‘What could be more clear or obvious when we look up to the sky and contemplate the heavens, than that there is some divinity of superior intelligence?’ (Lucilius)
– Cicero (106-4 BC) ‘De Natura Deorum’
For Cicero’s character Lucilius, the wonder of the heavens was enough to conclude that there must be some kind of superior intelligence. In a similar vein, Xenophon in the fourth century BC, quotes Socrates as saying: “With such signs of forethought in the design of living creatures, can you doubt they are the work of choice or design?”.
When we look at the history of the teleological (from the Greek ‘telos’, meaning ‘purpose’) argument we can find references that go back much further than the Christian tradition. This is a point to bear in mind when studying what is commonly referred to as the Design Argument: in its broadest sense it is an argument to support the thesis that the universe is designed; not necessarily the creation of a theistic God. When the Greeks spoke of a cosmic designer they obviously had no idea of the God conceived by the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions.
In examining the Design Argument, therefore, we need to divide it into two parts: firstly, the argument in support of a ‘Theistic God’; secondly, the argument in support of a ‘Cosmic Design’
The Design Argument to Support the Existence of a Theistic God
It is important to be aware that under the term ‘theism’ there exists a diverse range of polytheistic and monotheistic beliefs. However, in this particular argument, as it was developed in the eighteenth century, theism was usually understood as a reference to the ‘classical’ concept of God, as elaborated by Thomas Aquinas and most commonly understood by the Catholic and Anglican traditions of the period. Briefly, God is perceived as single, omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and benevolent (all-good). This is also the orthodox view for Jews and Muslims.
The Case For
The argument was elaborated by the Archdeacon of Carlisle William Paley (1743-1805) in his book Natural Theology. He asks us to imagine walking across a heath:
‘suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever; nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch, as well as for the stone?’
What is Paley suggesting here? If you were to inspect the watch more carefully you would note that it has several parts that work in an orderly, regular and precise manner. Assuming you have never seen a watch before you would still infer that the watch has a purpose of some kind and that it must, therefore, have had a maker. What Paley is doing here is using the argument from an effect to its cause: you look at the effect (the watch), and then determine what caused it (the Watchmaker). But what has this got to do with the Universe? Paley also uses the argument from analogy: does not a natural object, like, for example, the eye, also seem to be similar to the working of a watch? In fact, when we look at various aspects of nature, can we not conclude that nature itself is like a very complex machine? If we are to infer that the watch has a watchmaker, then we must also conclude that the universe has a Divine Maker!
Before Paley, David Hume wrote his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (written in the 1750s). In this book, a conversation takes place between three philosophers, Demea, Cleanthes, and Philo. Cleanthes represents the supporter of the Argument from Design, describing the world as a great machine sub-divided into lesser machines. A study of the world shows that its order and arrangement resembles the results of human contrivance. We are, therefore, led to infer that “the Author of nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man”, though far superior in intelligence to that of man. The character of Philo then proceeds to demolish the argument. We can probably safely assume that the arguments of Philo are that of Hume’s.
The Scottish philosopher was a great empiricist (relying on experience to obtain knowledge) and atheist; a dangerous thing to be at the time. As a precaution, his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was not published until after his death at his request. ‘Natural religion’ is a reference to the belief that religious knowledge could be attained by inference from the facts of the natural world. God has left his ‘signature’ upon His creation. Thus, the Design Argument is ‘a posteriori’ (comes after being verified by experience). This is to be contrasted with ‘revealed religion’ which argues that religious knowledge comes from revelation and is, therefore, a priori (comes before being verified by experience). As an empiricist, Hume was keen to show that a study of the natural world could not succeed in telling us anything about the Christian concept of God.
The Case Against
Some of the arguments put forward by the character of Philo are:
Cause and Effect Argument. Adopting the empiricist approach: our knowledge of causes and effects is based on our experience. For example, you know that if you cut yourself with a knife then you will bleed and feel pain. But how do your know this? Either because you have experienced it before (by now I would be surprised if you haven’t at some stage bled, or felt pain. If you have not, well done!), you’ve seen it happen to someone else, or you have been told by an authority that you trust that this is what happens. Whatever the source of your knowledge, the fact is that you were not born with this fact, it is not innate knowledge. You had to learn it. Now, following from this, you know that when you see a house it had a builder (or, rather, builders: we’ll come on to that point later) and an architect. How? Again, not because you were born with this knowledge or that it just ‘came to you!’. You know by experience. You have seen many houses being built. But can you same about the world? Or the universe? Have you witnessed a world being built?
Comparison Argument. How can we be sure that this world is so perfect? Related to the above argument, you can usually determine the quality of a house based on your past experiences of houses. You can determine whether a house, a piece of furniture, etc. is well made or not and it is fair to infer that a well-made house has a skilled builder and architect. How many worlds have you seen? This world, if it is made by a creator, could actually be something of a ‘botched job’ compared to other worlds! However perfect it may seem to us, we only have this world (and, now, a few others we’ve partially explored in this solar system) to go on.
The First Cause Argument. Also used in the Cosmological Argument (as in ‘who caused the causer?’): If the universe is the creation of a complex Cosmic Mind, then who designed the designer?
The Problem of Evil. This problem is a long and complex one, and is best detailed in a future article. Briefly, if the Cosmic Designer is the theistic omnipotent and benevolent God, then why is the world so full of evil? When we look at the world it does not appear to be as happy and harmonious as one might wish: seemingly arbitrary mass destruction, disease, creatures torturing and killing other creatures, pain and illness…Why would a benevolent God let such things happen? Or why would an omnipotent God create a world where such things have to happen?
