Teleological Arguments

Teleological Arguments

Craig A. Smith (from the book, The Search)

These type of arguments are named for the Greek word teleos, which literally means “perfect.” For the ancient Greeks, something was “perfect” only when it fulfilled its intended purpose.

As you might guess then, teleological arguments attempt to show that various features of the universe can only be explained if we accept that they were intended for a particular purpose. In other words, teleological arguments show that various systems in the universe have been designed, with particular goals in mind, rather than springing into existence and evolving randomly.

People who work with teleological arguments tend to spend a lot of time demonstrating that random chance is simply incapable of producing the systems we see operating in the natural world.

Currently, the leaders in the use of teleological arguments are part of a group referred to as the Intelligent Design Theorists. This is an impressive group of individuals with loads of academic credentials. They’re medical doctors, physicists, mathematicians and philosophers. Most of them are Christian, but that’s not the case for every one of them. What they all have in common, however, is a deep-seated conviction that the universe is filled with systems that cannot be the product of random chance. From the smallest parts of the cell to the massive collections of stellar material we call galaxies, there is an astounding amount of evidence that our universe was designed.

Now, follow me closely here: where there’s a design. there’s a designer.

Teleological arguments take several forms, but the most scientific ones on two basic concepts: specified complexity and irreducible complexity.

Specified Complexity

Imagine someone has thrown a bunch of alphabet blocks onto the floor. If there’s enough blocks, it wouldn’t be all that unusual for a couple of them to end up next to each other in ways that make simple words: AN, BE, OR, etc.

We can say that such arrangements are specified, because they accomplish something specific. In this case, they accomplish the specific task of representing simple words.

There’s no question that chance can produce systems that accomplish specific things. What our examples above lack, however, is complexity. AN might be a word, but it’s not a very impressive word. It only has two components, the A and the N. The simpler, or less complex, that a system is, the more likely that the system itself could be produced by chance. That is why teleological arguments don’t look for things that are just specified, but for things that are both specified and complex.

Imagine that most of our imaginary blocks are A’s and B’s. In that case, throwing the blocks on the floor might well produce a sequence like this: AABABBBAABA. Is this sequence complex? Yes, because it contains many components. But is it specific? Probably not1.

But suppose our blocks contain not just A’s and B’s but all the letters of the alphabet. Imagine that we throw them all on the floor and then leave the room without looking at them. After a few hours, we come back and find that some of them are arranged as follows COCA COLA, TELEPHONE, HOW ARE YOU. What would you conclude? Would you say to yourself, “Isn’t it amazing what random chance can do?” or would you assume that someone had come along in your absence and arranged the blocks in these ways on purpose?

The answer is obvious. You would naturally assume that someone had designed these particular sequences because the arrangements are both specified and complex. They’re specified because they communicate meaningful things in your own language. They’re complex because they contain many components, which means that the particular arrangements themselves are extremely unlikely to be produced by chance. For instance, think about the arrangement TELEPHONE. Even if your collection of blocks only contained nine blocks, each with one of the letters necessary to produce this word, you could only expect to get this specific arrangement 1 out of every 362,880 times you threw the blocks down.

So, these arrangements possess what we call specified complexity. Could chance produce such arrangements that are both specified and complex? Obviously this is unlikely and the greater the degree of specified complexity, the less likely that the arrangement could be produced by chance.

Now, there are lots of systems in the universe that possess specified complexity. In fact, most systems in the biological and physical realms are complex, in the sense that they depend on several components and specified, in the sense that they accomplish very specific tasks.

Not even the most hard-core atheists will deny this fact. What they will do, however, is toss out something called survival of the fittest. You’re probably familiar with this idea. Basically, it says that whatever works best in the environment where it operates, survives. What doesn’t work best, dies off or disappears.

See, atheists don’t claim that all the systems we see operating in the universe today sprang into existence with their current level of complexity. What they argue is that each complex system we see operating today began from radically simpler systems that gradually grew more complex as billions of years passed. As changes happened to the various systems, because of random occurrences, the principle of survival of the fittest selected systems that offered some advantage.

So atheists tend to say, “Of course the systems are complex, they’ve been changing and getting more complicated for a really long time now. And yes, they’re specified because only the arrangements that can actually accomplish something that benefits the system or the organism as a whole will survive.”

There are several problems with this kind of reasoning, but the most important is the second concept on which the teleological arguments depend: irreducible complexity.

