The Teleological Argument

© 2011 By Paul Herrick

Issues in Philosophy of Religion

2. The Teleological Argument
Analogical Version

What could be more clear or obvious when we look up to the sky and contemplate the heavens, than that there is some divinity of superior intelligence? –Cicero, De Natura Deorum.

The telos of a thing (ancient Greek: purpose or end) is “the endpoint, goal, or purpose at which it is directed).” For instance, if I am walking to the store to buy some milk, purchasing milk is the telos of my walking to the store. A teleological argument for God’s existence is so named because it argues, in so many words, that the material universe is purposeful, or goal-directed, in nature and from that it reasons to God’s existence as the architect, or designer, of the material universe.


It is the first morning of summer in the year 450 B.C. The sun is just coming up and the old philosopher is sitting on a hill above ancient Athens, Greece. Observing. Listening. Reflecting on life. The sun is rising. The flowers are in full bloom and their sweet scent is in the air. On a nearby hill, a sheep gives birth. A small stream gently makes its way to the sea. And as he has thought many times before, he thinks again:

Each thing within nature has its own special role to play within the overall order of things.

And he reflects on this overall order:

Within the system of nature as a whole, the many parts are intertwined and balanced, like the notes of a beautfiul song or the premises of a good argument.

And he reflects on this overall harmony:

Nature is a a functioning system, a complex whole made up of interconnected parts functioning in harmony.

The ancient Greek word for the universe was kosmos, a word which meant “an orderly and harmonic whole.” Today, the word cosmos carries this same ancient meaning: the universe understood as an orderly and harmonic whole.i

The old philosopher now looks at the city below. Athens is beginning to awake. Farmers are transporting their produce down the roads into the city. People are gathering in the public forum in the center of town, the agora (marketplace) is opening. And he reflects on the city:

Each part of the city has its own unique role to play within the overall order of the city. The roads exist so that farmers and merchants can transport their goods into and out of the city; the marketplace is where people buy and sell; public speeches are given at the forum, and so on. The whole wouldn't function if each part did not serve its purpose.

And he reflects on this overall order:

Like nature, the city has a harmonious order. The city, like the system of nature, rolls through its cycles, year after year, intertwined parts balanced in a harmony.

In a nearby grove of olive trees, a shepherd plays a flute. The soft music causes the old philosopher to reflect again. This time, he thinks:

Each note in the song makes a contribution to the harmony and beauty of the whole. Each note has its own unique role to play.ii

The balance and harmony of the song reminds the old philosopher of something that happened the other day. As he was standing in front of a temple in downtown Athens, he was deeply moved by its beauty.iii And at that moment he had thought to himself: The beauty of the structure has to do with the balance and harmony of its many parts. Each column, each piece of marble, each statue, each element makes a contribution to the overall structure of the whole, the beauty emerges from the way in which the parts are arranged. Like nature, a magnificent building is also a whole made up of intertwined, balanced parts functioning in harmony.

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The old philosopher in our story is pondering an analogy—a similarity or resemblance—between things. The things being compared are:

  • The order of the city
  • The order of a song
  • The order of a building
  • The order of nature

All these examples of order have in common this feature: Many parts are intertwined and balanced within an overall whole or structure that functions. What to make of all this?

There are standard logical principles for reasoning about analogies. One of the oldest principles of analogical reasoning has been summed up in a famous slogan “Like effects have like causes.” For example, suppose Pat gets sick and has a particular set of symptoms. Suppose the next day his sister Sue gets sick and has similar symptoms. If the doctor discovers that the cause of Pat's illness is a flu virus, it would be reasonable to conclude that the cause of Sue's illness is probably also a flu virus. The effects—the symptoms—are alike, and so we reason that the cause in each case is probably alike as well.

Such reasoning naturally gives rise to the following argument, which the old philosopher has actually presented on many different occasions:

We know the initial or ultimate cause of the temple’s order or structure: it was designed by an architect for a purpose. Similarly, we know the cause of Athen’s order: it is due to the work of city planners. Likewise, the harmony in a song is carefully crafted by the composer. In each case, the ultimate cause is the same: an intelligent designer, one who imposes order and purpose on all the parts in order to create the whole.

