Critical Thought & Religious Liberty


The faulty nature of the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG)

Posted by Tod Billings—President of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and Astronomy lab instructor at the University of Arkansas (UALR)—12 February 1999.

by Tod Billings

ften theist will present the teleological argument, i.e. the argument from design, as a good reason to believe that a God exist.

The most famous is Paley's version, and it goes as follows:

  • The universe is an ordered place, analogous to a mechanism (like a watch)
  • Ordered mechanisms (like a watch) require a Creator
  • Therefore, the universe must have had a creator.

It is further concluded in Paley's form that "God exist," but this reduces the argument to a non sequitur.

Even if we grant that this argument leads to the conclusion that the universe had a Creator, it doesn't follow that this Creator still exist. It could be that the creator is long dead, as nothing in the argument requires or implies immortality, or even a nonphysical existence. We can ignore this extension of the conclusion however, and examine the argument based on the more limited conclusion that the universe had a creator, period.

Since this is an argument by analogy, the strength or weakness of the analogy will allow us to determine the soundness of the argument. I believe it is a weak analogy, and hence, a weak argument. The strength of an analogy is determined by the amount of similarities between the analogates. The fewer the similarities, the weaker the argument; the greater the similarities, the stronger the argument. If we push this analogy just the tinniest bit, we can see why it isn't an analogy of which the theist is willing to accept the full repercussions.

All the man-made objects we have encountered were made of preexisting materials. Therefore, using this analogy, we must conclude that the Creator made the universe out of preexisting materials, negating the Western theistic concept of creation ex nihilio, as well as reducing the creator to merely a builder. There was no creator in the sense of ultimate creation. There is a change from one form to another, not a creation of substance where there was none before.

All the man-made objects we have encountered were built by beings with physical bodies. Using this analogy, we must conclude that the Builder had a physical body. So we can conclude that it wasn't a spirit, but rather a physical being that is the Builder of our universe. Furthermore, all builders in our experience had a beginning themselves as individual beings, so we can conclude that the Builder had a beginning.

The man-made mechanisms we have encountered were created by physically moving material together or apart. Using this analogy, we must conclude that the Builder of the universe built the universe through physical labor.

When we encounter large and complex man-made objects, like a building or an airplane, we conclude that they were made by a large group of builders, and not a single one. Since the universe is so much more grander and more complex than anything built by man, we must conclude that there were a great number of Builders of our universe, and not just a singular "God" as the author concludes.

If a man-made object has flaws or redundancies, we conclude that either the maker or designer was ignorant, sloppy, or careless. Since the universe has flaws and redundancies (e.g., genetic degradation, mutations, or other disfigurations, natural disasters, wisdom teeth, male nipples, exploding stars, mass extinctions, etc.), we can conclude that the Builder was ignorant, sloppy, or careless.

All man-made mechanisms we encounter are made by beings that will die. Using this analogy, we can conclude that either God is dead or will die.

All man-made mechanisms were made within the natural world by natural beings. Therefore we can conclude from this analogy that God is a natural being within the natural world, and not a supernatural being in a supernatural world.

The theist denies most if not all of these conclusions, and therefore, at least implicitly, acknowledges the weakness of this analogy.

So we see that there are many dissimilarities between these analogates, and only one true similarity: both of the creations in question, the universe and man-made mechanisms. are ordered and/or complex to some degree. The problem for the theist making this argument arises when one points out that God must be an ordered and complex being to be a living and intelligent being with the power to create, and so one can use the same argument to prove that God had a Creator as well!

So the argument is not only based upon a very weak analogy, but the one analogous trait between the universe and a watch also applies to God, leaving us with a redundant argument. If it is granted as a sound argument, it can prove the universe had a Creator, the Creator had a Creator, the Creator's Creator had a Creator, ad infinitum. Why not embrace parsimony and just assume that the universe is exempt from a Creator, since we are required to be a bit arbitrary about it and exempt something from having a creator anyhow? If God can be exempt, the universe can be exempt, and we already know the universe exists. If this argument proves that the universe had a creator, it also proves that God had a creator.

I believe I've established that this argument isn't a good one, because we can grant the premises to be absolutely true and it still is not the case that the conclusion is true. That is because one of the premises, while true, is a weak analogy. An example:

I am like a watch in some ways. I am ordered and complex. I am made of an assortment of smaller parts. I have moving parts. I have parts that keep a rhythmic and consistent pace (certain biorhythms). However, I guess I don't have to point out it is a weak analogy, because there are many more dissimilarities. Let's suppose I make an argument like the one I'm about to that uses a similarly weak analogy as found in the design argument as a premise:

  • Tod Billings is like a watch
  • A watch can be worn on the wrist
  • Therefore, Tod Billings can be worn on the wrist

Clearly that isn't a good argument, because we can grant the premises and still see the conclusion isn't true. The problem lies in the first premise. We can grant some similarities, and hence we can grant the premise to be true, but not the similarities crucial to deriving the conclusion. The same is the case in Paley's argument. We cannot conclude that the universe had a Creator or that God exists based upon his analogy.

