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.

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