Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Introducing natural theology and teleological arguments for God's existence

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Psalm 8:3-4 "When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; 4 What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?"
Introduction: We live in a huge universe

The universe is defined as all physically connected, space-time reality. Current estimates give the size of the visible universe to be 92 billion light years in diameter. When I speak of the "visible" universe, I refer to the farthest point we can see in comparison to the region of space lying beyond such points that are expanding faster than the speed of light. Since nothing travels faster the the speed of light in space (670 million m.p.h or 186,000 miles per second), observations since 1998 confirm that the expansion of the universe is accelerating relative to our position. If one can picture a circle as representing our visual horizon of what we can see as "the visible universe", then to capture the whole universe, one only needs to draw a much larger circle around the first circle to get the idea of what were talking about. 

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In 2016, astronomers published a new estimate of the number of galaxies to be roughly 2 trillion, with each containing an average of 100 billion stars (giving us a rough number of stars as 2 followed by 23 zeros ). As we mentioned earlier, our universe is expanding at an ever faster rate. Astronomers from Cornell University calculate that the rate at which the universe is expanding, given its age, coupled with the maximum distance we can see (a 46 billion light-year radius in all directions, with one-light year equaling nearly six-trillion miles), yields a universe that is in upwards of 250 times larger than what we can view (see link here:! In other words, what astronomers are able to observe through even the most powerful telescopes represents a potential of less than .5% of the whole universe! 

What David was reflecting upon in Psalm 8 introduces us to what is called the "teleological argument" for God's existence

Whenever David was reflecting on his view of the heavens in Psalm 8, how many stars would he had observed? According to the July 2015 issue of "Sky & Telescope", we get the following answer:

"If you tabulate all stars visible down to magnitude 6.5, thought to be the faintest stars still visible to the unaided eye, the entire sky contains some 9,000 stars. Since you can only see half the sky at any time, that means there are as many as 4,500 stars visible in your sky tonight."

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As David scanned the skies, he began to write under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the unparalleled words of Psalm 8. David inferred a certain order and purpose to all that was above him and around him. In another Psalm, Psalm 139, David utilizes a similar tactic by reflecting on the design and purpose he saw within himself. David is an early example of demonstrating the reality of God's creative power from observations in creation. 

Such an argument that attempts to infer God's existence from the apparent design and order of nature is what is called a "teleological" argument (from two words, "telos" meaning "order" and "ology" meaning "study of"). 

The Biblical precedent for natural theology and teleological arguments for God's existence

Whenever one infers anything about God's existence from nature or human nature independent of appeals to Divine written revelation, such an exercise is called "natural theology". Such arguments for God's existence, also termed "theistic arguments", attempt to demonstrate that, belief in God is not only a matter of faith, but also counts as grounds for rational thought. As already mentioned, one type of argument in natural theology looks at repeated patterns in nature and features pointing to design (such as specified complexity, or, a pattern that is unlikely to have been formed by chance). 

Such patterns and features are the stuff of teleological arguments for God's existence (again, so-called because the Greek word "telos" refers to "purpose"). The Old Testament prophet Isaiah records a Divine challenge by God to the idol-worshipers of his day by crafting a teleological method of detecting Divine activity in history and prophecy in Isaiah 41:21-23 - 

“Present your case,” the Lord says. Bring forward your strong arguments,” The King of Jacob says. 22 Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; as for the former events, declare what they were, that we may consider them and know their  outcome. Or announce to us what is coming; 23 Declare the things that are going to come afterward, that we may know that you are gods; Indeed, do good or evil, that we may anxiously look about us and fear together."

Isaiah's "test" shows how arguments rooted in pattern and purpose (i.e. teleological arguments) can provide discernment when testing truth claims from other religions and validating the claims of Biblical faith. 

The Apostle Paul indicates the plausibility of the project of natural theology by what he writes in Romans 1:18-20 

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."
The "orderliness" and "design" features of the universe supply the contents for a typical "teleological" argument for God's existence. The Apostle Paul articulated another version of this sort of argument to a group of Greek philosophers in Acts 17:26 - 

"and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation." 

Closing thoughts

The Biblical authors David, Isaiah and Paul give precedents for the appropriateness of using natural theology and teleological arguments in pointing the way to the God of the Bible. Authors outside the Bible confirm this notion of God's general revelation, and humanity's ability to know about His existence, by how various pagan authors worked out their own versions of the teleological argument (such as the Greek philosopher Plato in his work called "Laws"). The teleological argument has had a rich and, at times, contentious history with those who opposed it. In the next post, we will explore some of the history of this very important argument for God's existence.

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