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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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DESIGN ARGUMENT

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DESIGN ARGUMENT

The design argument in theology is often immediately
identified with the “argument from design,” i.e., the
argument that from evidences of intelligent planning
found in the world one may reasonably infer the exist-
ence of a purposeful Intelligence responsible for the
world. Logically, however, the full design argument
(or teleological argument) must be seen as more com-
plex in structure, since the argument from design itself
rests on the controversial premiss that there are sig-
nificant similarities between objects in nature (or nature
taken as a whole), on the one hand, and objects intelli-
gently contrived by man for some purpose, on the
other. Only after somehow supporting this preliminary
analogical basis, which, if formalized, amounts to an
“argument to (not from) design,” can one properly
even begin to move on “from” design to invoke the
theoretical need for a deity as cosmic Designer. His-
torically both aspects have appeared in theological
speculation, although more explicit attention has usu-
ally been paid to the move from apparently purposeful
natural phenomena to a divine Purposer than to the
logically prior question of the actual presence of pur-
poseful design in nature.

I. ANCIENT ORIGINS OF THE ARGUMENT

The prehistory of the design argument is to be sought
in the forms of thought characteristic of early man.
Though these forms are difficult to reconstruct with
any certainty, it does seem probable that mythopoeic
consciousness was devoid of the sharp distinction be-
tween animate and inanimate that we suppose to be
obvious. Since the natural world was simply addressed
in personal or quasi-personal terms, there seems to have
been no sense of analogy in attributing purposive be-
havior to the cosmos and its contents; purpose was
immediately to be read off from natural events and
things just as it was directly to be found in human
society.

Thus far, of course, there is no question of argument.
Argument arises in Greece with pre-Socratic specula-
tion, and even then mythopoeic roots are not wholly
severed to whatever extent the living, purposive char-
acter of nature is taken as a datum of experience rather
than as an explicit consequence from evidence. It is
not clear, in this context, exactly what was meant by
Anaximander, a younger contemporary of Thales in
Miletus, when he affirmed that the indefinite primal
stuff (the ἄτειρον) of the universe “steers all.” If this
“steering” is to be understood as somehow conscious
and purposeful, then in Anaximander we may have
found at least the germ of the design argument as early
as the first half of the sixth century B.C.; that is, Anaxi-


671

mander may have argued that only because the ἄτειρον
“steers” all according to “justice” can one understand
why the universe remains in orderly balance as it does.
Aristotle, further, tells us that Anaximander credited
this “steering” substance with being “divine” (Physica
III 203b 7), though we must realize that such divinity
would have had very little in common with the an-
thropomorphic divinities of popular religious thought
or with any supernatural being. On the other hand,
it is likewise possible that Anaximander conceived of
the ἄτειρον as “steering” quite mechanically, or per-
haps as manifesting only the immanent purposiveness
common to the “life” of nature as a whole.

Another partial hint of the design argument is found
in Heraclitus, at the very end of the sixth century or
early in the fifth, B.C., whose emphasis on the fluxing
character of all things led him to infer the need for
a unifying formula of the flux, the Logos, which rules
the struggle of opposites in the world of constant
change and insures that long-term balance prevails.
Once again it is not possible to be sure from extant
sources whether Heraclitus conceived of the Logos as
intelligent and purposeful, though subsequent signifi-
cant Logos traditions in Stoicism and Christianity de-
velop this theme, but at least the essential intellectual
demand for some agent to account for observed order
in a changing world was self-consciously sounded by
Heraclitus himself.

Explicit appeal to “mind” (νοῦς) as the needed agent
was first made by Anaxagoras, probably in Athens
toward the middle of the fifth century, B.C., when he
developed a theory of the universe in which some
principle of ordered change was seen to be necessary
over and above the infinite and confused swarm of
qualitatively distinct but intrinsically inert items that
he believed to make up the universe. Mind, being the
one reality that can remain itself while ordering and
controlling other natures very different from itself and
from each other, is uniquely qualified to rule the mixed
realm of nature. “For it is the finest of all things and
purest, it has all knowledge about everything and the
greatest power; and mind controls all things...” (Kirk
and Raven, p. 373). Still this position falls short of a
full design argument, however, if Socrates' complaint
(Phaedo 98B) is justified, that Anaxagoras' appeal to
“mind” as a cosmic orderer had no bearing on the
deeper question “why” matters should stand as they
do and not in some other way. It appears that “mind”
was drawn in by Anaxagoras as an ordering dynamic
principle only, and not as belonging to a moral agent
expressing ends in view through the organization of
the world order.

