The teleological argument notes

Definition and history

Aquinas’ 5th Way

5 – The argument from design, i.e. the purposeful design in nature means that the world has a designer = God

This argument comes from telos which means end or purpose – from design to purpose to God.

[How to remember this one: someone designed the telly!]

Aquinas said:

‘Something causes in all other things their being, their goodness, perfections… and this is what we call God.’

‘Goal directed behaviour is observed in all bodies obeying natural laws, even when they lack awareness.’

He goes on to say that objects lacking awareness needed to be directed by something/ someone with understanding i.e. God.


This argument is based on observation of nature and the evidence of pattern and order within the universe.

It is another a posteriori argument in that it based on evidence and evidence is often considered good ground for establishing proof.


Arguments in favour:

William Paley 1743-1805 used the example of the watch found lying on the ground – anyone picking it up and examining it would have to conclude that it had been designed – the parts fit and work together in such a close relationship that if one part were to cease working or be wrong the whole wouldn’t work.

The idea here is an analogy: the watch is used as a comparison with the world or the universe and if we can draw the conclusion that the watch has a watchmaker surely it is logical to conclude that the universe has a universe maker!


John Wisdom used the Parable of the Gardener – two explorers in the jungle come across a beautiful clearing. One is a theist and he claims that the clearing is evidence of the work of a gardener; the other is an atheist and he rejects that idea. So to settle the argument they wait around to see if a gardener comes. One does not and so the atheist claims that this proves he was right the clearing was just an accident. The theist disagrees and suggests that just because they couldn’t see the gardener didn’t mean he wasn’t there, he might be invisible.


Isaac Newton declared that rational reflection on the orderliness of nature had convinced him that there must be a: ‘being, incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent.’


Swinburne agreed with Paley that the: ‘regularities of co-presence and succession‘ that he had seen in nature e.g. where all parts of plants combine to enable the plant to function and reproduce itself, seem to suggest that it is not all a cosmic accident.

The universe is not chaotic – it is too complex for it just to have appeared!


Arguments against:


Hume is again one of the most outspoken antagonists. He regarded the world as one great machine subdivided into an infinite number of lesser ones, each adjusted to the others (this is a popular world view today especially with global warming!)

Man of course does this too but on a much smaller scale, however the analogy, he concedes stands, thus far. However, he queries man’s abilities as a designer and since we can only judge based on our limited experience of what he can create – how can we conclude that the designer of worlds is the same!?

Yet again there may be causes beyond our limited understanding. It is arrogant to assume we know everything based on what we do know!

(What would a cave man have made of a lighter? Or a person from the Middle-Ages have made of the telephone?)

A main idea of his is that if you find order in the world all that does is enable you to say that there is order in the world; it does not enable you to go beyond that and say that therefore there must be a designer of it let alone a god!


Mackie said: ‘The further postulation of a God…is a gratuitous addition to this solution.’


Darwin‘s theory of evolution became very important for the opponents of this argument in the 19th century. His view is that the best characteristics were bred in over successive generations and enabled the survival of the fittest or best suited. He maintained that this was a mechanical and not an external process. That random changes to DNA enable new variations or new lifeforms to emerge.


Kant who thought that our minds impose the concepts of time, space and causality upon experience because that is the way we are conditioned to look at life would say that if the universe we see is an ordered place it is because we are predisposed to see it as such.


Post-modernist philosophers would say the acts of talking and writing about the world are a process of creating order and that therefore order and design are a feature of the world we create within our words.


‘…our experience, so imperfect and so limited… can afford us no probable conjecture concerning the whole of things.’



Tennant has argued for the anthropic principle = where the world has been deliberately designed for the development of intelligent life and that the process of evolution is just the method by which it has been achieved.



Religious people will see the intricacies of nature as pointing to a designer: God – and as having purpose.

Yet we do not have evidence or perspective to sustain or further this argument towards proof – Bertrand Russell would ask ‘why try?’

We can only really say that the world appears to have order and purpose, but we may just be projecting our ideas of design and purpose onto the external world.

But for the believer this may provide support for their beliefs.


Things to think about:

What has survival of the fittest meant in the past what does it mean today?

Design is easy to see if you make yourself the centre of the universe – less easy to spot if you are about to be wiped out and replaced!

Things are the way they are because they are and if they weren’t they’d be different and then that’s how they’d be!


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