Teleological Argument

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The Teleological Argument, also called the Argument from Design or “Intelligent Design”, is the Creationist's favorite argument. Creationism solely consists of cataloging Teleological Argument paraphrases. This was once the most popular argument for the existence of God,[1] which Christian apologists of all denominations used to persuade their members and combat atheists. However, its use fell out of vogue following the Dover Trial.[2] The Teleological Argument is credited to St. Thomas Aquinas, who described this argument as the fifth and final proof for God's existence in his magnum opus, Summa Theologica (1274).[3]

In its most general form, the Teleological Argument states that the structures and processes observed in nature are orderly and complex to such a degree that they must have been deliberately engineered.[4] This design thus requires a designer, who is assumed to be the God of Abraham. As such, the Teleological Argument is an a posteriori (after-the-fact) variation of the Cosmological Argument. Teleological Arguments are often used in conjunction with the Argument from Ignorance[5] and the God of the Gaps Argument,[1] since it answers mysteries with more mysteries, and thus answers nothing.

The Teleological Argument is commonly stated in one of three ways: the Analogical “Watchmaker” Argument, and its variations; the Anthropic Principle (Fine-tuning Argument); and the Argument from Universal Truths and Natural Laws. Each of these arguments have a few common shortcomings:

  • There is nothing specifically Christian about the Teleological Argument. The Teleological Argument offers no clues to the designer's identity and origin; these results could be equally attributed to any god from any religion, or the collaborative effort of several gods.[6]
  • Like in the Cosmological Argument, if there is evidence of a Intelligent Designer, then causality requires this designer to also have a designer,[5] who is of equal or greater complexity.[8] Just as a watch implies the existence of a watchmaker, a watchmaker implies the existence of a watchmaker-maker, which in turn, implies the existence of a watchmaker-maker-maker, ad infinitum.[6] The Intelligent Designer also requires an explanation how they came to be,[9] leading to an infinite regression.
    • A violation of causality (i.e., the law of cause-and-effect) has never been observed.
    • While apologists may claim that God had no cause, or his existence is just an effect, they only contradict themselves by making a causal argument based upon the non-existence of causality.[5]
    • Assuming the designer's existence cannot be a premise of any credible design argument, since citing the desired conclusion as a premise would “beg the question.”[8]
  • The Teleological Argument only argues for the previous existence of a designer, and not their continued existence and/or presence. There is no indication that this designer oversees their creation, which may just continue plodding along well after their designer’s absence and/or death.[6]
  • Design arguments tend to be weak analogies. For example:[4]
    1. Natural objects and archaeological artifacts both have colors.
    2. Archaeological artifacts are painted or dyed.
    3. Therefore, natural objects are all colored by a great painter-dyer.

There is no limit to these kinds of arguments, all of which hold the same weight.

Analogical (“Watchmaker”) Argument

The Analogical Argument from Design draws an analogy between natural objects and man-made items. This argument is credited to William Paley, who popularized it in his book, Natural Theology,[10] and its example of finding a watch lying on the ground. How would one go about determining its origin? Since both the watch and living things display an intricate combination of specialized parts working in defined processes, they must both be consciously designed.[6] Just as a watch implies the existence of a watchmaker, life implies the existence of a creator god.

A key feature of this argument is how living things are assemblies of distinct parts, which perform specific, specialized functions; the failure of any one part causes a domino effect which kills the organism. The existence of these specialized components is claimed to be “irreducibly complex;” that is, they are allegedly inexplicable by evolutionary or iterative processes, since any living systems requires the absolute “irreducible” basic set of these specialized parts to be alive in the first place. Intelligent Design advocates claim that natural selection could not create this system from some evolutionary pathway of successive, gradual modifications, because their functionality only exists when all the parts are assembled.[11] Removing any component from a complex biological structure renders that system inoperable. Since only fully-functional body parts offer survival advantages, natural selection wouldn’t perpetuate eyes, wings, etc. which were “under construction” or “on the verge of working.” This is what led creationists to frequently ask “What good is half an eye/wing/etc.?” The limit to which science can provide complete explanations on the formation and functionality of living systems is cited as proof of an Intelligent Designer, which is assumed to be God.

