Design argument for the existence of God

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A design argument (or argument from design, teleological argument) is an a posteriori (empirical) argument for the existence of a god or gods. Design arguments typically claim that there is some feature of the world that either demands or makes more likely the existence of a designer.


The term "design" can be used to refer either to pattern or to purpose. In the former case, a design argument is concerned with the notion that the world, or part of the world, is ordered as opposed to being disorderly or chaotic, and that this requires an orderer. In the latter case, a design argument is concerned with the notion that the world, or part of the world, has some end or purpose, and thus requires a source of that purpose.

Three strands or versions of the design argument can be distinguished (though they are rarely found completely in isolation from each other):

  • The pure strand — this argues that the world contains some design.
  • The qualitative strand — this argues that the world contains a great deal of design (or more design than might be expected).
  • The qualitative (usually biocentric, or even anthropocentric) strand — this argues that the world contains a spcific sort of design — usually involving the existence of life (especially human life).


The argument has traditionally been known either as the teleological argument or the argument from design. the former name has become less common, partly as a result of a move away from Latinate terminology, but partly because it is strictly relevant only to one kind of design argument: the claim that the world has some end or purpose. "Teleological" comes from the Greek language "telos" ("end", "completion", "fulfilment").

The term "argument from design" has largely been abandoned because it can be taken to beg the question: it assumes that we start from the fact of design, whereas the design argument looks at aspects of the world and argues that they are in fact instances of (intentional) design. Different philosophers have suggested different alternative names: for example, Antony Flew calls it the argument to design,[1] while J.L. Mackie calls it the argument for design.[2]

The traditional argument

The design argument can be traced back at least as far as Cicero:

"The first point, Lucilius then said, does not seem to even need discussion, for what can be clearer and more obvious, when we have lifted our eyes to the sky, and have gazed upon the heavenly bodies, than that there exists some divine power of exalted intelligence by which these are ruled?"[3]

Although William Paley wrote after David Hume had presented most of the key criticisms of the argument, it is his version that is probably best known. He imagines crossing a heath and finding first a stone and then a watch; if asked how they came to be there, his answer concerning the stone would be that it might always have been there, but that would seem absurd as an answer concerning the watch. The difference is that the watch is made up of parts "so framed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day."[4]

Paley then lists a series of what might seem to be pre-emptive responses to criticism of the design argument, but which clearly have in mind criticisms such as those of Hume. He concludes that to deny that the watch was not the product of intention and skill is atheism:

"This is atheism: for 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 and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. I mean that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtility, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety; yet, in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect productions of human ingenuity."[5]

That is, Paley is arguing that the universe is like a watch in having all the signs of a skilful contrivance created for a purpose, and that like a watch we are entitled to infer the existence of a watchmaker.

Hume's discussion

The fine-tuning argument


  1. See, for example, his God and Philosophy (London: Hutchinson, 1966).
  2. See his The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).
  3. De Natura Deorum II
  4. Paley, p.2
  5. Paley, pp 17–18


  • John Barrow & Frank Tipler The Anthropic Cosmological Principle
  • Cicero De natura deorum translated by Francis Brooks as On the Nature of the Gods. London: Methuen, 1896. On-line text from The Online Library of Liberty.
  • David Hume Dialogues concerning Natural Religion
  • Peter J. King "The Design Argument" [PDF] (chapter of work in progress)
  • John Leslie [ed.] Physical Cosmology and Philosophy
  • Ernan McMullin [ed.]Evolution and Creation. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985. ISBN 0-268-00917-1
  • Neil A. Manson [ed.] God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science. London: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-26344-1
  • William Paley The Works of William Paley, Volume 4: Natural Theology, edited by E. Paley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1838.
  • William Paley "Natural Theology". On-line text from The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online