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Clarifying Arguments for God, Part Two: Design and Ultimate Ends

In this second of a three-part series (part one here), we will clear up some confusions that have entered into the Christian use of certain classic arguments in favor of God’s existence. In the previous segment, we looked at cosmological arguments and saw that error is sometimes made when the problems of infinite causes are not dealt with clearly. Here we will try to clear up the confusion between different claims made in various arguments from design.

Design arguments are based on some fact of creation that appears to require a creator. Two primary forms—arguments based on intelligent design and on teleology, or ultimate ends—are often lumped together, although they do not work the same way.

An example of this confusion can be found on the popular Christian apologetics website in an article titled What is the Teleological argument for the existence of God? The author moves from teleology to design without indicating any difference: “The word teleology comes from telos, which means ‘purpose’ or ‘goal.’ . . .  In other words, a design implies a designer.”

The problem is, design and purpose are not the same thing. The overlap between arguments from design and from teleology is understandable, but if we are to offer our best arguments, we have to be precise in our language and make necessary distinctions.

Intelligent design arguments typically proceed from the identification of various patterns, information, or statistical probabilities to God’s existence as the best explanation for these features. How do, as Whittaker Chambers asked the question, random physical events lead to the perfect design of the human ear?

Many of these arguments are directed against evolution, but their end goal is really to show that an intelligent agent had to be behind these features. Intelligent design arguments are usually of the form:

  1. The universe exhibits some property that is evidence of design (e.g., information, improbability, hospitality to life, etc.).
  2. Design is always thought to be caused by some intelligence.
  3. Therefore, the best explanation for the evidence is that there exists an intelligent designer (God) who intentionally brought it about.

There are both micro and macro versions of intelligent design arguments, some from things smaller than we can observe by ordinary means (DNA, bacteria, etc.) and some larger (atmosphere, galaxies, etc.). To the extent that any of these things are shown to have some kind of design, they are used as evidence for a designer, and thus, having an intelligent cause.

Telos is the Greek word for “end” or “goal.” A true teleological argument, therefore, looks for purpose in creation—not simply randomly improbable states, information codes, or irreducibly complex systems. Aquinas’s “fifth way” argument, for example, relies on the explanation for goal- or end-directed natures, activities, or properties found in creation. It goes like this:

  1. We see that natural things without knowledge act toward some end (specific goal).
  2. What lacks intelligence is directed to its end by something intelligent.
  3. Therefore, a creator (God) exists who directs these natural things to their end.

Goal-directed systems are accounted for by the existence of an intelligent being who directs that system. Since all created things seem to operate according to some goal (even goals that are not their own, such as those of rocks and protons), the entire universe can be explained only by the existence of an intelligent being beyond creation.

This distinction between intelligent design and the teleological argument is important because the refutation of one is not that of the other. For example, intelligent design arguments are often employed against Darwinian evolution, whereas teleology is not affected by questions about the method the Creator used to create. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) said in regard to the creation narrative in Genesis 2:

The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, which we just heard, does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the “project” of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary—rather than mutually exclusive—realities. (In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Eerdmans, 1995), 50).

Further, while intelligent design arguments are sometimes at the mercy of interpretive statistics and open to such rejoinders as have been levied against William Paley’s famous “watchmaker” argument, teleological arguments (which are philosophical and not scientific or mathematical) are not so vulnerable.

So, when someone like Richard Dawkins makes claims such as, “the teleological argument, sometimes called the Argument from Design . . .  is the familiar ‘watchmaker’ argument, which is surely one of the most superficially plausible bad arguments ever discovered,” he is confusing two completely different arguments.

Nowhere is precision in language more required than when arguing for the existence of God. Small mistakes in language and logic in the beginning of an argument can lead not only to losing an argument but could lead to losing one’s faith.

In the third and final segment of this series, we will see how confusion over ethical claims could weaken otherwise strong arguments to God from morality.

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