Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!
The Teleological Argument
My question concerns what is probably one of the oldest arguments for the existence of God. It is known as the ‘Argument from design, or sometimes called the ‘Teleological argument.’ ( I guess everything has to have a fancy name.) While you can probably get a more detailed explanation of the argument online, in a nutshell what it says is that the universe is too complex and ordered to have ‘just happened.’ Therefore it needs a designer/creator, whom we call God. The classic rebuttal to this argument, usually put forward by atheists, is that if the universe is too complex not to have a creator, (who is presumably even more complex) would also need a creator. (This could then lead to an infinite regress, because then God’s creator would need a creator, and so on.) The reason I ask is, that, while I find the argument kind of compelling, the rebuttal is kind of compelling as well. I wonder is you can help make sense of it.
This question really counts as Philosophy, rather than Theology. The attempt to find rational “proofs for God” started as a philosophical theme for Socrates. It was continued by Plato (Socrates’ student), then Aristotle (Plato’s student). The conversation (okay, heated debate) has continued into modern times within philosophy and has moved into other areas of study, most recently physics.
There are a whole range of arguments that try to logically prove the existence of God: the cosmological, the teleological, the ontological, the moral, and the subjective. Each of these arguments have their critics, with counter-arguments to prove that the proof doesn’t work.
Remember, this is philosophy. There are even branches that will argue about whether it is possible even to ask this question. For example, how can you ask if there is a God if you cannot adequately define the word “God” or even define the word “exist”; or as my systematic theology professor used to say: ‘What is the meaning of “meaning”?’
Also, please note that these “proofs for God” arguments do not necessarily point to the existence of God as defined by Christianity. After all, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all lived before Jesus, and they lived in a polytheistic pagan society. It is fascinating that out of that background, they posed an exercise to try to prove the existence of a supreme being through logic alone.
Today’s question is about the Teleological Proof, also known as the “Argument from Design”. It was named that by William Paley in 1802. He also provided the most commonly used example of the proof (the Watchmaker Analogy):
If you find a watch in the desert, you may logically conclude the existence of a watchmaker.
Basically, the argument is that the universe is so complex that it must have been designed.
As I prepared for this I learned that this “Proof” has become a fresh argument in the arsenal of Creationists; those opposed to the idea of Evolution. They claim that it proves the existence of Intelligent Design, and therefore the possibility of a 7-day creation.
As the question at the top of the page points out, one counter-argument says that if creation is so complex it needs a designer, then that designer is even more complex, and needs another designer, and so on ad infinitum. It becomes the old question: “who created God?”
Another counter-argument, which I prefer points out that we know that a watch in the desert implies a watchmaker because we already know about watches and watchmakers. We have seen examples of both already (I get this: my grandfather was a clock maker who hired several watchmakers and I have met them, which may be a less common experience these days).
However, there is only one universe we have seen. It is not like a watch: we cannot look at a set of universes on the shelf and compare them to ours. Even a theory of existence that posits multiple universes still doesn’t give us a proof for God because we cannot observe the other realities. In other words, when something is unique, like the universe, analogies and comparisons can’t be trusted.
Like the questioner, there’s a part of me that really likes this proof. My family is Scandinavian, and the old Norse theology had a basic understanding that chaos is bad and order is good. Clearly, order needs to be imposed on chaos to benefit people. That attitude did not vanish with the arrival of Christianity. In fact, the first story of creation in Genesis (Ch. 1) has some similar suggestions: we are given a picture of the world being “without form and void”, and God creates order out of this primal chaos.
With that kind of understanding in mind it makes sense that we see order as a sign of a rational mind: chaos is what normally occurs and order is what is imposed by an intelligence.
That’s where the attraction lies in this Proof: an orderly universe suggests an orderly mind creating it. But if you are able to think of a universe that could exist with order and complexity being simply part of it, and not imposed by intelligence, then an orderly mind (or God) is not proven at all.
As for the request to make sense of it: that’s a challenge.
As mentioned, all of the different philosophical “proofs for God” have counter-arguments that are seriously challenging. If you enjoy philosophical debate, this is a great form of entertainment. If you are looking for a convincing proof that you can hold up for others, you will be disappointed.
I used to believe that God did this on purpose. That was when I understood that our salvation depended on what we believed (a very traditional Protestant view). After all, if you could prove that God exists, what is the point of faith? I don’t have to believe in the computer in front of me, I know it exists.
I have since learned that faith is about more than simply believing something: it is about actually trusting; it is about taking what we understand about God and trying to make it work in our lives.
From that perspective, it is irrelevant whether you can or cannot prove whether God exists. We assume that God exists, and move beyond that question to the ones like: what does God want us to do? How does God want us to live?
Of course, that also raises a whole bunch of other questions, like: what is the nature of God? What is the personality of God? What is the will of God?
We had to study the “proofs for God” in our theological training because our professors knew that sooner or later these arguments would come to us simply because we were becoming ministers. It was not because we were expected to be arguing with non-believers and trying to convince them logically that God exists.
I have tried that on a number of occasions. It doesn’t work. People almost never come to faith because of a convincing argument. A “proof for God”, to my knowledge, has never persuaded anyone who wasn’t already thinking along those lines.
When people start to take the idea of God seriously after being unwilling previously, it is generally because they have been impressed or persuaded by the life of someone who has made a difference for them; someone who has identified that their good life has been inspired by their faith.
Intellectually, it will always be possible to argue both sides of the question “does God exist?” because every proof depends on the definitions we choose and the assumptions we make. Someone else will always find a way to challenge those definitions or assumptions, and the debate will continue.
That is simply the nature of philosophy; the nature of human thinking.
Our faith, while it is informed and developed by our understanding, is not simply a matter of intellectual debate or proof. Faith is a matter of deeply held values, of choices in the way we live and treat others.
I enjoy debating ideas. It is a great intellectual workout. Dealing with abstractions can stretch our boundaries and challenge our imagination. But faith is not about abstractions. Faith is about living, and being, and making our ideals real.