A Teleological Argument for God’s Existence
An undisclosed number of years ago, I shared a house with four other young lads while we attended a nearby Bible college. I was the youngest at eighteen years old and the eldest was in his early twenties. One of the stipulations of our staying in the house was that we kept the place in good order. It must have slipped our minds at some point that this included keeping the large lawn around the back mowed and clear of weeds. We were gently reminded of our outdoor responsibilities as the end of the year approached. I remembered with alarm, for the first time in months, that there was a back lawn at all. Unsurprisingly, a cursory inspection revealed that the grass was overgrown and generously mixed with waist high weeds. The total area encompassed by the fences was also much larger than I remembered while moving in all those months ago.
After donning a pair of faded pink gardening gloves discovered under the kitchen sink, I marched out there one morning determined to make a start on what I hoped would be a major offensive against the jungle we had allowed to develop on our watch. Presumably to affect innocence a few of the taller and thicker weeds had the audacity to produce white and pink flowers at some point in the year. Stooping down I grabbed a vulnerable looking character and gave it a sharp tug close to the ground. The entire garden seemed to shiver from one end to the other. After some probing I realized with dawning horror that what appeared to be isolated invaders was a single dizzying network of bindweed. These ground-level vines would resist my efforts at every turn from one end of the jungle to the other.
Grappling with the fifth way of Thomas Aquinas is something like that. It would be naïve to think Aquinas’s fifth way is an unassuming argument from design carefully isolated from anything else. Before long one cannot fail to notice the connection to other hidden rebel bases with daunting names like “hylomorphism,” “act and potency,” and “fourfold causation.”
Untangling the Weeds
It would be naïve to think Aquinas's fifth way is an unassuming argument from design carefully isolated from anything else. Click To Tweet Thomas Aquinas’s fifth way (Summa Theologiae I.2.3) is an argument for God’s existence that proceeds from the order and subsequent intelligibility of the world around the human observer. He argues that the natural order must ultimately depend upon, or reflect, or participate in, some order-conveying power beyond it. There are everyday things evident to the senses which exhibit natural regularity or rhythms without possessing intelligence. Plants in the garden routinely grow larger and spread when left unchecked. From this Thomas reasons that, “whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer.” Thomas attributes this regularity in natural processes and properties to the providential care of the Creator which he compares to “the domestic foresight by which a man rules his family, or to the political foresight by which a ruler governs a city or a kingdom, and directs the acts of others to a definite end.” Importantly, the order found in the features of the natural world is a function of their directedness towards an end or goal. The invocation of final causation leads many to refer to the fifth way as a design argument where design is understood as purpose.
Modern readers often assume Thomas’s fifth way to be akin to Paley’s design argument. However, the two operate upon a different understanding of causation. Click To TweetModern readers familiar with apologetics often consider Thomas’s fifth way to be akin to Paley’s design argument. However, the two operate upon a different understanding of causation and reveal equally different conceptions of creation and its Creator. Understanding this difference requires some tracing of the bindweed through the grass.
Within the Scholastic tradition it is maintained that change is the movement from potentiality to act and that all created things are mixtures of both act and potency. Hylomorphism is the jargon for this arrangement if the need to appear intelligent arises. In order to understand a thing, one of these mixtures of act and potency, four causes must be considered. The four causes are the famous material, formal, efficient and final causes. The material cause, which corresponds to potency, is the stuff out of which a thing is made. The formal cause is the essence, or nature, of a thing which brings an actualizing pattern to bear on the material potential. The efficient cause is the means by which the thing is changed through a transfer from potential to actual by something already actual. Final causation is the purpose or “that for the sake of which” that thing exists.
A Mechanical Lack of Purpose
Now, modern metaphysics, by way of contrast, can be characterized as mechanistic. This means formal and final causation are either casually overlooked or explicitly rejected as illegitimate leaving only material and efficient causes behind. Hence the mechanical descriptor. There are no substantial forms in nature which provide organizing patterns or essences, neither is there any purpose or direction from final causation. Things just happen says the modern mechanist. Do not ask silly questions.
Things just happen says the modern mechanist. Do not ask silly questions. Click To Tweet Paley’s argument assumes this latter mechanistic view when it considers creation but reintroduces telos and form through the extrinsic operations of a divine inventor on things that would otherwise not take the form that they do under his ministrations. The form in this case is accidental rather than substantial which confuses nature with art. The distinction between art and nature is not unimportant in a Scholastic framework.
In Paley’s famous analogy the world is likened to an intricate and complicated artifact such as a pocket watch. It is argued that the order and complexity seen in the natural world alludes to an artisan of some sort. A watchmaker, or watchmakers, of immense power and intelligence must have manufactured the cosmos or at least the part the observer inhabits.
Underlying Paley’s argument is the assumption that the world is composed of previously undetermined and unintelligible parts. The cogs, springs, and glass that comprise a watch will not take the form of a watch until telos is introduced from without by the inventor during the manufacturing process. The atheists’ rejoinder to Paley is that there are patterns native to the natural world such that a telos imparting creator becomes superfluous and the two sides become locked in an explanatory stalemate. This same dichotomy endures. Contemporary versions of Paley’s design argument are often described under the moniker of “Intelligent Design” whose adherents deploy examples of “irreducible” or “specified” complexity as evidence for a God hypothesis. Modern atheists reject these as “God of the gaps” type arguments.