This argument takes its name from the Greek term, τελος (telos), which means an end or by implication a purpose. Whereas the cosmological argument looks for a first cause, the teleological argument is concerned with a final end. If reality (1) exhibits evidence of purpose and intent and (2) that purposeful feature is very unlikely to have arisen through random or unguided processes, then it is reasonable to conclude that this intent is the result of a purposeful choice to embed the intent in reality. In other words, if we see design, we should look for a designer.
So does this sort of design exist in the universe?
Intelligent Design & Irreducible Complexity
The most famous example of this argument is probably that of William Paley, who compared our experience of reality as discovering a watch on a sandy beach.1 Paley asserted that we would never assume that the watch was the result of random motion or chaotic forces, so why would we believe such about the far more complex nature of human biology? “This is atheism: for 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.”2 Paley has been criticized by many skeptics for making an argument from a faulty analogy and for having an antiquated view of biology. However, the overall sense of Paley’s observation lives on.
A modern approach to this question is to look at the biological and chemical building blocks of life. Notably, Michael Behe has argued that not only do we see evidence of “function” in nature, we also see complexity in carrying out that function which cannot be explained through a step-by-step series of mutations. He calls these systems “irreducibly complex”: “An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfuctional.”3 A common example of this would be the human eye. The eye works by the cooperative effort of the lens, the pupil, the muscles, the retina, and finally the interpretation of electrical signals from the eye by the brain. Without any one piece of this mechanism, it is hard to imagine a functional eye. Thus, for it to be an advantageous mutation (the kind that gets passed along onto successive generations), the eye would need to have developed in one step with essentially all its working parts already in place. The statistical challenge this presents is hard to express, as the likelihood of such a specific mutation may not be calculable.
“God of the Gaps” Criticisms
Critics of Behe and his kin have a few meaningful attacks. First, some will assert that some things “look” designed because the universe selectively favors products that are successful. Out of the multitude of possible “eyes,” the only one likely to exist is the one that works and fills us with awe and wonder. Second, they also assert that just because science has not yet discovered an explanation for the development of these features does not mean that it never will. The last century has produced countless developments in our understanding of biology and chemistry, and it is safe to bet that the next century will as well. Arguments of this type are called “god of the gaps” arguments, because they attempt to prove the existence of god by appealing to gaps in human knowledge. How does X happen? We don’t know, so X must be the result of god. The downside is that as science reduces those gaps, they also reduce the need and evidence for god. This type of argument is therefore tricky, dangerous, and most often should be avoided.
Thus, some theists have taken a more measured approach to Behe’s arguments. Platinga, for example, simply states, “Behe’s argument … is by no means airtight. Behe has not demonstrated that there are irreducibly complex systems such that it is impossible or even monumentally improbable that they have evolved in a Darwinian fashion – although he has certainly provided Darwinians with a highly significant challenge.”4
Whether or not Behe or Paley fully persuade you, it is worth acknowledging as Plantinga that he offers “highly significant challenge” to atheistic assumptions
- See the first three chapters of Paley’s Natural Theology, 1836.
- Paley as found in Brian Davies, ed. Philosophy of Religion: A Guide and Anthology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 259.
- Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 39
- Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 231.