The design argument for God is perhaps most commonly associated with the Anglican priest, apologist, and philosopher William Paley (1743-1805) and his book Natural Theology (1802).
Yet the design argument is by no means original to Paley and can be traced to much earlier thinkers, one of whom is the Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher of the first century BCE Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE). Cicero provides a formulation of the design argument as follows,
“When you look at a picture or a statue, you recognize that it is a work of art. When you follow from afar the course of a ship, upon the sea, you do not question that its movement is guided by a skilled intelligence. When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artiﬁcers? Our friend Posidonius as you know has recently made a globe which in its revolution shows the movements of the sun and stars and planets, by day and night, just as they appear in the sky. Now if someone were to take this globe and show it to the people of Britain or Scythia would a single one of those barbarians fail to see that it was the product of a conscious intelligence?”
The similarity to Paley’s argument presented almost 1900 years later is clear and obvious. Like Paley’s use of analogy alleging that the universe evidences complexity like one finds with a watch, so too does Cicero appeal to analogy by maintaining that the systematic movements of the sun and planets seem analogous to the movements of a sundial and water-clock. The conclusion then is that the movements of the sun and planets, as well as of the universe as a whole, are also designed by an intelligent being.
Cicero argues that to believe the complexity of the universe to be the result of chance and blind accidental collisions of inanimate particles is infinitesimal at best,
“Is it not a wonder that anyone can bring himself to believe that a number of solid and separate particles by their chance collisions and moved only by the force of their own weight could bring into being so marvelous and beautiful a world? If anybody thinks that this is possible, I do not see why he should not think that if an inﬁnite number of examples of the twenty-one letters of the alphabet, made of gold or what you will, were shaken together and poured out on the ground it would be possible for them to fall so as to spell out, say, the whole text of the Annals of Ennius. In fact I doubt whether chance would permit them to spell out a single verse!”
Cicero’s words certainly stress his incredulity when it comes to the probabilities that chance alone could result in such marvelous complexity, such as one finds in the universe or textual composition. This leads Cicero to ask,
“So how can these people bring themselves to assert that the universe has been created by the blind and accidental collisions of inanimate particles devoid of color or any other quality? And even to assert that an inﬁnite number of such worlds are coming into being and passing away all the time. If these chance collisions of atoms can make a world, why cannot they build a porch, or a temple, or a house or a city? A much easier and less laborious task.”
This type of argument from design continues to live on in the present and proves appealing to many thinkers. Many contemporary proponents of design claim that the argument has never been stronger in light of discoveries within the fields of cosmology, quantum mechanics, biochemistry, astrophysics, and physics that have revealed the incredibly delicate balance of physical and cosmological quantities. 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 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. By all appearances, as Cicero claimed, the complexity of the universe seems to evidence design and therefore owes itself to a designer.
Nagasawa, Yujin. 2011. The Existence of God: A Philosophical Introduction. Taylor & Francis Group. p. 68
Hunter, Graeme. 2009. “Cicero’s Neglected Argument from Design.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 17(2) 2009:235-245.