For an unequivocally clear statement of such an
argument we must await the writings of Plato in the
fourth century B.C., but a close approximation of what
Socrates was hoping for can be found in one of Anax-
agoras' somewhat younger contemporaries, Diogenes
of Apollonia. Diogenes was an eclectic thinker, for the
most part, combining the interests of the early Milesian
philosophers in identifying a primal world-substance
with the quest of Heraclitus and Anaxagoras for expla-
nations of the ordered dynamics of change. Like Hera-
clitus, Diogenes was much impressed by the regularity
of the world and the need to account for it; and like
Anaxagoras he specified that this account could only
be given in terms of “intelligence” (νόησις). Intelligence
he identified with warm air, following Anaximenes (the
Milesian successor of Anaximander), and he explained
its method of working through the mechanism of rare-
faction and condensation. Beyond all this, however,
Diogenes made an explicit teleological claim—one that
we shall find very prominently in Plato and later
tradition—that intelligence disposes of all things “for
the best” (κάλλιστα) (frag. 3, Simplicius Phys. 152, 13).

With this we find we are in possession of all the
elements ingredient in the design argument: (1) the
observation that there is order in nature or that nature
as a whole is orderly, (2) the asseveration that natural
order is not self-explanatory but requires an ordering
agency of some kind, (3) the identification of this
agency as explicitly aware and acting from intelligent
design, and (4) the attribution to this Intelligence of
benevolent moral purpose.

The first full articulation, in combination, of the
various elements in the design argument was given by
Plato. Here was no mere eclectic, however; the syn-
thesis was distinctly his, and the argument he offered
follows directly from central themes within his own
philosophical position.

One such theme is rooted in Plato's view of soul
as always the source of spontaneous motion. Our first
experience of any genuine originative change springs
from within ourselves. Changes observed in our bodies
or in nature are always derivative, communicated from
something else which is already in motion, that motion
in turn borrowed from still something else, and so
on—until a truly originative or spontaneous motion is
finally introduced to ground the series. “Soul,” there-
fore, comes to have a technical meaning for Plato as
the “self-moving” or the “beginning of motion” wher-
ever or whenever change genuinely originates: “He
who affirms that self-motion is the very idea and es-
sence of the soul will not be put to confusion” ( Phae-
drus
245D).

The changing universe, consequently, is not able to
be understood on its own material terms alone. Its
changes demand the postulation of something capable
of initiating change, not merely of transmitting it.


672

How can a thing which is moved by another ever be the
beginning of change? Impossible. But when the self-moved
changes other, and that again other, and then thousands
upon tens of thousands of bodies are set in motion, must
not the beginning of all this motion be the change of the
self-moving principle?

(Laws X, 895).

The only known self-moving principle, however, is
soul. Therefore it follows that soul must be invoked
to account adequately for the changes that we observe.

In the above we have witnessed the birth of the
famous “first cause” argument; and for Plato the design
argument follows immediately upon it. Having estab-
lished that the natural world is ultimately dependent
upon soul, the question must be asked: “What kind
of soul is it that rules the changing universe?” The
answer, Plato says, depends on the kinds of changes
we actually observe. If the soul ruling nature is “good”—
and here Plato makes use of another of his prominent
themes, urging the equation of goodness with rational-
ity, harmony, intellectual coherence—the universe will
exhibit lawful behavior. “But,” Plato allows, “if the
world moves wildly and irregularly, then the evil soul
guides it” (Laws X, 897B). A survey of pertinent fact,
however, particularly astronomical data, will convince
any careful observer that nature changes with the
utmost regularity and that, in consequence: “There
would be impiety in asserting that any but the most
perfect soul or souls carries round the heavens” (Laws
X, 898C).