Since the kind of order we see in nature is similar to the kind of order we see in a building, a city, or a work of art, namely, parts arranged in a structure that functions, and since similar effects probably have similar causes, the cause of nature's order is probably similar to the cause of the other types of order. The mind of a designer. But not just any designer: an intelligence great enough to craft the entire system of the cosmos. A Designer of Nature. A being many would naturally call “God.” This is one way to put the teleological argument for the existence of God.

The philosopher rises and starts down his favorite path through a grove of old olive trees. He is headed down to the marketplace where people are beginning to gather. Maybe today somebody will be in the mood to set aside the mundane business of life and to reflect upon, and discuss, the question of where it all came from and where it is all going. Maybe someone will be in the mood for philosophy (from the Greek philein for love and Sophia for wisdom, literally, “the love of wisdom”).

Footnote: The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (c. 500-428 B.C.) was the first in history to present in written form a version of this line of argument as a philosophical case for the existence of a designer of the cosmos. The argument has since been defended by a long line of philosophers, including philosophers from the Stoic school of philosophy, first in Greece and then in Rome, and by Augustine (354-430), Aquinas (1225-1274), Leibniz (1646-1716), and Paley (1743-1805). The first systematic critique of the argument was written by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). The argument has also been critqued in the writings of Kant (1724-1804), Darwin (1809-1882), and others.

The ancient Greek philosophers thought of the universe as a cosmos—an orderly, harmonious whole. The contemporary philosopher David Stewart calls the cosmos idea a “brilliant leap forward in the history of thought, an advance absolutely essential to the development of modern physical science.” However, the ancient Greeks went further and proposed that the order of the cosmos is something that can be investigated and eventually understood by unassisted human reason. L. P. Gerson, a scholar of ancient philosophy, writes that it was “a remarkable advance on common sense to intuit that there are reasons for the regularity [of the cosmos] and that different sorts of regularity or patterns in nature are linked by common underlying principles” understandable by human reason. This assumption, or guiding principle, that the universe is rationally explicable, claims Gerson, is one “without which any scientific enterprise cannot hope to begin.”v Whether or not one agrees with the argument and the assumptions on which it is based, the philosophical debate over the teleological argument was a milestone on the road to modern science.

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The Atomists Counter the Teleological Argument

In the fifth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Leucippus of Miletus proposed a theory that bears an amazing likeness to modern atomic physics. Leucippus argued that if you were to begin cutting a piece of matter such as a rock into smaller and smaller pieces, the process could not go on forever; eventually you would have to reach particles that can no longer be cut in half. For if the process could go on forever, he argued, then there is no smallest particle, in which case any object of finite size is composed of an infinite number of parts each with a finite size. But it would then seem to follow that any finite object is really infinite in size, not finite, which is absurd (since an infinite number of finite parts adds up to an infinite quantity). Thus, Leucippus concluded, there must exist a smallest possible particle—too tiny to see—a particle of matter that cannot be cut in half, which he named an “atom” (Greek for an “uncuttable”). Everything, Leucippus argued, must be composed of atoms. The school of philosophical thought started by Leucippus and his colleague Democritus (ca 460-360 B.C.), came to be called “atomism” since it reduced all things to atoms.

The question naturally arises: How did all the atoms get themselves into the orderly and complicated structures we see around us and into the overall structure that we call the cosmos? In other words, how did the order of the universe and within it arise? Leucippus proposed a daring hypothesis, which may be summarized as follows:

The origin of all order is simply accident. That is, there is no God or “Intelligent Designer,” the orderly structure we call the cosmos is all just one big unintended chance event. Long ago, atoms were randomly falling through empty space, and by pure chance, in an accidental collision, they just fell into the pattern of an orderly universe. It just happened that way, for no reason at all.

Of course, someone had to ask the further question: But how did the atoms themselves originate? Aren’t we forced by logic to suppose they were originally created by God? Leucippus had thought about this possibility, and he had rejected it as an unnecessary explanatory inference. It is simpler, he argued, to hypothesize that the atoms have just always existed. If we suppose they are eternal, then we have no need to explain how they came to be. This logic caused Leucippus and his fellow atomists to hypothesize that three things are eternal and uncreated: atoms, motion, and empty space, which the atomists called “the Void.” Nothing else exists, argued the atomists, in particular, no Designer of the cosmos exists; everything is just atoms and the void. And with that, Leucippus closed his philosophical shop for the day, saying in so many words, “Time to go home, the questions have all been answered.”

