It is not uncommon for humans to find themselves with the intuition that random, unplanned, unexplained accident just couldn't produce the order, beauty, elegance, and seeming purpose that we experience in the natural world around us. As Hume's interlocutor Cleanthes put it, we seem to see “the image of mind reflected on us from innumerable objects” in nature. (Hume 1779 , 35). And many people find themselves convinced that no explanation for that mind-resonance which fails to acknowledge a causal role for intelligence, intent and purpose in nature can be seriously plausible.
Cosmological arguments begin with the bare fact that there are contingently existing things and end with conclusions concerning the existence of a maker with the power to account for the existence of those contingent things. Teleological arguments (or arguments from design) by contrast begin with a much more specialized catalogue of properties and end with a conclusion concerning the existence of a designer with the intellectual properties (knowledge, purpose, understanding, foresight, wisdom, intention) necessary to design the things exhibiting the special properties in question. In broad outline, then, teleological arguments focus upon finding and identifying various traces of the operation of a mind in nature's temporal and physical structures, behaviors and paths. Order of some significant type is usually the starting point of design arguments. Various advocates have focused on different types, levels and instances of order, have suggested different logical connections between order, design and designer and have pursued different levels of rigor—from Bayesian formalisms to the deadly serious whimsy of G.K. Chesterton:
So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot. (Chesterton 1908, 106-7) Design-type arguments are largely unproblematic when based upon things nature clearly could not or would not produce (e.g., most human artifacts), or when the intelligent agency is itself ‘natural’ (human, alien, etc.). Identifying designed traces of ‘lost’ human civilizations or even non-human civilizations (Alpha Centaurian, say, via SETI) could in principle be uncontroversial or even nearly trivial. If we are confronted with something which nature unaided by an intelligence truly could not or would not produce (e.g., a DVD player), a design conclusion of some sort is very nearly inescapable. The unproblematic nature of such arguments has often been appropriated as a foundation for analogous inferences concerning (things in) nature. But in cases involving design in (or of) nature itself inferences are more problematic. Things actually in nature presumably are among those things which nature could or would produce, the intelligence in question would typically presumably not be within nature, and our everyday types of design inferences would appear to be wide of the mark.
But despite the variety of spirited critical attacks they have elicited, design arguments have historically had and continue to have widespread intuitive appeal—indeed, it is sometimes claimed that design arguments are the most persuasive of all purely philosophical theistic arguments.
2. Design Inference Patterns
The historical arguments of interest are precisely the potentially problematic ones—inferences beginning with some empirical features of nature taken as (or argued to be) design-indicative, and concluding with the designedness of, and a designer of, the phenomena in question. A standard but separable second step—the natural theology step—involves identifying the designer as God, often via particular properties and powers required by the designing in question. Although the argument wielded its greatest intellectual influence during the 18th and early 19th centuries, it goes back at least to the Greeks and in extremely clipped form comprises one of Aquinas's Five Ways. It was given a fuller and quite nice early statement by...
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