Comment on the Teleological Argument of Swinburne



The paper "The Argument from Design" is related to the teleological argument of the existence of God. In my opinion, Swinburne’s argument is an advance version as it reveals the sound methodology foundation and shows the accepted level of proofing of the traditional teleological argument. In the following, the basic demand on a proof and the traditional teleological argument will be introduced first. Then, the advanced version of Swinburne will be introduced and be commented.

The Basic Demand of a Proof

Proofing of the existence of God may have a long history in the Christian apologetics. However, one should reflect if the proofing is a reasonable and valid one. The standard and the method of proofing will be discussed. It will be demonstrated that the teleological argument has met the demand of proofing. Moreover, Swinburne further advances the argument.

The Standard of a Proof

What is the reasonable standard demanded on the proofing of the existence of God? Some atheists may demand a proof with a standard as high as those in the geometry. In other words, they demand a proof with absolute certainty. It may not only be an unreasonable high demand to philosophical argument, but also too high for the scientific studies and the daily living. In fact, ‘there may be no certain proofs to be found either in natural science or in philosophy.’ It should be accepted that there are no indubitable premises and no conclusive conclusion can be made in any philosophy argument and even in the natural science. For example, the findings in the natural science may need the premises of the reliability and accuracy of the equipment and the theories held behind. Thus, there are no conclusive findings in the natural science but only a finding based on the ‘high probability’ of the total evidence. In the daily living, one would not make the judgement with absolute certainty but only with ‘high probability’ only. The judgement of criminal case is one of the examples. The judgement is based on a group of cumulative evidence that is in coherent but not only a single case. The proofing of God’s existence is similar. What demand in the proofing is the assessment of different elements in the group of evidence but not the logical mathematical deduction.

The Method of a Proof

It can be concluded that the demand of the proofing is only the ‘high probability’ one in previous discussion. However, there is still a debate of the methodology of the proofing. There are some philosophers accept only the deductive proofing, that can assure the inescapable conclusion of the God’s existence. They may even attack that the inductive method can only give a batch of weak pointers of the proofing. However, deductive method may not be the appropriate mean for the proofing if a demand of high correlation with our daily life is demand. The premises of the ‘valid deductive arguments’ may be too far from the acceptance of the public. On the other hand, "the underlying (the inductive method) as the best explanation of certain very general features of our experience: change, causal order, contingency order and understandability, and the objectively of morality.". Thus, the inductive method has met our demand of method mentioned. In addition, Swinburne argues that even a ‘group’ of weak pointers but not only a single one can give the strong evidence. To conclude, the proofing of God’s existence, that meet our daily living experience, is not based on the deductive method but the inductive one with cumulative evidence obtained from the existence of the universe, the order of the universe, human rationality and moral conscious etc.

Traditional Teleological Argument

In this section, the traditional teleological argument will be introduced first. It will be followed with the challenges of the arguments. Then, the advanced version of Swinburne will be discussed in the next section. It will be demonstrated how Swinburne uses clearer terminological and description to have a better response to the challenges of the argument.

The Analogical Teleological Argument

Inductive and analogical are the two forms of the teleological arguments. In the inductive form, evidence is cumulative to show the most reasonable mean of the evidence collected is the theism. Only the analogical form will be further discussed as Swinburne adopts it and fierce objections on it are raised.

William Paley (1743~1805) may be the first one introducing the analogical teleological argument in a systematic way. He argues that:

On analyzing a watch, we are impressed with its intricate means-ends adaptation. All the wheels, gears, and springs are made and adjusted so that by their motion the watch keeps perfect time. Seeing this, we cannot help but conclude that the watch had an intelligent maker who fashioned it according to a design for a purpose.

…all the parts of the eye and the end of seeing; each part is well suited to contribute to the whole, so that if just one part functions poorly, sight is affected. Sine the effects in nature and the watch are analogous, it is reasonable to conclude that the causes are analogous. Nature too has an intelligent, purposeful maker.

The basic argument mentioned above is:

    1. All design implies a designer.
    2. Great design implies a great designer.
    3. There is a great design in the world (like that of a great machine).
    4. Therefore, there must be a great Designer of the world.

It seems that it meets the standard and method of proofing mentioned before. The implications behind are the spirit of inductive method and the acceptance of the conclusion with high probability only. However, such strengths implicated in the argument are seldom been mentioned. Fortunately, the strengths are ‘re-discovered’ again by Swinburne. Before further discussion on Swinburne’s argument, the four objections to the traditional argument will be discussed first.