A more pictorially vivid version of this general posi-
tion is found in Plato's Timaeus where the Demiurge
is represented as a craftsman, fashioning the world of
natural change by copying off eternal formal principles
of reality into a matrix of flux. The myth adds little,
however, to the design argument itself except in pro-
viding an answer to the ultimate question why the
cosmic artisan should have done his work at all. Plato's
suggestion is that the Demiurge acted from pure
benevolence:

He was good; and in the good no jealousy in any matter
can ever arise. So, being without jealousy, he desired that
all things should come as near as possible to being like
himself.... Desiring, then, that all things should be good
and, so far as might be, nothing imperfect, the god took
over all that is visible—not at rest, but in discordant and
unordered motion—and brought it from disorder into order,
since he judged that order was in every way the better


(Timaeus 29E-30A).

Aristotle, although he shared Plato's keen sense of
the order within nature and argued forcefully on other
grounds for the existence of conscious deity at the apex
of actuality, did not advance the design argument we
have been following. Just as he objected to Plato's
alleged “separating of the Forms” from the substances
of the world, so Aristotle argued against separating the
source of order from the natural order itself. The uni-
verse contains goal-directed activity, even in areas of
change where there is clearly no conscious deliber-
ation, but Aristotle argued from this that in this case
“purpose” must be understood as inherent and non-
deliberative. “For natural things are exactly those
which do move continuously, in virtue of a principle
inherent in themselves, towards a determined
goal...” (Physics 199b).

Thus, instead of making the inference from orderly
processes in nature to an intelligent orderer above or
beyond nature, Aristotle offers a thoroughly immanent
view of natural teleology and offers an illustration:
“The best illustration is the case of a man being his
own physician, for Nature is like that—agent and pa-
tient at once” (Physics 199b). God, for Aristotle, neces-
sarily exists as ultimate actuality, but he is too perfect
even to know about the changing, self-correcting do-
main of nature, much less to have taken any part in
designing it. Plato's greatest pupil abandoned both
Demiurge and separate realm of Forms as theoretically
redundant, and with them, as we see, the design argu-
ment for God.

II. THE MEDIEVAL “SYNTHESIS”

Despite significant support in the scientific writings
of Galen (fl. A.D. 164) and in the philosophy of Boethius
(480?-?524), there is little evidence of the design argu-
ment playing an important role in theological thought
before the thirteenth century of our era. Biblical
writers did not characteristically argue at all, though
the wonders of nature are sometimes urged as illus-
trations of the might and grandeur of God (e.g., Psalms
8, 19). Likewise the Church Fathers spent their ener-
gies on other controversies than the existence of God;
and even when the latter question did arise as a ques-
tion at all, the defense of belief was typically based
on what was taken as more worthy than the character
of the natural world. It was in this era, for example,
that Saint Anselm (1033-1109) created the famous
ontological argument for God (Proslogion), purporting
to depend on nothing beyond an understanding of what
it means to be God in order to demonstrate his neces-
sary existence.

With the rediscovery of Aristotle's philosophy, how-
ever, and with the attempt of Saint Thomas Aquinas
to build an intellectually viable Christian theology on
a fundamentally Aristotelian framework, the design
argument reappears. This would be odd, since we have
seen that Aristotle himself dispensed with this argu-
ment for God, if it were not for two pertinent consid-


673

erations: first, Saint Thomas was by no means slavish
in his use of Aristotle (as is sometimes falsely alleged),
and, second, Plato's Timaeus had exerted great influ-
ence over the intervening centuries and had given
philosophical reinforcement to the biblical vision of
God as actively concerned with the created universe.
Saint Thomas's design argument, therefore, stands out
as a fundamentally non-Aristotelian correction of Aris-
totle in a corpus that is usually considered to be a
synthesis of Christian faith with Aristotelianism.

The argument itself, the fifth of Saint Thomas's Five
Ways (of which the first three are indeed Aristotelian),
reads as follows:

We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural
bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting
always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain
the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their
end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks
knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be di-
rected by some being endowed with knowledge and intelli-
gence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore
some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things
are directed to their end; and this being we call God


(Summa Theologica, Q. 2, Art. 3).

