Spiritual Life
Reasons to Believe
Religions & Sects
Church History
In the News
Faith & Reason Press Speaker's Forum Links Resources About Us

Overview of the Teleological Argument

William Lane Craig

Perhaps the oldest and most popular of all the arguments for the existence of God is the teleological argument. It is the famous argument from design, inferring an intelligent designer of the universe just as we infer an intelligent designer for any product in which we discern evidence of purposeful adaptation of means to some end (telos).

Plato and Aristotle

The ancient Greek philosophers were impressed with the order that pervades the cosmos, and many of them ascribed that order to the work of an intelligent mind who fashioned the universe. The heavens in constant revolution across the sky were especially awesome to the ancients. Plato’s Academy lavished extensive time and thought on the study of astronomy because, Plato believed, it was the science that would awaken man to his divine destiny. According to Plato, there are two things that “lead men to believe in the Gods”: the argument based on the soul, and the argument “from the order of the motion of the stars, and of all things under the dominion of the mind which ordered the universe.”1

What a lovely statement of the divine design evide4nt throughout the universe! Plato employed both of these arguments to refute atheism and concluded that there must be a “best soul” who is the “maker and father of all,” the “King” who ordered the primordial chaos into the rational cosmos we observe today. 2

An even more magnificent statement of divine teleology is to be found in a fragment from a lost work of Aristotle’s entitled On Philosophy. Aristotle, too, was struck with wonder by the majestic sweep of the glittering host across the night sky of ancient Greece. Philosophy, he said, begins with this sense of wonder about the world:

For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun, and bout the stars and about the genesis of the universe. 3

Anyone who has himself studied the heavens must lend a sympathetic ear to these men of antiquity who gazed up into the night sky, as yet undimmed by pollution and the glare of city lights, and watched the slow but irresistable turn of the cosmos, replete with its planets, stars, and familiar constellations, across their view and wondered–what is the cause of all this? Aristotle concluded that the cause was divine intelligence. He imagined the impact that the sight of the world would have on a race of men who had lived underground and never beheld the sky:

When thus they would suddenly gain sight of the earth, seas, and the sky; when they should come to know the grandeur of the clouds and the might of the winds; when they should behold the sun and should learn its grandeur and beauty as well as its power to cause the day by shedding light over the sky; and again, when the night had darkened the lands and they should behold the whole of the sky spangled and adorned with stars; and when they should see the changing lights of the moon as it waxes and wanes, and the risings and settings of all these celestial bodies, their courses fixed and changeless throughout all eternity–when they should behold all these things, most certainly they would have judged both that there exist gods and that all these marvelous works are the handiwork of the gods. 4

In his Metaphysics Aristotle proceeded to argue that there must be a First Unmoved Mover which is God, a living, intelligent, incorporeal, eternal, and most good being who is the source of order in the cosmos. Hence, from earliest times men, wholly removed from the biblical revelation, have concluded to the existence of divine mind on the basis of design in the universe

Thomas Aquinas

We have already seen that Thomas Aquinas in his first three Ways argues for the existence of God via the cosmological argument. His Fifth Way, however, represents the teleological argument. He notes that we observe in nature that all things operate toward some end, even when those things lack consciousness. For their operation hardly ever varies and practically always turns out well, which shows that they really do tend toward a goal and do not hit upon it merely by accident. Thomas is here expressing the conviction of Aristotelian physics that everything has not only a productive cause but also a final cause, or goal toward which it is drawn. To use an example of our own, poppy seeds always grow into poppies and acorns into oaks. Now nothing, Aquinas reasons, that lacks consciousness tends toward a goal, unless it is under the direction of someone with consciousness and intelligence. For example, the arrow does not tend toward the bull’s eye unless it is aimed by the archer. Therefore, everything in nature must be directed toward its goal by someone with intelligence, and this we call “God.”