However, this is the literal definition of the God of the Gaps Argument, which is an extension of the Argument from Ignorance -- the fact that something is unexplained doesn’t mean it’s inexplicable. Science is a process for discovering information, which is still in progress.[7] Evolutionary biology is rich with counterexamples of how earlier structures were re-appropriated, adapted, and gradually refined and optimized to fit new roles. Each component of a Rube Goldberg machine is also irreducibly complex; and gradual refinement of such a system would eventually lead to a sleek, efficient mechanism.[11] Analogously, each watch component had a previous alternate use, which was modified and adapted to fit that particular application. The watch’s gears are miniaturized mill components. The watch’s face is a window. The strap is a shrunken belt. Likewise, the historical record shows plenty of “fossil” evidence of primitive timepieces (e.g., sundials, water clocks) which preceded the watch, and influenced its construction.[9] Nature herself flatly contradicts the creationist’s all-or-nothing argument. For example:

  • Biology is rich with hideously bad designs. For example, if the human eye were Intelligently Designed:
    • Why is there a 50/50 chance that you are reading this through glasses or contacts lenses?[10]
    • Why are 1 in 12 men colorblind?[10]
    • Why are so many people afflicted with the misty, blurry view resulting from astigmatism?[10]
    • Why does the eye transmit an inverted signal? [12]
    • Why does the eye need so many parts?[12]
    • Why is there a blind spot in the center of our field of view?[12] Other animals (e.g., squid, octopi), have eyes without this limitation.

These are exactly the results that one would expect from evolution’s ad hoc, Rube Goldberg, do-whatever-works-right-now design ethos. If there is an Intelligent Designer, he’s probably MacGyver.

  • Biology is rich with examples of structures in various stages of development, or of radically different designs. For example: birds, bats, and insects each independently developed wings. Evolution has no long-term goal, no target, and no final perfection to work towards. “Progress” only appears in hindsight, based on the summation of reactions needed to fulfill the short-term goal of surviving long enough to reproduce.[10] Again, using eyes as an example, there are animals who have:[13]
    1. No eyes (e.g., some moles and cave-dwelling fish).
    2. Simple light-detectors (e.g., planarians).[10]
    3. Eyes with low resolution (e.g., the compound eyes of insects and horseshoe crabs).
    4. Eyes with poor focusing (e.g., the rhinoceros).
    5. “Pinhole camera”-style proto-eyes, with no focusing (e.g., the chambered nautilus).[10]
    6. Eyes that cannot see color (e.g., most dog breeds).
    7. Human-like eyes.
    8. Superhuman eyes (e.g., eagles, owls).

Since any degree of environmental awareness provides a tremendous competitive advantage, natural selection permits the propagation of these “half eyes,” because having half of an eye is a superpower in the world of the blind. Even a simple patch of light-sensitive cells enables an organism to vertically orient itself and to detect potential predators or prey which eclipses the light source. This eyeless lifeform will produce eyeless offspring -- but suppose that a mutation caused a few of the offspring to possess light-sensitive skin cells. These offspring would have a competitive advantage to avoid predators and reproduce more easily, and thus be more likely to perpetuate this characteristic. Suppose now that a few of this creatures offspring suffered a mutation where their light-sensitive cells were concentrated into a single location, thus amplifying their sensitivity. Again, this competitive edge would quickly spread throughout the future generations, since the offspring which did not display this characteristic would be more likely to die before reproducing (from increased predation, reduced food-finding). Next, let us suppose that a tiny percentage of the next generation of offspring possess a slightly concave shape to their light-sensitive regions, to help discern the direction of light sources, conferring another reproductive advantage. Since cells are filled with semi-transparent liquids, it wouldn't be too surprising if this liquid occasionally found itself within the concave surface of these light-sensitive regions, thus gradually developing an eye.[13]


