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The Design or Teleological Argument for the Existence of God. Department of Philosophy and Religion Wellington College V 1.1, GJW, Mich 2012. What is the argument?. The argument basically works as follows: The world contains order, regularity, purpose, and beauty.

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the design or teleological argument for the existence of god

The Design or Teleological Argument for the Existence of God

Department of Philosophy and Religion

Wellington College

V 1.1, GJW, Mich 2012

what is the argument
What is the argument?
  • The argument basically works as follows:
    • The world contains order, regularity, purpose, and beauty.
    • By looking at an object containing these properties, we may infer that is was designed.
    • The world is an object containing the properties in P1

CONCLUSION: the world was designed; the designer we call ‘God’

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terms for the argument
Terms for the argument
  • We call this the ‘Design Argument’because it attempts to prove God through the concept of design.
  • It is also known as the ‘Teleological Argument’from the Greek telos, meaning ‘end’ or ‘purpose’. The argument claims that the world displays God’s purpose or end-goal.
  • Some (not all) versions of this argument are called analogical arguments, because they attempt to make a proof based on analogy (comparisons).
the reasoning used in the argument
The reasoning used in the argument:
  • a posteriori– it is based on our experience of the world around us.
  • Inductive – the premises support but do not entail the conclusion – probabilistic.
  • Synthetic – the argument is not true or false by the definition of its premises – it has to be tested.
responding to the world
Responding to the world
  • Very briefly, look at the following images.
  • Then write down:
    • What is your emotional response to the images?
    • Can you infer any conclusions from the images? If so, what are they?
    • Is it in human nature to interpret these images in the same or similar way?


  • What is your emotional response to the images?
  • Can you infer any conclusions from the images? If so, what are they?
  • Is it in human nature to interpret these images in the same or similar way?
formulating an analogy
Formulating an analogy
  • One of the major methods in theistic design arguments is the use of analogy.
  • An analogy is a comparison between two or more objects to make or prove a point.
  • For example: “the world is like a well oiled machine”.
  • Task: take a couple of minutes to write down other possible analogies, starting with the phrase “the world is like …”
historical background
Historical background
  • The first design argument was put forward by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.
  • In his work The Timaeus, Plato suggests that a cosmic craftsman (‘the Demiurge’) may have brought together the materials of the universe, to make it orderly and beautiful.
  • The argument was developed in more depth in Medieval philosophy, most notably by the 13th century Italian philosopher and monk Saint Thomas Aquinas.
thomas aquinas summa theologica i q2 3 the fifth way from the five ways
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (I Q2.3):the Fifth Way from the ‘Five Ways’

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, 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 not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

  • ‘Inference’ is the process of deriving conclusions from what is known or assumed to be true.
  • Task: what (if anything) can you infer about the producer of the following objects? …

Notebook computer, Christian Louboutin slingbacks, chocolate soufflé

natural and revealed theology
Natural and Revealed Theology
  • One of the key concepts we are looking at today is natural theology; this may be distinguished from revealed theology thus:
  • Natural theology is the process of deriving knowledge of God from the use of natural human reason. Any appeal to general evidence, the world, and our understanding in theology is natural theology.
  • Revealed theology is the process of deriving knowledge of God from contact with God Himself. This could take the form of a vision or God, or discerning God through His words in Holy Scripture.
specific examples add yours
Specific examples (add yours)

Natural theology

  • God’s creative power is found in a beautiful sunset.

Revealed theology

  • “God spoke to Abraham …”
william paley
William Paley
  • English philosopher and clergyman, 1743-1805.
  • Reforming tendencies, ‘progressive’ in the Church and abolitionist (opposed to the slave trade).
  • Author of Natural Theology (1802), his masterwork arguing for philosophical knowledge of God.
natural theology
Natural Theology
  • The full title of Paley’s book is Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature
  • Task: look carefully at all the words of the full title. What does this tell us about Paley’s intentions in authoring the work?
chapter 2 of natural theology
Chapter 2 of Natural Theology

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer that for anything I knew to the contrary it had lain there forever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for anything I knew the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case as in the first?

watchmaker analogy
Watchmaker analogy

If we found a watch on a heath, we would assume that it has some designer. By analogy, we could say the same of nature.

Nature displays purpose (e.g. birds have wings to fly) and regularity (e.g. planets orbit in regular motion). As with a watch, the attributes of purpose and regularity are suggestive of a designer.

paley s argument stated formally
Paley’s argument, stated formally
  • From a complex object of many parts, containing the qualities of regularity and purpose, we may infer that it was designed.
  • The world and its contents are complex, and of many parts, containing the qualities of regularity and purpose.
  • We may infer that the world was designed.

