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Argument from design

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It would have to mean that the designer of this plan was unbelievably lazy and inept, or unbelievably callous. And cruel. And indifferent. And capricious. And that is the case with every argument for design, and every argument for revelation and intervention, that has ever been made.
Christopher Hitchens, on what by necessity follows from all arguments from design[1]

The argument from design, also known as the teleological argument, is an argument for the existence of God (or life-engineering aliens) that may be summarized as follows: When I see a complex object such as a watch, I know it has been designed: therefore, when I see a complex object such as a tiger, I should infer that it has been designed. This act of comparing two objects and drawing similar conclusions based on similarities (while ignoring important differences) is a prime example of a false analogy.



In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. ... There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. ... Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.
—William Paley[2]

It is commonplace to associate the argument from design with William Paley, so much so that it is often referred to as "Paley's argument" or "Paley's watch". However, the argument is not original with him: by the time he wrote his version, the argument had been advanced by the naturalist and clergyman John Ray, and by William Derham, Fellow of the Royal Society and author of The Artificial Clockmaker, both of whom got their argument from Cicero; the argument from design had also been discussed critically by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

It is equally an error to charge Paley with plagiarism on this count: he was writing about an opinion so widely known in his time that it was not necessary for him to disclaim originality; and it is not his fault that subsequent generations have tended to give him the credit for the argument. Indeed the argument from design dates back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas among Christians, and as mentioned earlier pagans like Cicero had made it long before him too.


Richard Swinburne'sWikipedia argument may be more properly termed an "argument from order", but relies on the same premises as an argument from design. Swinburne writes:

Now there are two reasons why human beings produce order. One is aesthetic—beauty comes in the patterns of things, such as dances and songs. Some sort of order is a necessary condition of phenomena having beauty; complete chaos is just ugly—although of course not any order is beautiful. The second reason why a human being produces order is that when there is order he or other rational agents can perceive that order and utilize it to achieve ends. If we see that there is a certain pattern of order in phenomena we can then justifiably predict that that order will continue, and that enables us to make predictions about the future on which we can rely. A librarian puts books in an alphabetical order of authors in order that he and users of the library who come to know that the order is there may subsequently be able to find any book in the library very quickly (because, given knowledge of the order, we can predict whereabouts in the library any given book will be).

God has similar reasons for producing an orderly, as opposed to a chaotic universe. In so far as some sort of order is a necessary condition of beauty, and it is a good thing—as it surely is—that the world be beautiful rather than ugly, God has reason for creating an orderly universe. Secondly, I shall argue in Chapter 10 that it is good that God should make finite creatures with the opportunity to grow in knowledge and power. Now if creatures are going consciously to extend their control of the world, they will need to know how to do so. There will need to be some procedures which they can find out, such that if they follow those procedures, certain events will occur. This entails the existence of temporal order. There can only be such procedures if the world is orderly, and, I should add, there can only be such procedures ascertainable by men if the order of the world is such as to be discernible by men.

To take a simple example, if hitting things leads to them breaking or penetrating other things, and heating things leads to them melting, men can discover these regularities and utilize them to make artifacts such as houses, tables, and chairs. They can heat iron ore to melt it to make nails, hammers, and axes, and use the latter to break wood into the right shapes to hammer together with nails to make the artifacts. Or, if light and other electro-magnetic radiation behave in predictable ways comprehensible by men, men can discover those ways and build telescopes and radio and television receivers and transmitters. A world must evince the temporal order exhibited by laws of nature if men are to be able to extrapolate from how things have behaved in the past, to how they will behave in the future, which extrapolation is necessary if men are to have the knowledge of how things will behave in the future, which they must have in order to be able to extend their control over the world.[3]

Swinburne's argument relies on God wanting humans to exist as humans exist now, with the ability to conduct science. There's no reason given for this. It's entirely possible that God wanted another entity to exist, and humans are just an unfortunate byproduct; given how little of the universe is habitable to humans, this appears much more probable.