Lungs developed from a similar process, by lining the mouths of early fish with blood vessels to allow them to gulp air when in shallow muddy waters, and eventually to travel across land from puddle to puddle. Fish also retained and modified this proto-organ, which evolved into the swim bladder. "Fractional" wings also confer benefits, since they can act as airfoils for gliding and/or for slowing and controlling jumps and falls.[10]

The Probabilistic ("747") Argument

Creationists argue that the particular combinations of atoms which form the basis of living things are simply too complex to have emerged from random processes. Furthermore, it would be impossible for life to ever develop if any one of these narrow windows of opportunity had closed. A purely random selection and combination of atoms which results in life-generating chemical processes was been calculated to be far less than the probability of one person winning a billion state lotteries, every day, for a billion millennia. Therefore, it would be “an act of faith” to believe that conscious design was not involved.[6] This is the Probabilistic Argument, also called the 747 Argument since it is usually illustrated by the whimsical analogy of a tornado striking a junkyard and assembling a fully-operational Boeing 747 jumbojet.

This argument is a false dilemma between design and chance, based on the Principle of Indifference (i.e., the Principle of Insufficient Reason), which assumes if there are n possibilities in an unbiased system (where no one result is more or less likely to occur), then the probability of each occurrence is 1/n. Then the probability of a biological structure comprised of m atoms spontaneously forming is (1/n)m, which becomes vanishingly small for large values of m (as in the case of DNA, proteins, or other complex molecules). However, the creationists incorrectly assume that all combinations are equally probable, when the process of assembling biochemical structures is restricted by several intrinsic biases, such as:[4]

  • Governing factors. The results and rates of the chemical reactions forming these structures are influenced and controlled by a number of factors, including: reactant concentrations, reactant surface areas, temperature, pressure, activation energy, and the presence of catalysts and electromagnetic radiation (especially UV light). These biasing factors favor certain chemical reactions and forbid others, limiting the number of possible outcomes. While the creationist’s “winning the lottery” analogy is still apt, this reduction in the number of available outcomes changes the game from Powerball to Pick 3.
  • The large quantity of reactants involved. The entirety of the Earth’s crust and oceans were available for proto-life to build from;[4] and while the spontaneous self-formation of life form these materials may be unlikely (like winning the lottery), the sheer abundance of these materials makes the miraculous inevitable (like buying a 100 million lottery tickets).[7] While the chance of being hit by any one specific, individual raindrop is unfathomably small, people still manage to get wet in rainstorms, without having to invoke Intelligent Design.[6]
  • Natural selection of the results. Complex biochemical molecules can be assembled from the cumulative selection of their results. Rather than waiting for n components to spontaneously arrange themselves, “correct” combinations become saved and propagate themselves. With no redundant work, this random process becomes an iterative process, analogous to being able to re-use old lottery tickets week after week.[13] If a tornado were to assemble only two airplane components, those combined parts would make the task of building an airliner much easier for all future tornadoes.
  • Hindsight bias. Voltaire quipped that the human nose was irrefutable proof of intelligent design, since it was perfectly shaped to support eyeglasses.[14] A tornado hitting a junkyard will most likely make a mess, dumping a heap of parts onto the landscape. However, no two scrap heaps are the same, and an assembled 747 is also a heap of parts. All scrap heaps are unique in hindsight, and all are equally improbable.The creationists who see life as being improbably rare only count the hits and ignore the misses;[10] 99.9% of all of species have gone extinct, and the myriad of lifeforms which still exist exhibit a broad spectrum of congenital gifts and defects.[6]

The Anthropic Principle (Fine-tuning Argument)

The Anthropic Principle, or Fine-tuning Argument, claims that any slight variation of the universe's physical parameters would have prevented the formation of life; that quite literally, this is the best of all possible worlds. This “fine-tuning” of the universe’s parameters necessitates a “tuner;” and this indication of design is evidence of an Intelligent Designer.[8]

However, the fine tuning argument fails because it is based upon a series of false or flawed assumptions:[2]

  • Our universe is the only existent universe.
  • Our universe’s physical parameters are / were variable.
  • Huge variations in physical parameter ranges are / were possible, which makes it extremely unlikely that our parameters were set to their current configuration by chance.
  • Our universe possesses the one, perfect, slot-machine like combination of parameters which can make life possible.
  • Humans and other life could not exist if the universe has slightly different parameters.
    • Admittedly, this is true for many parameter sets.

