notes head

The Argument from Design


Thomas Aquinas
David Hume
William Paley
Richard Swinburne
Hume’s criticisms
Charles Darwin
John Stuart Mill
Richard Dawkins
Religious Experience
The Problem of Evil
A warning about chronology…
…and presenting your argument.



Does the world show signs of design and purpose?  If so:



The argument from design is also called the ‘Teleological’ argument – from the Greek term ‘telos’, meaning end or purpose. 

In order to get a basic appreciation of the Argument from Design, you should be aware of the way that argument has been presented by Aquinas, Hume, Paley and Swinburne, along with the criticisms made by Hume, Mill and Dawkins and the impact of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Also, to appreciate its religious significance, you should think about how it relates to the Anthropic Principle, religious experience and the problem of evil – all of which are covered elsewhere in the student notes on this website.

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Thomas Aquinas (1224-74)

The Argument from Design is the 5th of Aquinas’ ‘five ways.’ He argued that all activities which have a goal or purpose are the result of intelligent planning. The example he gives of this is an arrow flying towards its target. It does not shoot itself. When you see an arrow in flight, you assume there to be an archer. So, he takes the general principle that if inanimate things, which have no minds of their own, appear to work together purposefully, that can be taken as evidence for an intelligent designer.

Coming last in his sequence of arguments, it builds upon the first three, which argue for an unmoved mover, an uncaused cause and a being that is necessary rather than contingent. These illustrate the fact that we have a natural inclination to seek explanations in terms of causes or pre-existing conditions; we do not assume that things just happen by chance. The same process informs this 5th argument. We distinguish between inanimate objects which only move when moved by something else, and those which have minds, even if very simple ones, and which are therefore distinguished by their ability to act intentionally, to plan, design and shape things to suit their own wishes. See a small animal scurrying around to find food, or a spider weaving a web and you see intentional activity. But how then do we understand the appearance of intentionality and design in things that are inanimate?  We know that the arrow cannot have a mind of its own, and yet it seems to act purposefully. Hence we assume an archer. But what of planets in their orbits, or individual cells in the human body? White blood cells defend the body against infection when it is damaged, but do they intend to do that? Does the heart know it has to pump?  The key feature of Aquinas’ presentation of the argument here is that the inanimate can appear to act intentionally – and that suggests some form of overall design.

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David Hume (1711-76)

Although Hume is a major critic of the Design Argument, he presents his own version of the argument in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, where one of his characters, Cleanthes, says:
‘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…
 ‘The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance - of human design, 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, thought possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the world which he has executed.’

Once you look at the world as a machine, it is natural to think of it – by analogy with our own productions – as the product of an intelligent designer. It is the great advantage of Hume’s use of the dialogue form that it allows him to present both the design argument and his objections to it. Given his overall views, we know that he himself was very much on the side of the criticisms, but nevertheless his presentation of the argument is fair and well made.

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William Paley (1743-1805)

The best-known example of a design argument is the ‘watch’ analogy, presented by Paley in his Natural Theology, 1807.  He suggests that if, while out walking, you came across a watch lying on the ground, you could not but believe that it was the work of a human designer…
‘… when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the several parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or places after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are places, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered to the use which is not served by it.
‘… This mechanism being observed… the inference, we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.’

He then anticipates challenges to the argument, pointing out that it would not be weakened by the fact that he might never have seen a watch made, nor have known an artist capable of making one. Nor did it matter that he did not understand how it is made (he gives the example of the turning of oval frames, most people don’t understand how it is done, but that does not weaken the assumption that they are manufactured by someone who does understand). Also, anticipating the criticism from the standpoint of the ‘problem of evil’ he says:
‘Neither, secondly, would in invalidate our conclusion, that the watch sometimes went wrong, or that is seldom went exactly right...  It is not necessary that a machine be perfect, in order to show with what design it was made…
Then he adds that it is not necessary to understand the function of all the parts in order to see it as designed, simply that no man in his senses would think that the arrangement of the parts of the watch might have come about by chance. In other words:

Since inanimate things in the world work together in way that is even more complex than the watch, and it is therefore reasonable to conclude that the world must also be the work of a designer: God.  

Paley also distinguished between two different kinds of design:

Thus we have two slightly different kinds to question: Why is the world regular and not haphazard? Why does it display purpose?

Of course, one of the problems with the design argument is that it fails to take sufficiently into account those times when the world appears random rather than designed.  Planets eventually get absorbed into their dying stars; growth can run out of control and form a cancer.  One aspect of the ‘problem of evil’ is how one might account for the haphazard if the world is designed and maintained by a loving god.

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Richard Swinburne (1934-)

Later thinkers have developed the argument further.  For example, here is a comment by Swinburne in his book Is there a God?, 1996:

‘The argument to God from the world and its regularity is, I believe, a codification by philosophers of a natural and rational reaction to an orderly world deeply embedded in the human consciousness. Humans see the comprehensibility of the world as evidence of a comprehending creator.’