Challenges to the Teleological Argument

Firstly, the reliance of analogy is criticized. In other words, one may criticize if the method of analogy can be accepted for a ‘scientific’ proofing. In David Hume’s argument, the reliability of the analogy is determined on the similarity between the things held to be analogous. Moreover, he suggests that there is other alternative for the explanation of the analogy. He argues that the world can be analogy with a living organism, which also shows the system and order as well. However, there are some problems of Hume’s criticisms. The method of analogy is commonly adopted in our daily living and it is accepted in the studies of the natural science as well. For example, one may apply the method of analogy in the decision of buying a car in the daily living . If the car X is similar in color with an excellent car A, it will be no help for one to make the decision for buying the car X, as one may not assure the performance of car X through the low degree of similarity of the analogy. In the case of additional information of both cars are similar in the origin, it stills seem to be irrelevant to the decision. However, when the degree of similarly is increasing, one may have more confidence to the decision. If the car X has the same similarity with the excellent car A in model, production date, production place and even the production team, one will have the increasing certainty of the performance of the car X. In fact, the criticism of Hume may imply that he requests a deductive method. However, it has been shown that an inductive method using a group of evidence is an appropriate and valid method in this kind of proofing. In fact, there are unlimited evidence showing the system and order of a purposeful design and the nature. Thus, one should have the adequate confidence to adopt the conclusion from this method. Regarding the suggestion of the analogy with the living organism, one may still wonder who build and design the wonderful system within the living organism. Thus, it may not upset the basic purpose of the argument.

Secondly, it is suggested that the design can be explained by the Evolution and natural selection. Basically, the Evolution is not necessary logical incompatible with the teleological argument. In fact, some philosophy may even integrate both of them to formulate the wider teleological argument explaining the development of abstract thinking, moral consciousness and self-consciousness.

Thirdly, one may argue if it is possible to know the whole universe only through a small part of the universe. In other words, how can one know the rest of the universe exhibiting the design as we only know a small part of it? It may again fall to the problem of demanding the deductive argument with the absolute certainty. However, the ‘high probability’ is our accepted standard of the demand of the argument. There is no need to worry about the possibility of the chaos of the universe when there are no special evidence about it.

Finally, if the order and system of the world can be the pointer of an intelligent design, does the ‘dishamonry’ can be used as an ‘objection’ to the intelligent designer? One must accept that the challenge does describe the reality of the imperfect world. However, when one discovers some imperfections in a painting by a genuine painter, is it too early to comment on the imperfections without a consideration of the whole picture? Basically, the existence of evil does not weaken the argument of analogy because the numerous strong evidence of supporting will not be upset by the relative small number of evidence of evil when the group of evidence is considered all together. Moreover, the imperfections may be considered as some goodness to a certain sense. It involves the problem of evil that needs further discussion.

Swinburne’s Advanced Version

There are some advancements of the teleological argument made by Richard Swinburne. Swinburne’s advancements include the clarification of the objects being analogized and the emphasis on what a ‘scientific explanation’ should be.

Firstly, Swinburne clarifies what being in the analogy are the ‘regularity of copresence’ and the ‘regularity of succession’. These terms clarify the concept of the things in the world being analogized (e.g. the animal and the watch). The ‘regularity of copresnece’ indicates how different parts in a design are organized in a system while the ‘regularity of succession’ indicates the operation of the natural law. Secondly, Swinburne illustrates that a scientific method should use the simplest explanation if possible. Finally, he mentions that the method of analogy is commonly used in the studies of natural science and the ability of inference is commonly assured as it is the spirit of science. Combining the above statements, he states that the teleological argument should base on the regularity of succession. Through the method of analogy, the best explanation of the existence of the ‘natural law’ (regularity of succession), which may be the most simplest and highest probability one, is the existence of a ‘free agent’ (the intelligent Designer). Please be aware that the Swinburne’s suggestion meets the standard and the method of proofing discussed in the early of this paper (adopting the spirit of inductive method and the demand of ‘high probability’ only). His contribution is the ‘re-discovering’ of the strengths of traditional teleological argument and dressing-up with a scientific description (using the principles of the best explanation, simplicity and inference).

In the following, the advanced version of the teleological argument by Swinburne will be used to demonstrate how it responds the challenges mentioned before. Only two examples will be used due to the limit of the space of this paper. Firstly, it has been mentioned above that David Hume criticizes that the world can be in analogy with an animal or vegetable as an alternative. The major problem implied is that the design of the world or an animal is in the dimension of the regularity of copresence, which can be explained by many alternative explanations. Swinburne’s formation of the problem has tackled this weakness because the ‘regularity of succession’ is used as the focus of being analogized. Secondly, there is some criticism if one can know the universe only from a part of it. Swinburne contributes that the abilities of inference in the science should be accepted. One should accept the inference when it is agreed with the evidences in general. These two examples show the strength of Swinburne’s argument. There are the clarity of the concept and the supporting with scientific means.


The traditional teleological argument is accepted as a valid argument for the existence of God (or a rational free agent) basically. Richard Swinburne’s contributions are to minimize the weakness of the argument through a clear clarification of the concept and to assure the validity of analogy method and inference that are accepted as a scientific method. He shows that the argument adopted in the religion is not necessary a superstitious one but can be a scientific method.

* * * * *




Work Cited:

Geisler, Norman. Philosophy of Religion. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974.

Nash, Ronald H. Faith & Reason. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988.

Peterson, Michael Reason & Religious Belief. Oxford: OUP, 1991.


Richard Swinburne. "The Argument from Design" The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. XLIII 164, July (1968) 568~581

 Search: Enter keywords... logo