From this, two conclusions are drawn:[2]

  • The Weak Anthropic Principle: If the universe had different parameters, we could not exist to discuss it.
    • This is is an admittedly weak argument, since it is a tautology.
  • The Strong Anthropic Principle: Because the universe’s physical parameter set is unlikely to have occurred by chance, it likely occurred by design, and humanity's existence is one part of this design.

There are a number of general refutations to the fine-tuning argument:[12]

  • Since physicists have not finalized the Theory of Everything, it is unknown if universes with different parameter values could even be possible.
  • Since we only have experience with our universe and its one parameter set, we have no way of knowing what the possible parameter ranges and distributions are. As such:
    • There was no way of determining if our parameter set is likely or unlikely.
    • There is no way of knowing what parameter sets could also result in intelligent life.
  • If multiple universes exist, then the chance other universes harbor intelligent life could be as high as 100%, even if life is rare, due to the very large sample size.
Additionally, there are some specific arguments which apply to specific parameters and parameter sets:[12]
  • Defined quantities (e.g., golden ratio, π), by definition, cannot be varied.
  • Constants of Proportionality (e.g., c, G, h) are frequently described in Fine-tuning Arguments, but these are arbitrary numbers tailored to align observations with measurement systems. These constants can be assigned to any real, non-zero number without affecting physics; they would only affect the measurement systems used to express physics. Thus, no fine-tuning is involved.
  • Electron to Proton Ratio (1:1). Theists claim that a larger ratio would cause electromagnetism to dominate over gravity, preventing galaxy formation. Additionally, theists claim if the ratio were any smaller gravity would dominate, preventing chemical bonding. However, the number of electrons must equal the number of elections because the Conservation of Charge requires the universe, as a whole, to be electrically neutral. There is no fine-tuning involved.
  • Magnitude Ratio of the Electromagnetic Force to the Gravitational Force (~1039). While varying any one parameter may cause problems, computer simulations have shown that varying all parameters results in stable universes >50% of the time. Simulations have shown that these universes require ratios between 1034 and 1044, and would be capable of forming stars with 1010 year lifetimes, and are thus capable of supporting life.
  • Expansion Rate of the Universe. Theists claim greater rates would prevent galaxy formation, and the universe would collapse if the rate were any smaller. However, no fine-tuning is involved, since the Expansion Rate of the Universe is limited by the Conservation of Energy and the fact that the original total energy of the universe was zero. All celestial bodies in the universe are receding from one another at rates such that they will come to rest at a vast distance, exactly like a rocket traveling at escape velocity.
  • Mass density of the universe. Theists claim that if this quantity were larger, the Big Bang would have produced too much deuterium (i.e., Hydrogen-2), and the stars would have burned too rapidly to give rise to life. Likewise, if this quantity were too small, then the Big Bang would have produced insufficient helium, resulting in stars that produce too little of the heavier elements needed for life. The mass density of the universe is precisely determined by the fact the universe starts out with zero total energy. There is no fine-tuning because this is the consequence of the Conservation of Energy.

