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The Teleological Argument

The Teleological Argument, or more colloquially, the Argument From Design, is probably, in some form or another, one of the most familiar argument for God's existence among laymen. It argues that the world and, by extension, the universe, shows signs of being a designed entity by analogy with human designs. For instance, the eye is an organ similar to the camera, for both are used for focussing an image; the former on the retina and the latter on a film.

The Teleological Argument

Perhaps the most eloquent statement of this argument is the one that appears in David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Here is Hume's summary of the believer's position:

Look around the world, contemplate the whole and every part of it: you will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivision to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to end throughout all nature resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the production of human contrivance, of human design, thought, wisdom and intelligence. Since therefore the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble, and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed. By this argument a posteriori and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a deity and his similarity to human mind and intelligence. [1]

The arch-skeptic Hume, of course, presented this argument as a preliminary to demolishing it. And demolish it he did. Hume's critique floored the Teleological Argument for good. Although it is revived from time to time in theological circles, philosophically the argument is a refuted argument. We will be following Hume's critique very closely here.

Hume's Demolition of the Teleological Argument

The Analogical Reasoning is Weak

It is important to note that the Teleological Argument is an argument from analogy. It assumes that the orderliness in the world; physical, biological and chemical; resembles closely the orderliness of man-made artefacts such as houses, watches and cameras. This resemblance shows itself strongly in the way each part of the whole works together to achieve some purpose. And as man-made contrivances result from design and intelligence, so it must be, by analogy, that the natural world results from design and intelligence.

As a first step in his critique, Hume reminds us that the argument from analogy is as strong as the closeness of the resemblance. The less the cases resemble one another, the less strong the analogy and the less convincing will be the inference based on it:

Whenever you depart, in the least from the similarity of the cases, you diminish proportionately the evidence; and may at last bring it to a very weak analogy, which is confessedly liable to error and uncertainty. After having experienced the circulation of blood in creatures, we make no doubt that it takes place in Titus and Maevius. But from its circulation in frogs and fishes it is only a presumption, though a strong one, from analogy, that it takes place in men and other animals. The analogical reasoning is much weaker when we infer the circulation of sap in vegetables from our experience that blood circulates in animals, and those who hastily followed that imperfect analogy, are found, by more accurate experiments, to have been mistaken ... If we see a house, ... , we conclude, with the greatest certainty, that it had an architect or builder, because this is precisely that the species of effect, which we have experienced to proceed from that species of cause. But surely you will not affirm, that the universe bears such a resemblance to a house, that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy is here entire and perfect. The dissimilitude is so striking, that the utmost you can pretend is a guess, a conjecture, a presumption concerning a similar cause; and how that pretension will be received in the world, I leave you to consider ...[2]

Hume has brought out a very important point. From the fact that we have seen houses built by man, whenever we see a particular house, though we have not seen it being built, we can conclude from analogy and with certainty that this house too was planned, designed and built by human beings. Now the whole process of analogy become less certain when, say we come across a cave that is vaguely shaped like a door and beside this are small holes that resembled windows. Obviously it is possible that the holes and caves could have been formed naturally, perhaps by erosion, or it could have been carved out by primitive cave dwellers.

Here because the effect is different, our inference as to the cause become less certain. In the case of universe building, or creating, we have never seen a universe being created, unlike the house, hence our inference on the cause lies solely on how closely it resembles human creations. And that to Hume, is precisely what is wrong with the Teleological Argument. The natural world we see around us does not resemble man made things so closely that we can be certain of similar kinds of cause, i.e. design and intelligence. We see cameras being designed and made in factories but human eyes are not made in factories. In fact, human eyes are made in a so completely different way that it is important to ask the believer, just where is the analogy? Hume asserted that for all we know there are numerous causes of order and design [a] other than intelligence and thought. [3]

We have the benefit of two hundred years of scientific progress since Hume and he is shown to be right here as well. Animals and plant species are not created but evolved from simpler ancestors. Even for the fundamentalist, the fact that evolution can be used as an alternate explanation to the formation of new species show that there are possible causes of order and design that is different from intelligence and thought. It is, in fact, very pretentious of people to reason that because in a small corner of the universe there exist some man made artifacts, the whole cosmos must have a designer and maker similar to himself. Hume concluded that the fundamental premise of the Teleological Argument, that the human creations are similar to the universe is flawed and unconvincing:

And will any man tell me with a serious contenance that an orderly universe must arise from some thought and are like human because we have experience of it. To ascertain this reasoning, it is requisite that we had experience of the origins of worlds, and it is not sufficient surely that we have seen ships and cities arise from human art and contrivances ... Have worlds ever been formed under your eyes, and have you ever had the leisure to observe the whole progress of the phenomenon, from the first appearance of order to the final consummation? If you have, then cite your experience and deliver your theory. [4]

The Attributes of God Can't Be Derived from the Argument

With the fundamental premise of the Teleological Argument shown to be unconvincing it seems that Hume had succeeded in his purpose. But it was not enough, Hume wanted to further show that even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that there is a similarity between the natural world and man made artefacts, the argument would still not prove what its proponents want it to prove.

