The Roman Philosopher Cicero’s Argument From Design

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.



  1. On the surface of it, this argument from design is compelling. But appearances can be very deceiving, especially when we attempt to extrapolate from our mundane experience. For millennia people thought that the earth was flat, stood still, and that all the heavenly bodies moved around us. The primary reasons were two: from our vantage it looked like the earth was flat, and that the sun, moon and stars were moving through the sky; second, there was no sensation of moving as when traveling in a chariot or on horseback, much less hurtling through space at astonishing speed. To the naked eye the entire cosmos appears to be made up of the stars we see, although they are just a tiny subset of even the stars in our galaxy, much less of the entire universe. All matter around us seems solid even though it is almost completely empty space, and what we feel is the force field generated by our beehive of buzzing molecules interacting with that of any object we come in contact with.

    Similarly, the cosmos and the world of living things has the appearance of being designed, the work of a master craftsman. This craftsman metaphor, in fact, has been used frequently by biblical writers, as well as others like Cicero. But here again is where first appearances, and our personal experience lets us down, as it often does when it comes to matters of grand scale, whether of time or space. Analogies within a scale – yes; analogies across vast differences of scale – no.

  2. Tom, the flat earth theory was not proposed due to the principle of complexity of design as is intelligent design. But here is a thought to ponder, if the world was flat would that diminish its complexity? Not at all. Whether flat or a sphere the issue of design still remains and must be dealt with. Discarded theories of science, whatever field it may be, does not in any way weaken the argument for ID. It simply means science gets it wrong and is in a constant state of flux – what was accepted as true today is rejected as false tomorrow. But this has no bearing on what does exist as true in terms of its complexity. When science held to a flat earth theory and was wrong, the universe was still there in all its brilliant undiscovered and complexity. The Standard Model of the universe still cannot answer the various “why” of the universe: why and how did an electron come to have a negative charge and a proton a positive charge …at the very beginning? Science merely states what was there but cannot explain the why of the properties peculiar to each element of the universe. Science, for example, cannot show a formula to explain why and how an electeon and proton have the particular charge they do. Science just states that they were there and then goes on to explain how their characteristics worked together to form matter. The design of the electron needed to make it functional can only be answered by ID/metaphysics because natural physics, absent of any formulas and proofs has no answer to issues like this. And we can go on forever with illustrations like this which natural science is simply incapable of providing answers because it is beyond its domain of research. I just listened to an
    interview with an atheist scientist the other day and stated quite frankly when asked about the origin of the universe: “science starts out with ‘I dont know.’ ” This wasnt stated in a context of knowing and thn finding an answer through research, but not knowing the many mysteries associated with the issue of origins and the why and how of it all…at the beginning.

    • The history of scientific inquiry makes me quite skeptical when you conclude “natural science is simply incapable of providing answers because it is beyond its domain of research” in reference to, for example, the “design of the electron”. I suspect our understanding of sub-atomic particles or exoplanets would also have been considered utterly beyond the reach of natural science just a few centuries ago. We now have some early data which indicate the possibility of detecting exoplanets in other galaxies, as well as the possible effect of other universes impacting our own. If these pan out, either one of these areas of scientific discovery would have been considered impossible just a generation or two ago. I am even more skeptical of the claim that “The design of the electron needed to make it functional can only be answered by ID”, a philosophical position which most likely coincides with your religious beliefs, so, perhaps, the result of motivated reasoning. Your remarks are well-stated and articulate, but they appear (to me) to amount to a God-of-the-gaps argument: Given our current scientific understanding we cannot imagine how X can be explained, therefore X must have a supernatural explanation. If you and I could both live to 200, I’d take the bet that science will, if not solve many mysteries you consider impossible, seriously chip away at them.

      • Tom, first let me say I am not opposed to science and research. In fact, I find it quite interesting and am not a “denier” of what verifiable objective evidence can prove. I agree furthermore that if x is not known in the present it may come to be known in the future. This is not only logical to assume but just flat out common sense. In instances like these I do not employ a “God of the gaps” approach. But at the same time it also is not logical to assume human beings will come to discover every “x” of the universe given the finite character of the intellect. Not only will we never know everything but we will forever be incapable of knowing everything. To argue to the contrary would be to argue for the absolute which is contrary to nature. We will never possess full knowledge of any subject matter whether individually or collectively. As long as the human brain remains in a flawed state in terms of its capacity to function, current mysteries of the unverse; i.e., “x” will forever remain “x.” This is not merely a logical assumption to make but a law of nature – our nature. Limited intelligence cannot rise to be unlimited in its discoveries. For example, if our genetics govern ultimately how fast we can run then likewise with our intelligence. Just like we will never be able to run above a certain speed, so also we will never be able to know above a certain level. Certain things will forever remain beyond our grasp of discovery due to a finite nature which will forever possess finite understanding. This, then, opens the door for possibilities, answers, which are beyond us in the natural/finite realm.

