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Apologetics (10) – The Hard Questions: Does God Really Exist? Introducing the Teleological Argument

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. Psa. 19:1

This month we will begin a consideration of facts and ideas within the general category of natural theology. This branch of inquiry explores the existence and character of God by looking at evidence from the world of nature (as distinct from revelation or personal experience). The popularity of natural theology has waxed and waned over the centuries; it has experienced a significant revival in recent years, partly due to the work of design theorists, partly from evidence pointing to a specific origin of the universe, and partly from continued questioning within the realm of Darwinism. In addition to these next two articles on the arguments described below, I also plan to enter the realm of natural theology when we discuss organic evolution, and finally when we consider the overall relation between science and religion.

We start with two closely related arguments for the existence of God: the teleological argument and the cosmological argument. Both of these arguments, though largely conducted in secular scientific and philosophical terms, actually have a spiritual side. They can contribute significantly to answering the question, “Does God really exist?”

As for teleological and cosmological, the “argument twins,” let me first try to explain just what each one entails. The teleological argument, which addresses the issue of design in nature, depends largely on cosmological data, at least in the forms of the argument used in this article (cosmology is the study of the structure of the universe). The cosmological argument has to do with causation; its basis is the supposition that any given occurrence (in this case, the existence of the universe) could only happen if something (God) caused it to happen. We will cover that in the next article.

Definition of teleological

The word teleological stems from the Greek word teleo, a familiar Bible word. It expresses a concept not readily translatable into a single English word, but which means, approximately, “finished, complete, whole, perfected.” The simple noun form, telos, means “end.” We encounter telos and its cognates in passages such as “be ye perfect (completely loving)” (Mt. 5:48), “the end (ideal outcome) of your faith” (I Pet. 1:9), and “I have finished (brought to successful completion) the work…” (John 17:4).

The word “teleological” means having a purpose aforehand, or moving toward a particular goal. A teleological quality is one that contributes toward a specific goal or purpose. If we say that the universe seems to be so constructed as to promote a certain purpose, namely, occupancy by human beings, we invoke the teleological argument.

To help clarify this idea, think of that which is not teleological — has no purpose or goal — like a piece of flotsam on the open sea moving toward no port, but only drifting where the current takes it. Some people are like this, with no apparent goal or purpose in life. According to the materialist account, all life, humanity included, is non-teleological. The evolutionists say that life is just the product of blind chance. Adherents to this dismal notion, which pervades academic and scientific enterprise, must live by the consistent, but utterly hopeless, creed that we have no purpose or goal; we’re just here by chance, and we happen to have the mental faculties to be aware of this. This is a discussion for another day, but we will revisit it briefly at the conclusion of our section on the teleological argument. For now we’ll examine the cosmological data for the teleological argument that is often used in support of the conclusion that there is a God.

The teleological argument posits that the universe has a specific configuration that allows life to occur — in particular, human life. Most importantly, this configuration can only be ascribed to a creative being. As astronomers and astrophysicists continue to garner increasingly detailed information about many parameters of the universe, this argument has become more sophisticated and powerful. Certain “in principle” objections and reservations remain; these we will examine later.

I will not list all the parameters used in this argument, nor will I attempt an historical review of the various ways the argument has been framed over the centuries. Also, I am only considering the broad physical parameters that govern the formation of the universe and its constituent entities — stars, planets, gas clouds, galaxies, and the most basic constituents of all matter: atoms and their components. This article will not consider the particular form of organization we call life. Many arguments from design, such as Paley’s famous watch analogy, focus on living organisms, and I will reserve most of that discussion until we consider organic evolution. I will restrict this article to citing a few examples of data within the teleological argument, and then ask some questions about the relevance of that data as evidence for the existence of God.

