The “New Teleological Argument” is a theistic argument which attempts to show that theism is more probable than the postulate of an “atheistic single universe”[i]. There are number of reasons why this argument is termed the “New” teleological argument. Chief among these reasons is that its explanandum i.e. the incredible fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics have only been discovered in the past 20-30 years[ii] [iii]. By contrast, the explanandum of “Old Teleological Arguments” has long since been available to theologians and philosophers of religion. Of course the relatively recent origin of the “New” Teleological argument is not the only feature which distinguishes it from its historical counterpart. Whereas historical versions of design arguments (such as Paley’s famous watchmaker argument) rest on an argument from analogy, contemporary versions of the argument rest on what the philosopher of biology Elliot Sober calls the “Likelihood Principle”[iv] [v]. In other words, rather than relying on an analogy between the explanandum and some obviously contrived entity such as (in Paley’s case) a watch, contemporary versions of the teleological argument argue that the explanandum (the fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics) is more probable given the hypothesis of theism as opposed to the postulate of an atheistic single universe[vi].
The Conditions of Success
Throughout the rest of this post, I hope to argue that, on purely philosophical grounds, there is little which will allow us to say which version of the argument (be it contemporary or historical) is more or less plausible. In this respect, it seems only fair that we should assess the strength of David Hume’s critiques, since they are popularly regarded as decisive refutations of teleological arguments.[vii] [viii] It’s important to note also, that while the failure of the Humean critiques would not guarantee the conclusion that the design arguments are equally plausible, it is suggestive thereof. After all, if the joint failure of natural theological and atheological arguments should suggest that it’s impossible to arbitrate (on the evidence) between theism and atheism, then similarly, the failure of stock arguments against either of the design arguments should lead us to think that it’s impossible to arbitrate between them. In spite of the fact that both contemporary and historical versions of the design argument are equally plausible, I will argue that the contemporary version of the argument has a number of key dialectic advantages which may warrant us in thinking that it is “dialectically speaking”, more successful than its historical counterpart. More precisely, I am saying that the relative success of the new teleological argument is a function of the fact that it does not turn on premises that are as deeply controversial as the commitments required by the historical version.
The Contemporary Version of the Argument
The most prolific contemporary defender of the design argument is Robin Collins who, rather than arguing from facts about biology, argues from recent discoveries in physics[ix]. As we noted earlier, this is one of the main reasons why it is termed the “New” teleological argument. Collins frames his rendition of the argument as follows:
(1) The existence of fine tuning is not improbable under theism[x]
(2) The existence of fine tuning is very improbable under the atheistic single-universe hypothesis[xi]
Therefore, given the prime principle of confirmation [xii],
(3) The existence of fine tuning is evidence for theism over the atheistic single-universe hypothesis[xiii]
By “fine tuning”, I mean the very precise arrangement of the fundamental laws and constants of physics that must be met in order for our Universe to fall into the very narrow life permitting range.[xiv] [xv] According to contemporary physics, these conditions seem to be arranged in such a way that, were they to vary by even the tiniest amount, life (or more precisely, sentient life) would not be a physical possibility. For example, as P.C.W. Davies points out, a change in “the weak force” by only 1 part in 100100 would make the Universe uninhabitable.[xvi] Similarly, if the cosmological constant were just a fraction faster, matter would spread apart so quickly that even relatively small clumps of matter would have insufficient time to form[xvii].
The Plausibility of the Premises
Premise (1) amounts to the claim that if God exists, then it is entirely within His creative capability to create the universe finely tuned as it is. Hence the observation that there is a universe which exhibits teleo-functional properties is not surprising given the postulate of theism. Considering that the traditional conception of God holds that He is an omnipotent being, this is a fairly straightforward premise that we should accept.
Premise (2) amounts to the claim that if God does not exist and if the single universe hypothesis is true, then the apparent fine tuning of the universe is a very surprising fact. After all, the fundamental laws and constants of physics seem to be arranged in such a way that their placement seems guided. But if God doesn’t exist, it doesn’t seem likely that there would be any intelligent, guiding mind such that it could plausibly account for this apparent fine tuning. Hence premise (2) seems more plausibly true than false.
Assuming then, that something much like Sober’s likelihood principle is true, it follows that theism is more probable than the atheistic single universe hypothesis. What’s important to notice however, is that this conclusion is entirely consistent with the claim that the universe is not designed. After all, the atheist might agree that theism is more probable than the atheistic single universe hypothesis, but think that, in actual fact, we live in a multi-verse. Hence Collins’ design argument does not purport to establish that theism is probable tout court. Were this the end of the argument, we would have to say that, as a piece of natural theology, it is quite unsuccessful since it does not attempt to convince non-theists to become theists.
