The Teleological Argument
Below is a summary of some of the points we will cover in lecture concerning the Teleological Argument.
For an On-Line version of David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, click here.

1. The Argument

David Hume summarizes the teleological argument in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion like this:

"Look round 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 subdivisions, 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 ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since therefore the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the 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." (Dialogues, Part 2)

The idea is this: when we look out in the world, we see that it displays order, function, and design. Other things--such as watches, for example--also display order, function, and design. Since the world and (e.g.) watches are thus similar in relevant ways--viz., they both display order, function, and design--they must be similar in another way, too. For an important reason why watches display order, function and design is because they were specifically designed by a designer to be that way. Likewise, so the argument goes, the reason why the world displays order, function, and design is because it, too, was designed by a designer to be that way.  So God, as a designer, therefore exists.

Notice that unlike the Ontological and Cosmological Arguments for the existence of God, this argument is an inductive rather than a deductive argument. This means that it does not aim to be such that the truth of the conclusion is guaranteed, given the truth of its premises. Rather, it merely aims to be such that the truth of the conclusion is highly probable, or very likely to be true, given the truth of the premises. Also, like the Cosmological Argument--but unlike the Ontological Argument--this argument is a posteriori. So one needs to have experience of the world to figure out whether the premises are true or not. Indeed, if this wasn't evident already, we can see this by what Hume has Cleanthes exclaim when he first sets out the argument: "Look round the world."

2. Formalizing the Argument

The particular form of argument here is called an argument by analogy. This was discussed briefly in my logic page here. Here is (roughly!) what the structure of the argument looks like:

    (1) The world displays order, function and design.
    (2) Other things (e.g., watches) display order, function, and design.
    (3) Other things (e.g., watches) that display order, function, and design, do so because they were created by an intelligent designer.
    (4) Therefore, it is highly probable that the world displays order, function, and design because it was created by an intelligent creator (and this is God).

3. Objections to the Argument

In class, I discussed how there are two main ways to attack any argument by analogy: (1) reject the claim that the things being compared are as similar as is needed to get the argument to go through or (2) grant that the two things being compared are similar enough, but then show how this brings about undesirable consequences. In regards to the Teleological Argument in particular, these two strategies can be applied as follows.

    (1) Deny that artifacts and the world are similar enough (to get the argument to go through)

There are at least two ways you could deny that artifacts and the world display order, function, and design. The first is pretty straightforward: simply deny that the world does display function, order, and design, So, for example, when a proponent points to some of the things that seem to display function, order, and design--things such as eyes, the human digestive system, photosynthesis, the weather, the laws of nature, etc.--the opponent could simply deny that these things exhibit function, order, and design.

The second is a bit more complicated. In Hume's Dialogues, it is suggested that in order to claim that the world and artifacts are similar, we have to argue not only the our world--earth--displays order, function, and design, but that the entire universe displays order, function, and design. But notice that we occupy just a teeny tiny bit of the entire cosmos. In class, I discussed how inferring from the attributes of our tiny scrap of the universe to the attributes of the whole would be like the following: imagine that we occupied just a tiny spec of a Monet painting. And imagine that, after taking a look around us, we argue that because all around us was a certain shade of green, that the entire canvas must be the same shade of green. I argued that this would be a fallacious inference since we would move from a true premise to a false conclusion. Similarly, even if we grant that parts of the earth and our solar system exhibit order, function, and design, it would be illegitimate to argue from this fact to the conclusion that the entire universe displays order, function, and design.

Arguing from the premise that the parts of something have a certain attribute to the conclusion that the entire whole (made up of those parts) has the same attributes is called the Fallacy of Composition. So the second way you might deny that artifacts and and the world (i.e., the entire universe) both display order, function, and design, is to argue that the only way we can come to the conclusion that the entire universe displays order, function, and design, is by committing the Fallacy of Composition. Since this fallacy leads us from true premises to false conclusions, we are prohibited from relying on any claim that is produced from it, and so we are prohibited from endorsing premise (1) above.