Cosmological parameters

Technological advances continue to give us more refined ways of measuring our universe. Almost 400 years ago, Galileo made the first great technological advance by using a simple telescope. He observed, among other things, the surface of the moon, and discovered that Jupiter also had moons. Today we can observe so much of the heavens that an estimate of the size of the universe exceeds our comprehension Our galaxy, the Milky Way, has a diameter of something like 100,000 light-years and contains about 200 billion stars. The number of galaxies in the universe may run into the hundreds of billions.

To make all this wonderful universe of stars, planets, gases, and what all, we need to have some physical properties of mass and energy set just right. In order to have life, we need a planet to live on, and in order to have a planet we need matter arranged into various kinds of elements that make a variety of organic and inorganic compounds. Also, the planet needs to be at the right distance from the right kind of star. That star can only function (provide heat, light, and mass to determine the orbit of planets) if hydrogen and helium atoms behave a certain way at a certain temperature. On and on the parameters go. Some are hugely inclusive, like the expansion rate of the universe (the cosmological constant) and some are minute, but with universal implications, such as the strong nuclear force, which allows protons and neutrons to form atomic nuclei. Dozens of parameters must be “adjusted” just right in order for stars to exist, for Earth to orbit the sun, for carbon atoms to form the basis of organic molecules, and so on. One author1 listed some 33 parameters that must have precisely set values to support life, and these only describe features of our galaxy and solar system; many more are needed to describe the subatomic particles and forces that give atoms and molecules their particular structures and properties. I will only cite one figure here to give an example:

If the cosmological constant were not fine-tuned to within one part in 1053 or even 10120 of its natural range of values, the universe would expand so rapidly that all matter would quickly disperse, and thus stars, galaxies, and even small aggregates of matter could never form.2

In the February, 2004, Tidings (Tidings, 2/2004) installment of the “Bible and Science” series, Bro. John Bilello cites some other instances of fine-tuning of physical laws necessary for life.

I could multiply this list with many quotes from many physicists referring to the very narrow range of variability within which all the specifications of the universe had to fall. But one or two examples are as good as fifty, for if even one parameter lies outside of a narrow specified range, we have a no-life situation.

It’s true, but what does it mean?

Yes, I think we can agree with those quotable physicists (whether or not they are theists, I don’t know, but they like to say things that theists find useful and comforting) like astrophysicist Arno Penzias, a Nobel laureate:

Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with a very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying plan.3

Stephen C. Meyer quotes British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, and then adds his own comment:

“A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces in nature.” Many physicists now concur. They would argue that, given the improbability and yet the precision of the dial settings [physical parameters governing matter and energy], design seems the most plausible explanation for anthropic fine-tuning.4

That last phrase, “anthropic fine-tuning,” has to do with the idea that the universe was designed precisely for human habitation. We will return to it shortly. However, let’s first ask this question: Does apparent design really necessitate a creator God? Does it even provide evidence for God?

We have a great number of precise measurements of masses, speeds, heats, and various forces that have to be within extremely close tolerances to allow for matter to exist in any form that would support life. The measurements are one thing, but deciding whether or not they provide evidence or proof of a creator is quite another. In order to assess the validity of the connection between the data and the argument, we next ask, “Do these data arise by chance, by necessity, or by purposeful design?” If the last of these turns out to be the most likely explanation, then the likelihood of the existence of God increases.

The argument in favor of chance takes one of two forms: (a) Yes, we’re extremely lucky, the Big Bang just happened to bang with all the parameters just right. It was indeed a small chance, but the fact that we’re here to talk about it proves that it worked: (b) We needn’t worry about the infinitesimal chance that the Big Bang produced a “just right” universe, because there may have been (or still are) many universes. Perhaps the universe oscillates between big bangs and big collapses. There could have been an infinite number of “attempts” before all the factors came out right. Or maybe there are many universes occurring right now, but they are separated from us by other means than time, and given enough universes, there’s bound to be one organized right.

Some people, apparently with a sober demeanor, can speak of multiple universes, even those occurring in parallel with our own. The idea is at best highly speculative, and it has many criticisms.5 It certainly is not an idea that satisfies the human soul.

