Teaching The Teleological Argument
Updated: Jun 24
Eduqas / WJEC Theme 1 Arguments for the existence of God – Inductive C. Challenges to Inductive Arguments. Alternative scientific explanations.
OCR – Arguments based on observation – Challenges to arguments from observation
Edexcel- Philosophical Issues and questions – Strengths and weaknesses of design arguments, strengths and weaknesses of cosmological arguments
AQA – Arguments for the Existence of God – Design and Cosmological
The Teleological argument is one that has been taught for such a long time within all our specifications. With all the changes that have gone on of late, I think that most of us fall into two camps – those that have never had to teach this before and feel overwhelmed, and those of us who have had to teach it endlessly and know it like the back of our hands. For those of us in the second camp, you might be forgiven for feeling that you need a bit of a freshen up with teaching this part of the course, so I hope some of these ideas might be of use.
The headline of this recent Newsweek article is that The Universe Should Not Actually Exist CERN Scientists Discover.
This is a useful way in to a discussion with students regarding whether scientists can offer a better explanation than religious philosophers for the beginning of the universe. Ultimately just because a scientist cannot offer an empirical explanation for an event, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. It simply highlights the work that science still must do to explain existence. However, it also means that the existence of a designer or first cause is by no means logically impossible either. Science doesn’t yet have it all wrapped up. There are a wide range of ways in which this article could be used in a lesson, so this blog entry will explore some possibilities for this.
· For students to consider some recent scientific developments regarding the beginnings of the universe that might have an impact on the success of the Teleological or Cosmological Arguments.
· For learners to apply these ideas to the issue of how effective the TA or CA are and how persuasive the scientific explanations might be.
Introduction #1: When learners come in to the class they should have the article immediately available and can be reading it whilst others are coming in and practicalities are being sorted out. On the board can be a set of questions for them to start discussing
Alternatively, Introduction #2: Learners can be given this article to read before the lesson so that they are familiar with it before the lesson. In this instance they could have been given some initial questions to consider.
Questions to Discuss:
Give three pieces of ‘evidence’ (or lack of it) can you find in the article that could be used to support Inductive Arguments
Give three responses from scientists or philosophers that could be used to reject the teleological argument in the light of this article. (you can use information from the article or outside of it here)
Why does the research in this article matter for arguments concerning the existence of God?
If you are following #1 Divide the class into groups of three and ask them to work through the article together to answer the questions above, or others that you have constructed. Get them to select their best answer for each question and a delegate from each group can come up to the front and write their ideas on the board. In their existing groups, students can look at the ideas of others and add them to their own lists / notes.
Alternatively, #2 if learners have come in already having attempted to answer these questions at home, in their groups of three they can share their ideas and pool them on a large central piece of paper. Each group could then feed back their range of ideas to the rest of the class. Students can add the ideas that they admire the most or that they don’t already have, to their own sheets.
Put up the following statement on the board:
Scientific explanations are more persuasive than philosophical explanations for the universe’s existence.
In their existing groups learners can look at their original ideas and discuss possible responses. At this point they can also begin to make a list of any other scientific ideas that they are aware of that could add to the argument. E.g. the big bang, evolutionary theory. Give learners the chance to google ideas or check things in the text book to add to their arguments. It might be that you would like to allocate a conclusion to the groups at this point (see below) to ensure that there is an even spread of people arguing for or against the statement.
#1 Divide the class into two large groups – one side is allocated the conclusion – science is more persuasive; the other side is allocated the conclusion – science is not more persuasive. Ask each side to nominate a speaker to present their main argument and then offer other members of the class a chance to chime in and support their group. Judge the quality of the groups arguments at the end and offer a prize.
#2 Allow each group of three to put forward their main conclusion and reasoning in turn. Have a vote at the end of the lesson for who felt that scientific conclusions or philosophical explanations were more persuasive
#3 Move the groups according to whether they will argue for or against the statement. There should be a group of students at each end of the classroom. Each large group should now put forward their arguments with a view to persuading people to come and join them. Students can move at any time when they hear a convincing argument. They can move back again if they wish, should they hear a better response. If a student moves, encourage them to give their reasoning. Winning team have the largest group.
Ultimately students need to be able to write about this. So, a good exit task would be to get them to write their own conclusion into their notes or onto an exit ticket that must be handed in with their name on. The conclusion should address the original statement, give a reason and evidence from the lesson that would support their conclusion.
Points of Note: With this statement it only says that science is more persuasive than philosophy on this matter. There are many possible conclusions. You could end up with more than one group if your class are capable. For instance:
Science is more persuasive
Philosophy is more persuasive
Neither is more persuasive
Science is more persuasive but does not offer sufficient proof
Philosophy is more persuasive but does not offer sufficient proof
Neither offer sufficient proof
And so on. Ultimately, if science is more persuasive, it is mostly because we trust scientists to have done the leg work for us and we have faith that the scientific world and its methodology has had success before, so we should accept that it will ultimately be successful again. I would expect talented students to be able to point out that empirical methodology is more attractive to us in the present day and if science does not present us with the answer to a question, most of us will still trust it to seek the answer and get there in the end. There are others of course who would disagree and feel that we have reason to be suspicious of scientific explanations that may be motivated by political agendas. We might even look to approaches of what has been termed ‘pseudo-science’ since the intelligent design movement claims that there can be a scientific explanation that might include the notion of an intelligent designer.
Two ideas that I like my students to explore are the God of the Gaps theory – where our lack of knowledge is considered to be evidence for God or a designer’s existence. Of course, this relegates God to an ever-decreasing gap as our knowledge increases and so such an idea cannot ultimately withstand the challenges of science. Secondly, I like them to look at Douglas Adam’s idea in the Salmon of Doubt.
“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so, the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.” ― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
The need for purpose, for a plan or a design that philosophy clings to in the TA is neatly addressed here and Science that holds on to no such plan, may be a realistic approach for some, even when it can’t offer the answers we seek.