This of course is not the end of the argument. The multi-verse theory holds that there is an infinite number of other universes each with different fundamental laws and constants of physics. In such a situation, so the argument goes, a finely tuned universe such as the one we observe is not just probable but inevitable.[xviii] Put very simply, the invocation of multi-verse theory at this stage of the argument is an attempt to raise the probability of the fine tuning.[xix] However, there are two points that the theist can make. On the one hand, the theist can appeal to the simplicity criterion to show that there’s still reason to prefer theism over the multi-verse theory. Whereas the multi-verse hypothesis postulates an infinite number of universes, with an infinitely large number of variegated and discrete parts, theism postulates just a single entity constituted of a single substance. The upshot is that whereas God is a remarkably simple entity, the postulate of the multi-verse is, to put it lightly, ontologically un-parsimonious. Hence all else being equal, it seems that theism would be a preferable alternative over the multi-verse hypothesis. Furthermore, it is debatable as to whether the multi-verse hypotheses escape the problem of fine tuning. It has been noted by some, that the most favoured contemporary multi-verse theory, Inflationary theory, must invoke a finely tuned set of initial conditions to explain away some of the observed fine tunings such as the apparent homogeneity and flatness of the Universe.[xx]
The Historical Version of the Argument
The most prolific historical proponent of the design argument was William Paley who argued that various biological organisms exhibit what we might call “teleo-functional complexity”.[xxi] [xxii] That is, they have parts which interact in such a way as to achieve a particular purpose. More precisely, the interaction of these parts is such that were one of those parts absent, the entity would cease to function. Paley argues that it is the presence of this property which allows us to discern that an obviously contrived entity such as a watch is designed.[xxiii] Analogously, Paley argued, if teleo-functional complexity in watches is to be accounted for in terms of design, similarly we must also account for the origin of certain biological organisms in terms of design since they also exhibit this property.[xxiv] Hence by analogy, the origin of certain biological organisms is best explained in terms of design. Paley’s argument has, quite aptly, become known as “The Watch
maker Argument”. For the sake of brevity, we can schematize Paley’s argument as follows:
(1) Purposely designed instruments such as watches exhibit teleo-functional complexity[xxv]
(2) Certain biological organisms also exhibit teleo-functional complexity[xxvi]
Therefore by analogy,
(3) Certain biological organisms are purposely designed.[xxvii]
Contrasting the Arguments & Dealing with Criticisms
The first thing to note is that, unlike historical design arguments, contemporary versions are not arguments from analogy. Rather, they argue that given theism, the fine tuning we observe in the Universe is to be expected more so than it would be given the postulate of an atheistic single universe. It is precisely because the contemporary version of the argument does not rest on this argument from analogy that it is, dialectically speaking, more effective than its historical counter-part. As Hume rightly pointed out, an argument from analogy is only as good as the analogy.[xxviii] Hence Paley’s version of the argument inevitably requires its defender to engage in a protracted discussion of the relevance of various differences between a watch and some fact about the world. By contrast, in virtue of the fact that they don’t rely on this analogy, contemporary versions of the argument do not require their defenders to engage in any such discussion. Hence contemporary renditions of the design argument, remain immune to any attack on the propriety of the analogy.
Furthermore, insofar as evolution by natural selection is a well supported scientific theory, it seems that Paley’s watchmaker argument breaks down.[xxix] If grant we grant this fact, it would seem to follow that the contemporary rendition of the design argument is straightforwardly more plausible than its historical counterpart. After all, the latter version attempts only to argue to design from facts about physics rather than facts about biology. However, a discussion of the evidence for evolution by natural selection is beyond the purely philosophical scope of this paper. So let us, for the sake of charity, proceed as if evolution by natural selection is not a well established scientific theory. With that said however, there is something to be said for the dialectic success of an argument from design which does not require its defenders to run against the grain of the mainstream scientific community, and which altogether circumvent any form of Darwinian attack.