What about necessity? Maybe the universe is the way it is because it has to be that way according to the laws of physics. That is, all these specific fine-tunings that allow life are there because they couldn’t, by the laws of nature, have any other values. Without going into the whole discussion here, we only need to point out other planets in our own solar system. Things could easily be quite different. This is especially true when we start to consider those variables most immediate to supporting life on Earth, such as the composition of our atmosphere. There does not seem to be any physical requirement that we have a viable Earth. Moreover, Meyers6 notes that the seemingly odd arrangement of many of the constants implies that they could easily have been something else — there does not seem to be an underlying necessitating principle.

Design is obvious, but this requires a designer, a concept anathema to the strict rules of contemporary science, which only allows materialist, natural explanations. But how can we explain the laws of nature by the laws of nature? There’s another problem here, indeed. We need to go to a higher level. This move engenders the rejoinder, “But where did the designer come from?” This is fundamentally a good question, and one we will discuss in the next article. Also scheduled for the next article is a proposed explanation of why most scientists, and a good many people in general, dismiss the idea of a designer (that is, God).

Does order and design prove a designer?

No, but it sure beats whatever is the next option. As I will continue to say, we can’t prove God, but we can establish God as the best explanation for what we observe. That’s our limited objective in using the teleological argument.

The technical name for establishing the best explanation is “epistemic probability.” This means that given an observed circumstance, or set of circumstances, and two or more competing explanatory hypotheses, you choose the hypothesis that is most likely to produce your observations. If we find a well-designed universe and ask if it arose by chance (no God exists, only chance) or by design (God exists and designed the universe), then we know that given the second hypothesis (God exists and created the universe), it would make sense that we would not only discover order, fine-tuning, and the like, but that we would also be creatures capable of apprehending these features. Given the alternate hypothesis, that no God exists and the universe is entirely a chance emanation, we would not expect to find either such orderly arrangement or sentient creatures capable of discerning their situation. A designed universe, therefore, makes sense under the hypothesis that God does exist. A designed universe makes no sense under the hypothesis that God does not exist.

The anthropic principle

This phrase shows up often in teleological discussions. It’s a way of saying that the appearance of design really doesn’t tell us much, because a well-ordered universe, one capable of sustaining human life, is the only one we could observe. Obviously, we can’t compare various universes, nor could we live in a universe that didn’t support human life and conclude that God must not exist
because the universe is poorly designed!

There are two forms of the anthropic principle. The “weak form,” as described above, states that the universe looks designed because we happen to be here to observe it. Even if the chance of our being here is extremely small, the fact that we are here doesn’t tell us anything about design. If just by chance nature came up with the right values for all requisite parameters, we would still observe exactly what we see now. We would not exist if the universe weren’t just right, so it’s obvious that our presence doesn’t really tell us much. The “strong form” of the anthropic principle asserts that life is a necessity given the nature of the universe; eventually, life would of necessity appear.

Again, we have the chance and necessity explanations, but those who dismiss the possibility of a designer obviously won’t consider design or intention. Design is a third option that is currently receiving much attention from investigators who do allow a designer into the equation.7 They would assert we’re here because the universe was designed for our habitation. How can we tell which is which? In any situation—chance, necessity, or design—we would be the same people and observe the same universe. That is, if the universe and life therein arose by chance or necessity, we would still be the same people observing the same universe as if the whole situation came from a creator. So how can we determine our status?

How can we tell which of these three options best explains the presence of life in general and humanity in specific? Part of the answer was given above in the consideration of epistemic probability. It is far more likely we observe what we observe because God exists. But if we’re here, even if the odds are minuscule, we’re still here, aren’t we?

Is “chance” a reasonable explanation

To help clarify this issue, writers on this subject often use the analogy of a prisoner surviving a firing squad.8 I will tell an embellished version:

The general’s commandos have finally captured Alphonse, the notorious rebel leader. Now he stands before the firing squad. Fifty marksmen take dead aim, but when the smoke clears after the thundering report of fifty lethal rifles, there stands Alphonse, tied to the post, smiling and quite unharmed. He finds himself alive, in other words.

