Teleological Argument


The arguments

Typically begins with the observation of beauty, complexity, pattern in nature. Because they ebgin with pbservations, they are a posteriori arguments. 

Teleological comes fromt elos, the greek work for "end" or goal. 

A typical design argument runs something like this:

1.Whenever we observe things made by people that are beautiful/complex/ordered we infer (reason) that they have been designed that way by an intelligent designer.

2.Beauty/complexity/order do not arise by blind chance

3.We can look at the natural world and see beauty/order/complexity and also see things that work particularly well to perform a function. The resemblance to human inventions is close.

Conclusion 1: Therefore, the natural world, like machines, must have been created by an intelligent being.

Conclusion 2: God is an intelligent being, and therefore, God exists

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Key terms- Swinburne

Richard Swinburne- He is a philosopherwho makes the distinction between two types of regularity that can be found when one observes the world. 

Regularity of co-presence- This is the kind of order that we see when things are positioned in a way that makes them look like they are designed. Swinburne describes this as being arranged in "spatial order" and uses the example of a library in which the books are arranged in alphabetical order. 

Regularity of succession- This is when objects behave in ways that are regular, for example when they obey the laws of nature. The regularity occurs throughout time. 

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Aquinas' Fifth Way

Summa Theologica:

  1. Nature has an order and purpose to it (this is easily observed and is a direct reference to Aristotle’s idea of telos or final cause).

  2. Nothing that is inanimate is purposeful without the aid of a guiding hand “they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly.

Conclusion 1:Therefore everything in nature which is moving but has no intelligence (like the arrow) is moved by some being with knowledge and intelligence.

Conclusion 2: Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.


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William Paley

Written in his book, Natural Theology. It is an analogical (and therefore inductive) argument because it draws an analogy between phenomena in order to reach its conclusion.

1. Imagine stumbling upon a watch on a heath.

2. We would notice the intricate workings of the watch and how everything in it worked towards the purpose of revealing the time to its owner. (This is what Swinburne would describe as regularity of co-presence).

3. We would naturally infer that this watch was designed and produced. We would not believe that it had come about by chance.

4. If we look at the world or the body we see a degree of complexity and purpose that far surpasses that of the watch to demonstrate this.

Conclusion 1: We must therefore infer that the world has to have been made by a divine intelligence.

Conclusion 2 : The divine intelligence is God and God exists.

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Paley- infinite care

In Natural Theology, Paley observes that things are not just cleverly designed; they are designed with an infinite degree of care.


This all supports his view that there must be a divine intelligence behind the design.

'The hinges in the wings of an earwig, and the joints of its antennae, are as highly wrought, as if the Creator had nothing else to finish. We see no signs of dimunition of care by multiplicity of objects, or of distraction of thought by variety. We have no reason to fear, therefore, our being forgotten, or overlooked, or neglected.' - natural theology

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- As a posteriori arguments, they appeal to our observation of the world. It is uncontroversial to sugges that order at least appears to exist in the world. Things do seem very well suited to perform their funtion. 

- Swinburne suggests that although the argument does not provide obsolute proof (it is inductyive and so it can't) it is neverertheless highly probable that there is a designer.

- Arguments from design are compatible with Biblical passages. 

- Perhaps the argument has an intuitive emotional pull. It is very easy to 'see' design at work in the world. 

- The argument appeals to our sense of wonder and beauty at the world. 

- It is, in essence, a very simple argument.

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Hume's Criticisms

He was an atheist and wrote his arguments against theism in the form of a dialogue called Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. It is important to note that he wrote this 23 years before Paley wrote Natural Theology.


He wrote his arguments in the form of a dialogue because it was too risky at the time to write a book entirely in favour of atheism!

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Hume- weak analogy

The anaology between an artefact and the world is weak. Characteristics of purpose and design might be obvious in a machine, but they are not nearly so obvous in the world. 

The teleological argument requires that the artefact is sufficiently similar to the world in order for us to be able to draw the same conclusion about it as we do for the world.

Hume suggests that the two are no sufficiently similar.