CONCLUSION: the world has a designer - God

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charles darwin 1809 1882
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
  • Naturalist and first exponent of the theory of evolution.
  • Expected to join the Anglican priesthood and studied theology, but became more interested in natural history.
  • Travelled to the Galapagos Islands; his experience of the animal life there inspired him to develop his ideas.
  • Darwin kept his ideas secret for a long time, eventually publishing them in 1859.
extract from charles darwin s the origin of species 1859
Extract from Charles Darwin’sThe Origin of Species (1859):

Let it also be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life; and consequently what infinitely varied diversities of structure might be of use to each being under changing conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should occur in the course of many successive generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourableindividual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest.

  • Why does this cause a problem for the design argument?
  • Which aspects of Paley’s argument are challenged by Darwinism?
  • How damaging is the Darwinist objection to the design argument? Does it rule it out completely?
counter points
Counter points
  • See the ‘Intelligent Design’ movement – it claims the theory of evolution is wrong or over-stated (note: this has little / no scientific support).
  • God may have caused the process of evolution as a means of bringing order and purpose into the universe (James Sadowsky).
  • Evolution depends on a careful balance of conditions, possibly caused by God (F.R. Tennant – the ‘anthropic principle’).
the intelligent design movement
The ‘Intelligent Design’ Movement

intelligent design
Intelligent Design
  • A group of scientists and mathematicians at the Discovery Institute have argued that Darwin was wrong about natural selection.
  • The complexity of nature may be due to Intelligent Design.
  • Michael Behe – organisms like the bacterial flagellum display ‘irreducible complexity’. They have too many component parts to be explained through natural selection.

Bacterial flagellum – very complicated.

criticism of intelligent design
Criticism of Intelligent Design
  • The evolution of complex organisms is difficult to explain, but it does not mean that they cannot be explained. ‘Tricky’ examples hardly disprove Darwinism.
  • Biologist Richard Dawkins argues that Intelligent Design has no genuine scientific basis; not a single member of this movement is published in a serious scientific journal.
  • The attempt to teach ‘Intelligent Design’ as a scientific theory is an under-hand attempt to undermine secular education.
responding to darwinism
Responding to Darwinism
  • Is there any way religious believers can respond to the challenge from Darwinism?
  • Could you re-formulate the argument, so that it can survive these criticisms?
david hume
David Hume
  • Scottish philosopher, 1711-1776
  • Famed also as an historian and economist, a controversial essayist
  • A key figure in the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’
  • His views on religion are guarded in his works, perhaps deliberately obscure. Some accused him of atheism, others of having an irregular view of God.
hume s arguments in the dialogues
Hume’s arguments in the Dialogues
  • Listen to this very clear explanation of The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion from Nigel Warburton and take notes.
  • Reflect: what do you think of the arguments presented?

How effective are the criticisms?


Very effective

summary of hume s criticisms
Summary of Hume’s Criticisms

‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’, 1779

Hume focuses on the weaknesses of the analogy and the conclusion drawn from the available empirical evidence

1) We have no experience of world making

2) Arguments from analogy can only be suggestive not

conclusive (issue of scale, mechanic/organic)

3) The available evidence cannot prove the God of classical theism (multiple designers? The failed attempt of an imperfect designer?)

REMEMBER: these criticisms are applicable to Paley. However, Hume was criticising the design argument in general – Paley had not yet even written ‘Natural Theology’ (1805).

where do theists go now
Where do theists go now?

Abandon the argument

Re-state the argument

Base theism on

Something else

Reject / reply to

Hume & Darwinian


Reformulate the

argument on a

different basis

Reject theism


Personal faith

Anthropic principle

Revealed theology

Argue for non-classical theology

Different theistic arguments

f r tennant and the anthropic principle
F.R. Tennantand the anthropic principle
  • Cambridge academic and clergyman 1866-1957.
  • “Nature is meaningless and valueless without God behind it and Man in front.” (Philosophical Theology, 1930)
  • Tennant is arguing that humanity is at the forefront of creation, because the circumstances of the universe uniquely and surprisingly enable human life to emerge.
  • Tennant was the first theist philosopher to use the fundamental characteristics of the universe as life-nurturing to offer a new form of teleological argument; many have since followed this path.
anthropic reasoning
Anthropic reasoning
  • From the Greek ‘anthropos’ (human/man); anthropic reasoning argues from the human perspective.
  • Write down a list of the factors necessary for your existence.
  • Reflect: are humans fortunate in having the conditions of life met? Is it surprising that the world is set up for life?
weak and strong principles
Weak and strong principles
  • ‘Weak anthropic principle’
  • The circumstances in our universe are such that the emergence of life is possible.
  • This could fit in with theism (God has enabled life), but does not so clearly suggest the idea of creation.
  • ‘Strong anthropic principle’
  • The circumstances in our universe are such that the emergence of life is inevitable
  • Theists could use this to argue teleologically, that God has intended a human life producing universe.
anthropic teleological argument
Anthropic teleological argument
  • The emergence of human life in our universe depends on numerous factors: planetary conditions, fundamental laws of physics, etc.
  • Human life has emerged in our universe.
  • A life-friendly universe such as ours is highly improbable; almost any other set of circumstances we can think of would have been life-hostile.
  • A designer or intelligent Creator would make sense of our improbable universe.