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One Reply to the Atomists

The Teleological Argument
IBE Version

The atomist argument is an inference to the best explanation (IBE), also called an “explanatory argument” and an “abductive argument”. However, not everyone in ancient times agreed that cosmic Chance is the best explanation of cosmic Order. For example, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the schools of thought descending from them all rejected pure chance as a reasonable source of cosmic order. Eventually, an inference to the best explanation version of the teleological argument was given in response to the atomist argument, most prominently by members of the Stoic school of philosophy. Here is one way to put the argument:

What explains the fact that the universe is a cosmos rather than a chaos? There are several potential hypotheses.

  1. Perhaps the atoms have always been arranged in an orderly manner.

    The problem is that this would not answer the question at hand. It no more answers the question than "It's always been there" answers the question "Why is there a river at the bottom of the Grand Canyon?" To say how long something has persisted does not explain its existence.

  2. “Maybe it all happened by chance.”

    This is the atomist proposal. The problem is that chance alone—with no mechanism or process that explains how order emerges from chance—is not a satisfying explanation for something as complicated as the cosmos.

  3. In all of our experience, when we see order coming into being, and when we can trace the order back to a source, the source is always the same thing: an intelligent mind, a designer, a planner. Our own personal experience teaches us that order originates with an intelligent mind. In our experience, we find no other ultimate source of order.

    Furthermore, ordering means to an end, arranging elements with an overall purpose in mind, directing parts toward a telos—this seems to be one of the principal activities of an intelligent mind, one of the mind's most distinctive talents.

  4. Since nothing else in our experience has the production of order as its principle function, the most reasonable hypothesis, the “best explanation” of the order of the cosmos, is that it stems from a designer of nature, a transcendent mind which framed the structure of the universal system.

    The first teleological argument examined above was analogical in nature, for it was based on an analogy between the form of a city plan, a composition, an architectural design, and the order of nature. This version of the teleological argument is based on the idea that a designer of nature is the best explanation of the world's order. This is an inference to the best explanation version of the teleological argument. Many philosophers believe that the argument is stronger in its IBE form.

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Hume Critiques the Design Argument

The first modern philosopher to write an important and systematic critique of the teleological argument was the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). Hume attacked the teleological argument along four general fronts. First, he attacked the analogy between nature, or any part of nature, and an intelligently designed machine. Nature, Hume argued, is not very much like an intelligently designed machine; there are many disanalogies.

Second, he attacked the claim that an intelligent designer of nature is the most reasonable conclusion. Perhaps the order of nature comes from an unintelligent source, one more like a spider weaving a complex and orderly web than an intelligent architect designing a building. Thus Hume wrote:

The [Hindu] Brahmins assert, that the world arose from an infinite spider, who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels, and annihilates afterwards the whole or any part of it, by absorbing it again, and resolving it into his own essence.

Third, Hume attacked the inference that the designer is God as traditionally conceived, that is, an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, personal, religiously significant supreme being who cares about human beings. If there is a designer of nature, Hume argued, perhaps the designer is not all-knowing or all-good, etc.; perhaps it is not anything at all like what God is thought to be. Perhaps the designer is a “stupid mechanic” who keeps botching the job of designing a cosmos:

And what purpose must we entertain, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which through a long succession of ages, after multiple trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving? Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out. Much labor lost; many fruitless trials made. And a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages of world-making.

The “stupid mechanic” hypothesis is an alternative to the intelligent designer hypothesis. Indeed, Hume argued, why hypothesize only one designer, or God? Why assume monotheism (one designer-God)? Why not postulate polytheism (many gods)? After all, a machine or a complex mechanism is typically the product of a committee of designers. Thus, Hume wrote:

A great number of men join in building a house or a ship... Why may not several deities combine in framing a world?iv

In short, Hume argued, the design argument does not establish monotheism; at best it gives us some reason to accept polytheism.

