The idea that there is design in the universe, and that this design is evidence of a designer, is an argument often put forward by believers.  The argument from design is one that is easy to draw the listener into, and can be quite compelling to those that look only on the surface.  When asked to ‘prove it’ the arguer need only wave his arm around pointing to their environment, or to the wider universe, and say ‘there is my proof’.  Many non-believers have heard the statement ‘the proof is all around you’ when asking the believer for proof of God, and this argument is implicitly alluded to in that statement.  It is not the only thing alluded to in that statement of course, and the main point of the ‘proof is all around you’ statement is the fact that there is existence at all.  However, deeper examination of the statement will lead to the argument from design.  Here we will look at various versions of the argument from design, as well as some of the counters to the argument, drawing mainly on criticisms of the argument from David Hume.  By doing so we will ask questions about how compelling the argument from design is, as well as how compelling the criticisms of the argument from design are. So, what is the argument from design?

The argument from design

Most people will be familiar with the argument from design, also referred to as ‘the teleological argument’, however, for the sake of clarity we will explore the argument before moving on to the counterarguments.  The argument from design, of course, is the argument that there appears to be design in the universe, from the smallest of things to the universe itself, and where we find something that was designed, we also find a designer.  Design is also indication of some level of intelligence.  So, bearing this in mind, the universe, being designed, must also have an intelligent designer.  This designer, according to theistic arguments, is God.  That of course is a very rough breakdown of the argument, but gives some basic idea to the fundamental idea underlying it.  The argument is used by many contemporary theists, and is the basis for Paley’s Watchmaker argument, and is also the argument that can be found in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

A teleological argument syllogism

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To break it down in a more formal manner, the argument goes somewhat like this:

P1) The universe is a highly organised and complex system, and one that is perfectly suited to causing particular effects.
P2) Some human made objects are highly organised and complex systems, and are systems that are perfectly suited to causing particular effects.
C1) Therefore there are similarities between the universe and human made objects.
P3) Where two things resemble each other, so too do their causes.
C2) Therefore the cause of nature resembles the cause of human creations.
P4) Human creations are caused to exist by intelligent designers.
C3) Therefore the natural world was caused by an intelligent designer.

Paley’s Watchmaker

This is the underlying argument in Paley’s Watchmaker argument, but Paley gives us a way to visualise the idea somewhat (Himma, 1995).  Paley’s argument asks us to imagine ourselves coming across a pocket watch in the desert.  Upon coming in contact with this pocket watch we immediately know that there is a watchmaker that created it.  Its design, its intricacies, the many parts that work together to keep the time and move the hands in a particular way, all point towards it having a designer and a watchmaker.  More about Paley’s watchmaker argument can be found in Artificial Agent’s excellent article ‘Dismantling the Watchmaker’ here at AiR. As stated though, the underlying argument behind it somewhat resembles the above formal argument.  Close enough to the above formal argument, at least, for many of the following counterarguments to be useful for Paley’s Watchmaker argument, as well as the many other forms of the teleological argument.  So, what are some of the counterarguments for the teleological argument?

A brief look at Hume’s counterarguments

The above formal argument somewhat represents the first argument put forward by Cleanthes to Philo in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Hume in Cottingham, 2008).  To this argument Hume responds with an argument not unlike his argument concerning the problem of induction. The simplest explanation is to say that even when we have seen something a thousand times, we have no good reason to assume that it will always be the case.  It may make something more probable, but it does not necessarily make it the case.  For example, we may have seen a thousand white swans in the past, and this would give us reason to believe that it is probable that all swans are white.  It does not, however, give us reason to declare that all swans are white.    So, just as with the discovery of black swans, we might discover some things do not need an intelligent designer.  However, while this gives us reason to insert doubt into the claim that the appearance of design implies a designer, it is not a compelling enough argument to dispel the idea all together.  It simply criticises the reasoning behind inferring a designer for the universe from other designed things.

Though it does bring us to a criticism based along similar lines.  An argument often used, and one that is a shorthand form of Paley’s watchmaker argument, goes something along the lines of ‘when we see a painting, we know there is a painter’.  Hume covers this somewhat in his dialogues when he states ‘that a stone will fall, that fire will burn, that the earth has solidity, we have observed a thousand times and a thousand times more’ (Hume in Cottingham, 2008, p366).  There is something intuitive to the claim that when we see a painting, we know there is a painter; and it is for reasons similar to what Hume states.  We know that there is a painter involved because it is something that we have observed ‘a thousand times and a thousand times more’ (Hume in Cottingham, 2008, p366).  Consider that when we come across a car, we do not automatically infer that it is a sculpture created by an artist, and it is because of our experience with how cars are made that we do not infer that it is a sculpture created by an artist.  This means that in order to make the same kind of inference with a universe we would had to have come across the creation of a universe ‘a thousand times and a thousand times more’ in order for the inference to be the same as that of a painter or a watch.  However, to argue that the argument from design is simply based on the inference made by arguments like ‘when we see a watch we know there is a watchmaker’ and ‘when we see a painting we know there is a painter’ would be to argue from a faulty position.  For it is not simply the like effects equal like causes arguments that the argument is based on, there is also the argument from intricacy.

Paley’s watchmaker involves the argument from intricacy by making an analogy to the gears of a watch, all working in a complex and interconnected manner to bring about a particular end, with that end being the moving of the watch hands to show us the correct time (Himma, 1995).  Hume includes this kind of analogy in his dialogue using the example of a house and an architect.  In the dialogue Cleanthes argues that the interconnectedness and complexity of the structure gives us cause to infer that there was an intelligent designer behind the structure.  In Hume’s dialogue Cleanthes goes on to relate this interconnectedness and complexity of the structure to the structure found in the universe.  Again, there is a certain intuition that this claim brings to the fore.  When we look at the universe, or even just the human body, we see complexity, and we see the body function in a certain way where certain ends are brought about by that complexity.  This intuition can be used to drive further intuitions that agreement with arguments like Paley’s watchmaker argument. 