One of the most common criticisms of design arguments comes from Hume’s writing in his “Dialogues concerning Natural Religion” wherein he argues that to assert that this designer is “God” is to go beyond the evidence. We must never, so Hume argues, “ascribe to any cause any qualities but what are exactly sufficient to produce the effect”. In other words, we must ascribe to the cause only what is minimally required to produce the effect (the fine tuning of the cosmos or the teleo-functional complexity of biological organisms).[xxx] In order to help us see this point, Alvin Plantinga (in his eloquent little book “God, Freedom and Evil”) spells out what the theist believes. He states that the theistic hypothesis holds, inter alia, that:
- Some things in the universe (including the universe) were designed;[xxxi]
- Some things in the universe (including the universe) were designed by exactly one person;[xxxii]
- The Universe was created ex nihilo.[xxxiii]
Hume’s objection, Plantinga states, is that the argument from design gives us only some evidence for 1 but does not do anything to support 2 and 3.[xxxiv] However, while Hume is right to point out that the design argument does not of itself give us any evidence for 2 and 3, the proponent of the design argument is not debarred from engaging in a conceptual analysis of what a plausible designer might be like. It may be that by engaging in just such a conceptual analysis, the proponent of the design argument can recover a number of theologically significant attributes. For example, it would not do to postulate that designer was a physical being which exhibits teleo-functional complexity akin to that for which Paley demands explanation in terms of intelligent design. After all, if the designer did exhibit such teleo-functional complexity, and teleo-functional complexity demands design, then we cannot without special pleading, halt the regress at the designer. We are off on a potentially infinite regress. Indeed this serves as the basis for one of Hume’s critiques of design arguments.[xxxv] But notice that this reductio applies only to the supposition that the designer is a physical being which exhibits teleo-functional complexity. It does not refute the inference to design outright. After all, the theistic concept of God is that He is a fundamentally “simple” being, where the term “simple” is cashed out in terms of being without distinct parts that interact with one-another. God, so it is said, is an immaterial mind that is made of a single, non material substance.[xxxvi] In such a situation, it’s unclear at best, that the designer exhibits the kind of teleo-functional complexity that Paley argues requires design. Thus it’s unclear that the designer requires design. Similarly, although it is logically possible, it would not do to postulate that a multitude of intelligent designers. After all, in Hume’s own terms, it would go beyond the evidence. In Hume’s own terms, we must only postulate that which is sufficient to account for the effect. If a single designing entity is so sufficient, we should need extra reason for postulating a multitude of designing minds. Hence already, we have some suggestion (by no means an airtight guarantee) that a plausible candidate designer would be a single, non-material entity.
However, where Hume is un-controversially correct, is in asserting that even after this conceptual analysis, we are not taken to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, the argument from design was never intended to prove any such thing. Indeed in some cumulative case arguments for theism, the argument from design is intended only to raise the antecedent probability of theism such that the apologist can, further down the line, make a case for the truth of their particular faith tradition e.g. through appealing to alleged miracles without the antecedent probability being vanishingly small.[xxxvii] The important point to note however is just that in this context, Hume’s comments, while quite correct, are not really criticisms.
However, Hume has a number of more weighty objections to design arguments. The first of these objections claims that there exists a dis-analogy between obviously designed objects such as watches and biological organisms. This dis-analogy, so Hume argues, consists in that we have not observed the intelligent designing of the biological organisms whereas we have observed the intelligent designing of contrived objects such as watches.[xxxviii] However, in his seminal book “Natural Theology”, Paley himself has a very good response to this objection. He says:
“Nor would it, I apprehend, weaken the conclusion, that we had never seen a watch made; that we had never known an artist capable of making one; that we were altogether incapable of executing such a piece of workmanship ourselves, or of understanding in what manner it was performed; all this being no more than what is true of the remains of ancient art, of some lost arts, and, to the generality of all man-kind, of the more curious productions of modern manufacture. Does one man in a million know how an oval frame is turned? ignorance of this kind exalts our opinion of the unseen and unknown artists skill…but raises no doubt in our minds of the existence and agency of such an artist…”[xxxix]
In other words, our failure to observe the intelligent designing of biological organisms does little to undermine the inference to design. We can put Paley’s point here more forcefully, suppose we were to travel to a distant star system and on one of the (dead) planets therein, we discovered some machinery. In spite of the fact that we have, hitherto no experience with aliens intelligently designing such machinery, we would be obtuse to think that there was no analogy between the apparent design of this alien machinery, and the design present in human machinery.
But supposing we grant that Paley’s analogy is fatally flawed. There still is no in principle objection that has been levied against design arguments. As we noted earlier, the contemporary version of the argument rests on the Likelihood Principle, and not on an analogy.
As of yet, we have seen little in the way of a philosophical refutation of either the historical or the contemporary version of the design argument. Hence it is hard to say if one version of the argument is more or less plausible than the other. However, insofar as the contemporary version of the argument does not rest on premises that are as controversial as those involved in the watchmaker analogy, we might say that it is, dialectically speaking, more effective than its historical counterpart. Such renditions of the argument do not require their proponents to take on the added burden of having to move against the grain of contemporary scientific orthodoxy. Nor does it require its defender to defend a potentially questionable analogy.
 a.k.a “The Likelihood Principle”. This stipulates that some observation O counts as evidence for some hypothesis H over some other hypothesis H* just in case O is more probable given H than H*.
 The force which causes radioactive decay in sub-atomic particles.
 The force Einstein introduced into the general theory of relativity which causes space to expand.
 “God” is taken to mean the Personal OmniGod of the mainstream monotheistic traditions.
