apologetics, arguments for God, The Teleological Argument

The Teleological Argument

The “Teleological Argument,” which is also known as the “Argument from Design,”  has been popularized by the Intelligent Design movement, though the version I defend below is cosmological rather than biological.

The Teleological Argument is an inductive argument that doesn’t attempt to prove that God exists, but rather argues to justify or confirm that belief. In other words, it can function much like the Argument from Religious Experience in providing warrant, not proof, for belief. It’s an inductive argument that seeks to increase the probability of theism, not prove it.

Robin Collins wrote the chapter on the Teleological Argument in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, entitled “The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe.” I can honestly say that I only understood about 70-80% of the material. While there is a large amount of hefty philosophical argumentation involved, it was the double-dose of astronomy and physics (things I have an average-at-best understanding of) that kept me from fully understanding this chapter. That said, I think That I understood enough to have the core of the argument intact. Collins argues that the universe has been “fine-tuned” to be a Life-Permitting Universe (LPU). He states that “This fine-tuning falls into three major categories: that of the laws of nature, that of the constants of physics, and that of the intial conditions of the universe…” (BCNT, 202).

I have long been skeptical of the usefulness of the Teleological Argument, but Collins puts forward a rather subdued version, in which he doesn’t loftily claim to prove God’s existence, but rather to state that “…given the fine-tuning evidence, LPU strongly supports T[heism] over the [Naturalistic Single Universe Hypothesis (hereafter referred to as the NSU)]” (205). Thus, instead of arguing that theism is true based on teleology, he argues that naturalism is less likely than theism based on teleology.

Collins pits the “Theistic Hypothesis” (as he calls it, T) against the NSU. He introduces the “Likelihood Principle,” which, in my own stripped down version basically states that if there is some evidence, e in favor of a hypothesis (say, T) over another (NSU), then T is more likely (205). All of this sounds, as I said, very subdued. The Teleological Argument as Collins presents it is not an end-all, be-all argument to convince everyone, but rather seems to be a justification for belief.

Now we must return to the evidence for fine-tuning. As previously stated, this falls into three categories: the laws of nature, the constants of nature, and the intial conditions of the universe (202). The laws or principles of nature that are required for “self-reproducing, highly complex material systems” (211) are 1) a universal attractive force, such as gravity 2) a force similar to the strong nuclear force, 3) a force similar to electromagnetic force, 4) Bohr’s Quantization Rule or something similar (electrons occupy only fixed orbitals [213]), and 5) the Pauli Exclusion Principle (“no two fermions… can occupy the same quantum state” [213]). The reason such things are required is because without #1, things would just float around everywhere, #2 allows for nucleons to stay together, without which it seems obvious there would be no complexity, #3, if it were not true, would mean there were no atoms (for nothing could hold them in orbit [212]), #4 allows electrons to keep energy, and #5 directly allows for complex chemistry (“without this principle, all eelectrons would occupy the lowest atomic orbital…” [213]) (211).

The constants of physics also are essential for an LPU. These include the constant of gravity and the cosmological constant (214, 215). Both of these seem necessary for the existence of life. The cosmological constant, for example, states that when it is positive, it will act as a repulsive force, but when negative, it will act as a negative force. If  this constant had been different than it is, then the universe would have expanded or collapsed too quickly for stars and galaxies to form (215).

Naturalistic alternatives will be lacking. For example, one of the most likely alternatives for the naturalist is to discover some set of laws such that they explain the cosmological constant being what it is. But if this is the case, the naturalist has only pushed the question up one step higher, for now one could ask for an explanation for the fine-tuning of such a law. Another problem is that, as always, it seems the naturalist is assuming that an explanation will be discovered (219). There are a few problems with this in itself. One is that it is an argument to the future, which is a logical fallacy. One cannot simply state that one’s position is correct by stating that one day it will be demonstrated. Further, the naturalist may claim the theist has now created a “God of the gaps.” This is another fallacious way to attempt to argue against the theist. As stated before, the assumption that science will one day fill in every gap is a fallacy: argument to the future. Naturalists create their own “science of the gaps” in which they assume every gap will be filled by science. Another problem is that in order for the naturalist’s objection “God of the gaps” to work, it must carry weight for the theist, lest it be question-begging in nature. Yet there is no plausible way that, given theism, appealing to God for explanation of some concept should be ruled out a priori. Thus, the naturalist begs the question in objecting in a “God of the gaps” fashion. Further, such an objection as the “God of the gaps” is question begging in that they assume the theist is proposing theism as a scientific hypothesis. This is not the case. The theist is proposing God as a metaphysical and philosophical explanation, not a scientific one (225). Not only that, but if, for example, there is some theory of everything yet to be discovered, this would only push the fine-tuning up one level, and the naturalist would have to explain the existence of this theory of everything. The Teleological Argument doesn’t lose weight in light of such objections.

The Teleological Argument Collins brings forward is (my very summed up version, though all of the following are direct quotes):

“1) Given the fine-tuning evidence, LPU is very, very epistemically unlikely under NSU…

2) Given the fine-tuning evidence, LPU is not unlikely under theism…

3) Theism was advocated prior to the fine-tuning evidence (and has independent motivation)

4) Therefore, by the restricted version of the Likelihood Principle, LPU strongly supports Theism over NSU (207)”

The first premise is one that should not really be all that heavily debated. Just as one example, the cosmological constant is fine tuned to about 1 part in 10^120 (Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig, 159). There are many other constants that have such unfathomably small likelihood of occurring. The difference is in how one explains this. Some argue for brute fact (it just is), but others argue based on the multiverse hypothesis.

