The Teleological Argument for the Existence of God

Painting by Thomas Cole. This image is in the public domain.

Previously, I discussed the four cosmological arguments of Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. I also mentioned that Aquinas presented five arguments or five “ways” of demonstrating the existence of God. The fifth way is commonly known as a teleological argument, which is essentially an argument from design. Teleology deals with the end, finality, or goal of something. In this case, it is dealing with the end goal of natural entities and explains the function of natural entities in view of their purpose rather than of their cause. The purpose of the teleological argument, then, is to demonstrate the existence of God by looking at the apparent purpose found in nature. I will be analyzing both the teleological argument as explained by Thomas Aquinas as well as alternate presentations.

The argument is simple enough and seems to agree with many people’s intuition. However, this has been one of the most challenged arguments, particularly in modern times with the rise of atheism. Nevertheless, the argument has remained one of the most emphatically upheld by theists, including both deists (those who believe in the existence of a god but do not believe that he has given humankind any form of special revelation) and followers of religion, particularly those associated with one of the Abrahamic religions (that is, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism).

One popular objection to the teleological argument is that the modern theory of evolution has done away with the need for belief in a creator God. However, there are many theistic evolutionists, who believe that God guided the process of evolution. In other words, evolutionary theory is compatible with belief in God. Furthermore, the method of evolution typically proposed by secular scientists is that evolution occurred by chance. The problem here is that just because evolution could have technically occurred by chance, it did not necessarily; that is, evolution by chance is a proposition not an observed fact. And even if biological evolution can be observed in a laboratory to occur by chance, it does not follow that it must have happened by chance but only that it could have occurred by chance. It is also possible that evolution could have been guided. In other words, the possibility of one does not exclude the possibility of the other.


This brings us to another way in which the teleological argument is made. It is often argued that nature is more likely to have been designed than to have occurred by chance. A strength of this argument is that the probability that things would have evolved to be as precise as they are now without guidance is extremely low. Observing the fact that natural laws exist according to which nature functions properly and which work in such a way that life can be sustained gives the impression of precision, making it seem more likely that nature was designed and that evolution was guided rather than brought about by chance.

Because an intelligent designer does not need to rely on chance to guide the evolutionary process, it can be considered more likely that evolution was guided, whether directly or indirectly, by an intelligent being. For example, it will always be more likely that a dice will display a six if someone deliberately places the die down in such a way that it does than if one were to roll a die. Furthermore, even if one were to roll six dice at the same time, there is still the chance that not even one six will be rolled.


One way to explain the teleological argument is through analogy. It can be summarized in the following steps:

1. There are patterns in natural entities that have the appearance of design.
2. There are patterns in artificial objects that have the appearance of design.
3. We recognize the artificial object to have been designed.
4. Therefore, similar natural entities must have been designed.

One problem with explaining the teleological argument analogically is that nature and artificial objects are recognized as not being the same. In other words, if one saw an artificial machine, such as a watch, beside a natural object, such as a flower, it is clearly understood that one is artificial and that the other is natural. Although there are times when it is unclear as to whether an object is artificial or natural, most of the time the difference is obvious. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that there is at least the appearance of design in nature. Another example is to compare a skyscraper to a mountain. The skyscraper is obviously designed with precise measurements by a human whereas mountains typically do not have the appearance of precision. All of this is to say that we also intuitively recognize that artificial objects and natural entities are in different categories.


As I did in my last blog post, I will quote Thomas Aquinas’s argument, which is found in Part 1, Question 2, Article 3, in his Summa Theologica. To quote:

We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

To summarize:
1. Certain natural bodies function as to achieve an end.
2. Non-intelligent entities cannot function as to achieve an end without external, intelligent guidance.
3. Therefore, non-intelligent, natural entities that function as to achieve an end must be guided by an external, intelligent being, that is, God.

Thomas Aquinas’s version of the argument seems to work from what he observes as purposefulness in natural entities. Now he describes this purposefulness as “acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.” Although it is questionable as to whether every natural entity actually does act “as to obtain the best result,” such a purposefulness in acting to obtain any end at all implies deliberateness. Deliberateness points to intelligence, since it would not make sense to call something deliberate if it was never intended; and only intelligent beings can have intent.

Of course, this argument does assume that certain natural bodies do indeed work toward an end and that this end is not an illusion. However, many things can be observed to serve a definite function. Many objects display such a show of precision, such as the celestial bodies and in particular the orbital paths of the planets, that intuitively they appear to have been designed in that way. Furthermore, even if alternative theories are presented in support of unguided chance, it would take an extremely definitive theory to override the intuitive derision from the observation of precision and of apparent purposeful functionality found in much of nature that there is an intelligent mind behind it all. Thus far, theories have been proposed that present ways by which these things could have occurred by unguided chance; but these remain mere possibilities, which, in my opinion, are too weak to convince me against inherent intuition.


If evolution was indeed guided, then must it have been by an intelligent being? Thus far, I have assumed that it must have been, but could it not have instead been guided by a force? The primary problem that I see in seeing the evolutionary guide as a force instead of a being is that forces cannot be thought of as intelligent; and as soon as intelligence is attributed to a force, it is no longer merely a force but a being. But if the force is unintelligent, then it could not have deliberately done anything, since deliberateness implies the ability to think. Thus, I believe that evolution was more likely guided by a being than a force.


In this brief evaluation of the teleological argument, the reader may have noticed that I have not argued for creationism or intelligent design. Rather, I have argued in such a way that acceptance of evolution can be granted, although I honestly do accept the theory. The teleological argument is one of the simplest and most intuitive arguments for the existence of a supreme being which may be rightly called God. However, one deficiency that I have not addressed is that the argument does not demonstrate whether there is one god or many. Additional steps will be in order to demonstrate one or the other. But that is for another time.

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