There are several interesting features of this argu-
ment. First, it is taken as obvious that there are end-
directed activities within nature. This claim, on which
the rest of the argument depends, is significantly
different from Plato's appeal to the order of the visible
universe, especially astronomical order which seems
not to be directed at any identifiable goal. It may be
that orderly change and end-directed change may be
intimately related in some way. At the moment, how-
ever, it remains a disputable point and one which needs
to be argued for.

Second, we see that Saint Thomas has adopted
Aristotle's remarks about the presence of “purpose”
in nature without accepting his conclusion that such
observable regularities may be accounted for by appeal
to an immanent teleology. This view, indeed, is not
ever considered. In this dismissal by silence we find
an implicit dualism between bodies and minds that
Aristotle found objectionable in Plato. It is not self-
evident, of course, which position is the stronger.
Aristotle argued that such “separation” is in the end
metaphysically redundant; Plato, on the other hand,
could have replied that in this respect his great succes-
sor had not sufficiently advanced beyond the mytho-
poeic blurring of distinctions between the animate and
the inanimate. Saint Thomas, in any event, we find to
have applied to natural changes a very sharp distinc-
tion between the “ensouled” and the “unsouled,” as
shown by his choice of illustration of the archer and
the arrow. The model for nature is clearly technologi-
cal as contrasted to Aristotle's mainly organismic ex-
amples of immanent teleology, such as the physician
who treats himself.

Third, Saint Thomas concludes with the claim that
his argument has shown that there must be “some
intelligent being” who is responsible for the alleged
design in the world. This, too, is a bolder claim that
Plato permitted himself. Plato, as we saw, admitted
the possibility of plural souls guiding the orderly phe-
nomena of nature. Saint Thomas gives no argument
here to show why his evidence points to only one
intelligent being rather than several, and we shall see
that this remains a persistent problem for the design
argument taken by itself.

Fourth, and boldest of all, Saint Thomas equates the
“intelligent being” of his argument with God. Perhaps
this equation can be made good, but it must be recalled
that insofar as Plato argued carefully in the Laws he
claimed only to have shown the need for postulating
“the most perfect soul or souls” to account for specific
astronomical phenomena. Even in the mythological
Timaeus, where a single perfect soul is depicted as
ordering the whole cosmos, Plato does not go beyond
presenting him as a Demiurge, limited by what he finds
by way of formal possibilities and material medium
for the always somewhat imperfect realization of these
pure Ideas. Can the design argument support more
than this? It all depends, assuredly, on what is supposed
to be meant by “God” whether God's existence can
be supported by this approach. Saint Thomas, at least,
whose conception of God was shaped by both biblical
and Aristotelian influences, seems unaware of the pos-
sibility that there may be a wide gap between what,
on the most generous possible reading, he has shown,
and the God of his theological concern.

III. MODERN DEVELOPMENTS
OF THE ARGUMENT

It is significant that revival of interest in the design
argument appeared in Europe along with the birth of
natural science in its distinctly modern form. It is the
most empirical of the arguments for God, requiring,
as we have seen, observational premisses about the kind
of order we discover in nature. These are not the only
premisses, of course, that go into its structure, and we
have already noted some of the distinctively philo-
sophical disputes that may arise in connection with its
use; but from this point forward we shall find that the
design argument is intimately linked with the history
of modern science.

Copernicus, who in many ways began this history,
appealed to the wonderful harmony and divine reason-


674

ableness of the sun's placement at the center of the
universe: “In the middle of all sits Sun enthroned. In
this most beautiful temple could we place this luminary
in any better position from which he can illuminate
the whole at once?” (De revolutionibus orbium caeles-
tium
[1543], Book I, Part 10). Likewise Kepler, the
great Neo-Platonist astronomer, advanced passionate
arguments for the elegant and beautiful mathematical
structure of the cosmic design.

