The Teleological Argument


What’s the difference between a random god and no god at all?

~Ricky Gervais in The Unbelievers

erhaps the most popular argument for theism is the argument from design, less famously called the teleological argument. It’s an ancient argument, but in his book Natural Theology published in 1802, the philosopher William Paley stated the argument in a novel way. It went a little something like this:


Suppose you went for a stroll in the outdoors and found a pocket watch on the ground. If you analyzed the watch, you’d notice it is a complex piece of machinery and its parts work together to serve a purpose. From this you could infer that the watch must have had a maker. Consider the fact that all life forms, including humans, are complex mechanisms – more complex even than pocket watches. Therefore they must have been designed by some other intelligent force, i.e. God.

This came to be called the the watchmaker analogy, and before Darwin came along it was a stumbling block for naturalists.

A modern incarnation of this argument is the theory of intelligent design, which is supposedly a scientific theory. Proponents claim this theory is not an argument for the existence of God per se, since the intelligent designer could be non-supernatural – for example, a highly advanced race of aliens. This begs the question, were these aliens designed by other aliens, and those aliens by still other aliens, until we regress to the first aliens, who were not designed by anybody and so… must have evolved? I wish I could admire such agnosticism as to the nature and character of the intelligent designer, but it appears to be a cynical ploy by creationists to sneak their religious beliefs into public schools.[1]

Some proponents of the theory of intelligent design protest that evolution cannot account for certain biological structures, because those structures are irreducibly complex. The human eye is the poster child of irreducible complexity. How could half an eye be useful? It must be admitted that the discovery of an organ that could somehow be demonstrated to be irreducibly complex would be a blow to the theory of evolution. However, irreducible complexity appears to exist nowhere in nature. Half an eye actually is useful. In fact, the human eye is fairly easy to explain through Darwinian evolution, as summed up nicely by Michael Shermer:

The human eye is the result of a long and complex pathway that goes back hundreds of millions of years to a simple eyespot where a handful of light sensitive cells provide information to the organism about an important source of light – the sun; to a recessed eyespot where a small surface indentation filled with light sensitive cells provides additional data in the form of direction; to a deep recession eyespot where additional cells at greater depth provide more accurate information about the environment; to a pinhole camera eye that is actually able to focus an image on the back of a deeply recessed layer of light-sensitive cells; to a pinhole lens eye that is actually able to focus the image; to a complex eye found in such modern mammals as humans. In addition, the eye has evolved independently a dozen different times through its own unique pathways, so this alone tells us that no creator had a single, master plan.[2]

In an educational video series for children called Waking Up in the Universe, Richard Dawkins illustrates this process beautifully.

(The entire series is wonderfully illuminating and thoroughly entertaining, and can be watched for free on YouTube.)

The fact is that, while we frequently find the illusion of design in nature, the natural world is also abounding with little hints that it could not be the creation of an intelligent designer, particularly not a benevolent and omniscient one. Our organs are not perfectly engineered like pocket watches. They have defects. Even the human eye, splendid though it may be, is imperfect; it has a blind spot. A squid’s eye is better engineered. The theory of intelligent design fails to explain all the design flaws in nature, like vestigial organs, crowded teeth, nipples on males, and so on.

This line of reasoning from design flaws – the dysteleological argument – does not prove God must not exist, but it does serious damage to all forms of the argument from design, including the theory of intelligent design.

Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis

One counter argument is that God had good reasons for designing us as he did that we just don’t understand. But doesn’t the teleological argument assume that our organs were fashioned intentionally for specific purposes and that these purposes are self-evident? The whole point of the argument from design is that biological schematics are clearly sensible. God (or the aliens) may have had secret reasons for routing the giraffe’s recurrent laryngeal nerve, the nerve that connects the brain to the larynx, on a ten foot detour down the animal’s neck to its chest, around the aorta, and back up again, but if no biologist can find the sense in this architecture, then how can a designer’s existence be inferred from the wiring in the giraffe’s neck? To answer the dysteleological argument with “God works in mysterious ways” is to assent that not everything in biology is so well engineered that it is obviously contrived by a conscious being, and to surrender the argument from design.

Biological organisms are often complex, usually well adapted to their environments, and always awe-inspiring, and in their complexity and serviceability nominally resemble designed objects. But they are also imperfect. Their complexity, serviceability, and imperfection are best explained by the theory of evolution.

Even if, for whatever reason, you choose not to accept the overwhelming evidence for evolution, the teleological argument should still fail to convince you that God exists. Richard Dawkins identifies a fundamental flaw in the argument: “the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.” If we assume that complex things must be intelligently designed, then God too must have had a creator.

The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.[3]

The premise of the teleological argument is that complex things like pocket watches and human beings must have intelligent creators, and that this is such an obvious fact that no proof needs to be offered. The flaw in the argument is that intelligent creators are presumably also complex things. Was God intelligently designed?

This is a yes or no question, and either answer is wrong.

If God had a creator, then by the teleological argument God’s creator must have had a creator, and so on, resulting in a mind-boggling world view consisting of an infinite number of intelligent designers. That is hardly compatible with monotheism.

On the other hand, if God can exist without a creator then the premise of the teleological argument is obliterated; complex things are not necessarily intelligently designed. Therefore, God’s existence cannot be deduced from the existence of complex things.

One of many famous formations inside the Cango Caves near Oudtshoorn, South Africa

Stalactite and stalagmite formations in caves can be extraordinarily complex. People unfamiliar with the science of cave formations, upon entering a cavern full of soda straws, chandeliers, frostwork, moonmilk, broomsticks, dog-tooth spars, stone waterfalls, and gravity-defying fish-tail helictites, might assume they had encountered a hidden cathedral crafted by a great deity to celebrate her own magnificent glory – clearly the handy work of a divine intelligence. But no serious, educated person in modern society argues that speleothems, speleogens, or cave crystals are designed directly by God. We accept that these objects result gradually from natural processes that operate over extremely long periods.

The formation of a decent stalactite can take tens of thousands of years, far too long to be witnessed within a human lifespan. But we don’t have to accept the theory of speleothem formation on faith. We can examine evidence, do a few experiments, engage in a bit of reasoning, and come to understand the underlying chemistry. Calcium carbonate dissolves into the water seeping through the bedrock surrounding a limestone cave. When the water reaches the air within the cavern, the carbon dioxide in the air causes the solutes in the water to precipitate. As the water drip-drip-drips, calcium is deposited bit by bit at points along the ceiling and floor. The deposits build upon each other over millennia to form complex shapes. And so, the divine sculptor of calcium cathedrals, it turns out, is water.

Complexity does not imply intelligent design. If this fact is counter-intuitive, it is only because our intuition has been warped by theistic biases. But the bias against evolution is silly. Cave formations are no less beautiful to us when we discover they’re created by humble natural processes like dripping water instead of a supernatural intelligence.

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  1. [1] The first line of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, called the Establishment Clause, clearly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” which by incorporation doctrine applies to state governments as well as the federal government. Therefore, Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” does have a constitutional basis, and it is unconstitutional and a violation of American principles to teach creationism in public schools. Period. This has been affirmed by state and federal courts repeatedly, all the way up to the Supreme Court.
  2. [2] Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer, from the Introduction to the Paperback Edition.
  3. [3] The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, p158.
 Posted by on February 17, 2012
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