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argument from design

"If there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals." --John Stuart Mill

"I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." --Charles Darwin

The argument from design is one of the "proofs" for the existence of Abraham's god [AG]. In its basic form, this argument infers from the intelligent order and created beauty of the universe that there is an intelligent Designer and Creator of the universe. The argument has been criticized for begging the question: it assumes the universe is designed in order to prove that it is the work of a designer. The argument also suppresses evidence: for all its beauty and grandeur, the universe is also full of, well, to be delicate, let us say that the universe is also full of nasties. I suppose I should be more specific, but I think the reader knows the kind of thing I mean: babies born without brains, good people suffering monstrous tortures from ebola hemorrhagic fever, evil people basking in the sun and enjoying power, reputation, etc. Volcanoes erupting, earthquakes rattling the planet, hurricanes and tornadoes blindly wiping out thousands of lives a day. Is it unfair to call these things the nasties, what is blithely referred to by theists as non-moral evil or physical evil? To say, as many defenders of Design do, that these nasties only seem nasty to us because we are ignorant of AG's plan and vision and cannot know how good these nasties really are, is self-refuting. If we can't know what's good and what's not, we can't know whether the design, if any, is good or bad.

Paley's argument

One of the argument's more famous variations involves an analogy with a watch. William Paley (1743-1805), the Archdeacon of Carlisle, writes in his Natural Theology (1802):

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer that for anything I knew to the contrary it had lain there forever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for anything I knew the watch might have always been there.

The reason, he says, that he couldn't conceive of the watch having been there forever is because it is evident that the parts of the watch were put together for a purpose. It is inevitable that "the watch must have had a maker," whereas the stone apparently has no purpose revealed by the complex arrangement of its parts.

Darrow's response

One could, of course, attack Paley's argument at this point and say, as Clarence Darrow did, that some stones would be just as puzzling as a watch; for, they are complex and could easily have been designed by someone for some purpose we are unaware of, and, in any case "on close inspection and careful study the stone...is just as marvelous as the watch." Be that as it may, Paley's point was not that watches are inherently more interesting than stones. His point was that a watch could be seen to be analogous with the creation of the universe. The design of the watch implies an intelligent designer. This fact, says Paley, would not be diminished even if we discovered that the watch before us was the offspring (no pun intended) of another watch. "No one," he says, "can rationally believe that the insensible, inanimate watch, from which the watch before us issued, was the proper cause of the mechanism we so much admire in it--could be truly said to have constructed the instrument, disposed its parts, assigned their office, determined their order, action, and mutual dependency, combined their several motions into one result, and that also a result connected with the utilities of other beings."

Paley then goes on to claim that "every manifestation of design which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature, with the difference on the side of nature of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation." The implication is that the works of nature must have had a designer of supreme intelligence to have contrived to put together such a magnificent mechanism as the universe. According to Darrow, this 'implication' is actually an assumption.

To say that a certain scheme or process shows order or system, one must have some norm or pattern by which to determine whether the matter concerned shows any design or order. We have a norm, a pattern, and that is the universe itself, from which we fashion our ideas. We have observed this universe and its operation and we call it order. To say that the universe is patterned on order is to say that the universe is patterned on the universe. It can mean nothing else.*

The problem with Paley's analogy is that the belief that the universe shows orderliness and purpose is an assumption. One quality of a good analogical argument is that the characteristics cited as shared characteristics must be truly shared characteristics. If there is doubt that one of the items being compared (the universe) possesses the most significant shared characteristic (of being orderly and purposive), then the analogical argument is not a sound one.

Hume's argument

Another philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), took up the design analogy a few years before Paley, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. One of the characters, Philo, suggests that "If the universe bears a greater likeness to animal bodies and to vegetables than to the works of human art, it is more probable that its cause resembles the cause of the former than that of the latter, and its origin ought rather to be ascribed to generation or vegetation than to reason or design." (Book VII) "The world," says Philo, "plainly resembles more an animal or a vegetable than it does a watch or knitting-loom. Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles the cause of the former. The cause of the former is generation or vegetation. The cause, therefore, of the world we may infer to be something similar or analogous to generation or vegetation." Hume, apparently thought the analogy was a joke, but perhaps Paley is still laughing from that Great Carrot Patch in the Sky.

I might find this watch analogy more convincing of Divine Purpose if, while observing it in his imaginary scenario, Paley's watch suddenly and for no reason shot a lightning bolt through his forehead. That would be more in harmony with the universe I have come to know and love. If the watch could give AIDS to anyone who touched it, or contaminate his progeny for endless generations, then I might be convinced that this watch is like the universe and indicative of a Grand Designer.

the apparent designed order

Finally, there is a common and popular argument that lists facts about nature that, if they were different, would mean that our planet or life on our planet would not exist. We wouldn't be here, it is noted,

  • if the sun were just slightly farther away or half as powerful

  • if the axis of the earth were slightly different

  • if the moon were larger or closer or farther away

  • if gravity weren't such a weak force

  • if DNA didn't replicate

  • if molecules were larger or smaller

  • if there were sixty planets in our solar system

  • if carbon didn't exist

  • if the speed of light were half what it is

  • if genetic mutation did not happen

  • if the rotation of the earth were one-tenth of what it is

Furthermore, look at all the signs of design:

