Two famous arguments

There are many arguments for and against the existence of God.  Some are very technical.  Here we look at two: the argument from design, also called the teleological argument, and the argument from evil.  The former tries to establish the existence of God; the latter tries to disprove it.  There are objections and counter-objections to each argument. 


The Teleological Argument

The teleological argument is based on the notion of telos, the end for which something has a certain structure. One must distinguish between order and design:

·       Order, which is mere pattern, as in snowflakes or in the structure of the solar system that so impressed Newton.  Newton claimed that the facts that the planets in the solar system (he knew Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) move in the same direction and are on the same plane provide good evidence for the hand of God, as the chance of that coming about by mere mechanical means is virtually nil.  However, apart from the fact that Newton got his “facts” rather wrong, today we believe that the solar system resulted from the gravitational collapse of a rotating cloud of interstellar dust and gas, resulting in the sun and the planets.  Neither snowflakes nor the solar system require the direct intervention of a deity.

·       Design, which is the use of order for some end, as in the human eye, whose function is to allow us to see.


The argument aims at showing that design is an aspect of the natural world.  Traditionally, there are two versions of the argument, physical, applied to some broad physical feature of the world, and biological, applied to the design displayed by living organisms.


The biological version of the teleological argument

Its most famous version is in W. Paley’s Natural Theology (1802). The basic ideas behind the argument are

·       that organs have functions in the economy of organisms

·       that morphology and physiology are instrumental to the performance of that function

So, the eye is made thus and so because of the function it performs; in other words, it shows design.

The argument now considers the question of how an organ, e.g., the human eye, came about; to make things clear Paley uses an analogy with a watch.

The watch analogy

Paley also notes that the argument is cumulative: the eye shows design, and so does the ear, etc.


Problems for the argument


Darwin's theory of natural selection provides a better explanation of the design living systems seem to display, the principal focus of Paley's argument. Darwin explicitly addresses the question: How could complex organs be the product of evolution? Answer: They can be result of small modifications, each favorable, through a very long period of time. Example, eye starting with nerves which are light sensitive. This addresses the issue of irreducible complexity (the all or nothing objection) advanced by Paley with respect to the eye.  In short, the argument from design forgets that there are really three options: chance, design, and evolution.
In addition, evolution explains facts like vestigial organs (e.g. underdeveloped hind legs in whales or the tailbone in humans) and homologies (as in the forelimbs of vertebrates –why do bat wings, human forearms, and dolphin ‘fins’ have the same bone structure?) that a species-creationist story cannot really explain.


New versions of the teleological argument from Behe have just added new examples (flagella, clotting systems, etc.) and claimed that they display irreducible complexity.  Opponents have answered by providing many possible evolutionary accounts focusing on preadaptation and the denial of irreducible complexity.

NOTE: Evolution cannot produce irreducible complexity by accretion; however, evolution could explain cases of irreducible complexity by the taking away of parts. Indeed natural arches with keystones do occur even without evolution at work.


Of course, a perfect god could have chosen evolution to bring about us as this precise point in the evolutionary history of our planet.  For example, God could have wanted to make the development of life intelligible to us.  Hence, one can be a theist and an evolutionist.  If one is a follower of the Abrahamic god then there is the problem of the account in Genesis which geology and biology tell us to be false (birds and whales (1:21) are created before reptiles and insects (1:24), and flowering plants (1:11) are created before any animals (1:20), while the geological record shows the opposite).

There are interesting ways of dealing with these problems that are available to the theist -for example, one could say that Genesis is not about biology at all but about God and our relation with Him.



The physical version of the Teleological Argument

This is an old version of the argument that received new impetus with the scientific revolution. For example, Newton adopted what might be called a teleological fine tuning argument, claiming that the facts that

  1. the giant Jupiter and Saturn are not too close to the Earth to disturb its orbit, a necessary requirement for the sustenance of life on our planet
  2. the Earth is no too close and not too far from the Sun to have life

show design towards the preservation of life, because the likelihood of (1) and (2) happening by chance is very small.  The telos the goal of the design, here is the existence of (intelligent) life.



We now know that the solar system has been violently perturbed, that the young Earth was bombarded by meteorites, and that life on Earth has undergone five mass extinctions, all of which militates against intelligent design of the solar system aimed at producing, and presumably preserving, life.


Today those in favor of this sort of argument don’t think in terms of the solar system by in terms of the laws of physics.  In physics there are several independent dimensionless physical constants, such as the charge of the electron and Plank’s constant.  Here’s the basic argument, a modern version of the fine tuning argument:

  1. The world contains intelligent life
  2. It seems likely that life is possible at all only if these constants have a relatively small number of values, call it ‘V’
  3. V could come about only either by chance or by some process, or by intelligent design
  4. The likelihood of V happening by chance is vanishingly small
  5. There’s no consensus on any process resulting in V. 
  6. Hence, V came about by intelligent design.




