William Paley’s Teleological/Design Argument

Paley’s teleological argument is a form of Natural Theology. Natural Theology is based on empirical observations about nature and, when applied to argumentation, is a posteriori in that it relies on both reason and experience (class notes). Paley’s teleological argument at first examines at nature, independent of theism, and asserts we can know simply by reason and experience that the way nature works seems to be indicative of being intentionally designed toward some purpose (class notes; Ratzsch, online). Paley’s argument utilizes an analogy to make its point. Suppose you are walking along an isolated path and you find a watch (212). You would not assume, like you would perhaps for a rock, that the watch has just naturally developed on its own (212). The reason why, asserts Paley, is because upon examining the watch you see that it has several intricate, complicated, parts all working together in synchronicity in order to serve a purpose, and if any of the parts had been altogether different, they could not have performed the purpose (212). Paley asserts the natural world exhibits such intricate, complicated, synchronicity in its workings and these workings are in order to serve purposes, therefore, the natural world must have had a designer “who comprehended its construction and designed its use” (212-213). Even if we never experienced a watch being made, nor even knew what a watch was, we would know the watch had a designer because it is ordered, complex and has a purpose (class notes). Paley then draws a specific analogy between manmade things, such as a telescope, to natural things, the eyes, to assert the intricacies and complexities of the eyes must have been designed (114). The analogies offered by Paley are anthropomorphic, in that they implicitly assert the intelligent designer is human-like (class notes; Ratzsch, online).

Paley’s argument takes two forms, as an Analogical Design Argument and an Abductive Design Argument (class notes; Ratzsch, online). The analogical form of the argument is as follows (class notes; Ratzsch, online):

(P1) A watch is complex, ordered and purposeful.

(L2) A watch is designed. [P1]

(L3) A watch is complex, ordered, purposeful and designed. [P1+L2]

(P4) Organs are complex, ordered and purposeful.

(L5) Organs are designed. [L3+P4]

(L6) A watch is like organs in that both are complex, ordered and purposeful. [P1-L5]

(P7) Things that are alike typically have causes that are alike.

(P8) A watch has a human intelligent designer.

(L9) It is probable organs have a human-like intelligent designer. [L6-P8]

(P10) The designer of organs must be supernatural.

(P11) God is intelligent, supernatural and human-like.

(C) It is highly probable God is the designer.

The analogical form of the argument is inductive, meaning it takes certain observations and reaches a most likely, or highly probable, conclusion (class notes; Ratzsch, online). In order to be a strong inductive argument, it must satisfy two conditions: (1) there must be a high degree of similarity between the analogs, and (2) the similarities need to be relevant to the conclusion, meaning to what is trying to be proved (class notes). In the outline above, the analogs are “watch” and “organs.” If “organs” is used as the analog, it is not entirely certain as to why the designer of organs must be outside of nature as (P10) asserts, therefore, it would weaken the link to the conclusion that God is the intelligent designer (class notes). If “organs” is changed to “life” then it removes the designer more from nature, so it strengthens the link to the conclusion that God is the intelligent designer (class notes). However, at the same time it weakens (P4) making harder to come to (L5) or (L6) because it is not at all obvious that life is purposeful (class notes). The strength of the premises depend on the analog used, in that if “organs” is used it weakens (P10), whereas, if “life” is used it weakens (P4) and both options weaken the argument overall (class notes).

David Hume offered many responses to the analogical version of this argument. Hume argued if the analogy referred to life in general, then it fails, because life is not ordered, but instead seems to be chaotic and without purpose (class notes). Further, Hume asserts “it is impossible for us to tell, from our limited views, whether this system contains any great faults, or deserves any considerable praise” (220). Hume asserts our limited perspective on the “design” affords us no reason to assume the “design” is for some great purpose. Along the same lines, Hume argues there is “no reason […] for ascribing perfection to the Deity […] or for supposing him free from every error, mistake, or incoherence, in his undertakings” because  “There are many inexplicable difficulties in the works of Nature” (219). Hume argues if God did design the world, then he made lots of mistakes, such as diseases or other natural evils (class notes; Ratzsch, online). Therefore, if God was the designer, then it does not seem that God would fit with the traditional notion of God as an omni-being (class notes; Ratzsch, online). Since there are imperfections in the “design,” it leads us to believe the “designer” is not the God of traditional theism, and actually instead may be “an amateur designer or a committee of designers” (class notes; Ratzsch, online).

Hume also asserted the argument commits a categorical error and a fallacy of composition, in that the analogy between a watch and the world is weak (216-218). Hume argues a watch (which is empirically verifiable as human made) and the world (which its creation is empirically unverifiable) are too distant categorically to be used in the same analogy (216-218). He also argues just because the universe is made up of things which have an intentional ordering, it does not mean the whole universe also has an intentional ordering (216-218). Hume argues the examples are not analogous, because, to add to an example to Hume’s argument, living things propagate themselves but watches don’t (class notes). Hume asserts if the watch is made analogous to the world, then the analogy breaks down because the watch is within the world, but the world is all things (class notes). We can experience the watch, but we can’t experience the whole world, just parts of the world, so we can’t say the two are similar (class notes).