 A “cumulative case arguments” is, roughly speaking, a particular dialectic strategy wherein a multitude of arguments are brought in to collectively support a particular hypothesis.
 By an “in principle” objection, I mean an objection that would, forever and always, rule out the possibility of arguing to design in natural theology.
[i] Collins, Robin. “God, Design and Fine-Tuning”. In “God Matters: Readings in the Philosophy of Religion”. Edited by Raymond Martin and Christopher Bernard. Pages 1-24. New York. New York: Longman Press. 2002. pp 5. Line 25-26.
[ii]Craig, William Lane. “Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics”. Wheaton Illinois. Crossway Books. 2008. pp 157. Line 1-2.
[iii] Collins, Robin. “God, Design and Fine-Tuning”. In “God Matters: Readings in the Philosophy of Religion”. Edited by Raymond Martin and Christopher Bernard. Pages 1-24. New York. New York: Longman Press. 2002. pp. 2. Line 2-4.
[iv]Ibid. pp 6. Line 15-27.
[v]Sober, Elliot. “Philosophy of Biology”. Boulder Colorado. Westview Press. 1993. pp 31. Line 33-36.
[vi]Collins, Robin. “God, Design and Fine-Tuning”. In “God Matters: Readings in the Philosophy of Religion”. Edited by Raymond Martin and Christopher Bernard. Pages 1-24. New York. New York: Longman Press. 2002. pp 5 line 25-26.
[vii]Craig, William Lane. “Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics”. Wheaton Illinois. Crossway Books. 2008. pp 158. Line 2-4.
[viii] Sober, Elliot. “Philosophy of Biology”. Boulder Colorado. Westview Press. 1993. pp. 30 lines 11-14/33-36.
[ix] Collins, Robin. “God, Design and Fine-Tuning”. In “God Matters: Readings in the Philosophy of Religion”. Edited by Raymond Martin and Christopher Bernard. Pages 1-24. New York. New York: Longman Press. 2002. pp 2. Line 11-14.
[x] Ibid. pp 7. Line 33.
[xi] Ibid. pp 8. Line 1-2.
[xii] Ibid. pp 8. Line 4.
[xiii] Ibid. pp 8. Line 4-6.
[xiv] Ibid. pp 2. Line 16-17.
[xv] Craig, William Lane. “Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics”. Wheaton Illinois. Crossway Books. 2008. pp 158. Line. 13-16.
[xvi] Ibid. pp 25. Line 25-26.
[xvii] Collins, Robin. “God, Design and Fine-Tuning”. In “God Matters: Readings in the Philosophy of Religion”. Edited by Raymond Martin and Christopher Bernard. Pages 1-24. New York. New York: Longman Press. 2002. pp 4. Line 3-7.
[xviii] Ibid. pp 16-17.
[xix] William Lane Craig and James Porter Moreland. “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview”. Downers Grove Illinois. InterVarsity Press. 2003. pp. 487.
[xx] Meyer, Stephen C. “Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design”. New York. Harper Collins. 2009. pp 505-507.
[xxi] Davies, Brian. “Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion”. New York. Oxford University Press. 2004. pp. 75.
[xxii] Craig, William Lane. “Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics”. Wheaton Illinois. Crossway Books. 2008. pp 101.
[xxiii] Davies, Brian. “Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion”. New York. Oxford University Press. 2004. pp. 75.
[xxv] Sober, Elliot. “Philosophy of Biology”. Boulder Colorado. Westview Press. 1993. pp. 33.
[xxvi] Ibid. pp. 34.
[xxix] Ibid. pp 36.
[xxx] Davies, Brian. “Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion”. New York. Oxford University Press. 2004. pp. 77-78.
[xxxi] Plantinga, Alvin. “God, Freedom and Evil”. Grand Rapids Michigan. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1977. pp 83-84.
[xxxv] Davies, Brian. “Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion”. New York. Oxford University Press. 2004. pp. 78.
[xxxvi] William Lane Craig and James Porter Moreland. “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview”. Downers Grove Illinois. InterVarsity Press. 2003. pp. 526.
[xxxvii] Draper, Paul. “Cumulative Cases”. In “A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion: Second Edition”. Edited by: Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper and Phillip L. Quinn. Malden Massachussets. Blackwell Publishing. 2010. Page 1 of Draper’s chapter.
[xxxviii] Davies, Brian. “Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion”. New York. Oxford University Press. 2004. pp. 78.
[xxxix] Paley, William. “An Especially Famous Design Argument”. In “Philosophy of Religion: A Guide and Anthology”. Edited by Brian Davies. New York. Oxford University Press. 2000. pp 254.
Tags: Apologetics · Design Arguments · Evolution · Fine-Tuning · Natural Theology · Philosophy of Religion · Robin Collins · Teleological Arguments · The Likelihood Principle · William Paley78 Comments