Collins argues in various ways against the multiverse hypothesis scientifically. I will present my own argument, which is philosophical in nature. If our universe is one of many (perhaps infinitely many), then a number of logical problems arise. One is the problem of discovery. If we are granting naturalism, then how do we scientifically discover these other universes, if, based on the multiverse hypothesis, we cannot? Not only that, but there are modal problems with the multiverse hypothesis. Given an infinite number of universes that exist, then it seems highly likely there are other “J.W. Wartick”s in these universes. But there would likely be a far greater number in which there is no “J.W. Wartick” (much to the chagrin of the inhabitants!). If this is the case, then I simultaneously exist and do not exist, which is contradictory. But, it could be argued, these other “J.W. Wartick”s are not actually me, they are alternate mes in entirely different universes! This only introduces other problems, such as identity.

This problem is another discovery problem, but this one does not exist in a scientific sense but a philosophical one. How, for example, do we identify these other universes? How do we discover their properties? How do we infer any truths about our universe if, as stated just before, they are entirely different universes, and one cannot say that there are two “J.W. Wartick”s out there? In other words, if we state that the problem of “J.W. Wartick” existing and not existing isn’t a problem because these universes are not our own and are entirely different, how then do we derive knowledge of our own unverse from these hypothetical universes in the sense that we infer that our own universe isn’t all that unlikely given that we are one in infinite (or a great many)? One cannot have it both ways.

Others modify the multiverse hypothesis to say that there really aren’t infinite universes out there, but rather only those with laws similar to our own, selected by a sort of naturalistic machine that determines which universes are and are not possible. But if this is the case, then we have again only shifted the problem of our own existence from one point on the ladder to another. What determines this “machine” that selects universes non-arbitrarily (for it must not be arbitrary if we are using it to try to explain apparent fine-tuning)? Thus, this hypothesis doesn’t solve anything.

Then there is what Collins calls the “Weak Anthropic Principle objection.” I believe this is the claim Dawkins was making that I analyzed in another post. Collins writes, “According to the weak verson of the so-called Anthropic Principle, if the laws of nature were not fine-tuned, we should not be here to comment on the fact. Some have argued, therefore, that LPU is not really improbable or surprising at all under NSU, but simply follows from the fact that we exist” (277). There are a few problems with this, as I pointed out in the post I linked with Dawkins (such as the claim that such a thing is necessarily true that is implicit). But there are even more problems. The first is the argument could simply be restated to argue that our existence as embodied moral agents is extremely unlikely under NSU, but not under theism (277).

More convincing, however, is an example:

Imagine that I am standing to be executed, with 50 sharpshooters ready to fire at me. They fire, and they all miss. Would my response really be, “if they had not missed me, I would not be here to consider the fact?” Such a response is inadequate. One would almost be forced to conclude that there was some reason they all missed, given the background information that had the intention been to kill me, they almost certainly would have killed me (276).

Thus, such a dismissal of the evidence as Dawkins performs misses the mark (pun slightly intended).

Brute Fact must similarly be discareded as an explanation. Dr. Parrish argues in his book God and Necessity (which I recently read and discussed) that Brute Fact is logically undercut as an explanation for a number of reasons. These include that the Brute Fact hypothesis states explicitly that everything is random. If this is the case, then there should be no laws to observe, and, in fact, things should randomly be happening constantly. But Brute Fact proponents may argue that everything was random, but once it started, it was determined (God and Necessity, Stephen E. Parrish, 189).  This, however, ignores the fact that relationships, in Brute Fact, are completely random. There is no reason to believe that, for example, a law should continue to operate how it does, even if we can observe it for a great deal of time doing so. Further, if such things were set in place upon being randomly selected by Brute Facy randomness, there are two major probelms. The first is that Brute Fact has no way to explain why such things should become determined upon selection, and the second is that even if one could get around this first problem, there remains no way to explain why it should always be the case. If everything is random, then everything is random, necessarily. There can be no constants.

Thus, it seems as though theism is the best way to explain the fine-tuning of the universe. Multiverse hypotheses fail in that they have scientific (which I did not discuss) and logical problems. Brute Fact can’t account for constants. Finally, just saying that we are here to observe the universe doesn’t do anything to undermine questions that ask Why are we here, and not somewhere else, or nowhere?

I don’t believe the Teleological Argument proves God exists, but it does add a significant amount of warrant to the belief that He does.


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.


About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.


9 thoughts on “The Teleological Argument

  1. I bought this book

    Posted by Thomas G.Haas | December 8, 2009, 5:34 AM
  2. Hi, JW. Since you’re writing about natural theology, I’m wondering if you have studied natural law too? There’s an excellent book I’m reading (don’t ask me how many books I’m reading right now, I don’t even know): 50 Questions on the Natural Law, by Dr. Charles Rice. Interesting stuff. Fascinating. You might like it too. 🙂

    Posted by Disciple | December 10, 2009, 4:10 AM
  3. Just to let you know, I’ve responded (briefly) to your comment on my blog – not much in it, but hope it clears up a few issues!

    Posted by Calum Miller | February 21, 2012, 9:44 PM
  4. I think you’ll find that the cosmological constant is fine-tuned to the accuracy of 1 in 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 123. In other words, it is 1 part in a number that would look like 1 followed by 10 to the power of 123 zeroes, which cannot be written!

    Posted by Anonymous | October 21, 2014, 2:31 AM


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