Teleological Argument For The Existence Of God

Essay, Research Paper


This paper will examine the argument put forward by William Paley in 1802, in his Natural Theology. Paley offers an argument from design that purports to show a clear and distinct reason why one should hold a belief in God, due to the inherent features of the world. It is attempted in this paper to firstly: show that the argument should be rejected on the grounds of lacking a rationally flowing set of premises and conclusions; and secondly: that the criticisms made by David Hume concerning the argument hold more weight than is generally granted by other philosophers, and should have convinced one even before the advent of Darwinian theory. Added to this, it will be considered as to whether or not Darwin actually did destroy teleological arguments forever.

William Paley’s teleological argument is but one example of the formulation of an argument from design, but nevertheless one that deserves some attention. Although the origins of the thesis can be reasonably traced back as far as ancient Greek philosophy, in the form of Lucilius Bablos , Paley’s version was the true precursor for later deliberations on the subject, as it was the first to truly attempt to affirm God’s existence by appealing to an inference to the best explanation on the grounds of intuitively observable datum. However, this may not be a just interpretation. Perhaps one could say that Paley’s argument is deductive, in the sense that he first establishes a principle and, coupled with other seemingly plausible premises, uses it in order to reach his desired conclusion. Although he constantly uses the word ‘inference’, it is far from clear that he is actually inferring anything, procuring to the general usage of the term. In any event, there is little doubt that Paley became the antecedent for later writers such as Tennant, Swinburne and du Nouy, who all proposed broader based arguments of the same theme, along inductive or inference to the best explanation lines.

Roughly speaking, teleological arguments are those that appeal to the special features, or aspects, of the world that appear to be designed and purposive, analogous to the cases of human design. For example, one might consider complex biological systems such as eyes, digestive or reproductive structures, and so on. They are usually put probabilistically, arguing that the most plausible explanation is that of a world designer and creator – one with intelligence and purposes. It is not clear that Paley’s argument was intended to be just so, but more on this at a later stage.

Paley’s argument is quite simple in essence and is presented in a somewhat poetic and rather imaginative way. Paley first imagines what sort of thoughts one would have stumbling across a rock. He concludes that no-one should be surprised at the presence of the rock, and that it hardly requires a specific explanation: it would be quite plausible to assume that the rock just was, and had always been.

The discovery of the rock is then compared to the finding of a watch. Paley claims that one should immediately recognise it as the work of an intelligent designer, even if one had never seen a watch before. He makes the claim that by the watch’s very intrinsic make-up it could clearly be concluded the intentional construction of an intelligent designer: the various parts and their composition, together with a recognisable function, would inevitably lead us to believe that it was not merely a randomly formed entity. Nor should we doubt that the watch is the product of intelligent design even if another watch produced it; for we should merely conclude that it was designed for such a purpose. He claims that “Design must have a designer” and “Contrivance a contriver”, and that even if one were to run the watch production back in an infinite regress there would necessarily be a need for the existence of a designer. In fact, the existence of a watchmaking watch would only strengthen the hypothesis of a designer, for it would make the watch an even more complex system. So, Paley concludes, if it is the case that intelligent design can be seen in watches, then it should also be recognised immediately in nature. Hence, the world is the product of intelligent design, and that designer is God.

There are two ways of setting out this argument in formal terms. The first to be dealt with is the most common interpretation of the argument: an inductive, or inference to the best explanation analysis. We may set out the argument thus:

P1. There are some things, like watches, that can be immediately realised as the work of an intelligent agent, or designer.

P2. This is something that we can realise with no prior knowledge of the object’s existence or particular properties: it is a matter of clear intuition on our behalf.

P3. Nature contains complex biological systems that serve distinct functions.

P4. These systems are (highly) comparable to things like watches in terms of having a distinctive purpose or function, ie: intuitive evidence of intentional design.

C1. (Hence) It is at least plausible to believe that natural biological systems owe their distinct properties and functions to an intelligent designer.

P6. The best (and perhaps only) explanation there is for the apparent design in nature is to hold that the world and its creatures are the work of an intelligent designer.