In effect, this amounts to saying that, since a sense of design and purpose is deeply embedded in the way human beings think, it is natural for us to assume that a world that displays design and regularity is the product of an intelligent designer – effectively an extension of Aquinas’ point about the arrow. So, when philosophers use this as an argument for the existence of God, all they are doing is trying to put in logical form what religious people sense deeply – that their experience is of a world that is ordered by a God who understands and cares for them.

In other words, even if the argument is not logical, it is persuasive for believers, because it fits in with how they experience the world. A loving and intelligent creator would produce a world like this.

Swinburne is trying to enhance the probability that God exists.  In effect he is saying – ‘If there is an intelligent designer God, is this the sort of world that we can imagine he would want to build?’  If the answer is ‘yes’, then that adds to the reasonableness of belief in the existence of God. If the world does not suggest to us that it is the product of mere chance, ruled by impersonal forces, then it is more probable that we will incline towards belief in an intelligent designer – one factor among others in weighing up the reasonableness of theistic belief.
So, even if the teleological (or design) argument is not absolute proof of God, he suggests that it at least increased the probability of there being a God.

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Hume’s criticisms

In order to show that this world has a designer, it would be necessary to compare it with other worlds that do or do not have designers; otherwise there is no way of comparing a designed and a not-designed world, and deciding which category this one comes into. But this is the only world we know, so we have no way of knowing whether worlds generally have designers. We can’t even tell whether are world is particularly well designed, since we have nothing with which to compare it. It might be the final effort of a poor designer, all previous attempts at creating a world having failed.

Hume also argued that a cause need only be proportional to its effect. So all the design of this world can suggest is that there is a designer – not that there is an infinite, perfect or wise designer. In other words, even if valid, the argument does not satisfy what the religious person wants it to do.
Hume also challenged the idea that our knowledge of the world is sufficient for us to make general judgements about its design.  He felt that in some ways the world was more organic than mechanical, in other words, that it was more like an animal or a vegetable than a piece of machinery – so it might not be appropriate to try to use the analogy of a human mechanical design. 

He also set out an important objection, which anticipated the work of Darwin. Living things only exist because their various organs work together as they do. They are well adapted to survive in their environment; if the design did not work, the animal would have survived. Therefore everywhere we look we see examples of successful design. But of course we do, because the failures are not here to be seen!

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Charles Darwin (1809-82)

Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, as set out in his book The Origin of Species in 1859, provided an alternative explanation for the appearance of design in living things, and one that did not need the help of an external designer.

He argued that those members of a species whose characteristics were best suited to enable them to survive in their environment, went on to breed. Those ill suited, generally died off before doing so. This process of selection meant that, whenever an advantageous characteristic appeared, those who displayed it were able to pass it on to a proportionately larger number of offspring. In that way, Darwin demonstrated that a species could gradually evolve without the need for an external agency or designer.

Remember, Darwin was a scientist, looking at evidence and working out a theory. He was not, as some students seem to suggest, setting out to argue against belief in God or even to refute the design argument. In fact, he was very reluctant to publish his findings, because he recognised their controversial implications for religion.

Darwin does not directly refute the design argument. Rather, he shows that no external designer is needed in order to explain the phenomenon of design; natural selection produces the same results.   Hence he undermines the key step in the design argument – namely that design requires an external designer.

What Darwin did not know was why there were these differences. We now know that the answer lies in the random mutations thrown up by the process of copying the sequence of genes. However, this does not radically alter the force of Darwin’s perceived challenge to the design argument.

It is also important, for the sake of historical clarity, to remember that, however controversial his ideas proved to be, religious thinkers and philosophers in the 19th century were divided for and against his theory – it was not a simple division with science on one side and religion on the other. The presentation of creation and evolution as radical and incompatible alternatives is a 20th century phenomenon, presented by those taking a literal interpretation of the biblical narrative of creation.

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John Stuart Mill (1806-73)

Mill put forward his objection to the design argument in 1874 and therefore after Darwin had published his theory of natural selection. He observed that nature was fundamentally cruel, and that progress was made only at the cost of immense suffering.  Many things that happen in the natural world (rape, murder, exploitation) would be punishable if done by humans. Nature is ruthless. Is it therefore reasonable to believe that an intelligent and loving creator would have designed a world that involves so much suffering?

In my view, Mill’s criticism goes to the heart both of the design argument and of most attempts to define the nature of a supernatural god. Even if the design argument is valid, it points to a god who is morally indefensible.  It would be kinder to think that the immense suffering we see in this world is simply the result of natural human vulnerability than to assume it to be the intentional design of a malevolent creator.

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Richard Dawkins (1946-)

Dawkins sees design and beauty in nature, but argues that these are natural phenomena, brought about by evolution. In other words, he accepts the appearance of design, but denies that it requires a designer. The world is self-designing, and in books such as The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, he shows how it is done through the process of natural selection over long periods of time.