Should he conclude that because he is alive, that all fifty marksmen, any one of whom could have, and normally would have, ended his life, just happened to miss? Is chance, unlikely though it may have been, the most likely explanation of his abiding existence? Or could he conclude that there was perhaps some plot, some designed intervention that spared his life? (We can rule out necessity as a possible explanation for Alphonse’s survival. Necessity means the laws of nature required that outcome. That is, whenever fifty marksmen take dead aim, gravity acts in such a way to deflect all their bullets, and they could never kill him, no matter how many times they tried. This is a law of nature; there are no exceptions.) Design, or intelligent intervention, is clearly the most likely explanation for Alphonse finding himself alive.

In terms of epistemic probability, Alphonse could think this way: “Given that there was a plot to save my life, it is reasonable that I am now alive. Given that there was no plot, but only the chance misfires by all fifty sharpshooters taking dead aim at a stationary target, it would be unreasonable to assume I should be alive. Therefore, I will rationally credit my existence to some outside designing agent that arranged affairs so that I might live to make these very ruminations.”

Therefore, the fact that we are alive might not absolutely rule out the weak anthropic principle, but it becomes a poor choice compared to accepting the much more likely scenario in which a being has intentionally arranged affairs so that we would even be around to realize our status as living, sentient, creatures.

Design only part of the story

Even though we can’t say that the teleological argument absolutely proves the existence of a creator, it does leave the alternative positions looking very weak indeed. Attribution to design, or operation of an intelligent source, becomes even more convincing if we have independent reasons to suspect the existence of such a being. In the story above, knowledge of a wealthy overlord sympathetic to his cause who might have bribed the firing squad would increase Alphonse’s commitment to the design conclusion. The option for intentional design, the best by far prima facie explanation of the three (chance, necessity, or design,) looks even better when we have other independent reasons to believe that such a designer is available for us to put into the equation. If we can muster evidence from other disciplines that also points to the existence of a Designer, then we have more reason to believe that the design we do see in the universe has its source in God. Those who lack other reasons are left in this position:

That you can tell a theological science-fiction story about cosmic designers tweaking cosmological parameters hardly renders the existence of a single, life-permitting universe more probable than otherwise. It would be different if we had some independent evidence that there was such a being with the requisite wherewithal, but we do not.9

Obviously, information from other areas of apologetics would challenge that last statement. As for “science-fiction,” I think that award goes to those who believe they can get something from nothing.

David Levin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Footnotes

1.Ross, Hugh. The Creator and the Cosmos, 2nd ed. Colorado Springs, CO, 1995. pp.138-143.

2. Collins, Robin. “The Teleological Argument,” in Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser, eds., The Rationality of Theism. New York: Routledge, 2003.

3. Ross, p. 122. He has other similar quotations.

4. Stephen C. Meyer, “Evidence for Design in Physics and Biology: From the Origin of the Universe to the Origin of Life.” In Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski, and Stephen C. Meyer, Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000, p. 58.

5. For more details and critiques of “many-worlds” hypotheses, see Robin Collins, “Design and the Many Worlds Hypothesis” in William L. Craig, ed., Philosophy of Religion.New Brunswick,NJ:RutgersUniversity Press, 2002. Also, Ross, op. cit, p.63-68.

6. Meyer, op. cit, p. 60.

7. For example, William Dembski, “The Third Mode of Explanation: Detecting Evidence of Intelligent Design in the Sciences,” in Behe, et al. op. cit.

8. I have seen the firing-squad analogy in several articles. I believe the original source is John Leslie in Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding.

9. Niall Shenk, in his review of Neil Manson, ed., God and Design: the Teleological Argument and Modern Science. http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=1053

Note: I utilize a variety of perspectives when preparing these articles on apologetics. Reference to any source does not imply agreement with the author on all points or endorsement of the work cited