  • salmon, eels, birds, butterflies and whales are able to migrate and find the same breeding and feeding grounds year after year

  • human reason which can conceive AG

  • natural ecological systems

One cannot deny the facts. If things were different then things would be different. But they aren't different, so what is the point of this argument? The sun will be unable to support life on this planet some day. It is already unable to support life on several other planets. What does this fact prove about design? Nothing. The axis of the earth has been different and will be different again. Someday this planet will be uninhabitable. What does that prove about design, intelligent or otherwise? Nothing. We can't deny that if millions of factors did not occur, we wouldn't be here. So what? Many of these factors did not exist in the past and will not exist in the future on this planet. There was a time when there was no life on this planet and there will be a time when no life exists here in the future. There was a time when this planet did not exist and there will be a time in the future when it will not exist. What does that prove about design? Nothing. There are countless planets that exist which do not have the conditions necessary for life. What do they prove about design? Nothing.

One might argue that the odds are a billion billion to one that all these circumstances just happened to coincide that makes life on earth possible. But since we're here, the odds are 100% that it can happen. Cressy Morrison once argued

Suppose you put ten pennies, marked from one to ten, into your pocket and give them a good shuffle. Now try to take them out in sequence from one to ten, putting back the coin each time and shaking them all again. Mathematically we know that your chance of first drawing number one is one in ten; of drawing one and two in succession, one in 100; of drawing one, two and three in succession, one in 1000, and so on; your chance of drawing them all, from number one to number ten in succession, would reach the unbelievable figure of one in ten billion.

By the same reasoning, so many exacting conditions are necessary for life on the earth that they could not possibly exist in proper relationship by chance. The earth rotates on its axis 1000 miles an hour at the equator; if it turned at 100 miles an hour, our days and nights would be ten times as long as now, and the hot sun would likely burn up our vegetation each long day while in the long night any surviving sprout might well freeze.

Morrison begs the question. The earth with life on it is here. The odds are 1/1 of its existing. In any case, if I had 20 billion years to pull ten numbered pennies out of my pocket, the odds of me drawing out the coins in sequence at least once are very good.

But why chip away at this argument from rarity when we can use the sledgehammer? 

... rarity by itself shouldn't necessarily be evidence of anything. When one is dealt a bridge hand of thirteen cards, the probability of being dealt that particular hand is less than one in 600 billion. Still, it would be absurd for someone to be dealt a hand, examine it carefully, calculate that the probability of getting it is less than one in 600 billion, and then conclude that he must not have been dealt that very hand because it is so very improbable. --John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences

Are there naturalistic and mechanistic explanations for ecological systems and what is called "animal wisdom"? Of course. Does this prove they were not designed? Of course not. Nor does their existence prove design. Do we have to posit a god to explain how human reason came to exist with its ability to conceive of an infinite being? Of course not. Does this mean there is no god? Of course not. But it does mean that this argument from design is little more than an exercise in begging the question. It has to assume design in order to prove it.

The Meaning of Life

The theist thinks that life only makes sense if a god exists. Why then does it seem obvious to atheists that everything makes just as much if not more sense if there is no god? Why does the universe seem perfectly intelligible to the atheist as an undesigned mechanism governed solely by natural, impersonal forces?

 An atheist looks at the universe and what is known about it and sees that its alleged perfect order and design is pretty imperfect. They look at individual items which are wonderful in function but ridiculous in design and are led to think no omniscient being would design it this way. As Russell put it: who couldn't come up with a better world if given omnipotence, omniscience and billions of years to do it? An omniscient, omnipotent being might well be expected to use a much simpler and more effective design for the universe and most of the things in it. The very complexity and inherent defects of structures indicate, as Clarence Darrow noted, the lack of design and the result of natural forces working with no particular purpose in mind. You can use a complicated clamp to hold a few sheets of paper, but a paper clip is a much more elegant device for such a purpose. The orbits of the planets around our sun are a wonder to behold, but the asteroid belt, meteors, and comets crashing into planets is a strange touch for an omnipotent, all-good creator. A healthy child has no match for exultation and hopefulness, but conjoined twins and other "freaks" of nature, as well as myriad genetic birth defects, seem unworthy of benevolent design. The atheist sees a woman with a 200 pound tumor and thinks such a grotesque evil can't be allowed by an omnipotent, all-good god. But the patient and her parents think AG helped the surgeons remove it and save her life. They don't blame AG for the tumor but credit him with its removal. They may even maintain that AG had some fine and noble purpose in causing such suffering. The atheist finds such rationalization to be little more than ad hoc hypothesizing.

