The Formalized Teleological Argument
The first true arguments from design (those that argue for the existence of an intelligent creator) originated during the scholastic period, shortly after the turn of the second millennium AD. Perhaps the most well known of these is Thomas Aquinas’ teleological argument, which he presented in the thirteenth century as part of his “Summa Theologica.” Aquinas, just like Aristotle, perceived an apparent purposiveness to living things, and believed that this proved the existence an intelligent creator. As a part of his argument, Aquinas compared life to an arrow in mid-flight. An arrow is mindless, he reasoned, but it flies towards a target because it has been directed by an intelligent archer. Similarly, he argued, living things – even those without minds or intelligence – continuously pursue ends, and must therefore have been directed by an intelligent being.
This latter part of Aquinas’ argument insists that, as with the arrow, the purpose and direction inherent in unintelligent life must be due to an intelligent force. Thus, his argument is predicated on the critical assumption that the purposiveness of living things cannot have arisen via mindless natural forces. This assumption, together with the direction in the natural world, necessitates the existence of an intelligent creator.
A similar presumption exists in the teleological argument proposed by William Paley in 1802. Adapting Cicero’s comparison of life to a timepiece, Paley argued for the existence of God using his own watchmaker analogy. This can be illustrated by comparing a watch to a stone. By looking at a watch, we can see that it is comprised of numerous intricate and detailed parts that have been precisely pieced together – it has order and complexity to it. What’s more, the parts of a watch function in such a way that it tells us the time. This utility is an indication that a watch acts towards an end. And of course, we know that any watch is the product of an intelligent human designer. Thus, our analysis of the watch suggests that order, complexity, and purpose are characteristics of designed objects. By contrast, if we look at a stone we notice that it does not possess the same degree of ordered complexity. A stone typically appears to be just a lump of earthen material. Moreover, there is no indication that a simple stone has any purpose to it. A stone itself does not perform any function or act towards any end; it is instead quite inanimate. And of course, we all know that a simple stone is the product of mindless, natural forces. Thus, we might conclude that lack of ordered complexity, and lack of purpose are characteristic of objects that have not been designed.
This comparison illustrates a crucial piece of logic in Paley’s teleological argument: that all objects can be divided into two categories. One of these categories is for designed objects, which have order, complexity, and purpose; the other is for un-designed objects, which lack each of these qualities. According to Paley’s teleological argument, since life can be seen to have order, complexity, and purposiveness, it fits into the first category, and therefore must have been designed. Consequently, an intelligent designer must exist.
This logic is presented in different ways in different versions of the teleological argument, but the underlying line of reasoning is the same in each instance. The arguments of Paley and of Aquinas, as well as the conjecture of both Cicero and Aristotle, all pre-suppose that order, complexity, and purpose – in short, the appearance of design – cannot have resulted from mindless natural forces, and are instead the product of an intelligent designer. This is the essence of the teleological argument, and underlies all of its forms.
Refutations of the Argument
Counter-arguments against the argument from design have come in three different varieties. The first two of these do not deal directly with the biology at hand, and so I will only touch on them briefly. The third, however, delves straight into how the teleological argument treats living things, and so it is this third objection that will be the primary basis of my criticism.
The first type of complaint lobbied against the argument from design is that it does not provide an adequate resolution to its own problem. According to the teleological argument, ordered complexity indicates design, which in turn necessitates the existence of a designer. This logic is applied to living things, and it is asserted that an intelligent designer must be responsible for life. However, a designer is nearly always more complex than the things that it designs (indeed, a human is exceedingly more complicated than any watch or other timepiece). It therefore stands to reason that whatever being designed life must be even more complex than a human or any other life form. If complexity indicates design, then this begs the question of who designed the designer. Of course, one could always argue that there is another designer behind the first, but this being would be yet more complex, and only magnify the issue further. Layer after layer, this solution leads to an infinite regression of ever more complicated designers and is therefore no solution at all. It is a problem that was noted in the eighteenth century by the philosopher David Hume, in “Dialogues concerning Natural Religion,” and it means that the teleological argument does not provide a viable explanation for the ordered complexity of the natural world.
A second flaw in the argument from design, and specifically concerning Paley’s watchmaker argument, is that it makes use of faulty analogy. It is perfectly possible to distinguish between the characteristics of objects of human design and those that are the result of mindless natural forces, because we can readily find examples of both in the world around us. The case of comparing a watch to a stone is a perfect example of this. We cannot, however, distinguish in the same way between the properties of a designed universe and one that is not designed. The problem lies in the fact that all human experience is confined to the single universe that we inhabit. We have no basis with which to judge our universe against other types of universes, and thus cannot reason if ours is a designed one or not. This, too, was described by Hume, in “An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding,” and it means that the watchmaker analogy cannot be applied to our universe, nor the living things that it contains.
