The Teleological Argument [TA] is arguably one of the eldest and yet most popular arguments for the existence of God. It argues that from evidence of design within the universe we can infer the likes of an intelligent designer. We can do so in the same way that we warranted in inferring an intelligent designer for any object and product in which we can identify evidence of purposeful adaptation of means to some end (telos) (1).
The TA has its roots in some prominent ancient Greek thinkers and philosophers (2) (3). These philosophers were excited over what they perceived to be the order of the universe, especially when it concerned the likes of the “heavens” and celestial bodies. They argued that such order was the work of an intelligent mind responsible for creating the universe. The famous ancient philosopher Plato was particularly impressed (4). He believed that there were two things that “lead men to believe in the gods.” One reason was from his idea of the soul and the other concerned teleology. He argued that one could infer such “from the order of the motion of the stars, and of all things under the dominion of the mind which ordered the universe” (5). For Plato there must be a “king,” the “maker and father of all,” who so wonderfully furnished primordial chaos into the universe that we can observe today (6). We also find a concept of divine teleology in Aristotle’s work, particularly in the form of a fragment of his lost work On Philosophy within which he was equally impressed at the universe (7). Aristotle argued that behind the universe there must have been a First Unmoved Mover which was something intelligent and eternal, and the source of order in the cosmos.
The amazement at the apparent design of the universe was similarly vitalized in the more contemporary William Paley (1743-1805). Paley, a philosopher and Christian apologist himself, is remembered for his 1804 work on Natural Theology (8), and he is particularly pertinent to contemporary philosophy of religion as his views are often discussed (9). He was nonetheless thorough in his efforts and scrutinized the sciences of his time for any evidence of design in nature. He compiled much of his research, some of which pertained to anatomy including the likes of bones, muscles, blood vessels, and particular organs as found within the animal and plant kingdoms. He is also known for his famous “watch-maker argument,” a concept that has made its way into the work of some contemporary skeptics, particularly Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, in which Dawkins describes himself as a neo-Paleyan (10).
His watch-maker analogy argued that suppose one was walking and found a watch upon the ground, it would be absurd to argue that it has always just been there and has no explanation for its existence. No, Paley argued, rather, it cries out for explanation give that it is clearly designed, “its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose.” Such purpose being to show motion, the time of day, and the parts of different sizes placed in such a manner as to suggest its purpose. Paley concluded that “the inference, we think, is inevitable; that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use” (11).
Paley argued that we do not actually need to know how the watch was made to come to the conclusion that it was in fact designed. Imagine coming across a sophisticated communication device in the forest. Most people wouldn’t know how exactly it was made, though it would be quite obvious that somebody who knew how to make it, made it. Paley further observed that even if the watch that we found wasn’t working properly it still wouldn’t take away the purpose of the mechanism. Further, perhaps we found some parts of the mechanism that did not seem to have any purpose, it still wouldn’t take away its purpose and the purposeful design in the other parts.
Paley deduced that just as one might infer a watch-maker as the designer of the watch, so we should also infer an intelligent designer of nature; he wrote thusly, “For every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. I mean, that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtilty, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety: yet, in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect products of human ingenuity” (12).
A Modern Defense
Though many are critical of the TA (we will give the criticisms more airtime in future posts), there are a number of contemporary defenders. Notable among them are the likes of William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Georges Dicker, F.R. Tennant, Peter Bertocci, Stuart Hackett, and Richard Swinburne. It is worth observing that both Craig and Plantinga have been listed within the top 50 living philosophers (13). Craig, for example, argues that science, though he particularly emphasizes cosmological science, has revitalized the TA (14). He explains that “the scientific community has been stunned by its discovery of how complex and sensitive a nexus of conditions must be given in order for the universe to permit the origin and evolution of intelligent life on Earth” (15).
The discoveries within the fields of cosmology, quantum mechanics, biochemistry, astrophysics, and physics have revealed the incredibly delicate balance of physical and cosmological quantities that Craig speaks of. It is quite clear that if any one of these quantities were slightly altered to a tiny degree then life would be impossible. Thus, discoveries in modern physics have been argued to produce the appearance of fine-tuning necessary for the existence of intelligent life (16). These include fundamental constants such as electromagnetic interaction, proton to electron mass ratio, gravitation, and the weak and strong nuclear force. When one assigns values to these constants he discovers that the chances of the universe being able to support intelligent life is incredibly small.