Through the seventeenth century it continued to be
the scientists, or those with deep scientific interests,
who stated the design argument with most force. John
Ray, author of The Wisdom of God Manifested in the
Works of Creation
(1691), was best known as a wide-
ranging naturalist. Robert Boyle, the eminent physicist
and chemist, was responsible for developing an early
analogy between the universe and a clock, and the
Boyle Lectures established by his will were influential
in defense of Christianity among the intellectually
advanced. Robert Hooke was also a brilliant scientist
who, among other achievements, anticipated Newton's
inverse square law and formulated the kinetic theory
of gases, and lent his support to belief in God based
on the order of nature. Even Ralph Cudworth, chief
of the Cambridge Platonists, a philosopher who seems
the one prominent exception to the list of scientists
employing the design argument, also cast his argument
for a divine intelligence into the scientific matrix of
his day in The True Intellectual System of the Universe
(1678).

The greatest scientist of the age, however, was Isaac
Newton, whose publication of the Principia (1687)
established the framework of the new science and drew
the physical outlines of the great world-machine that
was to dominate scientific imagination for centuries.
Newton's own deployment of the design argument,
therefore, is especially interesting. Newton summarized
his view in the “General Scholium” added to Book
Three, “The System of the World,” of the Principia
in 1713, and carefully revised it in 1726. There he
argued that the beautiful arrangement of the heavenly
bodies—especially the planets, the comets, and the
moons of the planets—demands an intelligent agent
to account for such formal perfection. The great law
of gravitation, which he had first enunciated, could
only deal with part of the facts:

The planets and comets will constantly pursue their revolu-
tions in orbits given in kind and position, according to the
laws above explained; but though these bodies may, indeed,
continue in their orbits by the mere laws of gravity, yet
they could by no means have at first derived the regular
position of the orbits themselves from those laws

(Principia,
“General Scholium,” 1713).

That “mere mechanical causes” could have given rise
to such regular motions as the facts of science show
is quite inconceivable, Newton insisted, and concluded,
as Plato also had: “This most beautiful system of the
sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the
counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful
Being” (ibid.).

But unlike Plato, whom we saw to have allowed the
possible multiplicity of intelligent and powerful beings,
Newton adds a new argument, now for the first time
made scientifically possible by his having shown the
existence of a single system of the world. “And if the
fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these,
being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all
subject to the dominion of One; especially since the
light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the
light of the sun, and from every system light passes
into all the other systems” (ibid.). Although we have
previously seen this attribution of unity in the cosmic
designer as mythically portrayed by Plato and as theo-
logically affirmed by Saint Thomas, this is the first time
we find the design argument itself extended to support
such a monotheistic conclusion.

Newton went even further, however, and argued that
such universal control over limitless space and endless
duration as must be admitted for the One Being, given
the Newtonian system of the world, requires that this
Cosmic Intelligence also be recognized as Lord God.
“He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient;
that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity;
his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all
things, and knows all things that are or can be done”
(ibid.).

For some time the prestige of the leaders of modern
scientific thought supported the design argument they
employed and believed. Even David Hume's brilliant
attacks in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,
posthumously published in 1779, did not immediately
dampen the enthusiasm of eighteenth- and early nine-
teenth-century exponents. The classical statement of
the argument in its modern form, indeed, was not
published until 1802 when William Paley brought out
his celebrated Natural Theology, or Evidences of the
Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from
the Appearances of Nature.
In that work Paley argued
explicitly for the presence of intelligently designed
features in nature. The marks of design, he said, are
what we observe in contrasting a watch with a stone.
The stone, for all we can tell, might just have “hap-
pened”; but the watch is clearly put together out of
parts that work together in an arrangement that is
essential to their function, and the function of the
whole has a discernible and beneficial use. Wherever
we find such a constellation of characteristics, Paley


675

said, we must admit that we are in the presence of
“contrivance” and “design,” and since in our experi-
ence the only known source of such contrivance is the
intelligence of some designer, we are entitled—
obliged—to infer an intelligent designer somewhere
behind anything possessing the above mentioned marks
of design. Given this general approach, Paley then
multiplies instance after instance of natural phenomena
that require the admission of intelligent design in their
contrivance. Not astronomical phenomena alone, as
had been the mainstay of design arguments from Plato
to Newton, but biological mechanisms were Paley's
stock in trade. The human eye, plants, anatomical and
physiological features of men and beasts, instincts,
birds, insects—all these and more went into Paley's
massive argument, the constant theme of which was
that all these data reveal elaborate structures made up
of parts which work together with amazing ingenuity
to perform useful functions for their possessors. Each
taken separately, he contended, proved the need for
an intelligent designer working behind the “appear-
ances of nature”; taken together the case was crush-
ingly conclusive.

