The Teleological Argument

The argument:

Telos = distance or end or goal


The argument from design which says the universe has evidence of pattern and order which points to it being designed – the designer is God


Aristotle believed there were so many purposeful things in life but he did not believe there was a God behind the design process.


Aquinas‘ 5th Way puts God behind it all

  • There is order in the world
  • Everything acts deliberately
  • To achieve the same effect each time
  • So therefore must have a purpose
  • Not chance must be a designer
  • = God

This is an analogy.


Aquinas uses the arrow analogy – arrow must be guided by an intelligence ‘similarly philosophers call every work of nature the work of intelligence’

This argument is both a posteriori and inductive.

Coplestone – cooperation to produce and maintain stable world order. Even those which are not capable of conscious thought are being ‘directed’ towards an end.



  • seasons
  • the eye
  • the ozone layer
  • tectonic plates


Paley‘s Watch

From the watch and its workings we posit a designer

Similarly from the fact of the universe we posit a universe maker.



  1. Why does the world possess certain qualities?
  2. Why are living things so suited to their environment?
  3. Why did life develop at all?
  4. Why did conscious beings come into existence?


The connection is the apparent unlikelihood of them occurring by chance.


Kant regarded this ‘proof’ as most worthy of respect since it is so logical.


At best teleological arguments can only show God’s existence is possible or probable.

Ockham’s Razor






Which have been designed and which not?




What do the designed objects have in common?




Write a list of criteria to determine whether or not an object had been designed or not.





Paley‘s criteria

  • several parts
  • work together for a purpose
  • made of specific appropriate material
  • produce regulated motion
  • any other configuration would not produce the same motion of effect

Which are these true of?

  • A snake’s eye
  • A peacock’s tail
  • An umbrella
  • Flu virus
  • The solar system
  • The appendix


Read p 68 of Philosophy in Focus which ones are inductive? Which conclusions are invalid?



  • Surely Paley’s stone also shows evidence of having been designed?
  • Hume ‘a wise man apportions his belief to the evidence’
  • We recognise certain objects as having been designed but only because we have experience of such objects being designed and manufactured – what if we didn’t recognise a designed object because we didn’t know anything about it. [e.g. the cave man and the lighter / Polaroid camera = magic]
  • So if we have had no experience of our universe being made how can we say it has?
  • Our only experience of the universe is with its parts and even if we could say the parts had been designed we could not say the whole has.
  • Arguments from analogy are weak – the two things being compared have to be similar.
  • Hume believes the universe is more organic than machine like and since a vegetable does not appear to have a designer then neither can we say the universe has.
  • Any way complex machines need teams to design and construct them
  • How similar might the designer be to us? Flawed, weak?
  • Complex machines are often the product of years of trial and error – best ever!!
  • The universe contains many design faults – name some………………
  • Even if there is a designer there is no proof it is God and even if it is God there is no proof of his personal characteristics.


The Challenge of Darwin


Origin of Species published 1859 provided an account of how species had evolved and adapted by struggle and natural selection.

This answered Paley’s criteria for evidence of an intelligent designer.

‘There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings…than in the way the wind blows.’

This is therefore an alternative to belief in a designer. Random mutation plus the pressures of natural selection is the designer, but a blind unthinking mechanism.

Modern theologians have incorporated evolution in to their arguments like Swinburne who suggests that evolution is the mechanism built into the universe by God.


FR Tennant has looked at various features of the universe which all seem to demand an explanation and concludes that God is still the best explanation. Even if each feature could be explained on its own together they make a very strong case for believing there is intelligent design at the heart.

These features are:

  • The fact that we are able to understand the universe through investigation and observation.
  • The fact that evolution allows beings to adapt to their environments
  • The fact that even the inorganic world is able to generate and support life
  • The beauty of nature
  • The existence of morality – the fact that we can distinguish between good and evil and choose to do good
  • The emergence of human beings which Tennant regards as the pinnacle of evolution’s achievement


Only God, he concludes, provides an adequate explanation of why a barren inanimate world gave rise first to life, then to humans capable of reflecting upon the universe and their place within it. We are the way we are because of God’s guiding intelligence behind his creation.


David Hume believes that it is by chance that the universe is ordered and that beings have evolved which are capable of reflecting on the universe and why it is here and though it might be a remote possibility nevertheless it is one!


The Anthropic Principle

Tennant feels that the conditions under which human life can exist are so precise and limited that the likelihood of them occurring at random is too remote.

For example:

  • The Big Bang had to happen exactly at the strength it did or it would not have happened at all.
  • The values that govern gravitational force and the weak nuclear force in each atom need to be so finely balanced (to an accuracy of one part in 10,000 billion billion billion!!) or there would have been no expansion of the universe and no formation of stars!
  • Carbon atoms needed to form in stars
  • A life bearing planet needs to be just the right distance from its sun
  • The same random mutations need to take place for the emergence of human life.


In fact if you consider the restricted number of physical conditions that need to be met, Russell Stannard has said ‘there seems to be some conspiracy to fix the conditions!’

But if God exists then the series of coincidences is explained!


So the anthropic principle is about what conditions were needed for human life to occur and how unlikely it is that it did!!


Brandon Carter in 1974 suggested that there was no reason to be surprised that the universe is the way it is because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be around to be surprised!!


This is of course a very anthropocentric view!!


Is God the best explanation for the special features of the universe that have resulted in human existence?

Hume says, we cannot get outside this universe to see if there are others so we cannot calculate the probability that one like this would one day exist!


Teleological arguments have proved incredibly resilient; as one scientific discovery after another has come along so the argument has shifted its focus from the general to the specific and in fact the more incredibly surprising it is that we ever came into existence at all.


Atheists would criticise any belief that shifts and adjusts as knew knowledge comes along (the death of a thousand qualifications and John Wisdom’s
Parable of the Gardener) and Anthony Flew would regard any theory which is not capable of being verified or falsified was not worthy of consideration – more next year!


To an atheist it is a wonder that chance has led to the development of intelligent life and to the more beautiful aspects of that life, but to a theist it is God’s guiding hand and neither is likely to be convinced by the other.


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