I have already established that the first premise, while true, isn't true in the areas necessary to derive the conclusion that God exist. The second premise is only true depending on how we define a "mechanism." This is one of the bigger failings of this argument.

Paley defines such a mechanism as something "framed and put together for a purpose," or having a means to an end (William Paley, Natural Theology, 1802. Quoted in Burrill, The Cosmological Arguments, pp. 166-167). If the theist means to point out the regularity in nature and its uniform behavior, then the theist is only pointing to identity and causality, and aren't those necessary corollaries for existence? Everything is subject to these two principles, so this is hardly an argument!

Furthermore, if the theist is going to claim "purpose" in the universe's layout, the theist is begging the question, since that is what s/he is trying to prove. The theist must demonstrate this, so the theist can't use it as one of his/her premises.

Furthermore, Paley takes it for granted that the criteria by which we judge something to be created and/or designed is the fact that its parts display a "means to an end." That isn't how we judge man-made objects. It isn't because of its order or activity that we conclude the watch was created, it is because it displays evidence of being a machine, which we were familiar with before hand. We don't look for purpose, we look for particular markings, materials, expected structures, etc., not just order or a "means to an end."

If I created an object that looked identical to a rock, you would conclude it was a natural object, despite the fact that the truth is, it was created and designed by a human. That is because it does not show the characteristics which identify man-made objects, and isn't distinguishable from a natural phenomenon. It is an ordered object, and it further could easily have a purpose (a paper weight, a weapon, etc.).

Despite the fact that it has order and purpose, you wouldn't conclude it is a man-made object, because it lacks the features that distinguish it from the purely natural world. That is because purpose and order alone are not how we judge whether an object is designed by an intelligent being. When archaeologist identify stone tools as being such, they don't do so because they see a purpose the stone could be used for (that comes after they establish it is indeed an artifact), they look for markings, etc., evidence of having been crafted in a human way with which we are already familiar.

If you recognize a watch is man-made, it is because you already are familiar with the mechanisms and materials that make up a watch, and you then recognize them. It isn't because of its order and complexity in of themselves. It is because you recognize materials, markings etc. not found in nature, but only produced by humans.

To make a long story short, we recognize man-made artifacts by depending on our ability to recognize characteristics not found in nature! Nature itself provides the criteria of comparison by which we distinguish between designed objects and natural objects. If one is going to claim nature itself is designed, by what criteria are we to judge this? If you claim nature is designed, you destroy the criteria by which we determine that objects are designed.

It also must be pointed out that not all aspects of the universe display elements of order or "purpose," but rather of redundancy, chaos, and randomness. Virtual particles randomly appear and disappear at all time. In fact, all evidence suggest that all quantum activity is random to a degree, and there is no certainty, only probability. What of the aforementioned wisdom teeth? They serve no purpose, as is apparent by the fact that we live just fine without them. They do in fact cause pain (and even death), which would indicate that, if there is a Creator, he/she/it is either cruel, arbitrary, or redundant. What of solar system debris? Does that indicate order or design? Of course not. It too, is a threat to humans, as this debris sometimes collides with our planet, destroying much or most of the life upon it. What of the aforementioned mass extinctions? What is the purpose in creating a species only to destroy it?

The proponents of this argument will have a hard time establishing many aspects of the universe as having order, purpose, or design.

Another problem with this design argument is that it ignores a crucial, and more easily established factor, a factor that allows and predicts some of the aforementioned redundancies, i.e. solar system debris, wisdom teeth, etc., and that is adaptation. Mechanisms don't have to be created, they can evolve and adapt. Adaptation is further more parsimonious than the notion of a Creator, because we already know that adaptation exist, we know no such thing in regards to a Creator (and this argument doesn't establish as much, as I've demonstrated).

Take wisdom teeth, for example. In the theistic model, they are unexplainable. Would you build a house for your family with unnecessary redundancies? Of course not, why invest the time and money into adding a feature to your house that serves no purpose? Would you build such a house with a feature not only redundant, but which you know will some day cause your family pain or even death? Of course you wouldn't. So why would a God? Granted, that doesn't lead to the conclusion there is no Creator, only that there isn't a perfect omnimax Creator, and if there is one, this Creator is either ignorant, careless, or malevolent. But what person putting forth this argument believes in a Creator that is either ignorant, careless, or malevolent?

In the evolutionary model of adaptation however, wisdom teeth, for example, is explained and predicted. We know from fossil evidence that our ancestors show a continuous trend towards a reduction of sub-nasal prognathism, i.e. the jutting of the jaw. We also know from the same fossil evidence that our ancestors have had the same number of teeth since before we were hominids, and that hasn't changed in many millions of years. It stands to reason that as the jaw shrinks, if you continue to have the same number of teeth, wisdom teeth will be the result. If you try to fit the same amount of teeth in a smaller and smaller area, they will be pushed together. Adaptation allows these examples of disorder in our universe, both in the context of biological and cosmological evolution. So the theist has not only failed to establish that the universe is a mechanism, but even if we grant that, the theist has failed to establish that a mechanism must be created, and cannot evolve and adapt. For these numerous reasons, this argument is not a good one.

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