

... from this sole argument I cannot conclude anything further than that it is probable that an intelligent and superior being has skillfully prepared and fashioned the matter. I cannot conclude from that alone that this being has made matter out of nothing and that he is infinite in every sense.[20]

David Hume pointed out that the argument does not necessarily lead to the existence of one God. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the character Philo argued (p. 108), amidst other counterarguments to the teleological argument, "why may not several deities combine in contriving and framing the world?"[21]

Contradictory premises lead to an infinite regress

Critics such as Richard Dawkins often argue that the teleological argument would in turn apply to the proposed designer, arguing any designer must be at least as complex and purposeful as the designed object (in Dawkins' words, "The Ultimate 747", a reference to Hoyle's analogy to a windstorm sweeping through a junkyard and constructing a 747). This, they say, would create the absurdity of an infinite series of designers.

The counter-argument of an "undesigned designer," akin to Aristotle's unmoved mover, is common. This argument states that since the designer exists outside of the natural laws of the universe, he is therefore exempt from any laws requiring a design to have a designer. However this does not explain why the improbable event of the designer's existence does take place. While the designer might not require a cause, he still requires a reason as to why he exists[why?], since he could just as well not exist at all.

Assertion of inconsistencies in the 'Design' of the Universe

Whilst the Universe can at first seem to be purposeful and ordered, it has been asserted that upon closer inspection its true function becomes questionable. Richard Dawkins, a high-profile advocate of atheism, rejects the claim that the Universe serves any actual function, claiming that the Universe merely 'mimics' purpose. For example, predators appear perfectly 'designed' to catch their prey, whilst their prey seem equally well 'designed' to evade them. Likewise, apparent inconsistencies in the design of organisms have been brought to attention by critics of the teleological argument. Some use such arguments to point towards natural selection as a 'blind' biological designer, as opposed to God.

Proponents of teleology have argued against this objection on various grounds. For example, William A. Dembski says that such arguments are based upon presumptions about what a designer would or would not do, and so constitute a "theological rather than scientific claim." "Not knowing the designer," he continues, they "are in no position to say whether the designer proposed a faulty compromise among those [design] objectives." (Dembski 2004, pp. 58–9)

Additionally, the claim of an apparent inconsistency between the "design" of predators and prey ignores the balance of the ecosystem. Dembski counters, "In criticizing design, [critics] tend to place premium on functionalities of individual organisms and see design as optimal to the degree that those individual functionalities are maximized. But higher-order designs of entire ecosystems might require lower-order designs of individual organisms." (Dembski, 2004, p. 61)


George H. Smith, in his book Atheism: The Case Against God, points out what he considers to be a fatal flaw in the argument from design

Consider the idea that nature itself is the product of design. How could this be demonstrated? Nature, as we have seen, provides the basis of comparison by which we distinguish between designed objects and natural objects. We are able to infer the presence of design only to the extent that the characteristics of an object differ from natural characteristics. Therefore, to claim that nature as a whole was designed is to destroy the basis by which we differentiate between artifacts and natural objects. Evidences of design are those characteristics not found in nature, so it is impossible to produce evidence of design within the context of nature itself. Only if we first step beyond nature, and establish the existence of a supernatural designer, can we conclude that nature is the result of conscious planning. (p. 268)

See also


  1. Himma, Kenneth Einar (2006). “Design Arguments for the Existence of God,” in James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, eds., The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, retrieved 8/24/08
  2. Ratzsch, Del, [[ "Teleological Arguments for God's Existence"}, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  3. Toner, P. (1909). "The Existence of God: The argument from design," in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 7, 2010.
  4. Critique of Pure Reason A 620 ff.
  5. Xenophon, Memorabilia I.4.6; Franklin, James (2001). The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 229. ISBN 0810865697. 
  6. M.T.CiceroDe natura Deorum(the nature of the gods),book II,XXIV link title
  7. Turner, W. (1907)."Averroes" in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  8. Franklin, James (2001). The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 244–5. ISBN 0810865697. 
  9. Hooke, Robert (2003). Micrographia. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 2. ISBN 978-0486495644. 
  10. Harbottle, Thomas Benfield; Philip Hugh Dalbiac (1908). Dictionary of quotations: French. S. Sonnenschein. pp. 101. ISBN 978-1421257204. 
  11. Paley 1809, p. 1.
  12. Darwin 1958, pp. 59, 87.
  13. Miles, Sara Joan, Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design, PSCF (2001) 53: 196-201.
  14. Barrow, John D.; Tipler, Frank J. (19 May 1988). The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. foreword by John A. Wheeler. Oxford: Oxford University Press. LC 87-28148. ISBN 9780192821478. Retrieved 31 December 2009. 
  15. []
  16. . "Science's Blind Spot: The Unseen Religion of Scientific Naturalism". Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, (2007)
  17. Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection (2000), Barbara Forrest, Retrieved 2007-05-20.
  18. "Expelled Exposed: Why Expelled Flunks » Science & Religion". Retrieved 2008-07-16. 
  19. Polis, Dennis F., Mind or Randomness in Evolution, Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (forthcoming, 2010)
  20. Voltaire (1901) [1734]. "On the Existence of God". The Works of Voltaire: The Henriade: Letters and miscellanies. XXI. trans. William F. Fleming. Werner. pp. 239–240. 
  21. Hume, David, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion(1779).

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Some or all of this article is forked from Wikipedia. The original article was at Teleological argument. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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