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In Reply

Suppose we have a phenomenon that needs explaining and two hypotheses that both equally explain all the data. However, suppose one hypothesis is simpler than the other. (One hypothesis is simpler than another if it contains fewer assumptions, has a simpler structure, or makes reference to fewer explanatory entities.) It is an accepted principle of scientific method that when we must choose between two explanatory hypotheses that each equally explain the same data, the simpler hypothesis is the more reasonable choice.

This principle was first formulated during the Middle Ages by the British philosopher William of Ockam (1285-1349) and is known as Ockam's Razor (because it has us shave our explanatory theories down to a minimum). Ockam put his principle this way:

What can be explained with fewer terms is explained in vain with more.

Ockam's razor is also sometimes put this way:

One should not multiply entities beyond what is necessary to explain the phenomenon.

For instance, suppose a criminologist examines a crime scene and finds 60 shoeprints, all made by size 12 Bruno Magli dress shoes. A number of hypotheses suggest themselves: Perhaps one person wearing size 12 Bruno Magli shoes left the prints. Perhaps two Colombian hit men, each wearing identical Bruno Maglis, left the prints, and so on. If each hypothesis is equally consistent with the evidence, the first hypothesis is the reasonable choice. This is Ockam's Razor at work.

In their attempt to explain the complexity of the world, scientists typically try to explain the complex in terms of the less complex, which is in turn explained in terms of the less complex, until a level of simplicity is reached. For instance, millions of different chemicals exist. However, the complexity of most of these millions of chemicals is explained in terms of only 92 naturally occurring elements on the Periodic Table. (Each chemical compound is a combination of a small number of these elements.) Moreover, the chemical elements of the periodic table are in turn explained in terms of a smaller set of entities called “subatomic particles.” The complexity of the chemical realm is thus “reduced” to a basis of simplicity.

Ockam's Razor favors monotheism over polytheism, for monotheism is simpler than polytheism: Monotheism explains nature's design in terms of one designer while polytheism explains it in terms of many, and one is simpler than many. Thus, if we follow sound scientific practice and shave our theory with Ockam's Razor, monotheism seems more reasonable than polytheism.vii

Some theists have suggested a different response to Hume on this point. In the case of a complicated engineering project, the committee of engineers, or designers, is always headed by one “supreme” designer. On a big design project, there must always be someone in charge; otherwise the engineers will interfere with each other and chaos will ensue. So even if we do suppose a committee of designers is responsible for the cosmos, we still have reason to believe in the existence of a supreme designer whose authority extends over the whole universe.

Fourth, Hume attacked the claim that an intelligent designer is the best explanation of nature's order. Hume argued that an intelligent deity is not the only way to explain the apparent orderliness and design of the world, for alternative hypotheses such as the spider hypothesis or the stupid mechanic hypothesis (above) can also explain nature's order without bringing God or an intelligent designer into the picture. Hume also proposed an additional hypothesis, one reminiscent of ancient Greek atomism: Perhaps the order of the cosmos is simply the accidental result of the random movement of particles, movements not guided by any intelligence or plan whatsoever. This hypothesis, Hume suggested, is as good an explanation (of order) as design. After all, a finite number of particles is only susceptible of finite transpositions: and it must happen, in an eternal duration, that every possible order or position must be tried an infinite number of times…

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A Final Objection: Who Designed the Designer?

The teleologist infers the existence of an intelligent designer in order to account for the universe's design. However, argued Hume, the mind of a cosmic designer would itself be an instance of complex order. Since the theist supposes that complex order owes its existence to intelligent design, it would seem that the design within the designer needs to be explained in terms of a designer of the designer. But this in turn would need to be explained in terms of an even higher designer, a designer of the designer of the designer, and so on to infinity. No improvement.

After all, Hume reasoned, if the theist can ask, “Who or what designed the cosmos?” then the atheist can ask, “Who or what designed the designer?” If the theist replies that nothing designed the designer, then the atheist can say that nothing designed the cosmos, and the two views tie for first place.

Darwin’s Challenge

“Well,” someone might respond, “this teleological reasoning may have been OK in ancient times, but hasn’t modern science made it all obsolete?”

