1.6 The Teleological View


Teleological arguments are arguments from the order in the universe to the existence of God. They are also known as arguments from design (or, to be precise, arguments to design).

The name “the teleological argument” is derived from the Greek word telos, meaning end or purpose. When such arguments speak of the universe being ordered, they mean that it is ordered towards some end or purpose. The suggestion is that it is more plausible to suppose that the universe is so because it was created by an intelligent being in order to accomplish that purpose than it is to suppose that it is this way by chance.

The teleological argument was used by St Thomas Aquinas (for all authors' information, check BIOGRAPHIES) as one of his Five Ways of knowing that God exists, but the most cited statement of the argument is that of William Paley. Paley likened the universe to a watch, with many ordered parts working in harmony to further some purpose. Just as the complexity, order, and purpose of a watch implies intelligent design, he suggested, so too the complexity, order, and purpose of the universe implies intelligent design. The argument as he constructed it is thus an argument from analogy.

Modern teleological arguments look somewhat different to that constructed by Paley. While Paley was particularly impressed by the appearance of design in biological systems, such as the eye, or animals, modern teleological arguments often find evidence of design in physics. Modern teleological arguments tend to focus on the “fine-tuning” in the universe, the fact that it is exactly as it needs to be (“fine-tuned”) to support life.

One advantage that this gives modern design arguments over Paley’s is that they are less vulnerable to attacks based on evolution theory. It is an objection to Paley’s argument that evolution can explain the appearance of biological design; evolutionary processes, though, do not apply to the laws of nature.

Although teleological arguments are often referred to as arguments from design, those who oppose such arguments sometimes object to this. Antony Flew, in particular, has done this, repeatedly and pointedly calling the argument the argument to design. Though he is no longer the vehement critic of the argument that he once was, having recently been persuaded that it might have merit, he continues to be a critic of the common name, insisting that it is it the argument to, not from, design.

If the universe contains design then there must be some intelligent agent that designed it. Although a few dispute this, speaking of nature, or evolution, as our designers, this appears to be a simple linguistic truth. Just as if something is carried then there must be a carrier, so if there is design there must be a designer.

What those who reject the argument dispute, then, is not whether the design in the universe implies that there is someone who designed it, but whether the order and complexity in the universe does constitute design.


~ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Design Arguments for the Existence of God - Kenneth Einar Himma charts the development of the design argument from Aquinas to the present, arguing that even its modern forms fail.

~ Leadership University - The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle - William Lane Craig describes the fine-tuning of the universe for human life, and argues that this constitutes strong evidence for intelligent design.

~ Leadership University - Barrow and Tipler on the Anthropic Principle vs. Divine Design - An examination of the principle that observed laws of nature are necessarily consistent with the existence of observers, and whether this undermines the argument from fine-tuning.

Proceed to: 1.7 The Moral View

~ or go back to SECTION 1: Arguing on the Existence of God.

~ or return to base for a different selection.

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