What is the Teleological Argument?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, answers the question: What is the teleological argument?:

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • joey_in_NC

    …that watch was probably designed by somebody. But you might see a sand dune, and to you that doesn’t seem like a big deal but nature found a way to ‘design’ that. [2:08]

    Given materialism, the watch and the sand dune are ‘designed’ fundamentally the exact same way by nature, given that their formation involves the exact same mindless/purposeless physical laws of nature.

    Another way to look at is ‘design’ doesn’t fundamentally exist at all, but rather only as an illusory abstraction, similar to libertarian free will. Design can’t be viewed as some fundamental force outside of nature, the way it’s usually considered.

    • 3lemenope

      It’s funny, I tend to think of abstractions as real things which, when supervenient upon arrangements of material, give rise to novel behaviors. So they aren’t “illusory” at all. A wolf pack is an abstraction of a certain collection of wolves that enjoy hierarchical relationships between them. We can know that the pack is real and not an illusion because it produces effects; a pack can take down prey that each wolf taken singularly could not, and so may survive in areas where lone wolves would starve.

      • joey_in_NC

        Given what you say, then one can reason that the Earth actually designed human beings, because human beings would never have existed if the Earth had never formed.

  • Tony Cummo

    I had to wear a hearing aid in my ‘perfect’ ears to listen to this, and wear glasses on my ‘perfect’ eyes to see it…thanks science..

  • Monkey In Awe

    “Our world looks designed”
    There are an estimated 100-400 billion planet in the Milky Way, it’s not design, its chance that at least one of them would be suitable for life to begin and take hold in the manner it has done on earth.

  • riddles

    The Teleological argument (I’d argue it’s a fallacy) relies entirely on believing complexity = design. So of course design means there must be a designer but they use that obvious statement to skip past the hurdle that is proving something is designed in the first place.

  • Zach Vondrasek

    “Our world looks designed”

    I find this statement to be hilarious. Simply for the fact that I have read Genesis in it’s literal translation, not just the King James version. It is only with the newer translations of the Bible that God designed the world. Originally it was raised from beneath the waters that coexisted with God before time began. But I digress, I’m mainly posting here because I like what you say. And not only that, but also how you say it. Many would think that’s an odd thing coming from a religious person, but I prefer to not follow the majority and do my own thing.

    You are a good person and I hope many people, religious or not, see what you say and how you say it, and learn from it. The worst thing to ever happen to this world is blind faith. To obediently follow someone else simple because you cant prove them wrong is a terrible way to make decisions. I really do hope you can show many people that it is okay to use their brain and make decisions that they think is right not because a dusty old book told them to, but because it is what should be done because it helps people. Most of the more popular religions tell you to help others rather than hurt or harm them. Unless I’m mistaken of course.

    Even Christianity tells you to treat everyone fairly regardless of their faults or beliefs. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” You do know that according to Christianity that the only ones without sin are unborn children and God, so it still goes to show, no one should harm or judge others unless they are God, or an unborn baby who has no interaction with the outside world and would therefore be unable to make that decision…

    And I’ve gone so far off topic here that I’ll stop. And just say I hope you continue on with what you are doing, simply because you are a good person, and a good influence. Continue to enlighten the masses and push others to think outside the box.

  • Intelligent Donkey

    If there was a designer, then everything is designed. How do we (being part of this design) recognize that something is designed when we have never seen anything that is not designed?

    • C Peterson

      I don’t see how the existence of a designer requires everything to be designed.

      But the answer to your question is simple: it is our nature to anthropomorphize things. So if something looks like something we might make, but didn’t, we attribute it to some other intelligent maker. Pretty unimaginative, if you ask me.

  • mobathome

    Transcripts of these “talking head” videos should be made available. I will email you one for this video as a starter.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Thanks! We do a lot of these at once and they’re all off the cuff, so we’re unable to do it, but if anyone can write it up, we’ll gladly append them with the video.

    • NateW

      Yeah, I’d greatly appreciate transcripts. It seems I am usually reading somewhere where I can’t really play a video.

      (Wouldn’t hurt search engine stats either)

  • ejoty

    I recall the secretary to my knee surgeon saying that she wished she could get her hands on whoever designed human knees so badly.