First Hume reminds the supporters of the argument just how the principle of analogy works:

But to show you still more inconveniences ... in your anthropomorphism, please take a new survey of your principles. Like effects prove like causes. This is the experimental argument ... Now it is certain, that the liker the effects are, which are seen, and the liker the causes, which are inferred, the stronger the argument. Every departure on either side diminishes the probability, and renders the experiment less conclusive. You cannot doubt this principle; neither ought you reject its consequences. [5]

And then, Hume declares, if houses, watches and all other human contrivances are finite, we conclude that the designers are finite creatures. And the world, so long as I can observe and comprehend it, is not infinite. Hence the Teleological Argument forces one to conclude that the Grand Designer is not infinite.

First, by this method of reasoning, you renounce all claim to infinity in any of the attributes of the deity. For the cause ought only be proportioned to the effect, and the effect, so far as it falls under our cognizance, is not infinite; what pretensions have we, upon your suppositions to ascribe that attribute to the divine being? [6]

And what is more, says Hume, the Teleological Argument can't even prove that God is perfect. Hume shows that perfection of the deity is not something which can be deduce from the analogy used in the argument:

Second, you have no reason, on your theory, for ascribing perfection to the deity, even in his finite capacity; or for supposing him free from any error, mistake, or incoherence in his undertakings. At least, you must acknowledge that it is impossible for us to tell, from our limited views, whether this system contain any great faults or deserve any considerable praise if compared to other possible or even real systems. Could a peasant, if the Aeneid were read to him, pronounce that poem to be absolutely faultless, or even assign to it its proper rank among the production of human wit, he who had never seen any other production?

But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain whether all the excellence of the work can be justly ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea we must form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful and beautiful a machine? And what surprise must we feel when we find him a stupid mechanic who imitated others and copied an art which through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations and controversies, had been gradually improving? Many worlds might have been botched or bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labour lost, many fruitless trials made, and a slow but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world making. In such subjects who can determine where the truth, nay, who can conjecture where the probability lies, amidst a great number of hypothesis, which may be proposed, and a still greater which may be imagined. [7]

Hume's argument is simple. We do not have enough knowledge about the cosmos to pronounce it a faultless design. We are like the peasant being shown a work of literature; how are we to pronounce judgement on things we have no knowledge of? Furthermore, even if we can pronounce the cosmos a faultless design, we still cannot conclude that God is perfect. Following our analogy, sometimes good designs come from copying other designs and through trial and error. A good design does not necessarily imply a great designer.

Hume then pointed out another flaw in the Teleological Argument; you can't prove that there is only one God:

And what shadow of an argument ... can you produce, from your hypothesis, to prove the unity of the deity? A great number of men, join in building a house and a ship, in rearing a city, in framing a commonwealth. Why not several deities combine in contriving and forming a world? This is only so much similarity to human affairs. [8]

Hume showed that by applying strictly the rules of analogy we can't say that there is only one Grand Designer, for human affairs point more towards teamwork in designing and building.

There are many more problems with the Teleological Argument. If we can discover a watch in the desert, we can be certain that it had a designer but how do we know if the designer is still alive? The same question applies to the Cosmos. And since all human designers make things out of pre-existing material, the Teleological Argument can't conclude that the Universe was created ex nihilo (out of nothing). [9] We can conclude that the basic analogy asserted by the Teleological Argument between nature and man-made artefacts is unconvincing. And even if the analogy is accepted, for the sake of argument, we cannot conclude that God is infinite, perfect, one or even if he is still alive. We let Hume conclude this section on the Teleological Argument:

In a word, ... , a man, who follows your hypothesis, is able perhaps, to assert to conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: But beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance, and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology by the utmost license of fancy and hypothesis. [10]


Hume showed that:
  • The analogical reasoning used in the teleological argument is weak and not convincing.
  • Even if we accept the analogy, the argument from design cannot show that:
    • That the "designer" has infinite attributes.
    • That the design is "faultless" and a sign of the greatness of the designer.
    • Even if the design can somehow be shown to be faultless, we cannot conclude that the designer is great or faultless.
    • That there is only one designer.
    • That the designer(s) is (are) still alive.

The Teleological Argument is hereby confined to the scrap heap of philosophy.

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a.Hume was writing close to a century before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species which showed that indeed, there are other cases of design-like structure, that is evolution by natural selection, formed without intelligence and thought.


1.Alston & Brandt, The Problems of Philosophy: p29
2.Ibid: p29
3.Popkin & Stroll, Philosophy: Made Simple: p146
4.Ibid: p146-147
5.Knight, Humanists Anthology: p39
6.Ibid: p39
7.Ibid: p40
8.Ibid: p40
9.Olscamp, Introduction to Philosophy: p332
10.Knight, Humanists Anthology: p40

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