The Fine-tuning Argument is actually one of the better arguments against the existence of God, since an all-powerful God would have no need to fine tune the universe. If God is all-powerful, he could have created us to live in any environment. The Fine-tuning Argument only highlights how life was specifically made to fit the Earth, and not vice-versa. To claim otherwise is like claiming that God created rivers to perfectly align with state borders, and to provide water supplies for major cities.[8] If God created the Earth as a perfect sanctuary where life could flourish, then why is the so Earth hostile, rather than facilitating, to human life? 75% of the Earth’s surface is covered with unpotable water, and great portions of its landmass (e.g., Antarctica, Siberia, the Sahara) are uninhabitable, or close to it.[13] Furthermore, the Earth was also fined-tuned to create earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, desertification, and other disasters with such frequency that man cannot help but to ponder the Problem of Evil.[6]

Argument from Universal Truths and Natural Laws

The Argument from Universal Truths and Natural Laws claims that the existence of universal truths (e.g., 2+2=4) and/or the laws of physics (e.g., Newton’s Laws, Maxwell's Equations, the Laws of Thermodynamics, etc.) are proof of God’s existence, as laws imply the existence of a lawgiver.

However, this argument is a false equivalence, since it ignores the differences between prescriptive laws and descriptive laws; i.e., between "rules" and "practice".[8]

The universe is not governed by anything. Natural laws, like the Laws of Physics, are human inventions. They are not restrictions on the behavior of matter; they are restrictions on how physicists can formulate their mathematical models to describe their observations of matter. The laws of physics are just statements regarding observations of matter in regards to the symmetries and objectivity of nature. When a law is broken, it is because a symmetry has been broken, or because some observation is being described from a unique or subjective viewpoint. These laws must also be a part of any mathematical system. Emmy Noether proved that the laws of conservation of linear momentum, angular momentum, and energy follow automatically from, and must be part of any mathematical theory that does not single out any particular position in space, direction in space, or moment in time, respectively.[2] Einstein’s General Relativity extended Noether’s Theorem to 4D space-time.[12] Again, it is worth restating that these are all human inventions -- including the notions of space and time. Time is by definition, what a clock measures. Space is defined by the time light takes to travel between points. Despite this, the results of their observations are not arbitrary; they must yield consistent results, or the model is falsified.[2]

If God exists, then he must have a functioning mind, which must also be “governed” by laws, lest God have a randomly-constructed mind, akin to a randomly-wired brain consistent entirely of randomly-firing synapses. The laws which govern God’s mind would thus require an even higher lawgiver, leading to infinite recursion, unless universal truths exist independently of God.[8]

The Entropic Argument

The Entropic Argument for Intelligent Design claims that Darwinian evolution defies the Laws of Thermodynamics, and is therefore impossible. Countering this argument requires a basic conceptual understanding of the Laws of Thermodynamics, which is provided below:

  • Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics (Law of Equilibrium): If two systems are in thermal equilibrium with a third system, then all three systems are in thermal equilibrium with each other.
    • While this is intuitive, it must be explicitly stated to define the concept of temperature.
  • First Law of Thermodynamics (Conservation of Energy): Energy can be neither created nor destroyed; it can only be changed between its various forms, and/or flow to or from other systems. As a consequence of this:
    • The total energy of an isolated (or closed) system does not change.
    • The introduction or removal of matter, work, or heat from the system affects the system’s internal (or potential) energy. Therefore, "something-for-nothing" machines which produce work without energy inputs (a "perpetual motion machine of the first kind"), are impossible.
    • Real systems which perform work will inevitably generate heat from their internal friction and viscosity. The use of lubricants and anti-friction coatings can only mitigate this effect; it will always exist to some degree.
  • Second Law of Thermodynamics (Law of Entropy): Entropy is a measure of the number of possible particle configurations; it is a measure of the disorder within a macroscopic system (e.g., the lattice of an ice crystal is more ordered than the freely-moving water molecules of steam). Entropy corresponds to the amount of a system's thermal energy which is unable to be converted into work. The entropy of an isolated (or closed) system never decreases. As a consequence of this:
    • Machines which spontaneously convert thermal energy into equal amounts of work ("perpetual motion machines of the second kind") are impossible.
    • No engine can ever be more efficient than a Carnot cycle engine.
      • Even this ideal efficiency is unrealizable, since it requires pumping liquid-vapor mixtures, and this "ideal" engine would quickly destroy itself from the resulting cavitation.
    • Natural processes are irreversible (e.g., once bread becomes toast, it can never go back to being bread. Eggs can’t be undropped).
    • Heat naturally flows from a hot body to a cold body, until both bodies reach equilibrium.
    • Heat transfer from a colder body to a hotter body is impossible without performing work on the system (e.g., pumping, etc.).
  • Third Law of Thermodynamics: The entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches absolute zero; and the entropy of a perfect crystal at absolute zero is exactly equal to zero.
    • However, it is impossible to cool any real body to absolute zero, since it will always possess its zero-point energy. The complete absence of thermal motion which defines absolute zero also implies that position of these atoms or molecules could be known with complete certainty, and thus violates Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

