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Teleology and Design

Is there Design in the Universe that Proves God Exists?

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Often this is referred to as the Argument from Design because one is arguing from the existence of “design” in the universe and to the logical conclusion that the design requires a “designer” — their god. However, it is incorrect to simply accept the assumption that there exists “design” in the universe.

Instead, what is required is an argument to design — the person attempting to prove a god must first give just cause why anyone should believe that something called “design” can be discerned in the natural world. Only then can an argument from that design and to a god be attempted.

Sometimes the Argument to Design focuses less on alleged design in the universe and more on alleged purpose in the universe. Purpose, of course, is the point of design — and the Teleological Argument (teleo = purpose) is a type of Design Argument.

William Paley, writing in his influential book Natural Theology, offers a succinct and widely quoted summary of the Design Argument:

    There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance without a contriver; order without choice; arrangement without anything capable of arranging; subservience and relation to a purpose without that which could intend a purpose; means suitable to an end, and executing their office in accomplishing that end without ever having been contemplated or the means accommodated to it. Arrangement, disposition of parts, subservience of means to an end, relation of instruments to a use imply the presence of intelligence and mind.

Paley is famous for drawing an analogy from human watches. His classic Watch Argument states that if someone found a watch on a beach they would never conclude that it had been produced by some means other than intelligent design and purpose. After all, the watch parts are carefully integrated in order to operate in conjunction and produce and deliberate goal.

Here is something I received via email:

    Anyone who can live in this universe and witness such phenomena as the balance of nature or the way life is sustained by the composition of a blood cell, and cannot see that these things are not accidental but well-thought-out systems that don't just happen by themselves, is a colossal idiot. Somebody, or some THING, figured it out and put it into motion. Anybody who does not believe in God, no matter how intellectual he considers himself to be, is simply an idiot.

In a variety of forms, this particular argument is trotted out in every book arguing for theism and by nearly every theist attempting to convert us poor deluded atheists. Essentially, the claim is being made that certain aspects of the universe — whether the basic physical constants underlying everything or particular facets of human biology — are too neatly arranged to have not happened due to the conniving of some supernatural being they call a god.

It is difficult to provide a more understandable explanation of the Design Argument because of its primary weakness: it relies heavily upon personal, subjective interpretation. When looking at aspects of nature, some people reach the conclusion that they could only have come about through the designs and purposes of some intelligence. But this conclusion is not logically necessary.

In order to reasonably argue that something is designed, it needs to be argued that it has some purpose, for it is in discovering purpose that we can discover design. This argument for purpose in nature is where we find the Teleological Argument. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go very far either — too often it seems to be assumed that we humans are somehow the “purpose” of the universe. At no point, however, is this assumption substantively supported. This planet could just has easily been “designed” for the purpose of having ants or bacteria, with humans being an irrelevant by-product.

This weakness seriously undermines the ability of the Argument to Design to achieve much. It cannot be merely asserted that design exists. Pointing to order isn’t enough because order does not logically imply design — although that is just what so many theists using this argument seem to assume. Any argument from analogy — like Paley’s Watch Argument — won’t go very far unless you are already inclined to believe that the universe and nature are deliberately designed.

Design and teleological arguments are fairly common in debates about creationism and evolution. Pretty much the entire rationale behind creationist attacks on evolution is that life as we see it could not have achieved diversity through natural means and so instead requires supernatural means: a supernatural designer.

Objections to Design Arguments:

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