The Teleological Argument
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 3 - Philosophy of Religion
William Paley, from Natural Theology
Kem Stone - 21 August 2007
The argument from design is probably the most popular argument for God’s existence in contemporary society,
though since it was formulated by William Paley it has undergone many changes in form and substance. In its
latest incarnation, it is known as Intelligent Design, and while the proponents of this so-called “theory” do their
best to make it sound scientific by using almost exclusively biological rather than theological terminology, it is in
essence the same argument offered by Paley in his Natural Theology. The bulk of this particular text is Paley’s
defence against eight objections to the argument from design and reasons for why each fails to defeat it. I will
briefly state the argument and then offer my own opinions as to which of Paley’s defences succeed and which do
not. Finally, I will offer my own objection to the argument from design altogether, as it applies not only to Paley’s
formulation but to all versions that have yet been offered.
The argument runs something like this: if I were to find a stone on the ground and were asked how the stone came
to be there, I could claim that it had lain there forever, and no argument could be offered to conclusively refute
me. If, however, I came across a watch lying on the ground, the claim that this watch had lain there forever
would be absurd. The reason is that we find in the watch various mechanisms which all have utility towards a
function—in this case to keep track of time. “This mechanism being observed…the inference, we think, is
inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed at some place or other, an artificer
or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its
construction, and assigned its use” (80). Of course, Paley wishes to assert that we are justified in making the
same inference when it comes to nature, as the universe itself can be seen as a kind of mechanism.
Before offering my objection to this assertion, I will examine Paley’s responses to his expected objections and
state whether or not I believe Paley has succeeded in defeating them. His first defence is that it would not
“weaken the conclusion, that we had never seen a watch made; that we had never known an artist capable of
making one; that we were altogether incapable of executing such a piece of workmanship ourselves, or of
understanding in what manner it was performed” (80). I agree with Paley that we cannot dismiss the inference to
design on the grounds that we have no experience of a designer. Indeed, nearly all of the mechanisms we use
today are beyond our comprehension as to their design. I have never seen a person who designed the computer
with which I write this, nor do I even truly understand how it works, but that does not mean I am not justified in
my belief that it actually was designed by an intelligent being and did not just spontaneously form.
Second, “It is not necessary that a machine be perfect in order to show with what design it was made” (80). I
agree to this in one respect but disagree in another. If we are talking of a watch or a computer, I certainly agree
that the inference to design is still justified if the watch or computer does not operate perfectly. Indeed I have
never known of a watch or computer that has. However, if we want to apply the analogy to the entire universe—
particularly for the purpose of proving the existence of a perfect being—are we not justified in objecting that the
universe ought to be perfect if we are to infer a perfect designer? Of course, to apply a term like “perfection” to
the universe is absurd anyway, as we have no basis on which to judge whether the universe is “perfect” or not.
Third, Paley insists that the inference to design is not defeated if we fail to discover some of its parts, or if we
discover parts that appear to have no utility at all. I agree with Paley here on the same grounds that I agree with
his response to the first objection. I do not know what function many of the parts of my computer have, but that
is by no means any reason for me to abandon my belief that it has a designer.
“Nor, fourthly, would any man in his senses think the existence of the watch, with its various machinery, accounted
for by being told that it was one of possible combinations of material forms” (81). Here I disagree completely
with Paley. Though it is most certainly absurd to believe that a watch appeared on the ground because the matter
which lay for the aeons forming and re-forming in different combinations just happened to take the form of a
watch at that particular time, this cannot be extended to apply to the entire universe. The universe, as many
philosophers and scientists have proposed, may be one of an infinite number of possible universes, and that the
mechanisms of this universe appear to work so well because this just happens to be one of those universes in
which the laws of nature (such as the strength of the weak force, the cosmological constant, etc.) have allowed for
beings such as us to exist and marvel at how perfectly formed everything seems to be.
The fifth objection is that a man could not reasonably believe that there is some pre-existing principle of order
which disposed the parts of the watch to exist as they were. “He never knew a watch made by the principle of
order; nor can he even form to himself an idea of what is meant by a principle of order, distinct from the
intelligence of the watch-maker” (81). I will give Paley the benefit of the doubt on this one and agree with him, as
a “principle of order” is too vague of a concept as to offer a satisfactory objection to the inference to design. But
I will return to this point later.