    • C Peterson

      And knees are positive genius compared with backs…

  • L.Long

    As in most philosophy they start from a false statement and then comtinue from there.

    Or

    ‘philosophy’ the art of throwing BS and sounding smart.

    • 3lemenope

      Philosophy can be misused like any other discipline.

  • Buckley

    “Forms follows function.” Louis Sullivan

    • Pattrsn

      Function follows form – me.

  • C Peterson

    There are arguments that are so weak, so inferior, so obviously wrong that dignifying them with a name, even calling them “arguments” is silly. This is one such.

  • The Captain

    Always hated this argument especially. The only reason anyone can tell something is designed (as in the watch scenario) is because you have evidence of design and seen design before. And by that I mean you have seen watches before, different designed watches. You recognize the watch as having design, since you’ve seen a show on watch making, you have seen watches at the store, ads that show how a watch works, you may have taken one apart as a kid.

    Whenever creationist give this argument they alway say that a person who has never seen a watch before and finds one in the desert would know it was designed, and I say bullshit. They have either seen the things that make up the watch before, like metal, glass, wristbands, so they have prior evidence. And if they have no such evidence, if they where raised without ever seeing such things, they would NOT know the watch was designed. They would assume it was just as natural as a tree or the sand dune.

    • NateW

      Not trying to argue, but it it seems to me to most instances where something technological is encountered by primitive cultures the typical response is to presume that the object is magical/spiritual/alien—in other words that it is evidence of action on a plane of reality other than their own.

      • The Captain

        Sure if they only found one, but that would be because it’s seen as an “unique” item. Just like primitive cultures do with say a white buffalo, or albino tiger. If all buffalos where white to begin with, it would be the brown one they found magical. So if they found one watch then yes, they might find it “magical/spiritual/alien” but if they had lived their whole lives finding broken watches rather commonly throughout the desert I don’t see why they would see it as anything other than natural.

        • NateW

          Good point. Seeing watches everywhere, they wouldn’t be alarmed or awed by the presence of yet another.

          I wonder though, if they would become curious about the origin of all the watches… Trees grow from seeds, animals in the womb, but wouldn’t they reach a sort of dead end in trying to figure watches out?

          Is there a point where they would be justified to conclude that a sentient being made them?

          Not saying the argument is valid, but just curious.
          It seems to me that investigating the origin of all things one might justifiably reach a similar point.

          • Pattrsn

            That would just put watches in the mysterious origin category such as rain or lightning and would likely be given a magical origin story too.

          • The Captain

            “Is there a point where they would be justified to conclude that a sentient being made them?” Absolutely BUT they would have needed to accumulate a body of evidence to come to that conclusion They would need to first discover metallurgy, gears, and the concept of time, ect.. As I was saying in my original post, a person would recognize a watch was designed because they have prior evidence of things like a watch being designed.

            The teleological argument though is attempting to get around this by dismissing the need for evidence. It treats the ability to see “design” as either an innate ability or as a natural inference of the knowledge that things an be designed, which it is not. Even if the primitive culture was starting to design wooden spears it’s not until they have the understanding (evidence) of the above concepts for example, might they start to come to the conclusion that the watches where designed.

        • L.Long

          But this effect occurs only in places where people already believe in magic.If your society believed in investigating the properties of an unknown, i.e. a USA or similar dud found a glowing jewel, then the 1st thought (if found by a rationalist) is what-where-why -how?? not OOOHHHhh! Magic!
          So if the society promotes superstition (catlicks) then the statue is crying not leaking sewage water.

    • McAtheist

      Like the coca cola bottle in the movie “The gods must be crazy”?

  • http://www.atheismandthecity.com/ The Thinker

    To be an actual believing, practicing theist, and to be educated on evolution, sexuality and neuroscience must require cognitive dissonance. For example, how does the theist explain the fact that we humans evolved over a process of 3.5 billion years during which time there were at least 5 mass extinctions that helped contribute to millions and millions of evolutionary dead ends where species became extinct often through a long slow painful process, and during which consciousness evolved as brains grew more complex so that these species could begin to experience their suffering?

