Arguments From Design: Blind Watchmaker vs. Aquinas’ Fifth Way

Scientists can enumerate reason upon reason why the latest Creationist fad known as ‘Intelligent Design’ is a farcical excuse for an actual scientific theory.  However, we theists (at least those of us who are intellectually honest) also have an osteon to gnaw with the ID crowd on a philosophical level.  First among these is an issue of poorly masked plagiarism on the part of the Intelligent Design movement:  I’m of course speaking of the abduction and distortion of sound Thomistic arguments into simpleton creationist babble.  Not that this plagiarism is new or unique to the Intelligent Design movement.  In fact the marauding of Thomistic philosophy by unscrupulous and unscientific theists stems back to the eighteenth century, even before the storm broke over Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  The issue I’m referring to is of course William Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy, which distorts St. Thomas Aquinas’ fifth “Way” (or proof) of the existence of God (also known as the teleological argument).

At first glance, the Watchmaker Analogy and Aquinas’ Teleological Argument look very similar.  Both deal with design in creation.  Bot posit the Christian God as the designer.  But there are some fundamental differences which separate the Teleological Argument from the intellectually inferior Watchmaker Analogy.  First, the Watchmaker Analogy means to prove the existence of God through the apparent complexity of the universe and specifically biological structures; whereas the Teleological Argument seeks only to prove that if a previously defined God exists, he must be intelligent and not just an impersonal force.  The Teleological Argument only works in conjunction with the first four Ways, which define and prove the existence of a being a) who is non-physical and pure action b) whose essence is existence c) who is a necessary being and d) who is perfectly good, truthful, and beautiful.  The fifth Way explains why this essential, necessary, perfect, actual being must also be intelligent and personal.  The Watchmaker Analogy jumps the gun, if you will, and posits the existence of God without laying the proper groundwork.

The Watchmaker Analogy draws a parallel between objects we know to be designed (a pocket watch for instance).  If while walking along a wooded path you were to discover this watch lying amid the foliage, you would know instantly that the watch was not just a product of nature like the ferns and bushes around it, but had been specially designed by a watchmaker.  William Paley extrapolated this to the entire cosmos.  Basically, the universe is complex (like a pocket watch) and therefore appears to be designed.  Therefore it is safe to assume that a designer designed the universe and is responsible for its complexity.  The Intelligent Design movement has adapted this to the anti-Darwin cause.  Biological structures are too complex to arise form purely naturalistic means.  They appear to be designed.  Therefore they are designed by a designer (and though they don’t want to admit it, the designer is God).

As I said, the Watchmaker Analogy puts the cart in front of the horse, attempting to prove the existence of a God through false assumptions and incomplete reasoning.  The Watchmaker Analogy doesn’t take into account that the appearance of design in nature may be an illusion, nor that the designer might not be God.  Aquinas’ Five Ways are much more thorough and honest, taking the time to prove that a being actually exists before proving its intelligence.  The Teleological Argument in fact has nothing to do with biological or universal complexity.  Rather it deals with intelligent purposes.  It should also be noted that it presupposes the universe was created ex nihilo (out of nothing). As the deficient Watchmaker Analogy is based on Aquinas, the Teleological Argument is based on Aristotle’s Four Causes (these being the Material Cause, the Formal Cause, the Efficient Cause, and the Final Cause).  For instance, take a close look at a plastic pen.

The pen’s Material Cause is the plastic and the metal of which it is made.  Its Formal Cause are all its characteristics which make it a pen (the ability to write, the presence of ink, its “pen-ness” if you will).  The Efficient Cause is the pen factory.  And its Final Cause is writing.  Certain objects in nature also exhibit this pattern.  The Material Cause of, say, a mitochondrion is organelle tissue of various types.  Its Formal Cause is all the things that make it a mitochondrion (its contorted shape, it unique DNA, its properties).  Its Efficient Cause is the process by which it is made, in this case the multiplication of previous mitochondria.  Its Final Cause is to provide the cell with energy.  So we see that objects both manufactured and in nature have a purpose, or a Final Cause.  The purpose of a pen is writing.  The purpose of a mitochondrion is production of energy.  Many phenomena in nature function toward goals and purposes.  The sun’s goal is the production of heat and light, so its purpose is to provide heat and light to all its satellites in the solar system.  This begs the question, “Why do objects function toward goals and purposes?”

In the case of a pen or any man-made object, this is easy.  People discovered a need (in this case a need for a more efficient writing utensil) and designed an object to fulfill that need.  This is more difficult when asked of nature though.  Nature and natural processes are completely blind and undirected.  Since it is already supposed that the universe was created, the problem becomes how is it that blind and undirected processes exhibit patterns similar to those of designed processes.  Therefore to explain how this already proven to exist being could be responsible for seemingly intelligent and purposeful processes, Aquinas posits that the being must also be intelligent (like the designer of the pen) in addition to necessary, essential, non-physically actual, and perfect.  The Watchmaker Analogy seeks to prove all five of these attributes exist through one faulty postulation, and therein lies it primary flaw.

The Watchmaker Analogy as articulated by modern Intelligent Design theorists also suffers from a deficient understanding of the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo.  It commits what is known as a cosmogonical fallacy.  In the Intelligent Design universe, the “designer” (wink wink, nudge nudge, the designer is God – as Eugenie Scott always says) intervenes miraculously into creation and causes new structures to appear out of nothing.  Sort of a “poof, there’s your bacterial flagellum” or “poof, there’s your snaggle-toothed herring”.  This is problematic from a philosophical perspective because it involves God (the designer) reaching down into creation to manufacture something rather than simply sustaining the totality of creation through his own logos or word.  Father Robert Barron talks of this is his book Catholicism where he discusses how God’s creative act is “non-competitive” and “non-violent”.  In other words, God wills ALL things into existence wholly, completely, and at once.  Thus God creates nature to function as is and without divine intervention.  From a Thomistic perspective, God intervening miraculously into temporal creation to altar nature in this crude way reveals a flaw in God’s plan,, for if in fact God needs to perform miracles to bring about his plan, he is a weak God and therefore not all perfect or all intelligent.

The Intelligent Design view of creation implies God is in competition with his creation.  Thomistic philosophy is so rich and scholastic, yet also so complex, that it is easy for such inferior philosophers as those who populate the Intelligent Design movement to distort it into something it’s not.  As I said before, the creationist spin on the Watchmaker Analogy is nothing but a bad mimicry of Aquinas’ Fifth Way.  It betrays the deficient understanding the movement has of cosmology and the nature of creation.  Unfortunately, many people perceive a false dichotomy between real science and Intelligent Design.  As with all things Catholic, the Church’s classical understanding of creation is a big BOTH / AND situation.  It’s time for intelligent Christians to stand up and defend true religion from those who cause the world to, as St. Augustine said, “laugh it to scorn.”


National Center for Science Education

Robert Barron’s Catholicism

Aquinas vs. Intelligent Design

Aristotle’s Four Causes

Aquinas’ Five Ways


Ray Comfort the Banana Man (P.S. He’s no Thomist either)

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