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Teleological or Design Arguments




A. Definition

Teleological arguments make a case for the existence of God on the basis of perceived design, order, or purpose in the natural world or cosmos.  They are inductive (probabilistic), empirical (experientially based), or a posteriori (Latin: “what follows or comes after”). Also called design arguments, they have appealed to such general features of the universe as its beauty, its orderly or law-like operations, the interconnectedness of its parts, and its overall intelligibility. They have also appealed to more specific features such as its suitability for life, its providing the right conditions for moral growth, or its including conscious beings.

B. Basic Argument Structure

Premise: The natural world exhibits order, design, and purpose
Conclusion: A Divine Designer probably exist

C. Versions

1. Analogical model of argumentation (Paley)

2. Explanatory model of argumentation (recent and current versions/ F. R. Tennant, R. Swinburne).                                                                          

Recent versions are arguments to the best explanation of the empirical, experiential data. They claim that the theistic (intentional, purposive design) hypothesis of an intelligent creator is a better, more plausible explanation of the data than is the naturalistic hypothesis of random, chance, or blind operations of nature. Some versions incorporate evolution within the divine design, while other versions compete with the evolutionary model of explanation.

D. Analogical Version: William Paley (1743-1805)

Early versions took the form of an analogy between human productions (artifacts, creations, contrivances) and various things/processes in nature, or the natural universe as a whole.  Given such a similarity or resemblance, it is reasonable to conclude that the universe was also designed.

D.1 Argument

1. Human artifacts (e.g., a watch) are products of intelligent design or purpose. (Mechanical model)

2. Things in the universe (e.g., a human eye), and the universe as a whole, resemble human artifacts. (Biological examples)

3. Therefore, the universe is probably the product of intelligent design or purpose. (The universe as machine)

4. The universe is far more complex and infinitely larger than any human artifact.

5. Therefore (from 3 and 4), there probably is a very powerful and intelligent designer of the universe.

Proportional analogy:  A:B as C:D (A is to B as C is to D)

The watch (A) is to the human designer (B) as the universe (C) is to the divine designer (D). Accordingly, it is an analogical argument from the similarity of effects to the similarity of causes.

D.2 Critical Questions Concerning the Strength of the Analogical Argument from Design

1. What are the features in terms of which our universe, or things in it, are said to resemble a machine? (Resemblance)

Teleological system: Any system of parts (mechanical, organic, ecological, etc.) in which the parts are so arranged that under proper conditions they work together to serve a certain purpose. The character Cleanthes, who represents the natural or rational religion of the philosopher in Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion (1779), defines it as a “curious adaptation of means to ends throughout nature.” Accordingly, the parts of X (anything at all) are interconnected and interdependent, functioning in a balanced, coordinated fashion to accomplish a specific goal, end, or purpose (Greek: telos).

Mechanical examples: watch, telescope, camera, car, elevator, airplane, etc.
Organic examples: eye, human body, plants, animal hibernation, etc.                  
Ecological examples: seasonal cycle, flora and fauna interrelationship

2. Are these features relevant to the question of whether the universe arose from intelligent design? (Relevance)

The alleged, so-called teleological systems in nature at least appear to be relevant to the question. They seem to be at least initially plausible. 

D.3 David Hume’s (1711-1776) Objections

1. Criticisms of the argument that the universe is like a machine.

a) Universe appears to be more like an organism than a machine. If this is true, the analogical inference to a world-designer is undermined.         

b) Although design and order exist in the part of the universe we inhabit, for all we know there are vast reaches of the universe in which absolute chaos reigns.

c) Granting that intelligent design is observed to be a cause in the production of things within the small fragment of the universe we can observe, it is nevertheless an unreasonable leap to thereby conclude that intelligent design is the productive force throughout the entire universe.

d) The existence of evil (pain, suffering, cruelty, violence, etc.) in the world is conveniently ignored by proponents of the TA. The analogical argument infers the probable existence of the theistic God from the alleged design exhibited in the world. But, even conceding the existence of such design, it would be only one aspect of the natural world. Hence, the analogy is selective and partial and the resulting world-designer is viewed strictly on the basis of the selective analogy. As the cosmic creator, wouldn’t the world-designer be the author or origin of all aspects of the created universe? Hume claims the consistent application of the analogical approach implies his criticism.

2. Criticisms of the claim that the teleological argument provides us with adequate grounds for belief in the theistic God.

a) The theistic God is a single being who created the universe. But since we know that many machines, buildings, automobiles, and other devices result from the combined efforts of many designers, the universe might be the product of the work of many minor deities, each possessed of limited intelligence and skill.

b) The theistic God is incorporeal, a purely spiritual being. But, again, if we infer from the similarity between the world of nature and a machine to a similarity of their causes, then, since in the case of machines we know of no cause (human beings) that is incorporeal, we have no grounds to infer that whatever produced the world is an incorporeal being.

c) An analogical inference from a particular effect to a particular cause must be strictly proportionate. We are not warranted or justified in ascribing any qualities to the unknown cause except those exactly sufficient to produce the known effect. Therefore, at best the TA may legitimately infer a design-producing being(s) but not the omnipotent, omnibenevolent, incorporeal, monotheistic God of traditional Western theism.