The Design Argument


The Design Argument

William Paley's analogical argument:

Paley's argument is a posteriori:

  • it is empirical in nature- an argument that is based on sense experience (5 senses).


  • it is based on probability.
  • the conclusion is not necessarily true- the stronger the evidence for it, the more likely it is to be true.


  • based on a comparison between the features of two different things.
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The Design Argument

Paley's argument uses the approach of natural theology- view that questions about God's existence can be answered by reasoning rather than by appeal to special revelation.

  • special revelation- refers to scripture or some form of religious experience.

Paley's book is called Natural Theology.

Paley's argument is based on three observations of the world:

1) complexity

2) purpose- Paley's argument is also referred to as the Teleological Argument. 

The word 'Telos' is Greek for purpose. The Teleological argument argues that the universe is being directed towards a telos, an end purpose.

3) regularity

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The Design Argument

Paley's analogy:

When walking across rough ground, stubbing one's toe against a stone would not raise the question of how the stone came to be there- in coming across a watch, it qould be reasonable to ask that question.

  • observation would point to the watch's complexity and to the exact suitability of its parts and of their arrangement to serve its purpose.
  • this could not have occured by chance. A complete explanation rrquires reference to its purpose- giver.
  • an inyelligent watchmaker must have designed it.


  • the universe is complex, it shows the same precise suitability of parts and arrangement to serve its purpose.
  • this could not have occurred by chance- it must have been designed by a universe maker.
  • the far greater complexity, etc of the world requires an infinitely greater designer.
  • the universe designer is God.
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The Design Argument

Illustrations given by Paley to support his argument:

  • the eye is superbly adapted for vision
  • the fins and gills of fish are perfect for living in water
  • birds' bones, wings and feathers are perfect for flight
  • there is regularity in the universe of planetary orbits and on earth of the seasons.


"The marks of design are too string to be gotten over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD". Natural Theology, Paley.

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The Design Argument

Criticisms of the design argument

David Hume:

  • Hume made a number of arguments in his challenge to the design theory.

Rejection of the idea of design:

1) Mechanistic analogies are inappropriate

  • such analogies are deliberately chosen because they encourage the idea of a designer.
  • living organisms would be more appropriate, e.g. a vegetable which does not require explanation in terms of a designer.

2) The apparent order could be due to chance

  • Hume suggested that given the constantly chaning arrangements of its atoms over an infinite period of time, it was inevitable that order would eventually emerge.
  • he also suggested the possibility that the universe alternates between periods of chaos and periods of order and by sheer chance, existence currently is in a period of order. 
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The Design Argument

Little can be said about any designer:

The mechanistic analogy is anthropomorphic- language that attributes human characteristics or ideas to non- human entities.

  • humans have no knowledge of how universes are made- we can know nothing about the capacities or nature of any universe designer.
  • the mechanistic analogy is in effect creating a universe designer in our image.

The designer is not necessarily the God of Christian theism:

  • a cause must be proportional to its effects
  • the traditional Christain understadning of God is not required by what is known of the universe
  • intelligent minds are attached to physical bodies, so the designer could be mortal and may be long dead
  • teamwork is often behind design, so a number of deities of different skills, both male and female could be responsible for the universe.
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The Design Argument

The problem of evil:

  • the evidence of so much natural and moral evil in the world is evidence of a flawed design.
  • Hume considered God's omnipotence and omnibenevolence to be incompatible with the existence of evil. Thus, the existence of evil calls into question the character of a creator God.
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The Design Argument

Evaluation of Paley's Design Argument:


  • apparent oder, purpose and design are just chance. Support for this from Darwin and Dawkins.
  • Universe could have 'designed itself' by chance. Support for this from multiverse theories.
  • existence of evil suggests incompetent, indifferent or malevolent designer- or no designer at all.
  • claims made by theism about the nature of a designer God go way beyond the evidence.


  • Swinburne argued that the existence of a single omnipotent God is the simplest explanation.
  • Paley said evil might be unavoidedable for God to bring about good. 
  • evolution itself requires explanation (Swinburne). It is not incompatible with theism.
  • Paley's claim that 'nature shows intention' is supported by the Anthropic Principle. The multiverse theory is incapable of proof. 


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The Design Argument

Its status as a 'proof':

The argument cannot offer proof of God;

  • only deductive arguments can give absolute proof. The Design Argument is inductive, so can never be absolutely certain.
  • Paley's observations to support his argument can be explained naturally, e.g the regular rotation of the planets is due to gravity. If the multiverse theory is true, then the apparent design is pure chance.

The argument does offer proof of God;

  • most things that we accept as true in life are based on inductive arguments. They are accepted as 'true beyond reasonable doubt'. The stronger the evidence, the more probably true a claim is.
  • some would argue that the laws of nature require explanation and that we cannot be sure that the multiverse theory is true. This means that the challenges do not diminish the probability that Paley's argument is true.
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The Design Argument

The value of Paley's Design Argument for religious faith:

On the positive side;

  • Paley's argument is rationally and empirically based. 
  • it is consistent with biblical teaching that there is a guiding hand directing the whole of nature and human lives in a purposeful way.

Theists cannot prove God's existence but nor can atheists prove God's non- existence.

  • both rely on reasoning and empirical evidence to create inductive arguments.
  • Paley's reasoning and appeal to observation, together with the simplicity of his argument and its reinforcement with the Cosmological Argument, provide strong support for theists.
  • according to Price, religious faith should include both 'belief that' and 'belief in'.
  • Paley's argument gives evidence to support the 'belief that' God exists. His descriptions of the universe's design encourages 'belief in' God.

On the negative side;

  • For fideists, rational arguments play no part in faith as they do not lead to commitement- Paley's argument does not successfully address the issue of evil.
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The Design Argument

The relationship between reason and faith:

  • this applies to all three arguments; design, ontological and cosmological.

In Price's view, both 'belief that' and 'belief in' are necessary to faith.

  • without belief that, 'belief in' has no substance
  • without belief in, 'belief that' has no personal significance

The rationalist approach- emphasises the role of reason in any consideration of God's existence. Without it, faith is unscientific, irrational and meaningless. However, it could be argued that a purely rational faith is impersonal; it does not have a transforming influence on the life and thought of the individual concerned or the world as a whole.

The fideist approach- claims that the use of reason to justify religion is inappropriate. Personal experience leads to absolute conviction about the reality of God. Rational arguments cannot give that certainty. However, this approach runs the risk of resulting in irrational extremism and rules out any meaningful debate with non- believers.

H.H. Price distinguished between 'belief that' and 'belief in'- 'belief that' is acceptance of propositions about something. 'Belief in' is an attitude of commitment and trust.

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