The weakness of Richard Dawkins’ argument does not lie in his science or the logic or his arguments; both are sound. The problem is that he sets out to criticise a very crude caricature of religious belief – although, to be fair to him, it is a caricature often presented by fundamentalist believers who attack the whole idea of evolution and thereby set the terms of the debate in which he is engaged. 

He argues for design and creativity as a fundamental feature of the world as we encounter it, and he is quite prepared to wonder at its beauty. To some religious thinkers, especially those who are interested in mystical experience, that view is very close to what the religious mystic means by an experience of God. I sense that Dawkins position is not far from that of the 19th century theologian Schleiermacher, who argued for religion being thought of as a ‘sense and taste for the infinite.’  Dawkins has exactly that, although he does not want to put a religious label on it, which – given his experience of religious polemic – is hardly surprising.

Dawkins’ position raises a fundamental problem for this, or any other argument for the existence of God. The problem occurs when the believer thinks of God as a separate, existing ‘thing’ out there somewhere, external to the world, causing and designing it. If that is what ‘God’ means, and if that is what the design argument is trying to establish, then Dawkins criticism of such belief is clearly correct. We have no good reason, either logically or in terms of evidence, to support the existence of such an entity. But…

One cannot imagine Anselm, Aquinas or any of the other sophisticated religious philosophers of earlier generations having much time for such a caricature. The very idea that God might be a separate and distinct being who exists (in the literal sense of ‘standing out’ against other things), in the same way that other things either exist or do not exist, is certainly not theism, and it does not reflect the early doctrines of the Christian Church.  The belief in a god who is separate from, or stands apart from, other existing entities would always have been regarded as idolatry.  Whatever else God might be, if he is to be ‘that within which we live, move and have our being’, then he cannot be separate from everything else, but refers to a reality within and beyond everything that exists.  To use the terminology of the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich – God is ‘Being Itself’ rather than ‘a being.’

Dawkins criticism of belief in God is therefore valuable on two counts:

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Religious experience

Clearly, a sense of wonder and awe in nature has always featured highly in any account of religious experience.  Schliermacher, Otto and William James are thinkers particularly associated with this.   Religious experience differs from ordinary experience in that it has a ‘self-transcending’, ‘symbolic’ quality. In other words, the immediate experience becomes a vehicle for an awareness of something far more general, significant and ‘deep’. An analysis of the actual phenomena or experience does not include this ‘religious’ element, because that is as much to do with the person experiencing it as what is experienced. ‘Religious’ should refer to the quality of an experience, not its content.

The experience of design and purpose in the universe can be ‘religious.’  Whether one can validly argue from that to the existence of a designer God is another matter.

(For more on religious experience, click here.)

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The problem of evil

Most clearly illustrated by Mill’s criticism, the existence of suffering in the world is a problem for those who believe in a loving God, if that god is both omnipotent (able to do anything) and responsible for the design of a world that seems to have suffering and cruelty built into its structure.  To maintain the design argument in the face of suffering and evil, it is necessary to accept the sort of argument put forward by Irenaeus, and later by John Hick, for the value to human beings of the challenge of living in a world that involves suffering, as opposed to one where no such challenge is presented.

To see more on the Problem of Evil, click here.

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A warning about chronology…

In getting to grips with this, or any other argument, it is important to remember not only who said what, but when they said it. For example…

The ‘watchmaker’ argument was published by Paley in the early years of the 19th century, well before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and he had died well before Darwin’s theory of natural selection became the central focus of the ‘design’ debate.  Take care, therefore, not to describe Paley as trying to attack Darwin. You can say that his views were very different from those of Darwin, or even that his argument challenges that of Darwin – but that is another matter.
The same would apply to Hume, who had died before Paley published his argument.  Hume criticism is relevant to Paley, but was not offered as a challenge to him.

…and presenting your argument.

Make sure you appreciate the force of the argument, as well as the principal challenges offered to it, so that you are able to give a balanced view. It is important to be able to say whether or not you find the argument persuasive, or its criticisms valid, but if you dismiss either too lightly it suggests that you have not appreciated its force.

As mentioned above, religious experience and the problem of evil are big issues for the philosophy of religion, and link closely to the Design Argument. By all means mention them to illustrate your judgement about the argument, but do not be tempted, in the course of an essay, to be drawn into a long discussion of them, or you will lose focus on the question in hand.

And finally, it is valuable to reflect on the kind of ‘God’ that this argument presents, and whether that is, in your view, adequate for religion and intellectually defensible.

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© Mel Thompson, 2015

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Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest who found himself working at a stretcher bearer through some of the worst battles of the First World War, struggled with the problem of suffering, but concluded that the front line of battle, with the immense suffering that he saw there, must be – when seen from a very distant perspective – a necessary stage in the development of humankind and therefore an expression of the will of God.  

But is an end point, ‘Omega’ in his terminology, able to justify the immense suffering that enables it to come about, however good that end point might be? 

That proved to be a major problem with Teilhard de Chardin’s thinking, and it reflects Mill’s challenge to the Design Argument.