CONCLUSION: God exists

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a new design argument
A new design argument?

Keith Ward

But can you criticise Ward’s ‘new’ argument?

Your criticisms:

“The argument in its seventeenth-century form … may have been superseded by Darwin. But the design argument still lives, as an argument that the precise structure of laws and constants that seem uniquely fitted to produce life by a process of evolution is highly improbable. The existence of a designer or creator God makes this much less improbable. That is the new Design Argument, and it is very effective.”

richard swinburne
Richard Swinburne
  • One of the most eminent modern philosophers of religion is Richard Swinburne, Professor of Philosophy at Oxford (retired).
  • Swinburne is the chief exponent of what Ward calls the “new design argument” – an argument which takes a different path from the pre-Darwinian argument of Paley.
  • His argument is set out in The Existence of God.
  • Swinburne begins by distinguishing between spatial and temporal order. ‘Spatial order’ is the subject of Paley’s argument – how parts are fitted together in an orderly way by a designer. Swinburne regards this argument as defeated by Darwinism.
swinburne continued
Swinburne continued

I pass on to consider a form of teleological argument which seems to me a much stronger one-the teleological argument from the temporal order of the world. The temporal order of the universe is, to the man who bothers to give it a moment's thought, an overwhelmingly striking fact about it. Regularities of succession are all pervasive. For simple laws govern almost all successions of events. In books of physics, chemistry, and biology we can learn how almost everything in the world behaves. The laws of their behaviourcan be set out by relatively simple formulae which men can understand and by means of which they can successfully predict the future. The orderliness of the universe to which I draw attention here is its conformity to formula, to simple, formutable, scientific laws. The orderliness of the universe in this respect is a very striking fact about it. The universe might so naturally have been chaotic, but it is not-it is very orderly.

the god conclusion
The God conclusion
  • Given the striking pervasiveness of orderly laws of nature, Swinburne asks, how are we to explain the universe as we find it?
  • Swinburne claims that scientists are able to define laws, say how they work, and discover new ones. However, what scientists may never do is find a basis for the most fundamental laws in the first place.
  • In other words, the scientific method cannot explain why there is deep and fundamental order in the first place.
  • If there is no possible scientific explanation for this, then we are required to look for another simple and elegant explanation – the most likely answer, he claims, is God.
objections to modern design arguments
Objections to modern design arguments
  • Multiverse theory – there may be and may have been many universes, most of which are chaotic and do not sustain life. If there are many universes, the chance of an orderly universe emerging are not remote.
  • Humans over-state their importance – famously put forward by the American poet Mark Twain. The world was not created as an amazing habitat for man; man exists because of the world, not the other way around.

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theological objections to design
Theological objections to design
  • Finally, it may surprise you to know that some theists have objected to design arguments on theological grounds; they see these arguments as misrepresenting or diminishing the divine.
  • A classic example of this is the great artist, poet, and mystic William Blake (1757-1827). He wrote a work tellingly titled There is No Natural Religion (1788), which attacks the idea of the human senses encompassing the idea of the divine.
  • Blake argues that “none could have other than natural or organic thoughts” if reliant upon sensory perception alone. This removes the revelation of a transcendent God from the heart of religion, which Blake did not accept.

Isaac Newton, by William Blake (1795)

Blake’s opposition to natural religion is typified in his famous painting of Isaac Newton. Here, Newton is unflatteringly depicted at the bottom of the sea, fixed upon his mathematical drawings.

Blake, a visionary, opposed the idea of religion being discovered materially and naturally, through science. The possibility of different types of perception of the divine are important for Blake: man “perceives more than sense can discover”.

final questions
Final Questions
  • How has the argument developed over time?
  • Has the argument become more or less convincing over time?
  • Should theists make use of this argument to support their beliefs?
  • What alternatives do theists have to design arguments?
essay ib philosophy
Essay: IB Philosophy

To what extent is it possible to offer a convincing a posteriori proof for the existence of the divine, based upon the apparent design of the universe?

essay a level
Essay: A Level
  • (i) Explain the main features and strengths of the teleological argument for the existence of God [21 marks]
  • (ii) Consider critically the view that philosophical criticisms and scientific evidence show that the argument is now unconvincing [9 marks]