The Entropic Argument for Intelligent Design states that:[4]

  1. All physical processes are entropic.
  2. All entropic processes have a tendency for dissolution and disorganization.
  3. Therefore, all physical processes have a tendency for dissolution and disorganization.
  4. Some processes, like evolution, have a tendency towards synthesis and organization.
  5. Therefore, some processes are anti-entropic and not physical.
  6. The mind is the only know anti-entropic factor currently known.
  7. Therefore, evolutionary processes are probably mind-directed.

The Entropic Argument for Intelligent Design is based on the invalid assumption that the Earth is an isolated (or closed) system. Energy is being constantly added to the Earth via the sun’s light and warmth, and many “anti-entropic” processes are permissible in non-isolated (or open) systems. Your kitchen’s freezer can perform the “anti-entropic” process of organizing liquid water into ordered lattices of ice crystal because it draws energy to perform this work from the power grid. Even if God drove all of the “anti-entropic” evolutionary processes on Earth, the Second Law of Thermodynamics would still hold. This would be a literal instance of the Maxwell’s Demon thought-experiment; if God performed work on the Earth, it would again cease to be an isolated (or closed) system.

When someone tries to make an Entropic Argument, always ask how many Laws of Thermodynamics there are. This will reveal if they have any scientific familiarity, or if they are just parroting from creationist readers and copybooks.[8] If the creationist tries to prove that the existence of Laws of Thermodynamics is itself evidence of design, again, cite Emmy Noether’s proof that the Conservation of Energy follows automatically from and must be part of any mathematical theory which doesn't single out any particular moment in time.

Some especially arrogant creationists may argue that the Laws of Thermodynamics are somehow wrong.[13] Experience has shown that it's best to point out how all of the world's engines, motors, power plants, refrigerators, air conditioners, pumps, and compressors were designed under the assumption that the Laws of Thermodynamics were valid. The fact that any of these devices function is experimental evidence which verifies that the Laws of Thermodynamics are valid; otherwise any and all machines built and operated since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution could only function as-designed through a fantastically whimsical and strangely-reliable series of coincidences. The creationist must then prove that this is indeed the case in order to continue.


  1. 1.0 1.1 P. Kreeft, Faith and Reason: The Philosophy of Religion (Recorded Books, 2005).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 V. J. Stenger, The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. (Oxford Prometheus Books, 2009).
  3. P. Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Pitchstone Publishing, 2013).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Critiques of God: Making the Case Against the Belief in God, edited by P. A. Angeles (Prometheus Books, 1997).
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 D. Barker, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist (Freedom from Religion Foundation, 1992).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 G. H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Prometheus Books, 2016).
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 G. P. Harrison, 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian (Prometheus Books, 2013).
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 D. Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists (Ulysses Press, 2008).
  9. 9.0 9.1 S. C. Hitchcock, Disbelief 101: A Young Person's Guide to Atheism (See Sharp Press, 2009).
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 10.8 R. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (W. W. Norton & Co., 1986).
  11. 11.0 11.1 M. J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. (Oxford Free Press, 2006).
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 V. J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis (Prometheus Books, 2008).
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 D. Mills, Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person's Answer to Christian Fundamentalism (Ulysses Press, 2006).
  14. B. Russell, edited by P. Edwards, Why I Am Not a Christian (Touchstone, 1967).