The final objection to the teleological argument, and the one that I am most interested in espousing, is that the argument from design presents a false dichotomy. The teleological argument depends upon the assumption that all objects can be placed into one of the two categories described above. In doing so, it ignores the fact that a third category of objects exists. Taking the example of crystals, these objects have rigorous order to their chemical composition, and can often grow into elaborate and somewhat complex structures. The same can be said about snowflakes. But both of these objects are the products of natural causes. As these examples go to show, the properties of order and complexity can result from mindless natural processes, and thus are not necessarily an indication of a designer. This demonstrates that there is a third type of category into which objects can be placed: one for those that are ordered and complex, but not designed. I believe that the teleological argument fails because living things belong in this third category.
(References to be included with the final part of this essay)
Numerous efforts have been made over the course of history to prove the existence of a supernatural creator. The most enduring of these attempts has also been the most formidable: it is the argument from design. Also known as the teleological argument, this line of reasoning holds that the order and purpose of the natural world indicates that it was designed, and that this design necessitates the existence of a designer. The purpose of my essay is to assert that this argument, in all of its historical forms, fails. My goal is to use a combination of both reason and biological evidence to explain why the argument from design is flawed, and to assert that evolution provides a superior explanation for the apparent design of living things. In addition, I will argue that recognizing evolution as the shaping force behind life is not only factually correct, but is essential to accurately understanding life as a phenomenon.
But before I begin, I should clarify the scope of my discussion. Many forms of the argument from design have appeared over the course of the past two-and-a-half millennia, and thus I cannot hope to touch on all, or even most, of them. In this essay, I endeavour to dissect and refute some of the most famous and prototypical examples of the argument from design, in order to demonstrate why teleology in general is an ineffective proof of the existence of a creator. As teleological arguments all share a common line of reasoning, they therefore succeed or fail for similar reasons, and my criticisms can carry over to those particular variants of the argument that I do not have room to discuss here. I should also point out that alternative forms of the teleological argument have been made in both chemistry and physics. My counter-arguments make use of biological evidence, and thus my criticisms are not intended to address the argument from design as applied to these other scientific fields. Rather, my discussion of the teleological argument from this point forward is aimed specifically at how it concerns living things.
Ancient Science and Teleology
I begin my analysis of the argument from design with an examination of its origins. The first formalized versions of the teleological argument come from the scholastic period in the early second millennium, but seeds of the idea can be traced back to Ancient Greece. As with so many other intellectual endeavours, the Greeks pioneered inquiry into causation. They were concerned with understanding telos, a Greek word that can be defined as “the end of a goal-oriented process”, or more succinctly as “purpose”. And it is from their discussions on the causes of natural phenomena that we get the root of the term teleology.
The Greek preoccupation with understanding telos was especially prevalent in their biology, as is evidenced most clearly by the writings of Aristotle in the fourth century BC. In his work “On the Generation of Animals,” Aristotle proposed that living things had four causes. The material cause referred to the substance and physical matter comprising an organism. The formal cause was its shape and form, what biologists today would refer to as morphology. The efficient cause, a subject akin to modern developmental biology, concerned the proximate force responsible for this form. Lastly, and to Aristotle most importantly, the final cause was the purpose behind a living thing – its telos.
Aristotle’s treatment of his four causes illustrates an important fact: he and his contemporaries perceived life as being goal-oriented. It was a conclusion that he drew from relatively simple observations of the natural world. All around himself, Aristotle noticed that living things appeared to have purpose and direction. Plants, for instance, constantly grew taller and wider in pursuit of sunlight. Animals, on the other hand, routinely sought out food and mates in predictable ways. From observations such as these, Aristotle concluded that living things had direction; they acted with purpose, and towards specific ends. What’s more, Aristotle recognized that organisms each possessed traits that made them remarkably well suited for these endeavours. Plants possessed thin, broad leaves that enabled them to more efficiently capture light. Similarly, predators were equipped with sharp fangs and vicious claws, helping them to more readily catch their prey. Noticing this, Aristotle believed that there was order to the natural world, because living things and their characteristics were not random or haphazard in nature. Rather, the natural world appeared to have purpose and direction, a notion encapsulated by the Greek term telos, and one that Aristotle was among the first note.
Telos was also a phenomenon that Aristotle felt compelled to explain. But of course, he had to do so without the tools and understanding afforded by modern biological science. Arguably the father of scientific biology, Aristotle did his work in a near void of previous knowledge about the origins or workings of living things. As a result, Aristotle was ill-equipped to explain the direction and order of the natural world in natural terms. Instead, he had to invent supernatural forces in order to do so.
