Friday, May 24, 2013

Arguments For God Part 3: The Teleological Argument

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.


  1. Shunah - keep up the great work. I was once OJ and it was with great emotional turmoil I threw off the yoke of nonsense that is OJ. A website you are sure to love is Use your under cover status to give out pamphlets at yeshivas, shules, etc: to debunk, what I consider the dangerous cult of OJ.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. thanks I enjoyed the website :-)

  2. Some Kiruv use gematria to "prove" the torah is divine. Here is one link to one gematria trick that supposedly proves something.
    The link calculates the value of Pi in a convoluted way.

    Below are refutes to the Pi article and gematria in general.

    Let me make it clearer why the gematria and also the Pi gematria is not so amazing. Given that there are almost an infinite number of ways to create a gematria and given you have a book with thousands of words, and given you can use circular reasoning to back into something you are guaranteed to "find" AMAZING things. But what they are coincidences, circular reasoning and man made invention. The listed items below of the critique of gematria and Pi work in conjunction with human nature, and work synergistically in combination with each other to create apparently amazing things. You can do this with any book with thousand of words, especially if millions of man hours are spent trying to find gematria in that book. If you study human psychology (see for example confirmation bias in wikipedia) and probability theory, many so called amazing coincidences have high chances of occurring

    1) First some commentators are saying the object was not circular, so even calculating pi based on the object is not relevant. The whole gematria falls apart right there.

    2) The commentators cannot decide if the dimensions are internal or external. This creates the opportunity for mixing and matching to get to the correct combination of the correction factor and the crude pi approximation.

    3) Is there only one way to spell the pronouncing of the Hebrew word ? If not you can pick and choose to get to the correct combination of the correction factor and the crude approximation of pi.

    4) And why is 3 the crude approximation to pi ? Because the Rabbi’s tried to deduce the value of pi from a Pasuk instead of studying geometry. Not a very intelligent approach to learning about reality.

    5) Pick up any text at all - if you try hard enough you can find all kinds of ways to make up gemmatria gimmicks based on different spellings of words, meanings of words, roots of words , addition of letters, sounds of words, various ways of applying the arithmetic, various ways to assign numeric values to letters: etc:

    6) Here is another explanation - its all a miracle. Although normally the ratio of the circumference to diameter is 3.14...., by a miracle of god this circular vase has the ratio only 3. You see how all problems go away if you invent miracles.

    7) The Torah and Rabbi’s make so many mistakes about science and reality, it is preposterous for anybody to claim that oral tradition or written tradition is divine.

  3. Continued:
    8) And why is the ratio taken as 111/106 and not the reverse ? Because we know the correct value of pi. That is what is called circular reasoning.

    9) And why is the correction factor multiplicative ? Because in this convoluted example it works out the way you want. In other words, the correction factor could have been additive, subtractive, divisive but thru circular reasoning we pick multiplicative.

    10) There are so many ways to back into the appropriate arithmetic type of and value of correction factor and also the spelling and also the crude value of pi, no wonder somebody finds one sequence that works.

    11) Who decides that aleph is one, bet is 2 etc: ? Why should there be any association of order or quantity with a specific letter. ? Why should the base 10 be used for letters and numbers ? Do you understand that the arithmetic base is chosen by people and there are different bases used. Also, some letters I think can have two different values. This greatly increases the chances of finding gematria tricks. How vowels are used is added to the arsenal.

    12) I think some muslim said something like this:The Quran uses the Arabic word for "sea" x times, and the Arabic word for land y times. And the ratio of sea to land on planet earth is exactly the same as the ratio of x to y. And Mohammed didn't even realize the earth was round, really, and certainly didn't know about the Americas and Antarctica and the Pacific Ocean, so that proves the Quran was written by Almighty Allah, who DID have those facts at his holy fingertips in Allah's Almanac.
    You see how easy it is to find gematria in other places.

    13) SEEK AND YOU WILL FIND, meaning finding patterns when none are really there. There are virtually an infinite number of permutations in the torah, so of course you will develop patterns of gematria/ gematria tricks if you seek them.

    14) And why would god use this convoluted way to tell us the value of pi is 3.14... ? What can possibly be the purpose ? Oh, I know to show us the truth of torah. But suppose nobody discovered it ? Then it would have been a big waste. A lot better way would have been is to give accurate information of reality.

    15) There are thousands of words in the Torah. And there are thousands of times when gematria turns up nothing telling. But by chance combined with creative invention (often with circular reasoning) and the use of numerous potential gematria tricks, sometimes people can "discover" (actually impose) something of interest when in fact its just a figment of imagination or coincidence. When you have so many words and so many potential ways to use gematria, you can sometimes invent a marvel or discover a coincidence.

    16) When words and language evolved people used human reasoning. In other words, there could be some built in gematria and other fascinating findings. It has nothing to do with god.

    17) When people write books (including the Torah) they may at times imposed some gematria for various reasons including poetic form, metaphor, superstition etc: It has nothing to do with god.

    1. I think that this is a quirk of the human mind. we can see any pattern we want to if we only try hard enough. A similar example to this is the law of fives in discordianism

      which in essence claims that all things are related to the number five. A few years ago I decided to mention to a chavrusah of mine that there is this "deep kabbalistic concept" which says that everything is related to the number five. For the next two days we amazed ourselves in finding the number five everywhere we looked. when I confessed my prank two days later he gracefully laughed, and I hope he may have learnt something from it. (On a side note check out discordianism in general, its a great satire religion)

      Having said that, thanks for your comments they seem very thought out and well presented. I would suggest you start a blog of your own, I would love to read more from you.

      thanks again

  4. Thank you for the Kind words. Keep up your work.

    I also blogged some comments under your Kuzari refute. Included in there is a refute to Kelemens book Permission to Believe - mainly his fourth argument. Pleasew check it out.