Another objection Hume has to the claim that artifacts and the universe are similar in the right ways (and in enough respects) is that we have only had experience with just one universe--this one!. Whenever we argue inductively--no matter what the particular details of the argument--it is never seen as rationally respectable to argue from the experience of one instance to a broad generalization. Suppose you and I go out into the jungles of South America and we see an animal the likes of which has never been seen. What we have stumbled upon is a very elusive band of primates, who tend to hide whenever humans are around. However, this particular primate is asleep and perhaps didn't hear us coming. The animal, we see, looks pretty much like other primates, except for some distinctive coloring and, as we are quick to notice, he doesn't have a tail. Suppose we just see this one animal, he wakes up, and scurries off. We never see another single one. Could we, just from this one encounter alone, conclude that all monkeys of this kind don't have tails? We could, but it would be one the basis of very weak evidence. It could easily be the case, for example, that these kinds of monkeys do have tails in general, yet this particular one was deformed, or had had an unfortunate accident with an alligator, etc. It would be suspicious, in other words, if we were to conclude from this one instance anything very concrete about this animal in general. And notice that this has nothing to do with the short duration of our encounter---even if we had captured this little guy and kept him in a lab and done all sorts of experiments on him--it would be very difficult to make broad generalizations about his kind in general just from one instance. Notice that one of the only ways in which our broad, general conclusions about this creature could be rationally respectable is if we made comparisons between this one creature and lots of others very much like him--other primates, say, or other creatures who shared large portions of his DNA.

But notice the comparison between the monkey example and the argument from design. When giving the argument from design, we are making a claim about our universe, and features that it has. But not only have we only seen one teeny tiny part of our own universe, we have no other universe or universes to compare it to. Our claims about the cosmos in general are very weak since we have no other cosmoi to compare it to. What's more, we don't even have anything remotely similar to is in grandeur and scale, like we might find primates genetically similar to our hypothetical elusive South American creature.

So Hume's objection to (1) above is two-fold: we only live in a teeny tiny part of the cosmos, and so cannot truth-preservingly conclude from this that the entire cosmos displays function, order, and design. But, also, we cannot conclude from just one instance of a universe--ours--that universes in general have a certain feature, namely, displaying function, order, and design. For, like the imagined monkey, it might be a freak cosmos and it's seeming FOD is really just an accident that other cosmoi of its kind simply don't display.

    (2) Grant the analogy, but claim that this brings about undesirable consequences

Once a proponent of the Teleological Argument insists that the world (or the universe) and artifacts are similar enough to get the argument going, then an objector could respond in this way:

"Fine. I grant you that the world and artifacts are similar in the ways that you say--i.e., that both display function, order, and design. But if they really are all that similar, then their creators or designers must be as similar as well. So, sure, human artifact designers are intelligent, and so a world-designer is probably intelligent, too. But artifact designers are also finite, fallible, and sometimes mere incompetent copy-cats. They also run through several drafts before getting a design just right. They are corporeal; they have hands and feet and sleep and eat. They are gendered, they procreate, are angry, jealous, etc. Also, artifacts are often made by committees of men, not just one. And sometimes things are made by accident. So if all of these are traits of the creators of artifacts, and the world is like an artifact in all the ways that you, the proponent of the Teleological argument, say it is, then what's to stop us from concluding that the designer of the universe has these traits as well?"

Now, obviously, the proponent of the Teleological Argument will stop the objector and will begin to point out how much grander and more complicated the universe is than artifacts. But notice what's going on: at first, the proponent must claim that the universe and artifacts are similar enough in order to make this argument from analogy work. What the opponent is doing, however, is showing that if the universe and artifacts are so much alike, then their causes or makers are alike as well. This leads to undesirable consequences, as the above reasoning shows. So the proponent must now resort to delineating the differences between the universe and artifacts, so that God doesn't become something finite, imperfect, corporeal, etc. But as soon as the differences between the universe and artifacts are pointed out, notice that this straightway weakens the argument. All arguments by analogy rely for their strength on the similarity of the things being compared. Once one points out the differences of the two things in question, one thereby runs the risk of weakening the argument. So in the case of the Teleological argument, a balance has to be struck between between having the universe and artifacts be similar enough such that it yields the conclusion that the universe is made by an intelligent designer, and also that the universe and artifacts aren't so similar that we thereby anthropomorphize God.

Do you think that such a balance can be struck? Why or why not?

In addition, however, is the following point: suppose we grant that the world and watches are alike in the right ways, such that the arguments goes through. The result is that we have an intelligent designer of the world, like we have intelligent designers of watches. But isn't this intelligent world-designer also a thing that dipoles function, order, and design? The world-designer's own intelligence and design cries out for an explanation or cause just as much as the design of the world cries out for an explanation or cause. So, Hume argues, this just seems to suggest an infinite regress of intelligent designers--one for every intelligent designer that designed a designer, that designed a designer, etc., that designed the world!

     (3) One Last Thought

In class, we talked about whether the argument for the existence of God yield the conclusion that God--as we usually think of him--exists. IF the Teleological Argument does work, does it conclude that there is a God as we usually think of him? Does it result in the claim that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God exists NOW? Why or why not? Discussion in class.

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