Paley drew back, however, from the strongest of
Newton's claims for the unity and infinity of the deity
thus allegedly proved. With greater philosophic cau-
tion he admitted that attributes like “omnipotence,”
“omniscience,” “infinity,” and the like cannot be
strictly derived from the design argument:

Nevertheless, if we be careful to imitate the documents of
our religion by confining our explanations to what concerns
ourselves, and do not affect more precision in our ideas than
the subject allows of, the several terms which are employed
to denote the attributes of the Deity may be made, even
in natural religion, to bear a sense consistent with truth
and reason and not surpassing our comprehension

(Natural
Theology,
Ch. XXIV).

This more accurate way of dealing with such terms
is to recognize their logical status as “superlatives
expressing our conception of these attributes in the
strongest and most elevated terms which language
supplies” (ibid.). “Omnipotence,” thus construed, can
mean no more than “powerful beyond all comparison”
since he must be allowed to be powerful enough to
design and rule our observed universe. “Omniscience,”
likewise, literally means whatever enormous wisdom
is required to account for the yet unmeasured intricacy
of the world's intelligible structure. The uniqueness of
this cosmic intelligence, too, is not demonstrable from
the design argument: “Certain however it is,” Paley
acknowledged, “that the whole argument for the divine
unity goes no further than to a unity of counsel” (Nat-
ural Theology,
Ch. XXV). This is quite enough, how
ever, Paley believed, since the limitations of natural
theology can always be supplemented by revealed
theology which, thanks to the design argument, has
been shown to be wholly compatible with rigorous
empirical thinking.

The pungent philosophical critique, however, of
David Hume had raised serious questions about the
claims on behalf of the design argument's empirical
rigor. And Immanuel Kant had pressed equally severe
objections against the assumption that traditional the-
ology can find relevant support in the design argument.
(For an earlier severe critique of the design argument,
cf. Spinoza's Ethics, Part I, appendix.)

Hume was not the first to point out that the design
argument is an argument from analogy. Samuel Butler
had published his influential book, The Analogy of
Religion,
in 1736; and from then on it was generally
acknowledged by users of the argument that their
reasoning rested on the discovery of similarity between
the world, or objects in the world, and products of
human continuance. Hume, however, was the first to
raise sustained and imaginative objections to the key
analogy itself. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural
Religion
he attacked from several sides. Analogies are
most trustworthy when the things compared are more
or less comparable, he argued; but how comparable,
really, are things in the world to the world as a whole?
Comparing causes between things or events in the
world may sometimes be justified, but logic stretches
beyond its breaking point when one of the terms of
the comparison is supposed to be beyond the world
as somehow its cause. Again, how alike, really (asked
Hume), are the forces now in existence with those
which would have been in the world when it was being
formed? We cannot say, and dare not suppose that our
little analogies, drawn from the present state of things,
can have fruitful application under such vastly different
conditions. What a suspicious choice, in any case, to
make human intelligence the model for the cosmic
cause! The vice of pride may well be lurking here,
especially when there are so many alternative analogies
that might do equally well to account for the order
observed in nature. Why not, Hume asked, take forces
of generation or vegetation as explanatory of the
world? Why not take the analogy, in other words, from
what appears to be immanent ordering principles in
nature, such as the spinning of a spider's web? The
analogy to intelligence is not only farfetched, he chal-
lenged, but it is also far from uniquely serviceable—if
any such explanation must be offered. But must it?
Hume insisted not; any such explanation leads on to
a never-ending regress of further questions (such as,
“Who designed God's intelligence if all orderly things
require a designer?”); any such analogy leads too far


676

if it leads anywhere (e.g., can we deny that we experi-
ence intelligence only with embodied organisms? Must
we therefore attribute hands, feet, sex to God?); and,
finally, no causal argument for the whole universe
seems logically possible in any event, since the uni-
verse, being unique, does not fall into the class of
caused things—effects are only known to be such by
repeated conjunction in experience with their causes—
and therefore the world is improperly called an
“effect.”

