March 3, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Surveys indicate that the number of atheists and agnostics in the modern West is ever on the rise. Materialists and secularists regard this as a victory of “reason” over the prejudices of credulity. But is it really so? Or are we not seeing rather a rise in the foolishness caused by lack of attentiveness to reality and a laziness in reasoning about the world we experience?
One of the most important kinds of argument for the existence of God is the “teleological,” from the Greek telos: goal, end, purpose. The teleological argument seeks to establish the existence of God on the basis of the way natural things act for the sake of an end, or on the basis of order and beauty in the world. The argument can take three basic forms: from the nature of desire and the good, from the directedness of things to ends, and from the beautiful design of natural things or their parts.
All things — it’s obvious, at least, with living beings — act for the good — that is, something good for them. A thing would not begin to move unless it was moved by a desired end. Yet it is impossible to maintain that this is good for that, and that again for something else, unless there is a first and most desirable good that draws all other things to itself. Without somehow having a likeness to or sharing in that supreme good, no inferior good could have the character of an end to be sought.
In one of his famous “Five Ways” — that is, five demonstrations of the existence of God — St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast is traditionally celebrated on March 7, the day of his birth into eternal life, appeals to the consistently purposeful behavior of non-intellectual beings:
We see that some things which lack knowledge operate for the sake of an end; which is apparent from this, that always or more frequently they operate in the same way, so that they may attain to that which is best; hence it is clear that it is not by chance, but by tendency, that they arrive at the end. But those things which do not have knowledge do not tend towards an end except as directed by something which is knowing and understanding, as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore, there is some intelligent being by which all natural things are ordered to an end, and this we call God. (Summa theologiae, I.2.3)
The crucial premise in this argument is that intelligence alone can be responsible for directing one thing to another in an orderly way, because only intelligence grasps the proportion between the end to be attained and the means to be employed. In other words, intelligence compares existing means to an end not yet existing in reality but only in thought or intention.
If someone asks me to cook breakfast, I have to know several things: there are eggs sitting in the refrigerator; they can be cracked and beaten; the pan can be heated up and the eggs cooked in butter with a spatula; and finally, they can be served as food on plates. It seems simple, and we take such things for granted, but it takes only a moment’s thought to appreciate how complex the activity is. I have to understand multiple available means and their relationship to one another and then execute the actions in an orderly manner to reach the goal successfully. If I put the carton into the pan, or crack the eggs over the floor, or put the heat too low or too high, or make any number of other blunders, the project will fail. Experience with small children in kitchens is enough to make us realize anew the intelligence and skill required for even elementary kitchen work, let alone gourmet cooking.
Now consider the natural world. From birth, a spider “knows” how to weave webs according to a sophisticated geometrical pattern that takes into account tension, wind, visibility, size of prey, and other such variables. Although lacking intelligence to understand, deliberate, and execute actions freely, the spider perfectly attains its end of capturing insects as food — and this, moreover, as one step in a larger program of maintaining its life and perpetuating its species. Just as the arrow would never reach the target unless directed to it by an archer, so the spider could not weave its web and perpetuate its species unless it were directed by an intelligent being who implants in the spider its well ordered instincts.
Observation of the behavior of the hunting wasp in particular convinced the famous entomologist J. Henri Fabre that the modern theory of instinct, which derives the highly intricate behavior of animals from a long sequence of chance events, is the worst of all “just-so stories.” This wasp has to sting its prey in nine precise places along the principal nerve in order to paralyze rather than kill it, so that the wasp larva can feast on a living caterpillar. If the caterpillar is not stung in precisely this way and these places (and the probability of doing that by chance is vanishingly small), the larva will not have proper food, and the species will die out. Since the adult wasp dies before the larva grows up, every wasp must be born with the ability to perform this sophisticated act. If the ability or “know-how” does not pre-exist, the species will not be able to exist.
The same thing can be seen in any plant or animal. All arrive on the scene of nature with a manner of operating suited to their needs, the result neither of internal intelligence nor of chance. Each insect, bird, flower, tree “inherits” this inborn behavior from its progenitors, who inherited it from their progenitors. (There can be, among higher animals, a certain amount of learning that takes place, but it is always within the realm of their inborn capacities and tendencies, and it never goes beyond the level of sensation of singulars.)
It is impossible to attribute such perfection of design to the factors mentioned above — learning, chance, reason in the creature itself. The only possible explanation is that it has been inscribed in their being by the supreme Artist of nature.
Truly, then, as the Psalmist says, it is only “the fool” who “hath said in his heart: There is no God” (Ps 13:1).
Next week, I will address some objections to this line of argument.