The teleological argument is one of the most popular contemporary arguments for the existence of God. It posits that from the evidence of design in the universe one can infer the existence of an intelligent designer who explains it.
The teleological argument has roots in ancient Greek philosophy. These philosophers were excited over what they perceived to be order in the universe, notably when perceiving the “heavens” and celestial bodies. They argued that this order was the work of an intelligent mind responsible for creating it (1). Plato, for example, believed that two things “lead men to believe in the gods.” One was from his idea of the soul and the other from teleology. Plato argued that one could infer teleology “from the order of the motion of the stars, and of all things under the dominion of the mind which ordered the universe” (Laws 12.966e). For Plato, there must be a “maker and father of all” who furnished primordial chaos into the universe that was observable to him (Laws 10.893b-899c). We also find divine teleology in Aristotle’s work who was equally impressed by the universe (Metaphysica 1.982610-15). Aristotle thought that behind the universe there must have been an Unmoved Mover which was something intelligent and eternal, and the source of order in the cosmos.
William Paley’s Watch-Maker Argument
An amazement at the apparent design of the universe found expression in the work of William Paley (d. 1805), a philosopher and Christian apologist remembered for his work on Natural Theology (1804). Paley was thorough in his efforts to scrutinize the sciences of his time for any evidence of design in nature. He collected a great deal of research on anatomy such as bones, muscles, blood vessels, and organs found within animals and plants. Most famously, Paley is remembered for his watch-maker argument. The watch-maker analogy proposed the scenario that supposes one finds a watch on the ground and wonders how it came to be. It would surely be absurd to argue that the watch has always just been there and has no explanation for its existence. No, Paley argued, the watch cries out for explanation. It especially cries out because it has been clearly designed as several parts are framed and put together for a 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” (2).
Paley also argued that the discoverers of the watch do not need to know how the watch was made to reason to the conclusion that it was designed. Paley then extrapolated from the watch to nature: just as one must infer a watch-maker who is the designer of the watch, one must also infer a designer of nature,
“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” (3).
Modern Revitalization Based on Science
Although many contemporary thinkers are critical of the teleological argument, there also a number of philosophers who find it compelling. Notable among the latter are William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Georges Dicker, F. R. Tennant, Peter Bertocci, Stuart Hackett, and Richard Swinburne. Craig argues that cosmological science has revitalized interest in the teleological argument (4). Craig writes 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” (5).
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 refers to. It is clear that if any of these quantities were slightly altered to a very small degree life would be impossible in the universe. These quantities 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 chance of the universe being able to support intelligent life is incredibly small.
What would happen if these constants were altered (6)? If, for instance, the force of the big bang had differed by one part in 10^60 then life would not be possible; rather, the universe would have expanded too quickly for stars to form or it would have collapsed on itself and produced no stars, planets, or 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. Increase it by 2% and protons would not form out of quarks. If the gravitational force had been a little greater then stars would be red dwarfs that are too cold to support planets capable of sustaining life. If the force was any smaller then there would only be blue giants that burn too quickly 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.
There are many more quantities and constants that have convinced a number of thinkers that the universe’s incredible balance cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence. This finely-tuned balance certainly gives the idea of an intelligent designer some warrant; 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” (6). NASA astronomer John O’Keefe thought 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” (7).
William Lane Craig’s Modern Formulation
William Lane Craig has formulated a simple syllogism that argues for a designer to the universe from the evidence of fine-tuning:
P1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.
P2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
P3. Therefore, it is due to design.
This is a logically valid argument that if sufficiently supported in its premises proves that the universe is designed and must therefore have a designer. Premise 1 states that the fine-tuning must be explicable by necessity, chance, or design. The question that follows is then which of these three options is most plausible. To avoid the trappings of circular reasoning, P3 is not assumed in P1: to say that universe appears fine-tuned for life is not to say that is designed; rather, it simply highlights how any tiny deviations from the actual values of the fundamental constants and quantities of nature would result in a life-prohibiting universe.
Craig argues that the fine-tuning of the universe is not due to necessity. There is no reason for the constants and quantities of nature to have the exact values that they do (8). It was entirely possible for the universe to be life-prohibiting; in fact, if one were to rewind cosmic evolution the chances of having a life-permitting universe like we have now seem to be very unlikely.
Further, those who think that chance is a likely candidate for explaining the fine-tuning claim that we just got really lucky. However, Craig argues that chance is too unlikely in light of the improbabilities involved. The improbabilities in the universe by mere chance producing constants and quantities making it life-permitting are so unlikely that one would not consider it a viable option in any other area of life. It would be like deeming oneself capable of winning the lottery a few thousand times in a row while believing that he just got really lucky the whole time. Few lottery winners of this type would think chance explains it; similarly, Craig maintains that shouldn’t think any differently when it comes to fine-tuning of the universe.
Some critics have attempted to account for the unlikeliness of a life-permitting universe by appealing to the multiverse theory (9). This hypothesis claims that there are billions of other universes that exist besides this one and that because there are so many there is bound to be one that is life-supporting. Our universe happens to be this exact one. But proponents of the teleological argument finds this problematic for at least two reasons. First, it is problematic because no scientific evidence supports this hypothesis. There are level 1 and level 2 multiverse concepts that help illustrate this point. The Level 1 multiverse suggests that there are many more domains like ours within the universe where the same laws of physics operate. These other domains are thought to exist beyond the cosmic visual horizon that is a stone’s throw 42 billion light-years away. This level 1 hypothesis is indeed a promising avenue of research for cosmologists. However, the Level 2 multiverse is different and far more extravagant. What it proposes is that there are actually many different types of universes (billions perhaps) that have different physics and histories, and that are possibly teeming with life (10). However, the Level 2 hypothesis is speculative; cosmologist George Ellis, a leading thinker in the field, disputes viewing the multiverse as scientific because it implies something “being mathematically rigorous and experimentally testable” when it is not (11). Not only has the existence of these other universes not been shown scientifically, but they could never be shown at all. Even if these other universes really do exist, how could they be experimentally testable? Well, they can’t and this lead Ellis to state that “none of the claims made by multiverse enthusiasts can be directly substantiated.”
The teleological argument leaves one with the third option of design. Craig argues that the fine-tuning is best explained by design and by an intelligent mind/designer behind the universe. This follows since the other two options are not viable ones whereas the design candidate is the best. Design is what best explains the universe’s fine-tuning and why it is life-permitting. Craig says that the pressure is on the skeptic to demonstrate that the design hypothesis is less plausible than chance or necessity.
1, Sedley, D. 2007. Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity. p. xvii.
2. Paley, W. 1802. Natural Theology. p. 3-4.
3. Paley, W. 1802. Ibid. p. 13.
4. Craig, W. & McLeod, M. 1990. “The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle,” in The Logic of Rational Theism: Exploratory Essays. p. 127-153.
5. Craig, W. The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle. Available.
6. Davies, P. 1988. The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability To Order the Universe. p. 203.
7. Quoted by Heeren, F. 1995. Show Me God. p. 200.
8. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith (3rd ed.). p. 338 (Scribd ebook format).
9, Dawkins, R. 2006. The God Delusion. p. 145.
10. Vilenkin, A. 2007. Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes.
11. Ellis, G. 2011. Does the Multiverse Really Exist? Available.
12. Craig, W. 2010. The New Atheism and Five Arguments for God. Available.