The teleological argument, a.k.a. the watchmaker argument, a.k.a. the argument from design, is one of the older arguments for the existence of god. Although there are many who discuss this argument, I will (for the most part) be addressing this argument as it was presented by William Paley. On the surface of it the argument seems to be a very straight forward, and almost intuitively correct. The essence of the argument is the idea that the world appears to be designed, therefore, as with any other designed thing; it must therefore have a designer.
The truth is that when one looks out at our amazing world and sees the intricate interconnectedness and complexity that surrounds us; it seems far-fetched that anything but an intelligent designer could be responsible for it. Anyone who has ever tried creating or designing just about anything, knows how much work goes into any product, how many failed attempts must be suffered through before a finished product is finally ready. With that perspective in mind reality seems to scream out for an explanation, who could’ve designed this? Why would he/she/it have done this? Which one of us has not at one moment or another marveled at the human body. If you have not, I would recommend that you do so know. Notice how much input you are receiving from your senses, marvel at the astounding computer which is your brain, immerse yourself in the wonder that is you, a functioning human being, and ask yourself how can this be anything but designed. William Paley asks us to imagine that we were walking across a park (ok, he called it a heath, same shit) and we were to find a watch on the ground. He claims that we would be fully justified in assuming it was designed, simply based on the fact that it functions so well (this example is the source of the term “watchmaker argument”). Again, this seems obviously true; it would be absurd to say the watch was always here, or that it came together itself.
Insofar as is relevant to this conversation, there are three important points that need to be raised. The first is not a scientific point, it is a logical consequence, and such is more of a philosophical issue, it is the next two points which are really exciting. The first is that if our world with all of its complexity and functionality demands a designer, how much more so does this designer herself demand a designer, and so on ad infinitum. In other words if we say that anything that functions well needs a designer, then a designer capable of designing a reality such as our own must also have a designer. Therefore, postulating a designer does not answer any questions, it simply moves the question up a level. However it is the next two points which I really want to spend time on, because our original sentiments seemed well placed; how could all of this just be here on its own?
One of the most amazing consequences of science has been the realization that our first intuition is not always correct. From when the ancient Greeks discovered that our earth was not flat, to Einstein telling us that space-time can be wibbly-wobbly, the trend seems to be that our first intuition is not always accurate. There seems to be a misunderstanding that Darwin was the first to propose that all species had a common ancestor, this is false. The Greeks had already noticed the similarities between species, thousands of years before him. However it was Darwin who introduced the mechanism by which one species would gradually change into another. When Paley discusses possible counter-arguments he simply dismisses the idea that there could be a natural law which could possibly explain the complexity we see in life. Yet, that is just what Darwin managed to do.
What will follow will not be a thorough explanation of the theory of evolution; it will simply be a brief overview. If you have never read up on it, I highly recommend that you do; there are countless fantastic books on the topic. At the heart of it however, evolution is an idea so simple even a child can understand it. Let us imagine an environment in which survival is a challenge, there will be those who will be better adapted to that environment, and they will reproduce and survive; while those are not well suited for that environment will die out. That’s it. That’s the whole theory of evolution by natural selection. The mechanism behind it is also rather simple, what makes me, me, and what makes you, you, is our DNA. Your DNA is absolutely unique; there are no two living things in the world with the same DNA. Most of your DNA comes from your parents, however some of it was never theirs, it’s only yours, and you will pass all of it on to your children. Therefore, when you have any population, each individual is just that, and individual. It some cases, one individual will have some unique characteristic that will give it a better chance of survival, and by extension, a better chance of propagating that gene which allowed that advantage.
The other important point that I wanted to raise was the distinction between function and design. Imagine you were stranded on an island and you discovered a huge cave where you could live. Imagine the cave had many rooms, a pool of water from where you could drink, and had a perfect sized rock that you could lift and move over to the entrance of the cave like a door. As much as this cave might suit your needs, as much as this cave functions as a home for you, it does mean that it was designed for this purpose. Science fiction author Douglas Adams once gave the following analogy at a lecture
“Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’”
We find that if we look a bit closer, we begin to notice that life was not designed by a designer at all. As a matter of fact it’s mostly horribly designed (its ability to function notwithstanding). The oft held up human eye while fantastically functioning, is horribly “designed”. First of all we are practically blind; out of the entire electromagnetic spectrum we are blind to most of it. Secondly, it looks as though it were a camera with the sensor facing inward instead of outward. The wiring (our nerves carrying the information to our brains) is in the worst possible place; between the camera and lens. For more read here, or for more on our eyes’ “design” check this out. There are countless examples that show that living species were not designed (at least not by a competent designer) check here for example, or this lecture from the always entertaining Neil deGrasse Tyson responding to the idea that the universe was designed for life.
One final point that I would like to mention in passing is that “god” is never a good answer to any scientific question. Since “god” is a “who” answer while scientific questions are “how” questions; however this point needs its own post, maybe I’ll do that next.