Then I start thinking — wait, the ‘big bang’. For a ‘big bang’ to create all this is more wild to think about than thinking about there being a God. Imagine putting a bunch of gold into a box, shaking up the box, and out comes a Rolex. It’s so preposterous once people start saying it.
—noted evolutionary biologist/cosmologist Justin Bieber[4]

The argument from design was quickly adopted by creationists as part of their arsenal to toss out during a Gish Gallop but it has found its true home with the intelligent design movement. ID's whole argument is one giant argument from design (and incredulity); its core claims such as irreducible complexity are nothing more than Paley recast in modern genetics.


Most people who use an argument from design will simply assume that, because something looks designed, it is. There are some more developed forms of the argument, however:

Irreducible complexity[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Irreducible complexity

Irreducible complexity argues that there are some things which are so complicated that they could not have evolved or randomly occurred, and therefore a creator must exist. No mathematical or scientific definitions of irreducible complexity have yet been offered, and all examples have been found to have entirely natural explanations.

Argument from fine tuning[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Argument from fine tuning

The argument from fine tuning asserts that the possibility of life coming into existence is so incredibly low that an intervening actor must have caused it, ignoring the evolutionary nature of life and the hostility of the universe.

Argument from beauty[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Argument from beauty

The argument from beauty asserts that the world is so beautiful that it could not have been caused by chance, ignoring the evolutionary origins of beauty.

Problems with the above[edit]

Paley's argument and the march of science[edit]

Now that the courts have protected Americans (at least for the moment) from the inculcation of compulsory "creationist" stupidity in the classroom, we can echo that other great Victorian Lord MacaulayWikipedia and say that "every schoolchild knows" that Paley had put his creaking, leaking cart in front of his wheezing and broken-down old horse. Fish do not have fins because they need them for the water, any more than birds are equipped with wings so that they can meet the dictionary definition of an "avian." (Apart from anything else, there are too many flightless species of birds.) It is exactly the other way about: a process of adaptation and selection.
—Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything[5]

The argument from design, used as an argument for the existence of a creator, may have been useful to theists in Paley's day, but is utterly futile in the hands of modern creationists.

Paley and other theists argued that the appearance of design shows the existence of a designer, addressing his arguments to people who knew of only one cause for the appearance of design, namely a designer.

The creationist, on the other hand, argues that the appearance of design shows the existence of a designer, addressing his arguments to people who know of two possible causes for the appearance of design, namely: the existence of a designer, and evolution by random mutation and natural selection.

Take the particular example given by Paley of the resemblance between the eye and a telescope, for example. It is no use arguing that the eye resembles a telescope and so must have been specially designed for that purpose when talking to someone who understands the evolution of the eye.

To draw a parallel, people used to know about fire as a source of heat and light, but not about nuclear fusion as a cause of these same two effects: and so in those days people quite sensibly based their reasoning on the idea that the Sun was a fire, since it resembled one. We might call this the Argument from Fire. But it would be foolish for someone living today to say: "We know that fire produces heat and light: therefore the Sun is on fire: therefore the Sun is not powered by nuclear fusion."

Not only has biology moved on since Paley's day - so has design. It is now commonplace among engineers, computer scientists, and mathematicians not to design complex structures, but rather to hand the problem over to a computer which simulates the processes of reproduction, mutation, and selection to produce a design fit for a given task. Paley in his day could point to a man-made object such as a telescope, and say "It is complex, so it had a designer". Today, even looking at an object we know to be man-made, we cannot make that inference. To resume the parallel with nuclear fusion, the creationists' use of the Argument from Design is like continuing to use the Argument from Fire - even after nuclear fusion has been produced artificially in the laboratory.