Besides this volley of arguments against the logical
underpinnings of the design argument, Hume pressed
the darker side of the world's organization. If the well
functioning nature is evidence for intelligence, benev-
olence, and power, he pointed out, then disease, dis-
order, and natural evil is counter-evidence for stupid-
ity, malice, or impotence. Which shall it be? The
design argument opens the door to natural evidence
at a very high cost to one who would preserve belief
in the perfection of God since the evidence, if taken
seriously, can never lead to such a conclusion.

Kant, although more sympathetic to the design ar-
gument than Hume in some ways, develops the last
point into a necessary principle. The argument, Kant
said, “is the oldest, the clearest, and the most accordant
with the common reason of mankind” (The Critique
of Pure Reason,
2nd ed. [1787], B651); but it cannot
possibly lead to a theologically significant conclusion
about God. God is not, Kant insisted, merely a
Demiurge; God is not only a Designer of nature's
wonderful contrivances. God, to be theologically ade-
quate, must be understood through a completely de-
terminate concept as absolutely necessary, perfectly
powerful, all knowing, utterly good, and all the rest.
Between the essentially loose textured concept of an
Author of the world which is appropriate to the em-
pirical argument before us—the concept of a being
who is (vaguely and at most) “very” powerful, “enor-
mously” wise, “admirably” good, and the like—and the
full determinate concept of God there is a radical
logical gap. It is a gap that in the nature of the case,
because empirical evidence is never complete, can
never be closed by any amount of additional empirical
evidence. The design argument, therefore, Kant con-
cluded, can never succeed in helping theology in ways
theology should welcome, though it may convince the
speculative reasoner that:

If we are to specify a cause at all, we cannot here proceed
more securely than by analogy with those purposive pro-
ductions of which alone the cause and mode of action are
fully known to us. Reason could never be justified in aban-
doning the causality which it knows for grounds of explana-
tion which are obscure, of which it does not have any
knowledge, and which are incapable of proof

(ibid.).

IV. THE ARGUMENT SINCE DARWIN

Kant was generous to the design argument, as we
see in the above quotation, on the ground that when
he wrote these words there seemed to be no more
theoretically adequate hypothesis on which to explain
the amazing intricacy of the natural order than that
of intelligent design. Hume's proliferation of alterna-
tives was more ingenious than convincing if looked to
for genuine help in understanding the facts such as
those Paley had later piled so high. This situation,
however, was radically changed by Charles Darwin's
Origin of Species (1859); and the weight of scientific
prestige, which had supported the argument since its
championing by physicists of the seventeenth century,
fell heavily against it because of the biologists of the
nineteenth.

Darwin's primary contribution to the opponents of
the design argument was to make available an intel-
ligible and convincing alternative causal hypothe-
sis—just such as Kant acknowledged he had failed to
find—to take the place of intelligent contrivance. This
alternative was the mechanism of natural selection,
through which “adaptation to environment” took the
place of “purposive design” as the concept by which
Paley's evidences could be understood. Changes in
biological species have occurred randomly over vast
periods of time, Darwin argued, and the forms of life
best equipped in the struggle for scarce resources have
left their progeny to be admired by the natural theolo-
gians. Their intricate structures and admirable func-
tioning need not be attributed to an intelligence behind
nature, however, since the facts are as they must be
if living forms are to survive at all.

It might be tempting to compare this position, on
which nature is alleged to need no external intellect
to bring about orderly and well adapted changes, with
Aristotle's urging of immanent teleology against Plato's
more dualistic view. To some extent the parallels hold:
Plato, lover of mathematics, reminds us of Newton;
and Aristotle, son of a physician and ardent collector
of biological specimens, cannot fail to suggest an earlier
Darwin. But the biology of Darwin is post-Newtonian,
and it would be misleading to push the comparison
too far. Precisely what is not present in the evolution-
ary process of natural selection is immanent purpose
in the Aristotelian sense. Teleology, immanent as well
as external, is dispensable, and totally non-telic proces-
ses of chance variations and physical interplay consti-
tute all the parameters of the theory.

