Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Argument from Design

I’ve touched upon aspects of this in other posts, but I thought it was time to try and put all my thoughts on this subject together into one post.

The so-called “Argument from Design” is one of the most common and most powerful arguments that theists have at their disposal when they want to argue for the existence of God.  It gets trotted out during nearly every debate between theists and atheists, it underpins the entire “Intelligent Design” movement, and is often the sole argument that your average, run-of-the mill theist (as opposed to professional apologists) can think of when asked to justify his or her belief in God.  And when I say it is a powerful argument, I simply mean that it is highly persuasive, not that it is actually a particularly sound or valid argument.

In a nutshell, the Argument from Design simply states that the entire observable universe provides evidence that some intelligent being purposely designed it, and this being is what we commonly call “God.”  A more formal statement of the argument might look similar to the following:
  1. Much of what we can observe in the universe has the appearance of being designed.
  2. Things that appear to be designed most likely were designed, especially when they are too complicated to have happened any other way.
  3. Anything that is designed must, by definition, have a designer.
  4. The act of designing requires intelligence and purpose.
  5. Therefore, there must be an intelligent and purposeful being or entity who designed the universe, and this is a label that fits our traditional notions of God.
Let me try and tackle these points one at a time.

Much of what we can observe in the universe has the appearance of being designed.

It is certainly true that much of what we can observe in the universe, especially here on Earth, has the appearance of being designed.  The key word, of course, being appearance.  To say that everything we observed actually is designed is to assume the very point being argued, so we have to stick with appears to be designed at this stage in the argument.  We also need to keep in mind that the whole “appears to be designed” thing really doesn’t apply to everything we observe.  Yes, we have learned through centuries of careful scientific observation how cells work like tiny machines and that higher organisms are made up of trillions of cells working together in unison.  But much of what we observe beyond our planet has the appearance of sheer chaos.

Things that appear to be designed most likely were designed, especially when they are too complicated to have happened any other way.

This is really the crux of the entire Argument from Design.  If something appears to be designed and there’s no way for it to have happened other than being designed, it must therefore have been designed.  This is the argument made so famously by William Paley some two hundred years ago when he used a pocket watch as an analogy to the natural world.  When we encounter something as complex as a pocket watch, the very fact of its existence and complexity testifies to the fact that it was designed by an intelligent creator and did not just occur by chance.  Similarly, we can look at the natural world – the complex organisms, the cycle of the seasons, the movement of the stars and planets – and know that it couldn’t all have happened by chance.

Another, more modern, analogy compares the natural world to a painting found hanging from a tree in a forest.  Only a fool would see that painting, frame and all, and think it possible that it could have just happened by the chance accumulation of elements over time or that it just grew there exactly like that.

The problem with analogies, however, is that they are just that – analogies.  They are attempts to explain something by comparing it to something else and are not statements of fact or proofs in and of themselves.  As a result, an analogy is only as good as the things being compared.  In this case, the watch and painting analogies fail for a number of reasons, including the following:
  • In both analogies, the object in question is found in isolation in a situation where it is clearly different from its surroundings.  Nature, on the other hand, is a unified whole.
  • It’s easy to identify a watch or a painting as designed because we have seen numerous other examples of watches and paintings that have all been designed.  We know the processes involved in making a watch or painting a picture, so it’s safe to assume that any other watch or painting we discover was made in a similar fashion.  The same is not true with items in nature, however.  We have never seen anybody make a cell or a bear or a tree and therefore can’t say that the process must be the same as things made outside of nature.
  • We can “know” that a watch or a painting is designed because there is no other way to explain how it could come to be.  The same used to be true for items in the natural world, but we now have much greater knowledge and can explain how seemingly complex natural items could arise purely by natural processes.  And keep in mind that “by natural processes” is not the same thing as “by random chance,” since natural processes can include a great degree or organization and direction, even if not driven by any purposeful intelligence (see my post on Accepting Evolution for a more in-depth discussion of this).
  • Any claim that something “couldn’t impossibly have occurred unless it was designed” is really just a statement of personal ignorance as to the mechanisms involved.  This is often referred to as the problem of “Irreducible Complexity,” which sounds scientific, but is really just a made-up term that means “I don’t understand how evolution works.”  It used to be argued, for example, that the human eye was so complex that it had to have been created all at once and couldn’t possibly have evolved over time.  Recent studies have shown, however, exactly how a complex eye could have evolved over time, starting from light-sensitive cells and eventually becoming the imperfect organs we have today.  “But what good is a partial eye,” you may ask?  Just look at all the creatures alive today that have less evolved eyes and ask them how their “partial eyes” benefit them compared to not having any eyes at all.

Anything that is designed must, by definition, have a designer.