In short, it is not the sort of plan one would expect from a very intelligent god, much less from a perfect one. 


As usual there are counter-objections and counter-counter-objections.  Ultimately, however, the main problem for this argument is that we know too little about the number and relations of the ‘basic’ constants of physical laws, and that we also know little about the very beginning of the universe, when QM and GR merge.


Theological Critique of the Argument from Design

Suppose the teleological argument can overcome the problems we looked at and managed to establish the existence of a designer.  Even then, the argument, Hume claimed, is useless (or at best of limited utility) with respect to orthodox theology because:

Of course, an infinite being may decide to make a finite thing, and a just god may see that justice is done in the afterlife.  But here we are not looking at the afterlife; it was the theist who claimed that just by looking at this world we could infer that his god existed and this world fails to provide satisfactory evidence for the existence of the Christian god, Hume claims.




The Argument from Evil

The teleological argument asks us to look at the world to find the signs of design.  But when we look at the world we also see a lot of evil, the existence of which seems in conflict with the view that the world was created by a perfect god.  The argument has two versions, the logical one (the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with that of God; that is, if one obtains the other is impossible) and the evidential one (the existence of evil makes that of God not impossible but unlikely).  Here we look at the evidential version.  


‘God permitting evil’ version

1. God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.
2. Evil exists
3. An omnibenevolent being would eliminate evil, if possible.
4. An omniscient being would know all about evil and how to eliminate it, if possible.
5. An omnipotent being can do anything which is possible.
6. Likely, it is possible to eliminate at least some of the existing evil.
7. Hence, (1) is likely false.


Note that:


An obvious premise the theist could criticize is (6).  Perhaps it is not possible, even for God, to eliminate any evil because:

1.     This is the best possible world God could have created. Perhaps the evil we experience is necessary for the overall goodness of the world.  Thought question: It’s probably possible, but is it plausible?

2.     A world with moral evil is necessary for the occurrence of a stupendous good, God’s incarnation and death for the redemption of our sins.  This is the Felix Culpa account. Natural evil is then considered a consequence of moral evil.  Animal suffering, when not caused by us, is caused by Satan.

3.     To have good one must have evil.  Thought questions: 1. Did evil exists before God created anything?  2. How much evil is necessary to have good?

4.     Experiencing evil builds character.  Thought question: Is this always or even often true?  Whose character is getting built up?

5.     Experiencing evil is necessary for the exercise of the virtues of compassion, pity, etc.  Thought Question: Is it just that you suffer so that I can become virtuous by showing compassion?

God as the direct source of evil’ version

Some versions of the problem of evil address evil allegedly directly caused by God or done under His direct command.  The idea here is that God produces moral evil.  Here it is necessary to appeal to some specific revelation in which God is assumed perfectly moral in the sense in which we understand morality. 

Some possible objections:

1.     God had perfectly good moral reasons for all of the above. Problem: Possible, but what were they, realistically?

2.     God’s morality is not ours; that is, human morality is one thing, divine morality another. Problem: but then why should we believe God? Perhaps it’s moral for Him to lie, and all devout Christians will be punished forever while all Atheists will enjoy an everlasting life of bliss!

3.     God is morally allowed to do all of the above because He’s omnipotent.  Problem: might does not make right. Thought question: what kind of God does one want?  Which do you prefer, omnipotence or omnibenevolence, power or love?

Possible objection: does fiery hell really exist? Maybe it’s just a place in which the punishment is just not ‘seeing’ God.  Even better, perhaps all are ultimately saved as Christian Universalists believe.  Thought Question: if you are a Christian, are you happy without eternal punishment and a fiery hell?

Possible objection: the hiddenness of God is necessary to make us grow spiritually. Problem: is this really true?  Some fall into despair because they feel abandoned by God.  Thought Question: What did Jesus mean when at the end of his life he cried ‘God, God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46)  Did he experience despair instead of being elated?  Was his human part crying out for a God who does not show himself or fails to support us?


As with the argument from design, it’s important to distinguish between:

1.     P providing evidence for Q

2.     P being compatible with Q.


In (1) the truth of P makes that of Q certain or at least likely; in (2) P and Q can both be true even if the truth of P makes the falsity of Q likely.  The fact that Mary took a bike ride (P) may provide good evidence that the weather was nice (Q).  However, Mary may have taken the bike ride even if the weather was not nice: P provides evidence for Q but is also compatible with the negation of Q.  So, even if one finds the evidential argument from evil strong, one may have even stronger reasons for believing in the Abrahamic god, in which case one should try to show how (2) applies in the case, that is, come up with a story reconciling that god’s existence and the existence of evil.