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Does God exist? The teleological argument.

Updated on August 1, 2012

The world as a watch.

The existence of God: it is one of the central and most pressing musings of mankind. Some of the best minds in philosophy, religion, and science have contributed to the discussion, and we are left with an impressive corpus of arguments for and against God's existence. One of the most famous of these arguments, and perhaps the one most popular today, is called the teleological argument.

This argument has been around in some form or another since ancient Greece, but it was famously codified by Thomas Aquinas as one of his five ways of proving God's existence. An 18th-century philosopher and Christian apologist named William Paley (that's him in the picture over there) took over from Aquinas and gave the argument its most famous formulation: the so-called "Watchmaker God." This lens will cover the structure and development of the teleological argument, as well as presenting some of the criticism it has received.

(Image credit:


So, you're probably wondering just what "teleological" means. Well, the root of the word comes from the ancient Greek word telos, which means goal or purpose. A teleological explanation of the world, then, is one in which a purpose is ascribed to everything. If we ask, "why did Ted die," the teleologist will not hear, "what set of circumstances caused Ted's death," but rather, "what purpose did Ted's death serve?" The teleological argument for God's existence attempts to show that the world has been deliberately designed, and that everything in the world serves some purpose in that design. Sometimes this is also called the "argument from design."

God as a watchmaker.

The most famous formulation of the teleological argument comes from William Paley in his 1802 treatise Natural Theology. It goes something like this:

Paley asks you to imagine a pocket watch. Imagine all the teeny little gears and levers clicking smoothly away, and the hands that sweep across the face at different rates to show the exact time. Now Paley asks you how that watch came to be. You answer that obviously, it was designed and built by a watchmaker. Paley asks you how you know that. You respond, "Well, just look at this thing! There's a zillion tiny little pieces that all fit together in this exact way and move just so, and somehow all those pieces are working together to tell me what time it is."

The watch is complex and orderly, you say. If you took just one piece out of it, it would stop working. If it hadn't been put together in precisely this arrangement, it would be a worthless heap of junk. And most importantly: it serves a purpose. It keeps time. So of course we know that a watchmaker built it: it's far too complex to have simply arisen by accident, and it demonstrates a clear purpose.

Paley then comes at you like, "Alright, wise guy. Isn't the world more complex than a stupid pocket watch?" And you're like, "Indeed it is." Then he's all like, "Well, look: we knew someone designed that watch because it was complex. But take a look at the world, and all of the plants and animals and everything else in it. It is ridiculously complex, much more so than the watch. So how can we deny that the world was designed? How can we deny that God designed this world, when there's no way that something this immense and complex just threw itself together by accident?"

(Image credit: Katherine Johnson)

A variation: the fine-tuned universe.

A variation of the teleological argument is introduced in 1913 by chemist Lawrence Joseph Henderson. This new argument refers to a "fine-tuned universe," and goes something like this: if some of the universe's physical laws and constraints were just the tiniest bit different than they are, the conditions in which life could be sustained would never manifest.

This is essentially an argument from improbability. The physical framework that governs the natural world seems to be precisely tuned in order to allow for life. It is so improbable that these conditions would obtain by accident, proponents say, that this "fine-tuning" of the universe points to the existence of a creator. This version of the teleological argument would later become the cornerstone of the intelligent design movement in the United States.

The birth of Darwinism.

When Paley's argument was introduced in 1802 it didn't meet a lot of structured opposition. At that time there just wasn't an alternative explanation for the world's order and complexity. Enter British naturalist Charles Darwin. His epochal 1859 book On the Origin of Species pretty much ushered in modern biology single-handedly.

Darwin explained the dazzling diversity of life on Earth with a theory called natural selection. According to this new view, genetic mutations (which occur all the time) were more likely to be passed on to future generations if they aided in the organism's survival. Meaning that the gazelle who was born with a super-speedy gene had a lot better chance of letting some cheetah eat his buddy instead of him. In this way, new traits and complexities proliferate as they are validated by nature's ultimate test: the so-called "survival of the fittest."

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Design versus natural selection.

In the 20th century, a schism arose between those who accepted the teleological argument and those who accepted Darwin's view of gradual evolution through natural selection. In fact, today evolutionary biology and Abrahamic theism are often presented as an irreconcilable dichotomy - you must choose one or the other!

Which side are you on?

See results

Hume's objection.

One of the major objections to the teleological argument comes from 18th-century philosopher David Hume (although he predates Paley, and thus was not responding specifically to the watchmaker analogy). Hume said that any analogy between the universe and a manmade object is problematic. We know a watch is designed by an intelligent creator because we've seen it happen a thousand times. We have a mountain of historical evidence that confirms that pocket watches are often - perhaps always - created by watchmakers.

We can't extend this analogy to the universe, Hume says, because not once have we witnessed the creation of a universe. So we don't know if universes usually arise naturally or if they are deliberately created. Furthermore, he noted that we have only seen a very small part of the universe. The Earth may seem orderly to us, but perhaps the rest of the vast universe is a chaotic mess! We just can't make confident pronouncements concerning the entire universe based on our experiences here on our tiny corner of it called Earth.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Read it for yourself!

If you are looking for more information on the teleological argument, I highly recommend you check out this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In fact, I recommend checking out that website anytime you want to do some serious learnin' without having to pay a dime!

If you want to read some of books mentioned in this lens (and some that weren't), check out the links below.

Selected Philosophical Writings (Oxford World's Classics)
Selected Philosophical Writings (Oxford World's Classics)

This anthology contains Aquinas' "five ways," which includes his formulation of the teleological argument.

Natural Theology (Oxford World's Classics)
Natural Theology (Oxford World's Classics)

This is William Paley's 1802 book in which he advances the watchmaker analogy.

On the Origin of Species (Oxford World's Classics)
On the Origin of Species (Oxford World's Classics)

Darwin's monumental text introducing his theory of evolution.

Dialogues and Natural History of Religion
Dialogues and Natural History of Religion

This volume contains Hume's "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion," in which he presents his criticism of the teleological argument.

Blind Watchmaker
Blind Watchmaker

This book by Richard Dawkins represents one of the most recent and most caustic attacks on the argument from design.


Did you know about the teleological argument before reading this page? Have any thoughts or questions? Did I leave out anything important? Let me hear it!

Have your say.

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    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 

      5 years ago

      I was familiar with this argument. I'd like to see you flesh out this description some more.

      Natural Selection is not a mechanism for developing new species. It is only a mechanism for eliminating species that are no longer viable. Natural Selection cannot increase genetic information. It can only eliminate it. For new species to arise, the creation of new genetic information is a compelling requirement.

      Obviously, we cannot observe the creation of universes. Nor can we observe the blind chance that Dawkins claims. But until someone comes up with a WORKING mechanism for creating new and viable genetic information (not mutations that decrease survivability), Dawkins' perspective has no traction.

    • JJNW profile image


      6 years ago from USA

      You present the information very well. Interesting!

    • intermarks profile image


      6 years ago

      I have no idea whether the God really exist, but to me, if you believe in it, it will be there for you.


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