Hume’s responses don’t absolutely refute the analogical form of the argument because, for one, “it is simply not true that explanatory inferences cannot properly extend beyond merely what is required for known effects” (Ratzsch, online). In other words, observations based on experience and reasoning can result in generalized scientific findings which extend beyond what is being observed (Ratzsch, online). Secondly, Hume did not have an explanation for why it seems that less complex things in nature become more complex and how such things could happen on their own (class notes). However, at the same time, Hume’s arguments relevantly pointed out how things in the world may have “infinitely many properties in common and also differ in infinitely many” ways, so in order to assert the things are similar in one respect depends on what exactly is being compared and if what is being compared is relevant to the respect being examined (class notes; Ratzsch, online).

The second form of the argument is the abductive version and is as follows (class notes):

(P1) If there is an intelligent designer, then we can explain why life is intricately complex, ordered and purposeful.

(P2) Life is intricately complex, ordered and purposeful.

(P3) The best explanation of life being intricately complex, ordered and purposeful is that there is an intelligent designer.

(C) There probably is an intelligent designer.

The abductive version of the argument rests on a hypothetical premise (P1) asserting the probability of the consequent (P2), meaning, if X exists, then Y is likely to follow (class notes). If the hypothesis X is true, then we would expect Y to occur (class notes; Ratzsch, online). In other words, life being intricately complex “would be a reasonably expectable occurrence” if there were an intelligent designer (Ratzsche, online). Further, the abductive version also rests on the “superior explanatory virtues of a theory” which lend epistemic support to the theory and makes the theory more reasonable to be believed as likely being true (Ratzsch, online). If nothing can adequately replace the antecedent in the hypothetical premise, i.e. the existence of an intelligent designer, as an explanation for life, then one has sufficient reason to believe the argument (class notes)

Hume had no response to the abductive version of the argument because he could not provide any superior explanation as to why life would seem to be intricately complex, ordered and purposeful (class notes). However, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution arising from natural selection and adaptability provided the superior explanation and provided a practically irrefutable alternative to intelligent design (class notes; Ratzsch, online). Darwin asserts Paley’s argument “fails, now that the law of natural selection” was discovered because “Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws” (Ratzsch, online). Evolution not only provided an alternate explanation for life, but provided a superior explanation in that while an intelligent designer is scientifically unpredictable, evolution is predictable (class notes). Further, evolution explains why there are imperfections in nature, whereas an explanation with an intelligent designer made the imperfections seem like a fault of the designer, which undermined the traditional concept of God or offered no explanation as to why the imperfections would exist if the designer were an omni-being (class notes). Although Hume had no explanation for the abductive version of the argument, he relevantly pointed out the problem with the imperfections, and then Darwin explained the imperfections (class notes).

Darwin’s findings severely weaken the abductive form of this argument. However, another form of design argument, called the Cosmic Fine-Tuning argument, asserts the probability is astronomically minute that (1) the quantum fluctuations which caused the big bang could have happened exactly as they did, and (2) following the explosion planets could have formed, and (3) a planet in which elements formed as they did to create water could have led to life (class notes; Ratzsch, online). So many necessary conditions, meaning intricately complex details, had to occur seemingly synchronously in order for human life to exist. It is argued, an intelligent designer is the best explanation for the improbability of necessary conditions having occurred (class notes; Ratzsch, online). However, some argue the conclusion that an intelligent designer is the explanation is just simply a “God of the gaps” appeal, meaning, just because we don’t know at this time what occurred to make the improbable happen, doesn’t mean we can just put God in to fill in the gaps of our knowledge (class notes; Ratzsch, online). However, to assert such doesn’t offer an explanation. By way of an explanation, some have offered Many-Universe Theories which assert, in line with theoretical physics, if there are multiple universes, perhaps even infinitely many universes, then the probability of the improbable occurring is not so minute (class notes; Ratzsch, online).  While the Many-Universe Theory increases the chances of a universe such as ours existing, some argue it is theoretically simpler, as per Occam’s razor, to espouse the design theory (class notes; Ratzsch, online).

Ultimately, I would have to argue that the design argument, even in the form of the Cosmic Fine-Tuning argument, doesn’t establish there is actually an intelligent designer. It seems like an appeal to ignorance to assert since we have no better explanation, it must be God. Just because we don’t know for certain right now what occurred to result in this universe doesn’t mean God exists and designed the universe this way. As Hume asserted, it doesn’t mean God exists, but is also doesn’t mean the God as espoused by traditional theists exists. It seems like the design argument is taking one scientifically unknown question (the universe) and answering it with a scientifically unknown explanation (God). Both are scientifically unknown because we have no hard evidence or experience of either, nothing concrete we can physically observe with our senses. If the issue was not scientific, but faith based, this would be different as it wouldn’t require scientific verifiability. However, the problem with the design argument, it seems, is it is trying to present a scientifically unknown explanation as a scientific option, when, it really is incapable of being scientific. 

Works Cited

Hume, David. “Critique of the Analogical Teleological Argument.” Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, David Basinger. Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 215-221.

Paley, William. “The Analogical Teleological Argument.” Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, David Basinger. Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 212-214.

Ratzsch, Del. “Teleological Arguments for God’s Existence.” 3 October 2010. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 21 October 2012. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/teleological-arguments/.




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