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The Artifical Sphere (detail) libr 0159 Sean Linehan NOAA

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Introduction to Philosophy

Part V. Thomas Aquinas, "The Argument from Design"

Abstract: Thomas Aquinas' Argument from Design and objections to that argument are outlined and discussed. Thomas argues the intricate complexity and order in the universe can only be explained through the existence of a Great Designer.

  1. Aquinas' Argument from Design begins with the empirical observation of the design and order of the universe. Hence, this argument is an à posteriori argument, and the conclusion is not claimed to follow with absolute certainty. This argument is also termed, "The Teleological Argument." Teleology is the study of purpose, ends, and goals in natural processes. A teleological explanation accounts for natural processes in accordance with purposive or directive principles.
    1. Thus, if Thomas' argument is correct, the degree of the truth of the conclusion should be comparable to the conclusions of the findings of modern science. It is important to see that since no claim is made as to the certainty of the conclusion but only as to its probability, the argument cannot be criticized on the grounds that the conclusion does not follow with absolute necessity.
    2. Also, note that the concept of design involves the ability of human beings either to grasp intellectually the order of things or to impose intellectually order on what is being observed.
    3. Summary of the Argument from Design:
      1. All things have an order or arrangement, and work for an end. (Again, note that the argument proceeds from empirical evidence of adaptation of ends to means of such natural processes as sensory organs, the food chain, the nitrogen cycle, the Krebs cycle, and so forth; hence, Thomas' argument is à posteriori or inductive.)
      2. The order of the universe cannot be explained by chance, but only by design and purpose.
      3. Design and purpose is a product of intelligence.
      4. Therefore nature is directed by a Divine Intelligence or Great Designer.
  2. Some examples and clarification of the notion of design are noted before we turn to some of the standard objections.
    1. For the universe to be understood at all, human beings must impose order on what is observed. As Kant noted, there are à priori conditions of sensibility and categories of understanding for perception to be possible. The same consideration holds for intellectual objects. For example, consider the following number series found on an IQ test. What is the proper order of the sequence of integers listed?
      1. 1 3 7 13
      2. Are these to be described as successive skipping of odd numbers where between the first two numbers, no odd numbers are skipped; between the second and the third, one odd number is skipped; between the third and the fourth, two odd numbers are skipped; and so on?
      3. Or is a sequence of even numbers being added successively between each of the integers in this order: 2, 4, 6, and so on?
      4. Or, perhaps there is a rule built out of combinations of the first three numbers: 37, 713, 1337, and so on.
      5. In fact, it is a relatively straightforward proof that from an finite sequence of numbers, a rule can be devised whereby any number whatsoever must follow.
      6. In such a manner, imposed order can be seen as a precondition of observation or a precondition of understanding perception.
    2. Corners of a PentagonVarious interpretations of order are imposed by the human mind. For example in the figure to the right, what is being represented? (C.f. Gestalt psychology.) One can maintain any number of things: the dots are arranged in a circle, a pentagon, a Chrysler symbol, a star, the "Renaissance man," equal points around a circle, and so on.
    3. How can the distinction between chance and a law of natural order be maintained? We normally think of flipping a coin a matter or probability. Yet, with precise knowledge of the size, shape, center of gravity, force, point of application of force, landing zone, wind velocity, relative humidity, gravitational force, and so on, the outcome of the toss would be predictable. Is a chance event just a lack of precise knowledge of initial states?
  3. Summary list of common objections to the Argument from Design:
    1. What precisely would be the ultimate end of the universe? Even if there are teleological factors in separate states of affairs, wouldn't Thomas commit the Fallacy of Composition by supposing the universe as a whole has a purpose? I.e. if the parts of the universe are ordered, it would not necessarily follow that the universe as a whole must be also. The assumption that nature is purposive is disputable, and some sort of additional evidence needs to be advanced.
    2. As David Hume and a number of other philosophers have pointed out, imperfections in the product would point to imperfections in the maker. Hence, the problem of evil arises again with this argument.
    3. There are a prodigious number of hypotheses which can be reasonably maintained. There could be any number of great designers; nature, itself, could be self-organizing (i.e., an immanent teleology); order could be a presupposition of existence. And, of course, polytheism is not ruled out by Thomas's argument.
    4. Order, itself, can be described on probabilistic grounds. Given any state of affairs, with sufficient time and effort, human beings can impose an order and arrangement on the apparent chaos. To exist is to be ordered in some manner.
    5. Thomas confuses descriptive laws of nature with prescriptive laws made intelligent beings. The laws of nature are discovered; prescriptive law is imposed. The first kind of law is always true; the second kind can be broken: we can violate a speed limit by driving too fast, but we cannot violate the law of gravity since it is merely a description of what is.
    6. The Argument from Design is an analogical argument (and a poor one):
      • [man-made product : man :: nature-made product : Nature-Maker]
      • The last term of the formula goes beyond possible experience while the remainder of terms is well within human experience. (For more on this point see Paley's Watch Argument.) Finally, any such "Nature-maker" need not be equated with God since this conception is not the traditional characterization of the Deity.
Further Reading:
  • “Causation in the Seventeenth Century, Final Causes” Criticisms and defenders of teleological concepts are discussed by Enrico de Angelis in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas maintained by the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library.
  • Design Argument. The historical and contemporary versions of the teleological argument are reviewed together with references to philosophical sources by Frederick Ferré in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas.
  • Design Arguments for the Existence of God. The classic and contemporary arguments from design are reviewed and critiqued by Kenneth Einar Himma in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Several contemporary arguments are clearly outlined, and contemporary sources are listed.
  • “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” The John Templeton Foundation compiled essay answers to this question from the following contemporary notables: “Unlikely” by Lawrence M. Krauss, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Case Western Reserve University; “Yes” by David Gelernter, Professor of Computer Science at Yale and National fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; “Perhaps” by Paul Davies physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist and the director of the Beyond Center at Arizona State University; “No” by Peter William Atkins, a Fellow and Professor of Chemistry at Lincoln College, Oxford; “Indeed” by Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary; “Yes” by Owen Gingerich, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and of the History of Science at Harvard University and a senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory; “Very Likely” by Bruno Guiderdoni, astrophysicist and the Director of the Observatory of Lyon, France; “No” by Christian de Duve, a biochemist and Nobel Prize recipient in Physiology and Medicine; “Yes” by John F. Haught, Senior Fellow, Science and Religion, Georgetown University; &ldlquo;Not Sure” by Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and the Director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium; &ldqo;Certainly” by Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a UN Messenger of Peace; “I Hope So” by Elie Wiesel, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and Professor at Boston University.
  • Teleological Argument. This summary of the argument, its history, and objections, together with related arguments and links, form the content of this Wikipedia entry.
  • Teleological Arguments for God's Existence. A thorough introduction to the logic of several design arguments for God's existence is provided by Del Ratzsch in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Top of Page

”Even if we grant that purposiveness in the world cannot be explained by appeals to natural teleology or human teleology, and futher grant that it must be explained by an appeal to a supernatural intelligence, it still does not follow that we must postulate the existence of anything like a traditional Christian deity to account for it. To get that result, a detailed, full-blown argument from design is needed that eliminates alternative hypotheses to the postulation of a being possessing the unity, perfec2tion, providence, etc. of the traditional Christian God.” Robert Fogelin, ”A Reading of Aguinas's Five Ways,” in Philosophical Interpretations (New York: Oxford Univeristy Press),30.

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