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Teleological Arguments and Philosophy

The version of the argument from design is best known in contemporary philosophy as presented by William Paley (1805) in his Natural Theology. He presents us with an analogy of a watch. Suppose that while walking in a deserted remote location one comes across a watch. Upon examining this device one may ask themselves how did this object come into existence. Surely it could not be by pure chance, it is composed of intricate and complex internal design. We are likely to think that it was a product of an intelligent designer, i.e. there must be a watchmaker. In the same way Paley argues that the universe is much more complex and manifestly designed. The extraordinary design is evident from planets and galaxies at the cosmic level to human cells and atoms at the quantum level. Therefore this world must have an intelligent creator.

This form of the argument can be seen as an inference to the best explanation. That is given the remarkable phenomena of the universe, the best possible explanation for this, must be the existence of God. Elliot Sober explains this in terms of the Likelihood Principle, which he defines as: "O" strongly favors "H1" over "H2" if and only if "H1" assigns to "O" a probability that is much bigger than the probability that "H2" assigns to "O" [Sober, pp. 31-33].

Here "O" is an observation, and "H" is a hypothesis. The likelihood may be mathematically written as [P (O/H)]: the probability of the observation given the hypothesis. The principle in probability theory form would state that "O" strongly favors "H1" over "H2" if and only if "P(O/H1) >> P(O/H2)." This Sober makes clear is not to be confused with the Probability Principle which states can be written as "[P (H/O)]."

These are two important distinct principles. Sober gives an example of the observation (O) that while sitting in a cabin one hears rumblings in the attic. On the basis of this one forms the hypothesis (H) that there are gremlins in the attic and they are bowling. Now it is clear that the P (O/H) is very high, that is, if there were gremlin's bowling (H) the likelihood of the rumbling noise (O) would be quite high. But P (H/O) in this case is very low. Since given the rumbling noise (O), the probability of the explanation being bowling gremlins (H) is small. "The gremlin hypothesis has a high likelihood but a low probability given the noises we hear" [Sober, p. 32]. The Likelihood Principle a much better way to understand the inference to the best explanation, since in the case of God a hypothesis is being formed on the basis of observations, in the teleological sense.

Paley, according to Sober, is attempting to apply the Likelihood Principle to the watch example. That is, given that the watch is intricate and well-designed for timekeeping (O), the inference that it was designed by an intelligent creator (H1) is higher than the conclusion that it came into being via random natural processes. Symbolically written it would be stated: P(O/H1) >> P(O/H2).

Paley next argues that if one accepts the above reasoning one is then obliged to accept the reasoning he gives for the universe as a whole, which is as follows:

O - The world is intricate and well-designed for the purpose of supporting life. H1 - The world is the product of an intelligent designer. H2 - The world is the product of random physical processes.

Given the above, again Paley's claim would be that P(O/H1) >> P(O/H2). Both of the above are inferences to the best explanation on the basis of the Likelihood Principle outlined earlier [Sober, p. 33]. Sober later rejects the notion presented by Paley, and argues that the likelihood of an evolutionary hypothesis supersedes the likelihood of a creationist hypothesis.

Al-Kindi also attempts to make reference to the teleological proof (dalil al-'indyah) for the existence of God. He argues that "the orderly and wonderful phenomena of nature could not be purposeless and accidental" [Kindi, p. 61]. This is consistent with the Quranic verse "Not for (idle) sport did We create the heavens and the earth and all that is between!" [Yusuf Ali, Quran 21:16]. The teleological argument analyses the material world and infers from it an Artificer or a creator, a self-conscious being of unlimited intelligence and power, who created this extremely complex world for a purpose and that creator is God. Muhammad Iqbal once again criticizes this argument in the following terms:

At best, it [teleological proof] gives us a skillful external contriver working on a pre-existing dead and intractable material the elements of which are, by their own nature, incapable of orderly structures and combinations. The argument gives us a contriver only and not a creator; and even if we suppose him to be also the creator of his material, it does no credit to his wisdom to create his own difficulties by first creating intractable material, and then overcoming its resistance by the application of methods alien to its original nature. The designer regarded as external to his material must always remain limited by his material and hence a finite designer ... . [Iqbal, p. 24]

Iqbal is pointing out that any argument from design rests on the extraordinary complexity and almost perfect arrangement of the universe, so as to compel the observer to infer that there must be an intelligent designer. This is consistent with the watchmaker example presented by Paley. The two cases, the watch and the universe, are however, different.

Unlike the case of the watch, where its builder put the complex machine together given pre-existing material, the universe and its material itself created by God also. That is, there is no point in finding it extraordinary that God would be able to organize pre-existing "intractable" material in such an elegant fashion. The only reason we would have of thinking so, would be if it was a difficult task to design the universe. But then why would God, first create a difficult task for Himself and then go on resolve the difficulty by arranging into a sophisticated pattern? In addition, God would be limited in what He could create by this pre-existing material. This, to Iqbal, does not seem consistent with the Islamic concept of an omnipotent God. Iqbal writes, perhaps in response to Paley, "There is really no analogy between the work of the human artificer and the phenomena of Nature" [Iqbal, p. 24].

Bertrand Russell joins in this criticism, commenting on the teleological explanation, he professes, but if a man is so obstinately teleological as to continue to ask what purpose is served by the creator, it becomes obvious that his question is impious. It is, moreover, unmeaning, since, to make it significant, we should have to suppose the Creator created by some super-Creator whose purposes He served. [Russell, p. 85]

Both Iqbal and Russell point out that it is inappropriate for a person who believes in God to put forth an argument for His existence on teleological grounds.

The British philosopher David Hume also rejected the teleological argument, for different reasons. For him the argument from the best explanation is an inductive argument, and Hume had argued that inductive knowledge and causation is not possible. Hume rejected all theological works and claimed that they fail certain philosophical tests. He contended that metaphysical knowledge was not possible by either abstract or experimental reasoning. The problem of induction argues that it is impossible to make a justified inference from the observed to the unobserved. This is applicable to all such inferences.

An example of such an inference is the following: we observe that "the sun rises everyday and has risen everyday for over several thousand years" on the basis of this observation we make an inference that: "Hence that the sun will rise tomorrow". Hume claims that we are not at all justified in such an assumption. He asks what makes such an inference justifiable? Hume recognizes that we spontaneously make such an inference and that perhaps we have no control over it. But he is asking what is our justification for this supposed causal relationship? He asserts where is the causal glue that links the rising of the sun yesterday to the rising of the sun tomorrow?

The only argument that can be made in support of it is that "Nature is uniform," i.e. Nature has been uniform and will remain uniform thus we are justified in making inferences to unobserved events on the basis of what we have been observing. However, it must be noted that this argument in itself is an inductive one and begs the question.

This is similar to the argument for the existence of God from induction, since the argument is being made that we can use empirical/inductive proofs, i.e. we can make inferences based upon what we observe (empirical) to the unobserved (God, Metaphysical). Hume denies that any such inference is at all logically justifiable. Bertrand Russell in response to this attitude states, it is therefore important to discover whether there is any answer to Hume within the framework of a philosophy that is wholly or mainly empirical. If not, there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity ... . This is a desperate point of view, and it must be hoped that there is some way of escaping from it. [Russell, p. 646]

Most Muslim philosophers have attempted to get around this vexatious problem by simply recognizing the Quranic emphasis on the uniformity of nature, accepting it as such and thus avoiding this problem. The above problem of induction gave rise to modern skepticism and remains a fascinating unsolved puzzle.

Adapted from the book: "Groundwork in Islamic Philosophy"

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