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Design Arguments

Also known as “teleological” arguments, this is a proof of God’s existence by the observation of order, design, or purpose in the natural world. If the Universe exhibits design, then it must have a cosmic designer, that designer being God. The word ‘teleology’ comes from the Greek teleos, which means goal or end.  Thus, a teleological argument attempts to prove that God exists by arguing that the Universe exists for some purpose and this purpose was dictated by God. St. Thomas Aquinas used a design argument in his “fifth” way to prove that God exists:

We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

But do natural objects really act for an end or are they just blindly following nature’s laws? Is it the purpose of an apple to fall to the ground or does an apple compelled to fall to the ground by virtue of gravity? Is it the purpose of a seed to grow into a tree, or does the tree grow by virtue of its genetic program? In each and all cases the latter seems to be true – natural objects don’t work towards some pre-determined goal. On the contrary, natural objects follow natural rules by which they are constrained. It’s not that an intelligent being directs an apple to fall towards the ground, rather, it’s that an apple must fall to the ground given the reality of its environment. No intelligent being will ever direct the same apple to fall upwards. Aquinas received this notion of final causes from Aristotle, although Aristotle argued that final causes were inherent within natural objects and not imposed from without. Regardless, there is no place for final causes in any description of nature.

The Argument “from” Design

I placed the word from in quotations because it really is a misnomer. Design is not taken as a premise for any of these arguments but rather exists as one of its conclusions (it is often stated as a premise that the Universe is designed, but this conclusion must actually be part of the proof). Whether or not nature is actually designed is one of the major points of debate – thus, it has been suggested that the design argument be called ‘The Argument to Design’ since it must argue to the existence of design in nature, from whence it follows that there must be a designer. If you are familiar with the Cosmological Arguments then you might recognize that the Design Argument is potentially stronger. Whereas a first cause does not necessarily follow from the existence of the Universe, the existence of a designer must follow from the presence of design (that is, after all, what we mean by ‘design’). So what are the ways that the Design Arguments attempt to establish design in the Universe?

One of these is through the presence of order in the Universe. The argument is that order implies a designer – an orderer so to speak. The assumption here seems to be that without any kind of divine intervention the Universe would exist in some bizarre state of disorder and irregularity. The first and most basic problem here is that if the order in the Universe required external intervention by some intelligent being, then so too would this intelligent being. After all, an intelligent being that’s capable of creating the order in the Universe must itself be orderly as well – otherwise it would be disorderly and incapable of producing anything. We become stuck in an endless cycle of orderly things producing other orderly things.

The problem is that order does not necessarily imply a designer. ‘Order’ and ‘design’ are not interchangeable. Disorder, in addition to order, may be the product of design or intent. To say that something is ‘designed’ is to say that it is intentionally manufactured, not that it is necessarily ordered. What about nature itself? Certainly, nature is fundamentally well-ordered. But this kind of order seems to be a prerequisite for existence. To exist, after all, means to exist as something in particular with discernable characteristics and to act in a particular way (called the law of Identity). It doesn’t even seem that a ‘disorderly’ Universe  where there’s no regularity and nothing is predictable is even possible. Thus, that there is order to nature can’t require an explanation because it is fundamental to the concept of existence.

The Argument from Analogy

[ebook] Natural Theology
Image by Changhua Coast Conservation Action via Flickr

William Paley’s watch argument is well-known. A watch is a mechanical device that is carefully constructed to serve a particular purpose – telling time. Paley argued that nature itself also appears to be carefully constructed to serve particular purposes. Additionally, nature itself is just as complex – if not more complex – than a watch and thus, must also have a designer. Essentially, the analogical argument typically takes on the following form:

Object X is complicated and known to be designed – nature is just as complicated as object X therefore it must be designed, too.

‘Object X’ can be substituted with just about anything – watches, buildings, paintings, etc. The central assumption here is that design is inferred by complexity of structure. A simple example can be used to show that this is false: a fake plant. Nowadays it’s very easy to find fake plants that look awfully close to the real thing and many people prefer these to the real thing for use indoors. Without close inspection, one might conclude that a fake plant is notdesigned when in fact it is. The closer an object resembles something which we know that nature can produce when left to its own devices the less likely we are to conclude that it was designed. Design is not inferred from complexity – design is inferred from the likelihood that the object in question is manufactured, that is, could not have been produced through the processes of nature alone. This same reason is not applicable to nature itself because we cannot ask whether or not nature can be produced through a process of nature. Design is understood within the context of nature – the design of nature itself has no meaning. I don’t know what it would mean to say that nature itself is manufactured.

Going back to the analogy, the fallacy is categorical. Objects designed within nature are categorically different from nature as a whole. The analogy is false and misleading.

Another source of confusion is the idea that if the Universe did not form through design, it must have happened all by pure chance. Take, for instance, these statements from Peter Kreeft in an article of his on the Design Argument:

There is one especially strong version of the argument from design that hits close to home because it’s about the design of the very thing we use to think about design: our brains. The human brain is the most complex piece of design in the known universe. In many ways it is like a computer. Now just suppose there were a computer that was programmed only by chance. For instance, suppose you were in a plane and the public-address system announced that there was no pilot, but the plane was being flown by a computer that had been programmed by a random fall of hailstones on its keyboard or by a baseball player in spiked shoes dancing on computer cards. How much confidence would you have in that plane? But if our brain computer has no cosmic intelligence behind the heredity and environment that program it, why should we trust it when it tells us about anything, even about the brain?

Kreeft wants the choice to be between either random chance or intelligent design. Because random chance must be rejected as a plausible solution, the only option left is intelligent design. For some reason Kreeft doesn’t consider the third and most likely option: that complex natural phenomenon are the product of piece-wise evolution coupled with natural selection. Our brain is the product of a long history of variation and selection and has been built along the way incrementally, not by an assortment of neurons jumping together randomly and forming a brain by chance.

What does Kreeft, in fact, have to say about evolution?

…evolution is a beautiful example of design, a great clue to God. There is very good scientific evidence for the evolving, ordered appearance of species, from simple to complex. But there is no scientific proof of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution, Natural selection “explains” the emergence of higher forms without intelligent design by the survival-of-the-fittest principle. But this is sheer theory.

Sheer theory? Apparently Dr. Kreeft is more interested in studying philosophy than with keeping up with evolutionary biology. But he does attempt to give himself a back door just in case he can’t argue against the plausibility of evolution by natural selection. He claims that the process of evolution by natural selection – a process that does not require any external forces and a process that can build up complex structures incrementally without any aide – would actually be evidence for design! It seems that in Kreeft’s view (and certainly in the view of others), it is design no matter where the evidence tends to lead.

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:13 pm


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