    To say that an all-knowing and all-loving god guided evolution and may have taken pleasure in it (as some apologists have suggested) is absurd. Any god who would choose to create humans through a haphazard process that required millions of years of conscious suffering for no logically necessary reason, is to say god is either totally incompetent at creation, totally indifferent to the suffering that he chose to engineer for no reason, or is totally cruel and evil for taking pleasure in this process. If you grant a creator, you have to grant that. There’s no logical way out of it.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Best reply I’ve read to this kind of argument:
    Being amazed at how well the Earth is so well “designed” for life is like being amazed at how the Mississippi River flows so perfectly underneath all those bridges.

    • David Kopp

      The puddle looks around and decides that he was perfectly designed for the pothole that he is in, never once giving thought to the fact that maybe he fits in the hole because he formed to the hole, rather than the other way around.

      Seems a little… arrogant to claim that the earth was designed for us, rather than us adapting to the earth.

  • Tom

    I think the best argument abut a designer is it there was a designer then things would be consistent without any randomness factor in the universe, but quantum mechanics has a randomness factor.

  • mandas

    So if something as complex as a watch requires a designer, the designer must be very complex – much more so than the watch.
    So if complex things require a designer, who or what designed the designer?

  • Ben

    Hemant, unfortunately, your responses are not sound ones.

    The problems start early when you try to describe the teleological argument, but end up representing a weird frankensteinian medley of your own creation that nobody really subscribes to. It starts to sound like the cosmological fine-tuning argument, then morphs into William Paley’s Watchmaker argument, and by the time you’re done, you describe an argument of your own creation that nobody subscribes to.

    Your first response, thankfully, applies to all teleological arguments: “If God created everything, then who created God?” But this is a silly response, widely mocked by both theists and atheists who are familiar with the argument and concepts of God.

    The first problem is that no sophisticated conception of God, either theological or philosophical says that God created everything, period. They refer to a set of objects smaller than the set of everything. Either everything apart from God, or everything that begins to exist, or etc. Creating everything means creating God as well, and very few theists believe that God created Himself.

    The second problem is that if God is not a being that was created, then the question “Who created an uncreated being?” is logically incoherent, like asking “Why isn’t a square a circle?”

    Granted, you might not LIKE the answer. But we don’t get to pick and choose facts. If a being is uncreated and exists eternally (much like we thought the universe existed eternally for hundreds of years), then your response becomes nonsensical.

    Next, you say “How can the human body be designed? There are a lot of problems with the human body.” Now this objection makes sense given our human experience- we design things to be as good as they can be, because we want to maximize efficiency, utilization of resources and profit.

    But do these reasons have to apply to all of design, necessarily? Of course not. Look at fine art, for instance. Fine art can appreciate the fragile, the broken, the weak. Problems are not problematic in fine art.

    Likewise, perceived problems in human design don’t necessarily apply to God.

    In fact, there’s another reason this objection is pointless, and that is because perfection of design is an inherently subjective feature. What is perfect to you is not perfect to me, is not perfect to God.

    So, I think the responses you gave were interesting, but they are not ultimately compelling. They aren’t taken seriously given the sophistication of many teleological arguments, and in the end, a purely objective and detailed critical examination of teleological arguments shows there to be some that are quite compelling.

    There’s much more to be said about this than can fit into a comment box. But I’m glad you aired your views on the matter, and I like that you seem to be a genuinely nice guy who is interested in grappling with these issues. Kudos.

  • dweiss3

    I don’t understand how anyone could look at something and think it is too complex not to have been designed and then suggest the God of the Old Testament or Allah as the designer.

  • Randay

    Vocabulary is important. So the question “Why did it start?” is already giving ground to the faith heads. The real question is “How did it start?” “Why” implies a purpose while “how” implies a process.

  • used2bnun

    the opposite is true; WE ended up evolving into what we are because the earth is as it is. had the atmosphere not changed from methane to oxygen, had the moon not formed as it did, had an asteroid not killed off the dinosaurs etc etc we would not have evolved into the creatures we are. the earth was not made for us; we were “made” for this earth.


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