From its original home in biology, evolutionary
thinking has spread to other fields as well. Theories
of cosmic evolution have replaced Newton's appeal to
intelligent design in the arrangement of the solar sys-
tem and the galaxies. Historical geology, in a closely


677

related development, has extended understanding of
the present state of our terrestrial environment. In all
this “evolution” has come to mean something more
inclusive than Darwin's original theory, but in all
its scientific applications evolutionary thinking has in-
terposed itself between the “appearances of nature”
and any easy appeal to the explanatory need for
design.

Given this situation the design argument in its clas-
sical form has found few friends in recent times. There
have been, however, post-Darwinian variations of the
ancient argument intended to take account of the
battering it has received from both philosophy and
science since the mid-eighteenth century. The laws of
the natural order itself, including the laws of evolution,
may be taken as requiring some explanation in terms
of a transcendent purpose. F. R. Tennant, for example,
wrote:

The forcibleness of Nature's suggestion that she is the out-
come of intelligent design lies not in particular cases of
adaptedness in the world, nor even in the multiplicity of
them.... The forcibleness of the world's appeal consists
rather in the conspiration of innumerable causes to produce,
by their united and reciprocal action, and to maintain a
general order of nature

(Philosophical Theology, Cambridge
[1930], II, 79).

Others in the twentieth century, like Peter A. Bertocci,
following Tennant, and Charles Hartshorne, following
Alfred North Whitehead, have developed current var-
iations of the argument; and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
worked out a form of design argument in his deeply
evolutionary and widely influential posthumous work
The Phenomenon of Man (1959). The ancient argument
remains alive, therefore; and though it has lost much
of its support in philosophical circles, its perennial
appeal to religious persons and to others who approach
the intelligible order of nature with a touch of wonder
and awe will in all likelihood assure its continued
survival as a live topic for meditation and debate.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Careful examination of selected Greek texts is provided
in G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers
(Cambridge, 1957), which also offers an excellent bibliogra-
phy and useful indexes. Various translations of Plato, Aris-
totle, and Saint Thomas are readily available. A good trans-
lation of Nicholas Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium
caelestium
(1543), Book I, is found in Occasional Notes of
the Royal Astronomical Society
(London, 1947), Vol. 2, No.
10, by J. F. Dobson and S. Brodetsky. David Hume's Dia-
logues Concerning Natural Religion
(originally published
1779) may be found in a popular edition edited by Henry
David Aiken (New York, 1948). Immanuel Kant's Kritik der
reinen Vernunft
(first ed. 1781) has been well translated by
Max Müller (second ed. revised, 1927) as well as by Norman
Kemp Smith, whose more interpretative translation (1929)
reflects Kant's second edition of 1787. William Paley's
Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attrib-
utes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature

(London, 1802) is available in an abridged version edited,
with a critical introduction, by Frederick Ferré (Indianapo-
lis, 1963).

Modern works relevant to the support of the design
argument include F. R. Tennant, Philosophical Theology,
Vol. II: The World, The Soul, and God (Cambridge, 1930);
Charles Hartshorne, Man's Vision of God (New York, 1941);
P. Lecomte du Noüy, Human Destiny (New York, 1947);
Peter A. Bertocci, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion
(New York, 1951), especially Chs. XXI-XV; and P. Teilhard de
Chardin, Le Phénomène humain (Paris, 1955), translated by
Bernard Wall as The Phenomenon of Man (New York, 1959).

Some recent works relevant to the attack on the argument
include G. G. Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution (New
Haven, 1949); C. J. Ducasse, A Philosophical Scrutiny of
Religion
(New York, 1953), Ch. XV; John Hospers, An Intro-
duction to Philosophical Analysis
(New York, 1953), Ch. V;
and Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York, 1966),
Ch. IV.

FREDERICK FERRÉ

[See also Analogy; Anthropomorphism; Causation, Final
Causes;
Evolutionism; God; Metaphor; Myth; Pre-Platonic
Conceptions; Skepticism; Uniformitarianism.]