Irreducible Complexity

Irreducible complexity is a characteristic that belongs to systems with multiple parts that are completely useless unless all the parts are present and working at the same time. The classic example of irreducible complexity is the mousetrap. Think about all its parts: a base, a spring, a catch, a trigger, a wire snapper. Which one could you get rid of?

If you get rid of the base, you’ve got nothing to attach anything to. Without the catch, the snapper won’t stay “loaded” until it’s time to go to work. Without the spring, the snapper has no power. Get the picture? Get rid of any of these things and you don’t have a mousetrap that works partially. You have a mousetrap that does nothing. Actually, you really can’t say that you have a mousetrap at all. You just have a bunch of useless junk.

In more technical terms, what we’re saying is that the complexity of the system cannot be reduced beyond a certain point without ceasing to function.

Now, many systems have parts that can be removed without destroying the system’s ability to function, at least partially. For instance, most mousetraps have manufacturer info printed on the base. If we think of such information as a part of the system, we could say that it is possible to remove some parts of the system without affecting the trap’s performance. But, there’s a limit to how many parts we can remove and still have a working trap. In other words, there’s a limit to how much the trap’s complexity can be reduced without rendering the system non-functioning. This is what we are talking about when we use the phrase irreducible complexity.

Together, specified complexity and irreducible complexity form a powerful argument for the existence of a Designer who is responsible for the universe and everything in it.

Remember, there is a vast array of systems in the physical and the biological worlds that possess specified complexity. Naturalistic evolution (which says that everything can be explained without referring to a Designer) acknowledges that random chance could never have produced such systems right off the bat. So, they argue that these systems evolved bit by bit over long periods of time where they gradually got more and more complex.

This is extremely unlikely, to be the sure, and that alone makes the concept pretty hard to swallow. However, the real clincher is that so many of these systems are also irreducibly complex…unless all of the basic components were present at precisely the same time, the system would have been non-functional; not partly functional, mind you, but completely useless. And at that point the whole of idea of survival of the fittest comes back to bite the evolutionists and atheists just like an out-of-control watchdog.

Take the eye for instance: for a functioning eye, you need a photoreceptor of some sort, a way to get the information from the photoreceptor to the brain and a portion of the brain that is capable of interpreting the data in a meaningful way. Now, each of these three parts are quite probably irreducibly complex themselves, but for now we’ll leave that fact aside. Think about this: if you have a photoreceptor but no brain area ready to deal with the data, what do you have? You don’t have an eye that sees badly, you have an “eye” that does nothing. Absolutely nothing. And what’s worse, you have vital energy being used up in the production of useless organs. That’s exactly the sort of thing that the survival of the fittest principle would weed out quickly. The same is true for each of the parts of the simple eye mentioned above. Unless you have all three appearing randomly at the same time, not to mention connected in such a way that they can function together, you don’t have a simple eye, you’ve got junk.

When we start to try to calculate chances that not just one, but all three of the basic parts could appear by random chance/mutation at exactly the same time and in an arrangement where they could function together, it quickly becomes obvious that they couldn’t. No way. Not possible.

The eye is just one example. There are lots of systems that have specified complexity and are irreducibly complex. Other examples that scientists are writing about right now include: blood clotting, the flagellum on bacterium, cilia, the ATP Synthase molecule, etc. These are all described in detail in Michael Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box and William Dembski’s Signs of Intelligence. If you want more detail on any of these examples, I highly recommend these two books. Neither of them are exactly kids’ books, but they’re clear and definitely worth the effort. If you really want a challenge, try Dembski’s book No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence.

What it all boils down to is this: systems that are complex, specified and cannot be accounted for by the gradual accumulation of complexity are best explained by a Designer, and we call this designer God.

That’s the essence of the teleological arguments. Again, these arguments don’t say a great deal about the kind of God we’re dealing with, other than that He is intelligent, powerful and apparently very creative. But they have the virtue of being used by some very smart people who are working hard right now to demonstrate their findings to the scientific world. And you know what? They’re having a surprising degree of success. Belief in God isn’t a scientific thing, of course, but isn’t it nice to know that scientific evidence supports our belief?

1 We have to say probably, because what if it turned out that this particular sequence was the exact code you had to enter to gain access to a government computer system? See, in that case, this sequence would also be specified because it would be this sequence and only this sequence which would produce a particular, specified result. Of course, this would beg the question, “what’s the chance of randomly producing the exact sequence needed to access the computer system?” In this case, the chance is .05%…not very likely at all!