Thus, Aristotle posited the existence of a Prime Mover. In his work “Metaphysics,” he described this as “self-thinking thought,” a sort of God-like force that was responsible for the change and motion that occurred in the cosmos. Aristotle was not a creationist in any literal sense – he did not believe that the universe or anything in it was the product of deliberate design. But rather, he believed that his supernatural Prime Mover was responsible for providing the direction and order that was inherent in living things.
Aristotle’s belief that a rational force was behind the cosmos was later built upon by Cicero, a Roman writer and philosopher who lived in the first century BC. Inheriting many of his ideas from the Greeks, Cicero added his famous timepiece analogy to the discussion of telos. He compared life to a sundial or a water-clock in his work “On the Nature of the Gods,” and argued that living things, just like a timepiece, appear to have a purpose and an intelligence behind them. As with Aristotle, Cicero was not a strict creationist; he did not think that an intelligent God had deliberately designed the universe. Rather, Cicero believed that his analogy demonstrated something subtler: that just like a timepiece, life was too orderly and rational to be the product of a chaotic universe. Instead, he concluded that the cosmos was guided by divine reason, and that some sort of pervasive intelligence provided its direction and order.
As these two cases indicate, pre-cursive versions of the argument from design were present in the thoughts and writings of ancient thinkers. These examples also illustrate an important point about the origin of these ideas. In the ancient world, the absence of an effective biological account for the telos of living things required the invention of supernatural, intelligent forces as an alternative explanation.
It seems that the Texas Board of Education has started another round of silly curriculum changes. In the past they have done their best to put evolution into question, and now they are going after history.
It seems like the primary purpose of their changes is to stop teaching the history of the philosophical ideas of a separation of church and state. Probably most bizarre to me is their plan to ignore Thomas Jefferson. It seems incredibly odd to ignore a figure of such importance to the founding of the United States of America in American classrooms. It would be like our classrooms in B.C. ignoring John A. MacDonald.
There are however some changes that seem perfectly fine to me (if I accepted the idea that government control over what children learn is a good thing, but I am taking that as a given right now). Some of these changes seem to have a lot of the left-wing blogs (like the linked Huffington Post article) angry. The curriculum will now refer to the U.S. as a constitutional republic rather than a democracy. Why? Because the U.S. is a constitutional republic moreso than a strict democracy. There also seems to be some concern over how history class will now examine the devaluation of the U.S. dollar and the abandonment of the gold standard. How are those topics bad? Why shouldn’t we explain to our children the effects of an inflationary policy. $10 in 1913 buys roughly what $218 does now. If you look simply at the expansion of the money supply it is even worse.
The political arena is sometimes a harmful place to decide what children learn.
I recently finished reading Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by historian Jennifer Burns. As someone who enjoyed Ayn Rand’s novels and likes elements of her philosophy I was drawn to the book. There have been many Ayn Rand biographies but up until now they were almost exclusively written by passionate supporters (and as a skeptic, I want something at least a little more objective) or others writing without access to all the historical information held by the Ayn Rand Institute.
Probably one of the most memorable aspects of Ayn Rand’s life to me is how she started out as a skeptic, and a pretty good skeptic at that, but succumbed to dogma and eventually cut herself completely off from other ideas and the constructive criticism of her own ideas. She was born in Russia in 1905 to a well off Jewish family. Her father worked hard, from a disadvantaged position, and created a successful small business. During the Bolshevik revolution Rand had to watch as her fathers livelihood was destroyed and as her county’s freedoms were being eroded. Her once prosperous family was now starving, and it wasn’t as if the wealth was simply transferred, it was gone, almost everyone was starving.
She eventually made her way to the U.S. because she thought of it as the land of the free. As she arrived however, American intellectuals were beginning to lean farther and farther to the left and many advocated for the U.S. to follow Russia’s footsteps. The stark contrast between the vision of the American intellectuals and the reality as she saw it in Russia guided much of her early work. She was motivated to research and study questions of philosophy, economics, political science, and many others trying to figure out why freedom seemed to work and totalitarian control did not. It was this skeptical search that led to her trying to create a unified philosophy explaining why individual freedom, and self-interest, leads to the greatest outcome for society.
The problem was that the more she developed this philosophy, the more she moved away from seeking out conflicting ideas, from engaging in debate and in general, from being skeptical. Closer to the end of her life she would often refuse to speak to others unless they agreed 100% with her entire objectivist philosophy. She even changed parts of her older novels so that they fit into her now fully formed objectivist philosophy.
Her story came as somewhat of a warning to me, and I suppose to skeptics in general. The more you feel that evidence and logic backs a theory or belief, as Ayn Rand felt about her philosophy, the more skeptical you should be, the more you should question your evidence, and the more you should check your logic. Critical inquiry doesn’t stop when you believe you have reached the truth, and if Ayn Rand realized this her philosophy might have ended up as something more than just dogma.