Philosophy Word of the Day – Teleological Arguments, Part 1


William Paley, Wikipedia

Since we touched briefly on the ontological and cosmological arguments earlier in the week, it’s a good time to cover another of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, the teleological argument.

The name derives from the Greek word telos, meaning goal or purpose.  The argument contends that as we observe certain features of ourselves, the world, and the universe, we have the strong intuition that these features were designed to achieve some special purpose or goal.  Many thinkers have asserted that these instances of design point to an incredibly powerful and intelligent designer – God.

Scripture seems to validate this intuition in passages like Psalm 19:1-4 and Romans 1:19-21.

Famously, the design argument was the fifth of Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways of rationally discerning God’s existence.

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 (Aquinas, Article 3, Question 2).

Historically, the teleological/design argument has taken two main forms.  The first is an argument from analogy that attempts to compare man-made objects (e.g., tools, machines) to objects in nature (e.g., an eye), and concludes that, since like effects have like causes, the design in nature (like design by man) reflects the work of a purposeful designer.

David Hume notably claimed that the analogy between man-made objects and features of nature was too dissimilar to succeed.

If we see a house,… we conclude, with the greatest certainty, that it had an architect or builder because this is precisely that species of effect which we have experienced to proceed from that species of cause. But surely you will not affirm that the universe bears such a resemblance to a house that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy is here entire and perfect (Hume, Dialogues, Part II).

A second form of the argument was championed by William Paley (sometimes mistakenly described as an analogical argument as well).  Paley sought instead to discern reliable indicators of intelligent design such as fitness to accomplish a purpose and specific arrangement of parts necessary to bring about the purpose.  Paley used the example of a watch, which performed the function of keeping time and exhibited a specific and essential arrangement of parts to accomplish this.  He wrote:

Every indicator of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation (Natural Theology: Or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature [Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1867], 13.)

Critics of this form of the argument have claimed that an intelligent designer is not the only or even most probable explanation for apparent design in nature.  Such critics frequently cite Darwinian evolution and natural selection as natural processes that can readily account for what appear to be cases of design in the natural world.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where we’ll look at more recent developments in the design argument.

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3 thoughts on “Philosophy Word of the Day – Teleological Arguments, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Philosophy Word of the Week – Teleological Arguments, Part 1 |

    • Thanks, J. K. It seems to me that Paley’s version is similar to the arguments that the proponents of Intelligent Design make, like William Dembski’s specified complexity.

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