Sixth, one could not reasonably believe that the mechanism of the watch was not proof of contrivance but that it is
only a peculiarity of our own mind to make us believe so. Paley wants to defeat what he sees as the fallacious
notion that the inference to design is actually just an inclination on the part of our minds to explain all things having
mechanistic qualities by inferring a designer. Here I think Paley gives inadequate treatment to this objection, as
while it may be absurd to suggest that our minds have tricked us into believing a watch has a designer, it is a far
different thing to suggest that our minds have tricked us into believing that a tree or the universe has a designer. It
is understood that humans have a tendency to anthropomorphise, and in many cases anthropomorphism is clearly
not justified (such as my belief that my car will not start because it is angry with me for neglecting to change its
oil). Paley offers nothing to suggest that our human tendency to infer a designer is justified in the case of biological
organisms, let alone for the universe as a whole.
The most important objection Paley responds to is that the watch could not have merely been formed by the laws
of metallic nature. “A law presupposes as an agent, for it is only the mode according to which an agent
proceeds; it implies a power, for it is the order according to which that power acts” (81). This is such an
important point because it is in fact the counter-argument that most would use against the argument from design.
It may not be an intelligence which formed the universe—the universe could just as easily have formed on its own
according to fundamental laws of nature (this is something different than the aforementioned principle of order)
without calling upon any designer to explain them. But Paley insists that these laws themselves could not exist
unless they were designed as well, and while this is certainly a legitimate belief I do not see it as conclusive. It is
perfectly reasonable to believe that the natural laws were crafted by a higher intelligence, but to insist that they
could not have come about otherwise is completely unjustified. A natural law could have been caused by a pre-
existing natural law and so on ad infinitum. No ultimate cause need be posited.
Finally, Paley wishes to defeat the objection that one can not justifiably infer a designer because one knows
nothing at all about the matter. “He knows enough for his argument: he knows the utility of the end: he knows the
subserviency and adaptation of the means to the end” (81). Again, this may apply to the case of a watch—he
knows enough to justifiably believe that the watch was designed, but it absolutely fails to apply to the entire
universe, which we know so little about that to insist we know enough to know that it was designed can only be
called the most gross form of epistemological arrogance. When it comes to the universe, we do not know the
utility of the end—to what end does Paley believe the universe operates? And we most certainly do not know the
adaptation of the means to the end, or else there would be no need for philosophy in the first place. If we did
know these things, we would know why we exist and how we ought to live to further the cause of our existence.
If anyone does know these things I will immediately grant him his intelligent designer, but these are points of which
everyone is ignorant.
This brings us to the central flaw behind Paley’s argument, and behind any argument from design in general. Paley
insists that “every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the
works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which
exceeds all computation” (81). The assertion is that one can justifiably analogise the mechanistic design of a
watch to that of a biological organism or to the universe as a whole, and I believe this analogy is a hopeless failure.
When it comes to biological organisms, we may see what appear to be indications of design, but we have a far
more reasonable explanation for this in the theory of evolution. Matter has had billions of years in which to form
itself into molecules capable of self-replication, and these molecules have had billions of years to evolve into the
forms that exist today through a process of natural selection. Those forms which are “designed” better have
survived to replicate themselves, while those which were flawed have passed away.
A similar postulation could be made regarding the universe. It may be that universes themselves are products of
natural selection, and that those with properties or physical laws tending more towards stability have endured
while those more chaotic universes have devoured themselves, or merely exist in a form not permitting of
intelligence. We happen to exist in a universe in which forms of matter have appeared that are capable of
discerning patterns in nature. And why should we think this a coincidence? If we existed in a universe incapable
of supporting intelligence, we could not be capable of discerning such patterns or of making an inference to a
designer in the first place.
My final objection to this argument from design is a much broader point that will encompass many other
deontological arguments as well. The existence of God is easy to prove as long as we are willing to modify our
conception of God according to what we know exists. Personally, I believe that God is Existence. Since it is self-
evident that existence exists, it is certain that God exists. The same can be said for a principle of order or the
fundamental laws of nature. If we want the design argument to work, we need only modify our conception of
God accordingly. Because the universe is ordered, we know that a principle of order exists. If God is the
principle of order, we know that God exists.
But what I understand God to mean when we are dealing with arguments that try to prove its existence is some
fundamental unity of all existing things—one being from which all other beings derive their existence, which exists
in all things and causes them to exist. The argument from design falls hopelessly short of establishing the existence
of any such entity, even more-so than the ontological or cosmological arguments. Even if we grant (which we
certainly need not) that the teleological argument does conclusively prove that the universe is designed by
intelligence, it can never tell us the nature of that intelligence, much less that this is the only intelligence which is
responsible for the creation of the universe. The universe could have been designed by a committee of Gods, or
designed by one God and brought into existence by a force which lies outside or above this God. Furthermore,
this God could have designed only this universe while other Gods exist to design other universes, and this whole
universe of universe-designing Gods has been designed by another God.
Omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence are not required for the validity of the argument from design, and
for this very reason it will never conclusively prove the existence of the sort of God that its proponents wish to