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William Paley

The human eye has had a famous association with the teleological argument about God’s design or purpose. Scientific discoveries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries showed more and more how incredibly complex life was. The English theologian William Paley (1743–1805AD) argued in his book Natural Theology that nature obviously bears evidence of order and design. He used the human eye as an example of this, suggesting that it is silly to believe that something as complicated as this could possibly come about by accident. We must conclude, therefore, that there is a designing force behind nature. Paley believed that this force is what people call God. In order to illustrate his argument he presented it in the form of a story.

Imagine that you are walking down a beach and that you stumble upon a wrist watch. Even if you had never seen a wrist watch before, it is likely that you would be struck by the fact that it differs from the other objects in the vicinity: a watch is obviously a collection of parts that have been cleverly combined in such a way as to fulfil a particular function, namely, to indicate the time. You would assume that the watch is not a natural object, but an artefact, i.e. something made on purpose by some intelligent agent. Indeed, you are likely to assume that the watch is the handiwork of a watchmaker who knew what he was doing when he made the watch. The assumption at work here is that the order found in the watch (and other artefacts) does not occur as a result of blind, accidental forces. On the contrary, it is assumed that order is always the result of an intelligent designer.
The next step in the story is to point out that the natural world also displays order, in fact an order far more complex than that found in the watch.
Consider just one example, the human eye. Is it not a marvel of engineering? Could one design a better instrument of vision if one tried? But if the order of the parts in the watch was best explained in terms of an intelligent watchmaker, ought we not to posit an intelligent world-maker for the same reason? Indeed, the world-maker must be of infinite intelligence given that the natural world is complex beyond our imagination.

Paley’s logic of analogy
Paley was using an analogical argument to present his case. An analogy is used when someone deliberately compares two similar ideas. An analogical argument, therefore, considers the similarity between things and then draws some similar conclusion. Paley suggests that it is reasonable to compare the natural world with a watch because they clearly have something in common.



√ complex √ very complex

√ has an obvious purpose √ has an obvious

Conclusion Conclusion

‘We know that a watch ‘We can assume that

has been designed.’ the human eye has been

An argument from analogy uses inductive logic. Based on what we observe we can induce a conclusion. This type of logic can only ever provide us with evidence that creates a high likelihood of the conclusion being true. Paley is really saying that given the complexity of the natural world it is highly likely that it came into being because of the intention of a designer (God).

St Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas presented his own form of the teleological argument. Aquinas called his fifth proof the Argument from Harmony. Everywhere we look there is ‘adaptation’ or ‘accord’. Fish need to swim so they have fins and tails; dogs need to gnaw bones so they have strong teeth. We can either say this is merely accident or we can argue for ‘design’ or deliberate intention. Aquinas argues that the clear-thinking person will choose the latter.

Summary – The teleological argument

People believe in God because there are so many things in the universe that are incredibly complicated. They appear to have been made with a particular purpose in mind.

The most famous advocate of the teleological argument was William Paley (1743–1805AD)
Paley said that if we all agree that a watch must have been designed by a watchmaker then surely an eye (that is complex beyond our imagination) must also have been designed.
Paley was using inductive logic to present his case, in other words he believed that it was highly likely that God exists.
Aquinas said that the harmony that exists in the world shows that things must have been designed with a purpose in mind.


1. What simple fact is at the heart of the teleological argument?

2. Read about the bucket orchid and the wings of birds or insects.
(a) Choose one and write a brief description of it.

(b) Does it persuade you that the existence of God is a possibility? (Explain your answer.)

3. Read the amazing facts about the human body. Copy and complete the chart below:

Parts of the human body

Brief comment about it (say how amazing it is)

Specific function that it performs


Can distinguish 1 million light surfaces, 14 million colour sensors and 200 million black and white sensors

Allows us to see the world


Blood vessels



4. Some people say that all the different parts of your body clearly have been designed with a specific function in mind. Do you agree with these people? Explain your answer.

5. Write a very short paragraph about William Paley. Make sure that you mention the following points:
(a) When was he alive?

(b) What nationality was he?

(c) What particular part of the human body amazed him most?
6. Write a brief description of Paley’s version of the teleological argument.
7. What type of logic was Paley using?
8. Write a brief description of St Thomas Aquinas’s version of the teleological argument.
9. The name of the argument (teleological) is derived from a Greek word telos. What does this word mean?
10 Aristotle said that there were four causes behind everything in the universe (see appendix 1).
Copy and complete the chart below:

Aristotle’s four causes

What did he mean?

The material cause

The efficient cause

The formal cause

The final cause

11 Which of Aristotle’s four causes is the key idea behind the teleological argument?

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