C2. The most rational thing for us to believe, given this, is that the world is the product of an intelligent designer, and that designer is God.

Next, one may consider the argument along deductive lines, although this is perhaps an unfair interpretation:

P1. Watches contain complex mechanisms composed of intricate parts that serve a recognisable function.

P2. A watch would not, and could not, have arisen from a random distribution or chance configuration of its constituent parts.

P3. (Hence) A watch is immediately recognisable as the work of an intelligent designer.

P4. Nature contains biological entities, such as the human eye, that are complex systems composed of intricate parts that serve recognisable functions.

P5. These biological entities could not have arisen from a random distribution or chance configuration of molecules.

P6. If a watch is immediately recognisable as the work of an intelligent designer, then the same must be said of complex biological entities.

C. The world is the creation of an intelligent designer, and that designer is God.

There is much to be said for both forms of the argument. David Hume stands as the most notable challenger of the teleological argument, even though his criticisms have historically held little support. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume offers many objections through the voice of the sceptic Philo, with whom he seems to sympathise. Hume’s proposal is basically that the premises of the teleological argument do not entail the conclusion of the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent god with any necessity. He points out that the properties of the world do not seem to match up with the essential theistic notion of God. Firstly, it would not seem that the world is infinite – yet God is. More importantly, the world does not seem perfect – would this imply an imperfect creator? Hume offers a host of other possible conclusions that could be rationally drawn from the argument’s premises, mainly concerning other candidates for the role of world creator; an assemblage of gods, a not-so-perfect god that is merely in the experimental stages of designing a world, or even a demon. He also points out that apparent design does not necessitate the need for a designer – it could be just brute fact.

If one were to take Paley’s argument from the deductive perspective, it is clearly invalid: there exists a possible world in which the premises are true, yet God, in the guise required by theists, does not exist. However, the general consensus has been that the argument is an inference to the best explanation. It is not clear that this is the correct analysis, but let us assume that it is for now.

It would seem that most people have disregarded Hume’s urgings primarily because they believe that he lacked a suitable alternate hypothesis explaining biological organisation. Dawkins

claims that the organised complexity of the world requires an explanation, and that Hume simply “criticised the logic of using apparent design in nature as positive evidence for the existence of a God,” without offering a plausible substitute. Sober agrees in part with Dawkins in that “the problem is that Hume has no serious alternate explanation for the phenomena he discusses.” Conversely, Sober states that it is not unreasonable to think the design argument refutable without a different elucidation. For example, Sober claims, “this could happen if the hypothesis of an intelligent designer were incoherent or self-contradictory,” although he sees “no such defect in the argument.” Above all, what is being claimed by such responses is that the conclusion of an intelligent designer is strongly supported by the argument’s preceding premises, thus leading us to conclude that Paley’s argument should have been successful in its time. What proponents of such a view will claim is that the argument could only be justifiably rejected post-Darwinian theory, as this is the first emergence of a suitably acceptable substitute hypothesis, or a better explanation.

This particular view is fatally flawed. Hume’s criticisms can be used, along with other observable intuitive evidence, to formulate responses to the Dawkins and Sober view, without appealing to a natural selection theory. A way in which this might be done is to show that another explanation for the evidence of design could be even more plausible than God. We may formulate this like so:

P1. There are some things, like watches, that can immediately be recognised as the work of an intelligent designer.

P2. Watches are recognisable as works of an intelligent designer through nothing more than a strong intuition: one need not have any prior knowledge of watches’ existence.

P3. Nature contains complex biological systems.

P4. These systems are (strongly) comparable to watches in terms of showing evidence for design.

C1. (Hence) It is at least plausible to hold that the world is the product of intelligent design.

P5. The best explanation there is for the apparent design in nature is to hold that the world and its creatures are the work of an intelligent designer.

P6. The complex biological systems in nature are flawed: they do not operate as efficiently as even some things created by people.

P7. These systems are often the cause of pain and suffering in the creatures they pertain to; eg: childbirth. Some of the systems cause pain as a part of their distinct purpose; eg: nervous systems.