The typical theistic response to the previous line of reasoning is to consider it impertinent. AG is not bound by human conceptions of perfection or adequate design. What may appear inelegant, inefficient or imperfect to us may be just right according to AG. But if one takes this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, then we can safely say nothing about AG at all. I maintain that the minimum standard any god should be held to is what a reasonably competent group of intelligent humans could come up with. If this god can't do any better than that, then "perfection" has no meaning when applied to this being. If one maintains that the ways of gods are essentially inscrutable, then anything goes. A god could be anything, even pure evil, in that case.


natural design

Scientists have discovered many things since Paley's day that strongly indicate a bottom-up design by natural evolution rather than a top-down design by an intelligent creator. On the one hand, there are some biological entities that indicate inept design if looked at as having been the work of a top-down all-knowing and all-powerful creator.

We have a jaw that is not sufficiently large to accommodate all of our teeth, so that wisdom teeth have to be removed and other teeth straightened by an orthodontist. Our backbone is less than well designed for our bipedal gait, resulting in back pain and other problems in late life. The birth canal is too narrow for the head of the newborn to pass easily through it, so that millions of innocent babies—and their mothers—have died in childbirth throughout human history.

I could go on about human features that betray a design that certainly is not intelligent. I will add only one more consideration. More than twenty percent of all human pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion during the first two months of pregnancy. That is because the human genome, the human reproductive system, is so poorly designed.*

Other design defects are the vagus nerve in mammals (especially in giraffes), the blind spot due to nerves meeting in front of the retina, and the proximity of the apparatuses for breathing and for swallowing, and ... well you get the point.

On the other hand, there are many things that appear to be beautifully designed from the top down that are actually the result of millions of years of small changes in simpler structures following no plan at all. From the beautiful crystalline structures of some rocks to the elaborate biological systems of mammals, small changes occurring by chance and randomly (but according to the laws of physics) eventuate in products that appear to have been designed according to some plan. Everything that exists is what is left over from a process where variation due to small changes over time led to some things becoming extinct and to others surviving. In the biological world, changes which enhanced survival and reproduction led to more and more complex organisms, which, after millions of years, appear to have been designed because of their many adaptive features.

A believer in divine creation might think that a supernatural being, in order to have his creatures reproduce, created the penis and the vagina, as well as the strong sexual urge that drives humans to want to experience the pleasure that comes from joining the two sex organs and completing the act of coitus. There is no need for such a supposition, however. Mammals evolved from other creatures and so did the mammalian sex organs. Any creatures that mutated so that sex was not pleasurable or so that males lacked a penis and females lacked a vagina, would not have as good a chance at reproducing as their unmutated brethren. Humans weren't designed to have sex for the purpose of reproduction. Rather, some of our pre-human ancestors changed over time so that they were more successful at surviving and breeding than some of our other ancestors who went extinct. The earliest creatures had no sex organs at all. What we see today is the result of millions of small changes over millions of years. We don't see the failures, i.e., those whose mutations were harmful and reduced their chances of survival or reproduction because they didn't survive and reproduce.

Richard Dawkins puts it this way:

The patterns of distribution of living animals and plants on the continents and islands of the world is exactly what would be expected if they had evolved from common ancestors by slow, gradual degrees. The patterns of resemblance among animals and plants is exactly what we should expect if some were close cousins, and others more distant cousins to each other. The fact that the genetic code is the same in all living creatures overwhelmingly suggests that all are descended from one single ancestor. The evidence for evolution is so compelling that the only way to save the creation theory is to assume that [Abraham's god] deliberately planted enormous quantities of evidence to make it look as if evolution had happened. In other words, the fossils, the geographical distribution of animals, and so on, are all one gigantic confidence trick. Does anybody want to worship a god capable of such trickery? It is surely far more reverent, as well as more scientifically sensible, to take the evidence at face value. All living creatures are cousins of one another, descended from one remote ancestor that lived more than 3,000 million years ago.

The argument from design, then, has been destroyed as a reason for believing in a god.

Nature is as likely to produce a good as a poor design, for it has no intelligence and no purpose. Whatever survives and reproduces flourishes. Nature is also ficklemetaphorically speaking, of course. Traits that might enhance survival and reproduction in one environment might be detrimental in another setting. Nature has a way of altering habitats and environments with such things as ice ages, volcanism, hurricanes, floods, lightning fires, and the like. So, if at times certain creatures or parts of creatures appear to be unintelligently designed, that is because they weren't really designed at all. Nature is opportunistic rather than intelligent.* Likewise, just because some creatures or parts of creatures appear to be the result of some intelligent designer with a purpose in mind doesn't mean they were designed.

The argument from design carried more weight before evolution by natural selection was discovered. That discovery would have provided Hume, for example, with much more devastating evidence against Paley's argument than his demonstration of the weakness of the analogy Paley was making. With natural selection there is no need to assume that the universe or the creatures living in it resemble anything in particular, including a divine creator. Nor is there any reason to suppose a divine creator to explain the apparent order and design in nature. There is no reason to suppose such a being, that is, if one understands the laws of physics. Still, can there be any idea more awe-inspiring than the idea of the universe forming by natural forces and evolving into this magnificent, unfathomable place whose mysteries scientists have been unraveling without the help of theologians?

© Copyright 1994-2012 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.