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Teleological argument

A teleological argument (or an argument from design) is an argument for the existence of God. Although there are variations, the basic argument goes something like this, where X usually stands either for either a given animal species or for a particular organ (e.g. the eye) or capability (e.g. language) of a given species:

  1. X is very complicated and/or purposeful.
  2. The existence of very complex and/or purposeful things is highly improbable, and thus their existence demands an explanation.
  3. The only reasonable explanation for the existence of X is that it was designed and created by an intelligent, sentient artifer/designer.
  4. X was not designed or created by humans, or any other Earthly being.
  5. Therefore, X must have been designed and created by a non-human but intelligent and sentient artificer.
  6. In particular, X must have been designed and created by God.
  7. Therefore God must exist.

This argument is very popular today in the United States, probably because it seems to be the most "scientific" argument for the existence of God. It is at the core of scientific creationism and Intelligent Design Theory.

Nonetheless, most professional biologists support the standard theory of biological evolution. They reject the third premise, arguing that evolution is not only a possible alternative explanation for the existence of X but a better explanation. Thus, whether or not God exists, scientists tend to view the teleological argument as a poor argument in favor of His or Her existence.

The third premise has been accused of being an argument by lack of imagination.

Although the third premise appears to be the most embattled portion of the argument, refutations have also been tried along other grounds. Here is a popular proof by contradiction: Suppose that there is an intelligent artificer, by the teleological argument. Well that artificer is surely more complex and purposeful than whatever artifacts inspired the teleological argument, so the first premise is at least as true of the artificer than of the artifact in question. Thus we must conclude that the designer was itself designed. But by what or whom? A yet superior artificer? Obviously this logic leads us on forever. But this is absurd. Therefore our initial supposition, that there is an intelligent artificer, must be incorrect.

Additionally, some argue that, even if the argument correctly proves the existence of a non-human artificer (i.e. if the argument is correct through step 5), that artificer might not be God, as God is commonly understood. Why couldn't it have been an alien from another world? Why do we assume there was only one artificer instead of two, or a whole artificer community?

One of the most recent reincarnations of the teleological argument is the so-called "argument from the fine-tuning of the cosmological constants".


The most famous proponent of the teleological argument is William Paley (1743-1805), who framed the argument in terms of a watch.

Before that, David Hume presented arguments both for and against the teleological argument in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The character Philo, summarizing the teleological argument, uses an example of a watch; thus Hume arguably makes Paley's key point before Paley himself. Philo is not satisfied with the teleological argument, however, and attempts a number of interesting refutations, including one that arguably forshadows Darwin's theory. In the end, however, Hume has Philo agree that the teleological argument is valid. (Dennett 1995, p. 29) Daniel Dennett (ibid.) claims that, although Hume was ultimately dissatisfied with the teleological argument, his cultural context prevented him from taking any of the alternatives seriously.

Much earlier, Cicero made a similar argument about design, also by means of a timepiece:

When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers? (Gjertsen 1989, p. 199, quoted by Dennett 1995, p. 29)

References and further reading

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