        I find it interesting that the mystery and unpredictability of quantum mechanics and its various “rebellions” against the classical laws of physics is accepted by science to explain certain aspects of our world and universe but metaphysics is looked upon as quackery. Well, at one time quantum mechanics wa viewed from the same perspective. Furthermore, when reading some of the things proposed by quantum theory I am convinced that “quantum mechanics”is in many, but not all, respects just an educated term for metaphysics.

        My point in all this is that the issue of the why and how of design cannot be fully answered through the avenue of finite intelligence. How DNA could “decide” on its own to randomly stop sequencing once it “knew” it had the right sequence to form a fully functional eye, for example, is beyond science. There has to be Awareness and Intelligence to “know” the sequence is right and then a Will to decide to stop the sequencing because the “product” is fully operational and mechanically sound. These three elemens – Intelligence, Awareness, and Will are properties of Being and thus is why we see these elements in human beings. It is not unlogical then to apply these same charateristics to a Being that is prior to us all, outside of us all, and above us all both in power and intelligence. When we fall back on “natural science” to explain things like the DNA mystery we are stopped dead in our tracks because there is no place to go. No theories that are even remotely sound, no equations with their concluding proofs, just one big “X” that refuses to be answered on finite grounds.

        Do I believe in a “God of the gaps?” A resounding and unhesitatingly YES! Belief in God does not violate laws of logic and is in many respects more consistent with them more so than science in attempting to answer the various “unknowns” of the universe. The argument that design requires a designer is just one example consistent with laws of logic and therefore applying this to God and the design of our universe is consistent as well. It is science which departs from logic when it chooses to eliminate the Designer from the design and replace it with “x.”

        • Good discussion Adam.

          Just as the telescope and numerous other technologies vastly extend the limits of finite human abilities, information technology and AI have already greatly extended the finite limits of human intellect. And AI is just in its infancy. That being the case, I’d be very skeptical of anything put in the “beyond human intelligence” category. To revise your analogy, just as we can move (“run”) well beyond our normal abilities using modern technology, with AI we’ll be able to vastly extend the limits of human intelligence. The one thing we don’t know is what those limits are. As recently as the nineteenth century there was concern that the human body might not be able to withstand speeds that can now be easily surpassed on racing cycles. Unimaginable to that quaint thinking is the fact that we now strap human beings to unimaginably powerful rockets and travel at mind-boggling speeds. With AI in its infancy now, the extended abilities of the human intellect in just a generation or two will probably make our current abilities look like the horse and buggy. What is truly hard to imagine is where we will be in a few centuries once we’ve developed general AI that can in turn design even more powerful AI. Again, if we could only live that long, I’d take that bet for just about any ‘x’.

          Your example of DNA and the eye is difficult to decipher. But if you’re talking about the evolution of the eye, we know a lot about how it developed, how in nature it runs the gamut of a basic light-detection patch to the amazing eagle eye, and how, under changed conditions, a creature can lose its ability to see when that sense is no longer needed. The DNA “sequence” is never “right” in the sense of perfect or at the endpoint of its development. All biological systems and functions are in a constant state of evolution, a process which uses the stuff on hand pushed forward by mutation and selection pressures. This is why the human eye, as functional as it is, has some very obvious flaws in its current “design”. But it works well enough given human needs. There is no need to posit a supernatural guiding hand in any of this. Anything we don’t currently know is well within our future abilities to discover. To say otherwise strikes me as a god-of-the-gaps argument. That you believe in a God-of-the-gaps is fine; god-of-the-gaps arguments are not. At the very least, they are based on false dichotomies.

          Design requires a designer: This is just the kind of logic that my original comments were addressing. Humanity has a long consistent history of getting it wrong whenever we try to extrapolate from the vantage of our time/space scale, filtered through our mundane experience, to grand scale processes such as the development of life in earth, or the structure of the solar system or universe. Limiting analogies to our time/space scale, a watch does require a watchmaker, design requires a designer. Extending analogies from our time/space scale to cosmic scales, design does not require a designer. That is, design as we experience design by humans, does not mean that the universe or solar system or planet earth and its life forms require the same kind of personal agency-style designer. Those kinds of analogies across grand scales have a long history of being consistently wrong.

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