The Design Argument to support the Existence of a Cosmic Design
The Problem of Evil does raise a very important point: here Philo is not just attacking the argument of God’s existence, but is questioning the nature of God as understand by orthodox Christianity at the time. If we are to accept the idea of there being a ‘Cosmic Design’ then one may have a stronger argument.
The Case For
However, consequently, the concept of ‘God’ may need to be altered:
God is not benevolent. The fact that there is evil in the world could be accepted if the Designer were not a benevolent one. How many of you have ‘played God’ by building your own world in one of the computer strategy games, only to find world military conquest far more exciting than peaceful diplomacy? (Come on, admit it!)
God is not omnipotent. Perhaps God’s powers are limited. It is possible to create something and yet have limited power over your creation, whether by choice or otherwise. Again, you might imagine creating a computer world with artificial intelligence (AI). You might also give the creatures of this world free will and choose not to interfere in their development. What could be the result?
The argument could go much further. When you do consider the workings of a watch would you automatically think that a single skilled craftsman designed the watch? Certainly less so these days when most human production is the result of more than one producer. In fact, the larger and more complex a construction, then the more people are required. Does it not, therefore, follow that such a complex construction as the universe must have many designers?
This could lead to:
Ditheism. The concept of two divine beings goes back a very long way. Zoroastrianism, a religion that goes back to possibly 3,000 BC and influenced the development of Judaism (and, therefore, had an indirect influence on Christianity and Islam), taught that Ahura Mazda was the Good Creator of all things, but that evil comes from Angra Mainyu. The world, therefore, is a battleground between these two conflicting forces and, in many ways, helps to explain the presence of evil better than the monotheistic religions do. However, the acceptance of ditheism does not fit in with the monotheistic concept of God and the Devil.
Polytheism. We are now going even further away from theism; into the world understood by ancient Greeks, Romans and Hindus. A collection of gods creating and preserving the world. They need not even be particularly intelligent gods: Hume, in reference to shipbuilding, noted that a shipbuilder could be a ‘stupid mechanic’ who had leaned his trade by trial and error. Perhaps the mess the world is in could be explained better this way?
We could go even further than this by dismissing the idea of anthropomorphic god or gods altogether. Rather, the Designer is some kind of living organism, a single ‘life force’. It may be helpful to view the earth as a biological organism in itself, but this does not help to support the Argument from Design. James Lovelock, in his book The Ages of Gaia (the Greek name for the Earth goddess), viewed Earth as a living organism, but not in any teleological sense. The earth is, rather, a self-regulating organism for which mankind is merely a part of: such human considerations of ‘purpose’ miss the point!
The Case Against
It must be remembered that both Hume and Paley were writing at the time of the Scientific Revolution. The new scientific picture of the world that emerged in the seventeenth century, following the discoveries of Kepler, Galileo and Newton, caused religion to also alter its perspective. On the one hand, science demanded that theories could be empirically testable, hence Hume’s empiricism. On the other hand, the universe was perceived in a mechanical way: Newton saw the motion of the planets, and all motion, to be subject to the same laws of mechanics; hence Paley’s analogy of the world and the machine. God thus became the Great Machine-Maker! However, while science could be seen by many to support the teleological argument; it also undermined it as new discoveries came about:
Natural Selection. In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published The Origin of the Species, which concluded that species evolve from other species, and that natural selection is the principal mechanism that produces these changes. Although this theory has been much modified since Darwin’s day, evolutionary theory still regards natural selection as an important factor in species change. The main relevance of this theory for the teleological argument is that new species could be formed without the need for a God. Life evolves naturally; it was not created in the sense of Genesis; nor is God required to regulate the world. Lovelock, though his science has a ‘mystical’ element to it, is using Darwinian theory to support his Gaia hypothesis that the Earth is an automatic, but not purposeful, goal-seeking system, governed by the laws of natural selection and subject to the constraints of nature.
Chaos Theory. Another significant scientific theory that may undermine the whole Design Argument is the belief that the universe is not really all that ordered at all! As quantum theory developed early this century, it became clear that at the microscopic level, physical processes were indeterminate; they were not predictable! Over the past thirty years or so it has become clearer that the motion of many physical systems (including planets) are not as regular as Newton had suggested. In other words; nature is not as mechanical as the machines we make at all, and, therefore, the analogy does not work! Such a theory also lends support to Hume’s thesis that there is no obvious sense in which the universe resembles human production. In fact, it could be argued that human production is ‘better’ than the universe, which is why we feel the need to produce things in the first place!
We have by no means exhausted the arguments for the Design Argument. For many it is considered the most attractive argument for, at the very least, the existence of a ‘Cosmic Designer’. Part of its attraction lies in its relative simplicity compared with, say, the ontological argument. It should be noted, however, that Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that the teleological argument (and, indeed, the cosmological argument) is held to assume the a priori ontological argument! It is not within the scope of this essay to go into detail over Kant’s account of categories. Nonetheless, it is an important part of the argument against design in the sense that Kant believes we impose order on the universe; not merely that the universe imposes order on us! As science learns more about the universe, it appears to be considerably less ordered, spatial and temporal than we believe. Consequently the whole argument falls apart because we are pre-supposing a reality that is not what it seems.
If such is the case, this also weakens more contemporary supporters of the Design Argument that you should investigate. Richard Swinburne believes that it is self-evident that the world contains temporal order. As he said in The Existence of God, “The orderliness of nature to which I draw attention here is its conformity to formula, to simple, formulable, scientific laws…The universe might so naturally have been chaotic, but it is not – it is very orderly.” Although this is not Swinburne’s only point, it is an important one. There is still plenty of mileage in the Design Argument but, ultimately, its very attraction seems to be its weakness: its lack of tight, logical argument; relying more on its appeal to the human capacity for wonder over the workings of the universe.