In 1859 Darwin published The Origin of Species. The theory of evolution presented and defended in his book constituted the first nonteleological explanation of complex life. Before Darwin’s theory of evolution, an atheist who sought to explain the existence of complex forms of life had only one alternative to intelligent design: pure chance. Not a very compelling alternative. Everything changed with the publication of Darwin’s theory, which claimed to explain how complex order and complicated forms of life might arise through an unplanned, unconscious material process, one that was not designed or directed by a higher intelligence or by a god at all. In other words, Darwin claimed to have discovered an undesigned, unconscious process capable of producing order from disorder. In this passage from The Origin of Species, Darwin gives the process a name:

If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organization, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being's own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.viii

The idea is this: Organisms tend to produce more offspring than the environment can support. As a result, each generation of organisms competes in a struggle for existence, and many individual organisms die. Offspring resemble their parents closely but vary slightly. Some of the variations in the offspring are advantageous in the struggle for existence and enable their possessors to live longer and reproduce in greater numbers. Other variations are harmful and cause their possessors to die off without reproducing. Over extremely long periods of time, Darwin hypothesized, across many generations, this weeding out process, operating without any designer or controller, produces complicated forms of life out of simpler forms of life.

Once Darwin's theory appeared, many scientists claimed that we no longer have any need to suppose nature was designed by a great designer. Darwin wrote in private correspondence:

The old argument of design in nature…which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by a man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection than in the course which the wind blows.ix

The American evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma has written that “by coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of life superfluous.”

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A Reply

“Not so fast!” defenders of the teleological argument reply. A deeper level of functional order must be in place before any Darwinian evolutionary process can actually get going. Furthermore, they argue, this preevolutionary background order has all the hallmarks of intelligent design, including the existence of systems and subsystems with many parts all arranged in a complex, but improbable, order. Thus, although a process of natural selection may explain the existence of complex forms of life, the claim here is that it cannot explain the existence of this deeper level of order, a highly complex background order existing at the atomic and subatomic levels, which must be in place if any evolutionary process is even going to be possible.

Of course, the reply to this argument attempts to account for the “background order” in a nonteleological way. From this point on the back and forth discussion gets very technical, and the reader is referred to the sources for more information.

Box: The Cosmonaut “Disproof” of God’s Existence

In 1961 Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the earth. Speaking from space aboard his ship Vostok I, he said: “I don’t see any god up here.” Can you construct an argument against the existence of God out of Yuri’s remark? How about a counterargument?

i The word cosmetics is another derivative of kosmos and also signifies an orderly and harmonic whole.

ii Notice that when a musician hits a wrong note, we can tell it right away. We naturally say that the wrong note “doesn't fit,” “doesn't work,” is “out of harmony” with the rest of the notes, and so on.

iii The Parthenon was the temple of Athena on the Acropolis in ancient Athens. It was completed in approximately 438 B.C., and is considered the first and finest of the peripteral Doric temples.

iv David Stewart, Exploring the Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1980), p.77.

v L.P. Gerson,God and Greek Philosophy. Studies in the Early History of Natural Theology, p.14.

vi See Louis Pojman, Philosophy of Religion, 42.

vii In Hume's day, there was another consideration in favor of monotheism. Consider the unity of the universe, as revealed just by late eighteenth century Newtonian physics. According to Newtonian physics, one pattern of order, expressible in the form of mathematical laws, pervades the whole universe. One pattern of order suggests one designer. At least, the hypothesis of a single designer seems to be the simplest way to explain a single universal pattern oforder. This is another reason why the order of the universe counts against the polytheistic hypothesis and in favor of the monotheistic hypothesis. For a modern scientific account of the comprehensive unity of the universe, see the sources cited in note 10 above.

viii Quoted in Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Evolution and the Meaning of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), p. 48. (Originally from The Origin of Species, p.127.)

ix Quoted in Robert Augros and George Stanciu, The New Biology. Discovering the Wisdom in Nature (Boston: New Science Library, 1987), p. 228-9.

x Quoted in William Dembski, Mere Creation. Science, Faith, and Intelligent Design. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p.73.

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