In response to this Hume brings up here is similar point to the one made previously about having no good reason to believe that simply because we have come across something before, it does not mean it will necessarily be the case the next time.  Think back to the swan example in the previous paragraph.  A simple example here is natural interconnected networks of caves, these give an appearance that they have been designed this way; with tunnels looking as though they have been purposefully and mindfully carved out in order to allow access between caves.  However, there was no mindfulness or purpose involved in the creation of the tunnels between caves.  Natural processes have created them, not intelligence.  However, following the logic of the argument from complexity, we would have to conclude that these networks of caves had an intelligent designer, an architect that designed and built the caves and their connecting tunnels.  So, as Hume states, just because we have seen something before, and something else resembles it, it does not mean we have reason to infer like causes.  Of course, as with previously, this is not a compelling enough argument to outright dismiss the argument from design.  The argument simply gives us cause to doubt the claim that appearance of design automatically infers a designer.

Hume brings up several other points regarding the argument from architecture, such as whether we can learn information about the origin of something, or how it came to be, simply from examining a small part of that something.  However, as with the previous arguments, none of Hume’s arguments are compelling enough to allow us to dispel the argument from design outright.  Instead they give us good reason to doubt that the appearance of design infers an intelligent designer.  Hume does bring up an excellent point later in the dialogue, ‘for aught we can know a priori, matter may contain the source or spring of order originally within itself’ (Hume in Cottingham, 2008, p367).  Considering that Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was nearly a century away from being published, this is somewhat of a prophetic statement.  For since Hume’s argument we have come to learn the theory of evolution, and the theory of evolution has enabled us to learn and understand how matter can indeed arrange itself, and contain the ‘source or spring of order originally within itself’ (Hume in Cottingham, 2008, p367).  Further investigation into genetic encoding, DNA, mutations, natural selection, and more, has enabled us to see how the appearance of design can come about naturally, and without the hand of an intelligent designer.

As with the other arguments though, while evolution and natural selection does give us a method of understanding how the appearance of design can come about through completely natural processes, it is not a compelling enough argument to outright dismiss or shut down the idea of intelligent design.  This is because there are still gaps in our knowledge, and these gaps allow the proponent of intelligent design to further reduce the conversation.  These further reductions allow the proponent to argue for why intelligence is needed, and offer further examples of design.  One such proponent is Stephen Meyer, a scientist that promotes intelligent design.  Meyer gives us an example of how a gap in knowledge can be used to offer an argument for design.  One argument that Meyer offers us is ‘the argument for design from biological information’, with this argument being based upon the idea that ‘RNA, DNA, and similar ingredients of biological cells are, apparently, not products of evolution, but preconditions’ (Chappell, 2011, p94).  These preconditions, and the inability to fully explain their origins, allows an argument to be made that design was necessary in order for these to come about.  These gaps in knowledge allow inferences and questions to be raised.  While those who reject the idea of intelligent design may not find these arguments compelling, those that hold to the idea of intelligent design do.

Like many other mysterious gaps that were once filled using a ‘divine hand’, we may discover that there are purely natural forces at work.  Just as with evolution, we may discover that the ‘laws’ of the universe function in such a way that allow these things to happen.  These ‘laws’ may work in such a way that enables an appearance of design at the deepest levels of the structure of the universe.  Though herein lies another problem with any argument against design, the proponent of intelligent design can simply reduce the argument even further by asking ‘well where did these laws come from?’ or ‘who designed these laws?’, as well as other similar questions.  Many who argue with proponents of the argument from design will have come across this question, or the claim that ‘laws imply a law maker’.  The ‘god of the gaps’ thinking is considered fallacious of course, but fallacious or not it is in these gaps that we find the proponents for intelligent design.  The intuitions brought about by the appearance of design in the universe, at both the small and large scale, allow these ‘god of the gaps’ arguments to be more convincing to certain people than they ought to be.

It is also these gaps that stop us from being able to create a truly compelling argument against the argument from design, and the idea of intelligent design.  As those who wish to argue for it, or wish to be convinced by it, can at this time find some gap in which their argument can be inserted.  However, it is also these gaps in knowledge, along with the above arguments, such as the self-arranging nature of various parts of the universe, that allow us to cast doubt on these arguments.  So, while arguments like Hume’s raise excellent points, and allow us to cast doubt on the argument from design, they are not truly compelling.  There is nothing in them that allows us to show that there is no design in the universe, and no intelligence behind any of the perceived design, or that it needs at least some level of intelligent design.  Those already convinced of the faultiness of the intelligent design argument will find these arguments convincing of course, however, they are not compelling enough to completely convince those who are already convinced by the intelligent design argument.  Though this does not mean that it will always be the case, for we still have much discovering to do, and much discovery to come.  As those gaps get smaller and smaller, the arguments against design will become more and more compelling, and the arguments for design less and less convincing.

Chappell, T. (2011) The Philosophy of Religion. Milton Keynes, The Open University,

Himma, K. E. (1995) Design Arguments for the Existence of God [Online] The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) (ISSN 2161-0002), Available at (Accessed 3 August 2019).

Hume, D. ‘The Argument From Design’ (2008 [1777]) in Cottingham, J. Western Philosophy:An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 365-370.