Transitional "turnip" form

Argument from design also fails on another level: it assumes that evidence of design is an objective quality obvious to all viewers. In reality, the ability to discern design is largely a function of familiarity and cultural context. Paley's "watchmaker" analogy presupposes that anyone finding a complex man-made object would immediately conclude that it was designed; however, there have been cases where observers from cultures unfamiliar with such objects have concluded that they were natural, such as flint tools found in Europe during the 17th century.[6] Not to mention the multitude of phenomena we now know are natural, but which in the past were explained through intelligent design or benevolent creation, such as the Giant's CausewayWikipedia, the rock upon which the Kyaiktiyo PagodaWikipedia has been built, or the numerous legends explaining how various glacial erraticsWikipedia ended up in their current positions.

To illustrate: when you walk through the woods and see a watch, you recognize it as designed not because of its complexity or by contrasting it with the surrounding nature, but because you have seen other watches and all of those watches have, to your knowledge, been engineered by people. It is also clearly not safe to judge whether or not an object is designed purely by its complexity. A perfectly smooth perfect sphere is an extremely simple shape. However, if you found a perfectly smooth perfectly spherical wooden ball in the woods, you would recognize it as most likely not having arisen naturally, but rather having been carved and sanded into that shape.

The watchmaker analogy, when used in combination with comparison to nature, also fails in that it is self-refuting. If you recognize that a watch is designed because it is more complex than nature, but then you recognize that nature must be designed because it is actually much more complex than a watch, you then have a contradiction (is the watch more complex than nature or nature more complex than a watch?). In the case where you don't recognize a watch is complex by comparing it to nature but rather you know that watches are designed, you have an argument that is really nothing more than a set of unjustified assertions (A is complex, A is designed, B is more complex than A, therefore B is designed). How exactly do we define "complexity"? Is "complexity" really a good indicator of something being designed? Is it possible for a simple system to naturally become more "complex" over time?

Humans also tend to assume deliberate agency is involved in many situations where it is not - this evidences a survival technique: the extra cost of assuming many non-sentient things in the world might actually be sentient and plotting to harm you can outweigh the cost of death should you incorrectly not make that assumption even once. This manifests today when people are afraid of "bumps in the night", or, more humorously, when people yell at their computers for failure to function as they wish.

The analogy also fails due to being extremely reductive; a watch does not just imply a watchmaker, instead being the culmination of many generations of craftspeople and inventors working in a great many fields (gears, smelting, springs, time-keeping, mathematics, measurement, machine tools...), the watch simply being the final link (to date) in a chain or a web of uninterrupted, progressively different devices - each adapted to specific demands (sound familiar?). Indeed, if the same logic is used but the device found is scaled up to the point no single human could hope to build such a device in one lifetime (say, an aircraft carrier) one would have to conclude within the analogy that the machine was the result of divine creation, since clearly no single mortal creator could have made it. This would presumably make it the work of double God.

Most design arguments mangle real technology in a similar way: for example, a modern steel mill could be demonstrated to be the work of a divine being because parts of the mill are made from steel, but making steel requires a steel mill. The creationist argument would be that the mill must have been created by a God who could pull steel from the netherverse, and this would obviously be a much better explanation than there being some earlier and more primitive method of steel-making that did not require steel parts, because they said so.

Put all that back into a Paley-style counter-analogy: a watch results from one or more generations of artificers chanting the magick formulaWikipedia: "Let there be a sundialWikipedia."[7]

Aesop on the argument from design[edit]

Even assuming that the quality of design is objective and obvious to all viewers, a third weakness in the argument from design is the premise that the life-forms that exist have some degree of "perfection" only attainable if they were designed. There is a fable from Aesop illustrating the dubiousness of this notion.

The fable was set at a time when the Greek pantheon were busy about the work of creation. Zeus had made the first man, Poseidon the first bull, and Athena the first house. They could not agree as to which of these creations were the best, so they called in Momus,Wikipedia the literal god of snark, as a judge. Momus made the following judgments:

  • Zeus's man was not good, because his heart had not been placed outside his body to allow others to read his evil intents.
  • Poseidon's bull was not good, because its horns had not been set below its eyes so it could see where to strike.
  • Athena's house was not good, because it was not a mobile home and could not be moved away from disagreeable neighbors.

