I was prompted a recent episode of Premier Christian Radio’s ‘Unbelievable’ programme to do a little bit of reading around this subject. That episode featured an interview with noted Christian apologist William Lane Craig, who at the end of last year participated in a panel discussion which also involved Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins repeated his oft-expressed view that although the universe seems to be designed, this is illusory. Design implies purpose, and purpose implies mind. There is no mind, and therefore not purpose or design in the universe at large. The only purpose and design is that which we, with our highly-evolved minds, create for ourselves.
The teleological argument, or argument from design, is one of the classical arguments for the existence of God. The argument assumes an analogy between the order that we seems to observe in the cosmos and the order that arises from human ingenuity. Voltaire put it like this: “If a watch proves the existence of a watchmaker but the universe does not prove the existence of a great Architect, then I consent to be called a fool.”
Paley, whose views on such matters held sway in the half-century before Darwin, found living things teeming with evidences of design. It was incredible to suppose that the mammalian eye, for example, could have arisen by blind chance, and so a powerful and wise Creator needed to be invoked.
Scientific discovery has continued to heap evidence upon evidence that the universe is fine-tuned for life. It is as though, to use the words of Freeman Dyson, ‘the universe saw us coming.’ And Fred Hoyle, no theist, exclaimed that the cosmos showed signs of being ‘a put-up job’.
Nevertheless, a number of criticisms have been levelled at the teleological argument.
David Hume raised a number of objections. Who designed the Designer? Even if there were a Designer, who is to say that this is the God of the Bible? Does not the existence of evil show that any Designer is morally imperfect? Is not the proposed analogy between actual design of a machine and the purported design of the universe stretched to beyond breaking point? And would not any coherent universe have the appearance of design, because we who live in it lack the ability to imagine anything else?
Darwin weakened confidence in the argument from design in at least two ways. First, he proposed a mechanism – natural selection – by which complex life forms could develop from more primitive forms. Second, he draw attention to what was already obvious to any thoughtful observer: that living things, wonderful as they may be, are fraught with death and decay. The very struggle by which the fittest will survive leads to suffering and death on a colossal scale. Can this really be the work of an all-wise and all-powerful Creator?
Richard Dawkins seems to re-play the arguments of Hume and Darwin without much further reflection. He does cite some recent research which tends to suggest that young children tend to find design and purpose in natural things in a naively intuitive way, but that they generally grow out of it. The clear implication here is that those who find the design argument for God compelling are similarly childish in their thinking. On the other hand, he expends quite a lot of energy on the ‘Who designed the Designer?’ rebuttal, which itself is childishly naive.
Some Christian thinkers are reluctant to deploy any of the classical arguments for God’s existence, including this one. Karl Barth went so far as to deny the very possibility of natural theology. God is infinitely great, and we are not only finite but sinful. In the nature of things, he argued, it is impossible for us to discover God by rational or empirical enquiry. We can, and must, rely solely on which God has been pleased to disclose by revelation.
Other Christians would take a more measured view. They agree that it would be impertinent to try to ‘prove’ God’s existence. Nevertheless, the teleological argument, along with others, does provide a signpost, suggesting that belief in God is, at the very least, not irrational.
Brown, C. Philosophy and the Christian faith, 26-30, 97ff.
Dawkins, R. The God Delusion, ch 4.
Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, art. ‘God, arguments for the existence of’
Hosper, J. An introduction to philosophical analysis, 455-78
New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, art. ‘Teleological argument’