Well, true, I suppose that’s purely a matter of definition.  If you assume that something is designed, it must have a designer of some sort.  The problem with this (aside from the fact that it’s really just a tautology like saying “anything painted has a painter” or “any thought has a thinker”) is two-fold:
  • As discussed above, the mere appearance of design doesn’t necessarily mean that something was, in fact, designed.
  • The word “designed” presumes the existence of intelligence and purpose, whereas more neutral terms like “created” or “formed” do not.  A falling meteorite can create a crater.  Years of dripping water can form marvelous looking stalactites and stalagmites in a cave.  Neither of these occurrences involves purpose or intelligence.  Unfortunately, some people like to use the term “design” to simply mean “created” or “formed” and thereby claim that some purposeful and intelligent designer must, by definition, have been behind it.

The act of designing requires intelligence and purpose.

This point is really nothing more than anthropomorphism at its worst.  Since we design things and we are intelligent and purposeful, we assume that all things that are “designed” must also be done by some entity that is intelligent and purposeful.  However, as discussed previously, what many people call “design” is more properly referred to as “creation” or “formation” and these words do not require any sort of intelligence or purpose at all.

Therefore, there must be an intelligent and purposeful being or entity who designed the universe, and this is a label that fits our traditional notions of God.

Well, since I’ve already addressed the problems with all the underlying premises, there’s no further need to show why this conclusion is false.  I will point out the leap in logic, however, required to go from “an intelligent being who designed the universe” and “my personal concept of a God.”  There are many different and contradictory notions of God throughout the world and throughout history, and everybody who uses the Argument from Design seems to use it to justify a belief in a different God.  If the Argument from Design works just as well to “prove” the existence of Jehovah as it does Allah, Shiva or Zeus, maybe the argument isn’t quite as powerful as it’s cracked up to be.

In reality, all the Argument from Design attempts to prove is the existence of some sort of intelligent designer.  Sure, it could be the particular God of the person making the argument, but why assume so?  Heck – given all the observable flaws with the natural world (genetic diseases, blind spots, vestigial organs, etc.), one might argue that the Argument from Design best provides evidence for a malevolent or incompetent god or gods instead of the all-powerful, all-loving Christian God.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Top Ten Misconceptions about Atheists - Part Three

Misconception Number Three -- It Requires More Faith to Be an Atheist than to Believe in God

No, actually it doesn’t require any faith to be an atheist.  All it requires is for you to not believe that “God did it.”  This argument is usually accompanied by a whole bunch of blather about how ridiculously improbable it is that our universe came to exist exactly the way it did and that the only possible explanation is GOD.

I won’t go into all the flaws with the so-called “argument from design” or the “finely tuned universe” (check out some of my other blog posts for long-winded discussions on those issues), but the bottom line is that even if atheists had no explanation whatsoever as to how the universe came to be the way it is and how we came to be in it, that still just leads us to a big fat “WE DON’T KNOW” and not “GOD DID IT.”  Why God?  Why not some as yet undiscovered universal force?  Why not a multiverse? Why not aliens?  And if God, why YOUR God and not somebody else’s God (Allah, Vishnu, Odin, Zeus, etc.)?

I get it, though.  I really do.  Having been there myself once upon a time, I know what it is like to look around the world in wonder and think that it all couldn't have just happened on its own without some sort of intelligence guiding it.  And, since we just happen to have this book of scripture describing exactly such an intelligence, and since billions of people believe in that intelligence, and since all my family and friends tell me how important it is to believe in such an intelligence, well, you'd think that believing in such an intelligence is so blindingly obvious that it would take an extreme act of will to actively NOT believe in such an intelligence, right?

Except, all you’re really saying is that, since you personally (and those you hand around with) cannot understand how it all came to be, it “must” be the way it was described in the particular ancient text that you personally accept as true, despite the fact that there are lots of other ancient text that are accepted by other people that say completely different things. Sure, billions of people believe that the entire universe was created by some sort of God, but they certainly don't all share belief in the same sort of God.  Just because you have the Bible and think that proves what you believe to be true, other people have their Koran or Bhagavad Gita or what have you.  And to those people, it is just as obvious how the universe was created as it is to you, except that they believe something completely different.

No, it doesn’t take faith to admit ignorance, just honesty.  But keep in mind that many of the things that supposedly “can’t be explained without God” are either wholly specious in the first place (such as the supposed “finely tuned universe” argument) or else actually CAN now be explained perfectly well.  We don’t know all the answers, and perhaps never will, but we certainly know a heck of a lot more about the universe now than the desert tribesmen who wrote scriptures thousands of years ago.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Top Ten Misconceptions about Atheists - Part Two

Misconception Number Two -- Atheists Have the Burden of Proof to Show that God Doesn’t Exist

It used to be that theists would claim that science and religion operated in completely different realms.  Science deals with “how” things work and religion deals with “why” the universe is the way it is.  Science deals with things that can be proven via evidence, whereas religion is all about faith in things that neither can be, nor need to be, proven and for which no evidence is required.  And certainly there are still plenty of theists who feel this way today.