What might occur should these constants be altered? For example, if the force of the big bang explosion had differed by one part in 10^60 then life would not be possible (17). Rather, the universe would have expanded to quickly for stars to form or have collapsed on itself meaning there would be no stars, planets, and no life. Then there is the density of the universe. If the density was any different then the non-uniformities would condense prematurely into black holes before the stars could form, hence making the universe life-prohibiting. Should one increase the gravitation constant by as little as 1%, all carbon would be burned into oxygen (18). Increase it by a mere 2% and protons would not form out of quarks. If the gravitational force had been a little greater then stars would have been red dwarfs, which are too cold to support planets capable of supporting life. If the force was any smaller then we’d only have blue giants which would burn too briefly for life to develop. If the mass and energy of the early universe were not evenly distributed to one part in 10^10^123 the universe would again be hostile to all forms of life.
Moreover, more specifically relating to life on Earth, two prominent scientists Barrow and Tippler, in their book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, lay out ten steps that the evolutionary process would need to have gone through in order to bring about modern man. However, their calculations suggested that each of these steps were so improbable that even before it could ever possibly occur our sun would have ceased to exist and in the process obliterate Earth. The number that Barrow and Tippler calculated for evolution to have produced mankind purely by chance fell between the values of: 4^-180^110 000 and 4^-380^110 000 (19). To comprehend the incredibility of this number, consider that the number of electron particles in the known universe stands in at 10^87, or that the number of observable stars is 10^24. Or the gigantic number of connections between neurons in our brains, 10^15 (1 quadrillion or 1,000,000,000,000,000). These are very large numbers but they nowhere come close to Barrow and Tippler’s calculation which shows how incredible the odds are stacked against chance. Craig has thus challenged the common assumption, one shared by atheists and theists alike, that evolution supports naturalism. He argues that it is actually a challenge to a naturalistic worldview saying evolution is not “a good argument for atheism, quite the contrary, I think it provides grounds for thinking that God superintended the process of biological development.” Plantinga has probed deeper in his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.
These discoveries have strongly convinced many scientists and thinkers to conclude that such an incredible balance cannot be simply dismissed as mere coincidence. Thus, it is incredibly tempting to conclude that the probability of a fine-tuned universe is so small that intelligent design must be the most adequate explanation. For example, according to agnostic cosmologist Paul Davies, “There is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all… It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature’s numbers to make the Universe… The impression of design is overwhelming” (20). The NASA astronomer John O’Keefe believed similarly saying that “We are, by astronomical standards, a pampered, cosseted, cherished group of creatures.. .. If the Universe had not been made with the most exacting precision we could never have come into existence. It is my view that these circumstances indicate the universe was created for man to live in” (21). And where biology in terms of DNA research is concerned, one of the world’s once most prolific atheists, Antony Flew, had a dramatic change of mind. Though Flew didn’t embrace Christian theism he did come to reject his atheism, “It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design” (22).
What is the Best Explanation?
There are three options that can explain the apparent fine-tuning of the universe (23). One might syllogistically represent the fine-tuning argument in the following way:
1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.
2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
3. Therefore, it is due to design.
For premise 1 the fine-tuning is either due to necessity, chance, or design. The question then is which of these three options is most plausible. It is important to observe that be saying the universe appears “fine-tuned” for life is not to say that is “designed.” Rather, it means that any tiny deviations from the actual values of the fundamental constants and quantities of nature would result in a life-prohibiting universe.
The theist argues that the fine-tuning of the universe is not due to necessity. What this alternative argues is that the constants and quantities of nature must have the values that they do. There is thus no, or a little chance, of the universe’s not being life-permitting. However, this strikes one as implausible given that it expects us to believe that a life-prohibiting universe is physically impossible (24). However, given the constants it would actually seem far more possible than its alternative. If any of the many constants and values were a fraction out, for example, if the universe did not expand at the speed it did, then life wouldn’t exist. Thus, it would seem that a life-prohibiting universe is itself not only possible but far more probable than a life-permitting one.
Where it concerns chance, it is believed that we just got really lucky. But this is incredibly unlikely given that the improbabilities involved are so high that one wouldn’t consider it a viable option. One theistic apologist, though I admit his name escapes me, made an analogy that I’ve always somehow remembered. He said that believing that chance explains the fine-tuning of the universe is analogues to winning the lottery a few thousands times in a row while believing that one was just getting really lucky the whole time. I suppose one would surely consider the option that chance isn’t involved there at all, so why should it be any different when it comes to fine-tuning of the universe?