P8. If the world is the product of intelligent design, these systems were intentionally created.

C2. The most rational thing for us to believe given all of this, is that an intelligent designer created the world, and that designer is Satan.

One would never claim to hold this argument as acceptable, but it seems at least, if not more, acceptable than Paley’s argument. Therefore, there are not only other possible explanations (if one accepts the premises, of course); there are potentially better ones. Here the obviously weak link between the premises and the conclusion has been exploited; a problem that many theological arguments suffer from – in arriving at the necessary conclusion of the Christian God’s existence. Added to this, in special response to Sober, we could easily dispute the alleged coherence of God being the intelligent designer, by appealing to something like the problem of evil. Does the intrinsic concept of God hold a somewhat contradictory note if He was to be the designer of an obviously flawed world?

We may next consider the actual feasibility of the premises. An interesting point of discussion may be to wonder about the proposed analogy between watches and biological organisms. This is to say, we might wonder at the plausibility of Premise 4, from our first formulation of the argument in inference to the best explanation terms. It does seem reasonable to accept that watches are distinctly recognisable as the work of intelligent design. However, this may very well be due to the fact watches are made up of non-living parts and that it is almost ridiculous to think that as such they could come together into a semblance of functionality of their volition. It is not altogether clear that the intuitive explanation for watches should extend to biological entities, for the reason that the two things are very distinct from one another.

The most telling blow to Paley’s premises – sociologically speaking – came from Darwin, when he proposed another explanation for the evidence of design in nature, in the form of evolutionary theory. This posed a serious problem for perhaps the most important premise in Paley’s argument, represented as Premise 6 in our first formulation. Finally, the esoteric members of Paley’s sceptics were provided with a seemingly more credible explanation. This, though, did not by any means spell the final demise of teleological arguments, as Dawkins and Sober would have us believe. Paley’s seemingly dead thesis has been recently exhumed due to developments in cosmology; to hopefully have physics breathe some life into its Darwin scorched lungs.

The form that poses the most concern for Darwinian theory is that concerning the problem of how exactly it was that conditions arose to allow evolution to begin. The idea is put forward by John Leslie in The Evidence of Fine Tuning, where he claims that given the type of universe we inhabit it was very unlikely that conditions should ever arise to allow life to exist. He says that due to the huge improbability of the conditions appearing, it seems we require a distinct explanation as how this should be so – and that explanation is best described as a divine ‘fine tuner’; namely, God.

It is altogether evident that one would have a great amount of difficulty appealing solely to a process of natural selection to dispute Leslie’s argument. This requires us to attack the rationality of the inference, and again this is nowhere better done than in Hume’s Dialogues. Alternatively, or in addition to, we could simply say that God is not the best explanation, even if we do not have an indisputable explanation yet: there is nothing to say that this will not become available to us in future developments in physics. Some will inevitably feel unsatisfied with this rejoinder, but one could still ask a theist if Leslie’s argument, or any other teleological argument for that matter, had offered a different conclusion, such as the existence of a juvenile, learning God, there would be any justifiable reason to assume this was incorrect, given their current dispositions towards the rationality of the inference. Also, one might doubt that God provides a wholly satisfactory account of the universe’s history either: there is much unexplained in terms of the ‘divine plan’. It would seem that the teleological argument is doomed to failure, unless some more concrete empirical evidence is discovered that would perhaps strengthen the inference, for there seems no reason for one to accept God as the intelligent designer, even if one accepts there is a divine designer.


Paley, W. “Natural Theology”, Chapters I and II, 1802

Hume, D. “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”, 1779

Dawkins, R. “The Blind Watchmaker”, 1986

Sober, E. “Creationism”, 1993

Leslie, J. “The Evidence of Fine Tuning”, 1989

Paley, W. “Natural Theology”, Chapters I and II, 1802

Hume, D. “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”, 1779

Dawkins, R. “The Blind Watchmaker”, 1986

Sober, E. “Creationism”, 1993

Leslie, J. “The Evidence of Fine Tuning”, 1989


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