There has been a shift in recent years, however, as science has made more and more inroads into solving many of the “deep” questions that were once thought to be solely the domain of religion.  Where did we come from?  Why are we here?  What happens to us after we die?  In addition, people have started to realize that many religious claims, such as miracles, the historical accuracy of scriptures, etc., should be verifiable with evidence.  As a result, people are much less willing to accept religious teachings based solely on faith and are expecting theists to shoulder the burden of proof that science requires whenever anybody makes a positive claim.

Some theists do attempt to provide “evidence” to support their beliefs, but many try to avoid the issue by claiming that atheists can’t prove their assertion either that there is no God.  It’s not enough, these theists claim, for atheists to simply claim not to believe in God – they somehow have to prove God doesn’t exist, or admit that he does.

Sadly, that’s simply not the way science or the burden of proof works.  Yes, we ask theists to provide justification for their belief in God since they are making affirmative statements that contradict observable reality.  That’s how science works – you make a claim, you provide evidence as to why your claim is true.

Atheists, however, are not necessarily claiming that God doesn’t exist.  All we are claiming is that theists haven’t given us any good reasons to believe that he exists.  We don’t need to prove a negative.

Having said that, though, I will say that with regard to specific descriptions of god contained in various religious texts and worshiped by specific religions, it is rather easy to “disprove” those gods in the same way you could easily disprove the existence of an adult African elephant living under my desk as I type his.  All you have to do is consider what evidence would have to be there in order for the claim to be true, and if the evidence is missing than the claim is disproved.  So, while no atheist can possibly disprove the existence of an immaterial being who exists outside of space and time and whose existence, by definition, cannot even be proved in the first place, it is actually pretty easy to disprove the existence of a being who is described as having specific attributes, interacting with humanity in specific ways, making specific promises, etc.  When presented with this fact, however, the theists who require atheists to "prove that God doesn't exist" always seem to fall back on the other type of "god" (i.e., the god that bears no relationship to the one they claim to actually worship) and then say, "HA!  You can't prove that no concept of God could possibly exist, therefore I win!"


Bait and switch.  It's like saying that, just because I can't prove that there is no intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (which I can't, of  course, since the universe is such a vast place), I therefore can't prove that a particular grainy photo doesn't actually depict an alien spacecraft, despite the fact that it bears a striking resemblance to an aluminum pie tin, the string holding it up is visible and the person who took the photo has admitted in the past to creating hoax UFO pictures. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Top Ten Misconceptions about Atheists - Part One

All right, I should probably have called this “Top Ten Lies about Atheists” or “Top Ten Misrepresentations about Atheists” or even “Top Ten Things People Claim about Atheists Even Though They Know Full Well They Aren’t True and Have Been Refuted Repeatedly,” but I figure there must be at least some theists out there who are sincere and honestly believe what they have been told about atheists.  This post is addressed at these hypothetical sincere theists and not those who go out of their way to repeat stuff they know to be false for the purpose of advancing their own agenda (“a.k.a. “Lying for Jesus”).

As always, I apologize if any of the “misconceptions” I describe seem like straw men arguments of their own, misrepresenting what theists say about atheists.  I certainly don’t claim that all theists have these misconceptions, but they are all legitimately misconceptions I have personally encountered from different theists.

Oh – and this list isn’t ranked in any particular order and probably won’t have exactly ten items….

Misconception Number One -- Atheists Believe There Is No God, Are Angry at God or Hate God

First off, let me preface this by pointing out that the word atheist literally means somebody who does not have a belief in a god of any sort.  Beyond that, it’s really hard to lump all atheists together and say what they do, or do not, believe or what their “true” motivations are.  Just like, beyond the fact that all theists, by definition, believe in a god or gods of some sort, it’s impossible to say anything else about “all theists.”

Having said that, there are certainly gradations as to how different atheists approach or define their non-belief in god.  There are many atheists, true, who have investigated the claims of different religions and have come to the conclusion that the gods described by those religions can’t possibly be true, whether because of logical impossibility, contradictory statements in the holy scriptures about the god in question, lack of any supporting evidence that should be there if the god existed, actions of those who profess belief in those gods (“by their fruits ye shall know them”), etc.  But there are also many atheists who haven’t really given it much thought and simply have no reason to believe in any particular god, usually because they were raised in a family or a culture where God was never discussed.  Many theists may believe that a belief in God (they’re personal version of God, of course) is the natural state of man and that one must actively resist that belief in order to be an atheist.  In fact, however, all you need to not believe in God is to not be taught to believe in him in the first place.  It's sort of like claiming that belief in Santa Claus is the natural state of man (despite the fact that many people have never even heard of Santa Claus and there are wide variations in how Santa is depicted even among those people who do believe in him).  You don't need to be actively taught that Santa Claus doesn't exist in order to not believe in him -- you just have to never be taught that he does exist in the first place.

As for atheists being angry at God or hating him, I suppose it is certainly true that some people who call themselves atheists feel this way. Again, though, as comforting as it is to think that God’s existence is so obvious that the only people who claim disbelief are those who KNOW he exists and actively reject him, the truth is that most atheists either have lost their belief due to learning more about the world or never had a belief to begin with.