Creationists would probably be inclined to do what Zeus did just then: remove Momus's right to judge and kick him out.

Occam's Razor[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Occam's razor

In The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins writes:

But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as the machine itself. Far more so if we suppose him additionally capable of such advanced functions as listening to prayers and forgiving sins. To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like "God was always there", and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say "DNA was always there", or "Life was always there", and be done with it.

To say that that the undoubtedly complex Designer doesn't need to be designed is to invalidate the very premise of the argument (it makes use of the fallacy of Special pleading, in other words): that complex things must have designer(s). If one can imagine something complex that doesn't have to have been designed, as proponents of this argument would believe, then who's to say that anything complex needs to have a designer? If taken in tandem with the Kalām argument, we have something complex that didn't need to have been designed because it didn't begin to exist (the Designer). However, since the Kalām argument is invalid, it does nothing to further the case for a Designer, so this argument must be taken on its own--and it doesn't hold up to rigorous analysis.

Lack of perfection[edit]

An allegory: two carbon dioxide molecules are exhaled out of a person. They look back [...] and marvel at this amazing creation that was created specifically for the purpose of breathing out carbon dioxide.

Another argument against design is the lack of perfection which we see in living things. If each one was designed by a perfect god then we would expect each one to be a perfect example of whatever it was. We would expect human vision to be well designed. What we would not expect to find would be life showing evidence of evolution such as vestigial organs.

Nevertheless, when we look closely, we find imperfect evolved designs and not perfectly created or ones which show evidence of divine tinkering. (For example, what are male nipples for - if they were designed by a wise God, and aren’t just an accidental byproduct of blind evolution, they must have a purpose?)

Backwards causation?[edit]

An additional problem with the teleological argument can arise from a reductio ad absurdum concerning things like early human tools. If we come across a spear, which is in its simplest form a rigid shaft with some sort of point at the end, or a hammer, which is in its simplest form some sort of weight, perhaps fixed to a handle, or a flint knife, which is in its simplest form a sharp edge with varying degrees of curvature, the likelihood that the argument inverts the causal chain becomes apparent. Spears and knives broadly resemble the teeth and claws of the animals, predator or prey, that primitive humans would have encountered and struggled with. Hammers are analogous to large fists, accounting for the fact that stone is both more replaceable and less vulnerable than human hands attempting to exert blunt force in pursuit of the same objective. The tendency to incorporate principles like this into the design of our own tools, in recognition of the benefits that large canines or claws or reinforced fists might provide, speaks only to a human capacity for synthetic judgment based on our experience of the world - we don't have large canines or claws, and our fists have serious limitations, but we can emulate these features and gain many of the benefits they provide. It also speaks to the recognition in that synthetic judgment of humans' actually being able to use said tools - that a spear, knife or hammer fits the human hand well only reflects that it was designed by human users for human use. Nature is not so ergonomic - we have to modify sticks and rocks from their natural shapes to be able to use them effectively. The argument from design thus fundamentally imputes to the universe exactly the same processes of synthetic judgment that we make ourselves, making it an egregious sort of anthropomorphismWikipedia.


  1. Beaver dams may appear to exhibit design.
  2. The design of beaver dams implies a designer.
  3. Ergo, the designer/Creator-God is a beaver.

(Detection of flawed logic left as an exercise for the reader.)

External links[edit]

See also[edit]


  2. Natural Theology (1802)
  3. Richard Swinburne, The Argument From Design, from The Existence of God, ISBN 9780199271689
  5. Page 78-79.
  6. Matthew R. Goodrum, Questioning Thunderstones and Arrowheads: The Problem of Recognizing and Interpreting Stone Artifacts in the Seventeenth Century, Early Science and Medicine 13 (2008) 482-50
  7. Compare Genesis 1:3-14 - "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. [...] Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons [...]."