June 27, 2007

The Teleological Argument

While we are talking a bit about intelligent design, I'd like to take the opportunity to post a little paper I wrote last semester on the teleological argument for the existence of God. The assignment was to give the strongest possible version of the teleological argument, discuss the most important objection, and whether the objection succeeds (and why). The catch: it all had to fit on one page. (This sort of thing is, by the way, a very useful exercise for budding philosophers; I recommend it.) So, without further ado:

Teleological arguments for the existence of a divine being attempt to show from the presence of telos, or purposiveness, in nature the existence of a creator � that is, the argument claims that where there is purposiveness, there must be one who purposes, and that one is God. As compared to the other traditional arguments for the existence of a divine being, teleological arguments are particularly promising in that they are particularly intuitive: the world is orderly, and that which brings about order is a rational mind. The famous modern articulation of the argument is William Paley's assertion that we are justified in positing the existence of an 'artificer' in the case of the world for precisely the same reason we are justified in positing an 'artificer' for a watch. The most important objections against teleological arguments are those which assert that, for some reason or another, these cases are not, in fact, analogous.

It is undisputed that the world looks like a product of design. The claim of the teleological argument is that we ought to take this appearance at face value and conclude that there is, indeed, a designer of the universe. However, according to many recent scientific thinkers, the theory of evolution is supposed explain the appearance of design in biology without the need to suppose the existence of an actual designer, and similar tactics are tried in other areas of science. Teleological arguments in popular apologetics have often pointed to facts as yet unexplained by evolution as their evidence, and thus been highly vulnerable to �God of the gaps� objections � that is, they have claimed that a designer was needed to explain various things that science had not yet explained. �God of the gaps� arguments, where they truly appear, are indeed uncompelling. These sorts of arguments claim that because some phenomenon is currently unexplained by science, God must be its explanation. These arguments are bad because �gaps� in scientific understanding have a way of getting filled in, and also because it seems that God might be used to explain just about anything with equal justification.

This, however, is not the essence of the teleological argument. To use Paley's example, no matter how detailed your explanation of the mechanical workings of the gears of the watch, this direction of inquiry will never explain why the watch tells time. That is, a mechanistic explanation cannot explain away the telos. An explanation of how the watch came to be which was similarly mechanistic would similarly fail to explain this fact. To give another example, even if someone was able to prove that Hamlet had come into being as a result of a monkey pressing all the right keys on a typewriter in the correct order, one would not have explained the existence of Hamlet. This is because there is much more to Hamlet than merely a sequence of letters: Hamlet contains plot twists, word-play, complexity, and even meditation on the human condition. These types of facts require a deeper explanation than can be provided by a discussion of the mechanism by which the object arose. If the universe is truly analogous to a watch or to Hamlet then science is simply the wrong kind of explanation whereas the theistic hypothesis is the right kind of explanation. Furthermore, Del Ratzsch has argued quite convincingly (�Natural Theology, Methodological Naturalism, and 'Turtles all the Way Down'� in Faith and Philosophy 21: 436-455) that even if evolutionary theory were not only true but also an adequate explanation of the appearance of design in biology, one would need to explain the conditions that made life possible, and a further explanation would be needed for the conditions that made these conditions possible, and so on, so that �design-suggestive and design-explainable pattern[s]� lead to a sort of �Mandelbrot picture� of a world that is designed (p. 449).

The opponent of the teleological argument might respond instead that the universe is not really analogous to either of these examples in the relevant way. One way of doing this might be to argue that watches have never been observed to reproduce themselves, whereas plants and animals have been observed to do so, and the production even of stars and planets by natural causes has been observed, and in biological reproduction, changes often result so that natural selection and survival of the fittest seem able to produce the illusion of telos; animals seem to have the survival of the species as their purpose even though, in the absence of a designer, there is no actual purpose. This objection is not particularly successful. Imagine, by way of analogy, that watches were seen to reproduce themselves naturally and to improve over time: sundials collected parts form their environment which were used to construct pendulum clocks, which collected parts from their environment which were used to build main-spring clocks, etc., until, over time, we arrived at quartz wristwatches and, ultimately, atomic clocks. Would not this cry for explanation in terms of intelligence even more than a single watch found on its own? Doesn't this make the case for design better rather than worse? Alternatively, it might be argued that watches have been previously observed to be the product of intelligence, and we would not infer an intelligence were this not the case. This does not seem successful either, since archaeologists do, in fact, quite regularly infer intelligence in observing artifacts they have never seen before. In short, the appearance of order and purpose in the world and the observation that in all of our experience intelligence is the source of order and purpose provide quite strong justifications for belief in an intelligence beyond our own which is the creator of the universe, �and this all men call God.�


For those who don't study philosophy of religion, the phrase "and this all men call God" is used by Aquinas: we use it to mean that at this point we have argued for the existence of some entitiy, "an intelligence beyond our own which is the creator of the universe," and this entity is identical with the God of religion, but we don't claim to have proved that the being in question has the characteristics of the God of religion. I welcome criticisms of this evaluation of the argument.

Posted by Kenny at June 27, 2007 1:42 AM
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Evolution and Teleological Arguments
Excerpt: Much of Sobel's chapter on teleological (design) arguments is devoted to Hume interpretation and explaining Bayesianism. The latter seems to be one of several places where Sobel has not decided whether he is writing a textbook or a monograph. As for th...
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