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Hume- Order/orderer

Even if we do see order in the world, we are not entitled to leap to the conclusion that there must be a 'divine orderer'. We do not know that all order legitamately say is that there is order in the world. 

'In addition to this, we have nothing to compare the 'order' we observe with. Perhaps the 'order' that we observe would so insignificant compared to that in other words that  it would not be meaningless to use it as evidence for a designer'

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Hume- not necessarily God

We have an imperfect and finite world. There is no reason to suppose that there is an infinite, perfect God behind it. 

Even if there is a creator who designed the world (and Hume doubts this), we cannot know anything about it with any certainty. God could be stupid, only copying someone else's ideas, or he could have accidently stumbled upon the design after countless trials. 

Note: deism- is the belief that God did design/create the Earth but then did nothing else. This is not a Christian belief but it is certainly compatible with the teleogical argument. 

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Hume- only one designer

There is no reason to assume that the world was made by just one God. All sorts of other possibilities are equally likely; the world could have been made by a committee of Gods or even a team of demons.

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Hume- order is necessary

If everything were random and nothing suited its purpose, the world would not be here anymore. Any would will look as though it has been designed because if it was chaotic it would not have survived. 

It is impossible to show that this order could have come about only by God; it could have been because of chance.

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Hume- causes from effects

There is a logical error involved when we work 'backwards' and attempt to infer a cause (god) from effects (order).

Example argument:

having her feet tickled causes Jess to laugh.

Jess is laughing.

Therfore someone must be tickling her feet.

Do proponents of the teleological arguments make the same mistake? 

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Hume- limited experience

The universe is unique and so we are unable to say what it could have been like, or how it might have come into being. We do not knwo how worlds are usually made, or what degree of orde to expect. 

With no other experience, we cannot draw any firm conclusions.

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Mill's criticisms

John Stuart Mill did nopt criticise the teleological argument because of its illogical structure. 

In his writing, On Nature (1874), he argued that if the world had been deliberatly designed, the designer cannot possibly be a loving creator God. 

Mill observed that: 

- living things inflict terrible cruelty and are equipped with special features that allow them to be efficient killers. 

- Nature itself causes suffering through natural disasters.

- The cruellest things that humans can do are to take life and deprive someone of their livelihood. 

Mills Conclusion- If God did design the world, then God is either powerless to stop suffering (not omnipotent) or that he actually wants creatured to suffer. 

He did not say that the world was not designed. 

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Challenges from Darwin

The Origin of Species (1859)- theory of natural selection. 

This theory accounted for the appearance of design without the need to claim the existance of a designer. 

Natural selection- the process by which evolution takes place, through the survival of the fittest who pass their gened to the next generation. 

No intelligent designer is necessary. 

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Richard Dawkins- a modern darwinist

Dawkins believes strongly that Darwin's theory of evolution by naturla selection demonstrates that the teleological argument is false. Here are more of Darkins arguments:

1. The discovery of DNA in the mid 20th century shows that the distinction between living and non-living things is not as fundamental and deep as is imagined by religious believers. The distinction is merely a question of degree of complexity. Life could have coem from material elements. 

2. In response to those who reject the idea of gradual development, Dawkins claims that beings with partially developed features still have a survival advantage over beings that dont have them. 

3. Nature is neither cruel nor caring. The process of evolution is utterly indifferent. 

4. Scientific theories can be tested, religius ones can't. In response to the claim that science is just another myth, Dawkins claims that 'airplaves built by scientific principles work, airplanes built to tribal mythological specifications dont. 

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Responses to Dawkins

1. Scientific theories can be tested perhaps, but can the theory of evolution by natural selection be tested? What is its status as a scientific theory? Is it really so different from religious theories?

2. Can Dawkins safely assume that the universe just exists as a brute fact? There may be a creator; there may not be a creator; there may be many creators; we simply cannot know

3. Dawkins has not shown the evolution by natural selection actually disproves the existance of God.

4. Thinkers like Tennant (1930) believe that evolutin is consistent with design arguments.

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