William Paley

Undoubtedly, the high point in development of the teleological argument came with William Paley’s brilliant formulation in his Natural Theology in 1804. Paley combed the sciences of his time for evidences of design in nature and produced a staggering catalogue of such evidences, based, for example, on the order evident in bones, muscles, blood vessels, comparative anatomy, and particular organs throughout the animal and plant kingdoms. So conclusive was Paley’s evidence that Leslie Stephen in his History of English Though in Eighteenth Century wryly remarked that “if there were no hidden flaw in the reasoning, it would be impossible to understand, not only how any should resist, but how anyone should ever have overlooked the demonstration.”5 Although most philosophers–who have undoubtedly never read Paley–believe that his sort of argument was dealt a crushing and fatal blow by David Hume’s critique of the teleological argument, Paley’s argument, which was written nearly thirty years after the publication of Hume’s critique, is in fact not vulnerable to most of Hume’s objections, as Frederick Ferre’ has pointed out. 6 Paley opens with a statement of the famous “watch-maker argument”:

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 which I had before given, that, for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in th4e first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. That, 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 different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. To reckon up a few of the plainest of these parts, and of their offices, all tending to one result: We see a cylindrical box containing a coiled elastic spring, which, by its endeavor to relax itself, turns round the box. We next observe a flexible chain (artificially wrought for the sake of flexure) communicating the action of the spring from the box to the fusee. We then find a series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in, and apply to each other, conducting the motion from the fusee to the balance, and from the balance to the pointer; and at the same time, by the size and shape of those wheels, so regulating that motion, as to terminate in causing an index, by an equable and measured progression, to pass over a given space in a given time. We must take notice that the wheels are made of brass in order to keep them from rust; the springs of steel, no other metal being so elastic; that over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work; but in the room of which, if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not be seen without the opening the case. This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood,) the inference, we think, is inevitable; that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at sometime, 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. 7

This conclusion, Paley continues, would not be weakened if I had never actually seen a watch being made nor knew how to make one. For we recognize4 the remains of ancient art as the products of intelligent design without having even seen such things made, and we know the products of modern manufacture are the result of intelligence even though we may have no inkling how they are produced. Nor would our conclusion be invalidated if the watch sometimes went wrong. The purpose of the mechanism would be evident even if the machine did not function perfectly. Nor would the argument become uncertain if we were to discover some parts in the mechanism that did not seem to have any purpose, for this would not negate the purposeful design in the other parts. Nor would anyone in his right mind think that the existence of the watch was accounted for by the consideration that it was one of many possible configurations of matter and that some possible configuration had to exist in the place where the watch was found. Nor would it help to say that there exists in things a principle of order, which yielded the watch. For one never knows a watch to be so formed, and the notion of such a principle of order that it is not intelligent seems to have little meaning. Nor is it enough to say the watch was produced form another watch before it and that one from yet a prior watch, and so forth to infinity. For the design is still unaccounted for. Each machine in the infinite series evidences the same design, and it is irrelevant where one has ten, a thousand, or an infinite number of such machines–a designer is still needed.

Now the point of the analogy of the watch is this: just as we infer a watchmaker as the designer of the watch, so ought we to infer an intelligent designer of the universe:

For every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. I mean, that the more, and in a degree which exceeds all computation. I mean, that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtilty, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety: yet, in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect products of human ingenuity. 8

...The teleological argument is widely regarded as having been refuted by Hume, with the Darwinian theory of evolution supplying the nails in the coffin. But F.R. Tennant and Stuart Hackett, in full cognizance of Hume’s objections, have argued that on the very assumption of evolution, there is a cosmic teleology that points to a divine designer. Moreover, the gradualism of classical evolutionary theory, based upon the mechanism of minor mutations and natural selection, has been radically called into question by the proponents of “punctuated equilibrium,” who argue that the transitional forms are absent from the fossil record because they never existed. Rather, they say, evolution occurs by leaps from one form to another. Insofar as this new theory fails to account for these leaps and must appeal to “hopeful monsters”–massive mutations that produce new forms without transitional forms–the hypothesis of design becomes more plausible. On a broader scope, current science is wrestling with the so-called “anthropic principle,” with incredible precision to produce man on earth. These cosmic considerations have also breathed new life into the argument from design.


Footnote numbering has been adjusted for this excerpt.

1. Plato Laws 12.966e

2. Plato Laws 10.893b-899c; idem Timaeus.

3. Aristotle Metaphysica Lambda 982610-15

4. Aristotle On Philosophy.

5. Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 1:408

6. Frederick Ferre’, Introduction to Natural Theology: Selections, by William Paley, pp. xi-xxxii.

7. Paley, Natural Theology, pp. 3-4.

8. Ibid., p. 13.

Taken from Apologetics: An Introduction (pgs. 66-70, 73) by William Lane Craig. Copyright © 1984 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Permission kindly granted to Faith and Reason Forum by Moody Publishers, 820 N. LaSalle Blvd., Chicago, IL 60610-3284.