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Philosophy of Religion: The Teleological Argument

As an attempt to stray from my usual short posts, I’ve written up this piece on the Teleological argument for the existence of God. Read on to find out more about the argument and enjoy my attempt to be fair and balanced- with the premise:

“The Teleological argument may indeed fail as a formal proof of the existence of the divine being  but it has much to commend it as an expression of religious beliefs about God and the world.”

If one is to make any attempt to analyse the value of an argument, it is necessary first to define it. Teleological arguments stress the importance of end results- they are inductive, a posteriori arguments which draw inferences from the world we experience. The main principle of the argument is this- if there is orderliness in the universe, it must have been brought about by an intelligent being: God. When we see things made by people, we can infer from their orderliness that they were made by an intelligent creature. Those who prescribe to Teleological thought would argue that order, beauty and complexity to such an extent do not arise through pure chance. Nature in many ways resembles a man-made construct- therefore the natural world must have been created by an intelligent being. God is this intelligent being, and therefore God exists.

pocketwatchThis idea has many criticisms- and it is true that, under scrutiny, it fails to address many points that would be required before it could be seen as formal proof of God. Hume was one of the earliest philosophers to address some of the flaws in the teleological argument- particularly as it was explained by William Paley. Paley used the analogy of someone encountering a watch in the countryside to illustrate his point. He said that- upon finding a watch on a heath- one might notice how well it works for its purpose and conclude from this that it must have had a designer. He argued that this is comparable to our world- which works so well that it must also have been designed.

Hume’s first criticism of this analogy is that the comparison between the natural world and a watch is not a particularly valid one. It cannot be assumed that everyone looks upon the world as having a purpose, as design characteristics are not as obvious in the world as they are in a mechanical object. The watch is unlike anything which occurs in nature- this is, according to Hume, the main reason why we would conclude that the watch did not come about naturally.

He also asserts that order in the world does not necessarily mean that an intelligent being designed it. Order is a necessary part of the world’s existence- if nothing natural was suited to its purpose; the world would cease to be. Any world might appear as if it could have been designed, as this would be necessary for it to work. This self-sustaining order could have happened by chance, not just through God.

In addition to this, even if we assume that there is a creator, there is no reason to assume that this would be the Christian God. Our world is imperfect- why assume that a creator would not be the same?  We cannot know the characteristics of any God or gods which may or may not exist- we can observe the effect, but the cause is hidden to us. We cannot simply assume that we can infer the cause (God) from the effect (the universe) – this is an oversimplification of a complex idea.

Finally, no firm conclusions can be made, as we have no other world to compare ourselves to. We have never observed the creation of another universe, and therefore we cannot know whether our own is regular or irregular.

Another key point in the argument is addressed by John Stuart Mill- the premise that the world functions well. Mill argues that if we take beauty and intricacy as signs of order, then we must also accept the signs of chaos. Nature itself causes suffering: natural disasters, predators vs. prey, pain and death. If God was a creator, then he must have intended his creation to be miserable- is the world really evidence of a righteous God?

darwinDoubts over the teleological argument were compounded when Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution in the mid-19th century. Darwinism profoundly undermines the teleological argument; as the argument requires God to give the world order. Darwin offered an alternative explanation- his theories gave evidence that such an order really could arise through natural selection. This removed the necessity of God in our understanding of the universe.

The contemporary biologist and author Richard Dawkins has also employed science as a response to the Teleological argument. He argues that as scientists come closer to an understanding of how the universe functions, there is a decreasing need to resort to God to explain what we don’t understand. Dawkins believes that the discovery of DNA provides an explanation for the existence of humanity; there is no need to assume the existence of God to account for human life. Contrary to classical thought, there is little difference between living and non-living material- there is no mysterious “spark” which distinguishes life. DNA, therefore, can explain the most fundamental causes of life, removing the need for a creator to “breathe life” into the planet.

Dawkins is a rationalist who sees religious belief as a reason not to investigate things through science- it encourages people not to think. When there are things theists do not understand, they are often happy to attribute this to God- the well-known ‘God of the gaps’ fallacy, in which any gaps in scientific knowledge can be filled by divine power. Dawkins sees this mentality as an obstacle to human development and the expansion of knowledge.

However, some theists in turn respond to arguments such as those of Dawkins. Ian Barbour argues that if Dawkins objects to religious belief setting limitations on science, then he should not allow science to dictate the usefulness of religion. This illustrates the idea that even if the Teleological argument cannot be used as a formal proof of God, this does not render it completely useless as an expression of faith. It can also be noted that- as Alister McGrath points out- Paley’s original argument is not typical of most Christian thought today. The analogy is more than 200 years old, and the argument has been refined over time- in most cases, science from two centuries ago has developed beyond recognition.

Not all versions of the Teleological argument conflict with science- a key feature of Tennant’s version of the argument is its acceptance of the theory of evolution. He argues that evolution is consistent with design arguments because of the way that evolution itself can seem to have a purpose. He accepts that progress is being made all the time, with the evolution of even more complex and intelligent beings. The feature of his stance which makes it more compatible with science is his assertion that evolution was created and guided by God- in fact; he uses this as evidence of the existence of God. Earlier scientific advances in the 17th and 18th centuries were often seen as a way to discover new evidence for God as a designer. For the first time, scientists were seeing the intricate structure of the world in minute detail- and discoveries such as the structure and function of cells were seen as a major piece of evidence for God’s ‘helping hand’ in nature.

The Teleological argument can be an effective expression of religious beliefs about God- and waterfallparticularly about divine influence on the natural world. Despite its flaws, it has a simple and strong appeal to the human mind. It is easy to understand- if one foregoes close scrutiny; the idea that the complexity of the world came from a designer can seem logical. It lends a purpose to the all aspects of the natural world, living and non-living, and this sense of purpose may influence some religious believers. It appeals to our aesthetic sense- it may not be sophisticated but it appeals to the innate human sense of wonder and awe at the beauty of the natural world. This emotional pull is an important aspect of the way that many theists view themselves and their religious beliefs in a wider context- it connects them to the world at large.

In conclusion, the emotional appeal of the Teleological argument does little to lend it credibility in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary. However, it may have some worth as a way for theists to express their awe at the natural world, and their inability to see how it might have happened by chance. Paley’s argument may now be considered out of date- and certainly cannot be put forward as evidence for the existence of God- but contemporary versions of the argument might provide an acceptable bridge between science and religious belief.



Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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