Design/Teleological Argument
AS Revision
Peter Thistlethwaite
Wellington College
• A ‘classical theistic proof’ for the existence of God
• God of classical theism = omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient
• Complexity, regularity and evidence of purpose point towards
intelligent designer.
• Comes from Greek “telos” meaning end or purpose; suggests that
the world has meaning or purpose which must be accounted for
• “the oldest, the clearest and most accordant with the common
reason of mankind” (Kant)
Key features
a posteriori
Based on empirical evidence
An example of ‘natural theology’ (using reason
and the world around us to establish God’s
existence rather than revelation)
Basic Argument
• The world has order, purpose, benefit,
regularity and suitability for life.
• This shows evidence of design
• Such design implies a designer
• The designer of the world is God
Thomas Aquinas (13th c.)
• 5th of ‘Five Ways’ (Quinquae Viae from Summa Theologica).
• Based on Aristotle’s understanding of biological processes. Natural
objects goal oriented. End goals need to be set by designer.
• “whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it
be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and
intelligence…and this being we call God” (Aquinas)
• Analogy of arrow and archer.
William Paley (18-19th century)
• The watch analogy
• Christian apologist (defender of the faith) who used reason to
defend belief in God.
• Wrote ‘Natural Theology’ in 1805.
• Order, complexity, regularity and interaction shown in watch
cannot come down to chance.
• Similar characteristics in nature point towards designer.
• However, this designer must be on a far larger scale than the
watch designer; this must be God.
• Paley’s example: the human eye.
F.R. Tennant/R. Swinburne
The ‘anthropic principle’
• Used as response to theory of evolution provided by Darwin
• The world contains human beings
• The conditions necessary to bring this about were extremely
slim (1/100,000,000,000124!)
• Such conditions cannot be rationally attributed to chance
• These conditions must have been designed
• This designer was God
• ‘Nature is meaningless and valueless without God behind it
and Man in front.’ (Tennant, Philosophical Theology, 1930)
F.R. Tennant 20th c.
The ‘aesthetic argument’
• Used as response to Darwin’s explanation of design through
• Beauty exists in the world
• Beauty cannot be derived through natural selection – it
provides no survival benefit to species
• Beauty therefore requires a designer
• This designer is God
• “Beauty is the lost thought of theology” (David Ford 20th c.)
• David Hume (‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’, 1779)
• Hume focuses on the weaknesses of the analogy and the
conclusion drawn from the available empirical evidence
1) We have no experience of world making
2) Arguments from analogy can only be suggestive not
conclusive (issue of scale, mechanic/organic
3) The available evidence cannot prove the God of classical
theism (multiple designers? / a “perfect anthropomorphite”?
the failed attempt of an imperfect designer?
REMEMBER: these criticisms are applicable to Paley. However, Hume
was criticising the design argument in general – Paley had not yet even
written ‘Natural Theology’ (1805).
• Charles Darwin (‘The Origin of Species’ 1853)
• The argument rests on the idea that chance cannot explain
design – Darwin uncovers that it can.
• Species do not arise according to a divine plan: they arise step
by step through the mutation of genes
• The guiding principle in life is not a set of blue prints but the
process of the natural selection of genes which benefit a
• This directly contradicts the Aristotelian basis of Aquinas’
‘Fifth Way’ (the idea that all living objects are goal-directed)
• Richard Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker, 1986)
• David Hume successfully shows that the idea of a designer
cannot explain how the natural world unfolds, however he
does not provide a successful understanding of how it does
• Darwin provides this: “Darwin made it possible to be an
intellectually fulfilled atheist”.
• Dawkins provides the example of the evolution of the eye
from a light spot to a fully developed and complex human eye
with retina, lens, optic nerves etc.
Criticisms of the Anthropic Principle
• Martin Rees and multiverse theory (and the suit shop analogy). If
there were many universes, the chance of one supporting human
life would be much less surprising.
• Dawkins and the example of the card shuffling machine producing
10 cards – the cards we get are simply the product of chance. The
same can be said of the world.
• Mark Twain provides the criticism of man’s estimation of his own
importance. The world is not created to support man; man’s
existence is simply the product of millions of years worth of random
chance – to ascribe purpose to the world is fallacious
• The world as brute fact – no need to explain the world. If it was
different, we would not be here to need to be able to explain it
Criticisms of the Aesthetic Argument
• Peter Vardy argues that the perception of beauty is simply the
result of cultural conditioning – there is no such thing
• J.S. Mill argues that the world is as cruel and lacking in beauty
as it is the reverse. To describe the world as a whole as
‘beautiful’ is a gross generalisation. Evil and suffering should
likewise be attribute to the character of any supposed deity
• Beauty can be explained in evolutionary terms: the peacock’s
feather, for example, attract female peacocks making it easier
for the peacock to pass on his genes.
General Criticisms
• Inductive arguments (such as the teleological
argument) can never establish proof: they can
only establish probability
• The argument rests upon an inductive leap
• The existence of God is not an empirical
hypothesis – it is not provable
Strengths of the argument
• The design argument, an inductive argument, follows
strict philosophical logic (premise – premise –
• The argument is cumulative – the more we inspect
nature, the more we see evidence of complexity,
regularity and purpose which requires explanation
• The argument, which is an example of natural
theology based upon reason, compliments the
claims made within revealed theology (e.g. The
Book of Genesis)
Further Strengths
• The argument compliments the notion of the God of
classical theism – an eternal, transcendent,
omnipotent, omniscient being
• Provides an answer to one of life’s most searching
existential questions, “why/how are we here?”
• Provides a rational basis to faith
• Combines the strength of scientific knowledge with
the explanatory power of religion
Concluding remarks
• By definition, the argument cannot establish
proof as it is not deductive
• Therefore, though philosophically valid, the
argument is unlikely to convert the atheist
• However, it has not been entirely dismissed;
evolution cannot explain its own cause.
• For the theist, it presents an example of “faith
seeking understanding” (St Anselm) through
the use of rational argument.
Previous exam questions….
1a) “Examine the strengths and weaknesses of
the design argument for the existence of God”
1b) “Comment on the view that this argument is
inconclusive as a proof for the existence of God”
Previous exam questions…
2a) “Examine the weaknesses of the design
argument” (21)
2b) “Why do some philosophers persist in
believing in the strengths of the design
argument?” (9)
Previous exam questions…
3a) “Examine the main strengths and
weaknesses of the design argument for the
existence of God.” (21)
3b) “ ‘The design argument shows the existence
of God is probable.’ Comment on this view” (9)
Previous exam questions…
4a) “Given an account of the fundamental ideas
of the design argument for the existence of
God.” (21)
4b) “Comment on the view that the strengths of
these ideas makes this a convincing argument”
Previous exam questions….
5a) “What are the main ideas of the design and
cosmological argument for the existence of
God?” (21)
5b) “Choose one of these arguments and
comment on its weaknesses.” (9)

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