Why I’m an Atheist – Part Four: The Teleological Argument
Following on from my previous post in this series, here are some of my thoughts on the infamous Teleological Argument for the existence of God. Now, for a lot of people the word ‘teleological’ is synonymous with ‘Creationism’, which is an unfair way of looking at it. So here’s a quick history lesson:
‘Teleology’ is usually thought of in terms of design, but it’s more frequently used in the context of a ‘final cause’. This is how the ancient Greek philosophers thought of the concept, and it’s how the word is more frequently used. Think about it in relation to historiography; if an historian says that WWII started because of (among much else) German dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Versailles, they are using a non-teleological approach. This is how historians are supposed to think these days, and it’s also how scientists think – they explain an event or phenomenon with the events that took place before it. On the other hand, saying that WWII started because of a pre-ordained plan for the history of the world would be a teleological approach, because in this scenario WWII occurred in order to move towards a final cause. For obvious reasons, this kind of explanation isn’t used by serious historians today.
William Paley’s famous ‘watchmaker argument’ is also teleological, but conflates the ides of a final cause with that of design. In his Natural Theology, he makes various arguments for the existence of a cosmic Designer (God) based on the complexity of living organisms. The most well-known of these is a comparison between nature and a pocket watch:
In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) 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 or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.
-William Paley, Natural Theology (1820) [From Wikipedia]
This might seem like something William Dembski would write, but comparing Paley to the luminaries of the modern Creationism movement isn’t entirely fair. Paley’s argument no doubt seemed far more reasonable in his own time than it does now, and he was most definitely not anti-science. This is an important point to keep in mind; Paley was looking for evidence of God in what he assumed was a divinely-created world, whereas modern Creationists attempt to undermine the entire business of science because it contradicts the idea of a divinely-created world in the first place. Paley was also not the inventor of this kind of argument, but was rather following in the tradition of other Christian apologists.
The most obvious reply to the watchmaker argument is that the theory of evolution renders it impotent. We now know where complex organisms came from, and it would be difficult to argue today that nature as a whole has any sort of discernible ‘purpose’ that isn’t driven by completely blind natural processes. We do not need to invoke the supernatural in order to explain the complexity of the Universe.
So, is that it? Well, not quite. There is one other criticism of the watchmaker argument that I’m sure was probably advanced in Paley’s own time, but here’s my take on it. Every single watch in human history, we can be reasonably certain, was designed and built by humans. Nobody has ever known a watch to spring into existence unaided, or to give rise to other watches – thus, we can be reasonably certain that watches are designed. But living organisms are different, in that they always come into being without any obvious intervention by a designer. If there is a designer at work every time a new living entity comes into being, then it must be so subtle and invisible that we have yet to be able to detect it. We can also know, with relative certainty, that a watch was made for a purpose. Indeed, the purpose of a watch is self-evident, and even if it wasn’t we could simply ask the person who designed it why they did so. The same is not true of nature, in which any perceived purpose is likely to be a figment of human imagination and nothing more. The comparison between nature and a watch is therefore a very poor one.
So, that’s the watchmaker argument out the window. It isn’t taken seriously by most philosophers any more, as far as I can tell, but it still gets bandied about by the likes of CARM. (If you’re looking for something humorous to read, their pages on atheism and evolution are hilariously stupid. Their article on atheistic morality in particular is wonderfully condescending.) But although the watchmaker analogy is flawed, its general methodology definitely isn’t. It is reasonable to assume that we could know whether not the Universe was designed by examining some aspects of it, and philosophers have put forward extremely refined versions of the Teleological Argument in recent years. Their reasons for doing so are obvious. As I said last time, something like the Cosmological Argument on its own doesn’t even come close to proving that the Christian (or Islamic, or Jewish, or what have you) God exists, but if you could prove that the Universe had an uncaused cause as its beginning and that it appears to have been designed for the purpose of sustaining life…well, then you’re a lot closer to philosophically establishing a basis for belief in God.
Next time I’ll be covering the Fine-Tuning Argument, which is probably the most popular modern variant of the Teleological Argument.