Some have, however, tried to explain these incredible probabilities by appealing to what is known as the multiverse (25). The multiverse alleges that there are billions of other universes that also exist, and that because there are so many universes there is bound to be at least one of which is life supporting. Ours happens to be the one. This is problematic for the skeptic in at least two ways. First, it is problematic because no scientific evidence supports this speculation. For example, there is the level 1 and level 2 multiverse concepts. The Level 1 multiverse suggests that there are many more domains like ours within our universe where the same laws of physics operate. These other domains are speculated to exist beyond our cosmic visual horizon which is at 42 billion light years away, and is thus a promising avenue of research for cosmologists. However, the Level 2 multiverse is a different beast altogether. What it speculates is that there are actually many different types of universes (billions perhaps) that have different physics, different histories, and that are possibly teeming with life; a view that has been proposed by the likes of Alexander Vilenkin (26). The problem is that a Level 2 concept of the multiverse is at most an exercise in sheer speculation. Cosmologist George Ellis, one of the leading thinkers in the field, disputes that such a concept of the multiverse ought to be considered a scientific theory since a scientific theory implies something “being mathematically rigorous and experimentally testable” (27). Ellis contends that not only the existence of other these universes haven’t been proved but that they almost certainly could never be. After all, how if these other universes existed, could they ever be experimentally testable? And because of this “none of the claims made by multiverse enthusiasts can be directly substantiated.” But suppose that the Level 2 multiverse could somehow be scientifically verified. It still wouldn’t save the skeptic because he would then need to explain the universe generator that creates these billions of universes. He would need to not only explain its origin, but also the fine-tuning of the universe generator itself. For the skeptic the truth of a level 2 multiverse just pushes the fine-tuning back one step.
But what about the third option, the option of design? The theist thus argues that the fine-tuning is best explained by design, and an intelligent Mind behind the cosmos (28). Given that the other two options are not viable then it follows that it is due to design. The skeptic is therefore required to show that the design hypothesis even more implausible than its competitors or suggest an alternative explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe (29).
1. All About Philosophy. Teleological Argument. Available.
2. McPherran, M. 1996. The Religion of Socrates. p. 273-275
3. Kirk, G., Raven, J., Schofield, M. 1983. The Presocratic Philosophers (2nd ed.). p. 204; 235.
4, Sedley, D. 2007. Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity. p. xvii.
5. Plato, Laws 12.966e.
6. Plato, Laws 10.893b-899c
7. Aristotle, Metaphysica 1.982610–15.
8. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. William Paley (1743—1805). Available.
9. Philosophy of Religion. William Paley. Available.
10. Dawkins, R. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker.
11. Paley, W. 1802. Natural Theology. p. 3-4.
12. Paley, W. 1802. Ibid. p. 13.
13. The Best Schools. The 50 Most Influential Living Philosophers. Available.
14. Craig, W. & McLeod, M. 1990. “The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle,” in The Logic of Rational Theism: Exploratory Essays. p. 127-153.
15. Craig, W. The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle. Available.
16. Ross, H. 2001. The Creator and the Cosmos (3rd ed.). p. 145-157, 245-248; Biologos. What is the “fine-tuning” of the universe, and how does it serve as a “pointer to God”?; Craig, W. The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle.
17. Himma, K. Design Arguments for the Existence of God. Available.
18. Craig, W. The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle. Available.
19. Barrow, J. & Tippler, F. 1988. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. p. 566.
20. Davies, P. 1988. The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability To Order the Universe. p.203.
21. Heeren, F. 1995. Show Me God. p. 200.
22. Biola University. Atheist Becomes Theist: Exclusive Interview with Former Atheist Antony Flew. Available.
23. YouTube. 2013. Dr. Stephen Meyer at Cambridge. Available.
24. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith (3rd ed.). p. 338 (Scribd ebook format).
25. Dawkins, R. 2006. The God Delusion. p. 145.
26. Vilenkin, A. 2007. Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes.
27. Ellis, G. 2011. Does the Multiverse Really Exist? Available.
28. Craig, W. 2010. The New Atheism and Five Arguments for God. Available.
29. Kreeft, P. Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God. Available.