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Mink and Brace’s Accidental Conference On The Design Argument
Mark Piper designs an argument questioning the design argument.
Last winter Sylvia Mink and Edgar Brace arrived in St Louis, Missouri, and took cabs to St Louis University. They had come to attend a conference on the design argument for the existence of God, but there had been unavoidable delays, and they were both running late. They arrived at the same time and ran to the library, looking forward to the warmth and refreshments inside. Instead they found the library locked. Bewildered, they hastily introduced themselves to each other and double-checked the conference details – where, to their shock and embarrassment, they discovered that the conference was actually taking place at St Lawrence University. In Minnesota.
Most people would have made their way to the nearest hotel bar in disbelief. But Mink and Brace weren’t so hasty. Instead, they made themselves comfortable upon a bench and thought about how best to proceed. No chance to make the conference now; a wasted opportunity. But did it have to be wasted time? After all, philosophers hadn’t always needed modern amenities to hold their conferences: they had had time and their ideas, and that had sufficed. Why couldn’t it now? Ah, what the hell.
And so, despite the cold and the snow and the dark descending outside, Mink and Brace decided that they would forge ahead. Brace had a candle amongst his things, which he lit. Mink shared her flask, and produced some bread and cheese. What follows is an only slightly abridged transcript of their utterly unlikely little conference.
Mink: It’s safe to assume that we’re both familiar with the basics of the argument?
Brace: Yes, but perhaps we could still say a few words about it at the outset? My apologies for the request. I’m a bit of a dork. I like beginnings before my middles and ends.
Mink: Nothing wrong with that. Dorks are some of the finest people around, as far as I’m concerned. Would you do the honors?
Brace: Happy to! So – we have come together to judge the cogency of the design argument for the existence of God. Before turning to the analysis, we must set out the argument itself, making sure to enumerate its component parts.
Mink: Oh my, we are dorks.
Brace: Too stuffy? Sorry about that. I blame professional deformation.
Mink: No, I love it. Please go on. Cheers!
Brace: Ah, thank you. Cheers! So – the universe as a whole, the conditions for its existence and maintenance, and all of the things of which it is composed and which it contains, including its natural laws, and us, of course, are of such an intricate and precise organization, with each part seeming to play its role so perfectly in the operation of the whole, that we are compelled to conclude that there must be a Cosmic Intelligence of some sort responsible for its design and conservation. In just the same way that we would not suppose a particle collider to form itself except through the efforts of human intelligent design, we must conclude that the intricate interconnected workings of the universe and its innumerable component parts could not have been formed except through the efforts of an Intelligence possessing the knowledge and power sufficient to conceive and fashion it. Further, recent data from a tremendous variety of sources, from cosmology to particle physics, indicates that the values of several physical constants – both presently, and at the critical moments directly after the Big Bang – needs to have been of such an utterly precise calibration for life to be possible, that we are even more compelled to say that there must be some Cosmic Intelligence responsible. And this Cosmic Intelligence, this Universal Designer, is what we mean by God. Hence we can conclude that God exists, or at least that God’s existence is very probable, insofar as this is the best explanation of the innumerable kinds of intricate order we find in the world.
Mink: Well said. Prost!
Brace: Prost! So, your thoughts?
Mink: I think the evidence of intricacy and order is undeniable; but I also think the argument is particularly vulnerable to one specific line of criticism. The guiding principle behind the argument is that where one finds objects – used in the broadest sense of the term – of highly intricate order, one should infer the existence of an intelligent designer as the best explanation for how those objects came about. Just as with a computer, so with an eye, or a spine, or an ordered cosmos –
Brace: I think that’s the crux of it.
Mink: But if the guiding principle of the argument is that we should explain intricate order by postulating intelligent design, then mustn’t we conclude by that very logic that God Itself requires a designer? Wouldn’t God be an instance – perhaps the very highest instance – of intricate order and purpose?
Brace: It would be odd to think that a designing intelligence could be less intricate than what it designs, at the very least in the matter of intelligence.
Mink: And if this is the case, then the very reasoning employed in the argument leads us by necessity to judge that God, above all else, stands in need of a designer! And God’s designer, being still more intricate and ordered than God Itself – again by the logic of the argument’s driving principle – is even more in need of an intelligent designer; and on and on… And thus the very logic of the argument leads inevitably into a never-ending regress of ever more intricate and powerful designers, with the result that a designer can’t serve as an explanation for the thing we’re trying to explain in the first place: the ubiquitous examples of intricate order in the world.
Brace: What if one were to protest that the utterly intricate God who designed the universe can exist in and of itself without being designed by something further?
Mink: Well, once we accept that entities of highly ordered intricacy can exist without having been designed by some intelligent being, can’t the atheist employ this idea to the detriment of the design argument by retorting that, for all we know, the utterly intricate universe can exist in and of itself without having been designed?
Brace: I don’t see why not. But what if it is said, as it sometimes is, that God is a purely simple substance, and thus isn’t a being of ordered intricacy whose existence requires an intelligent designer?
Mink: I think that leads to a dilemma. Either that purely simple substance supports a transcendently intricate and powerful mind, in which case the infinite regress problem still exists at one remove, or God is purely simple through and through, in which case it is admitted to be possible to have complex effects explained by simple causes – which is again grist for the atheist’s mill.
Brace: Could you pass back the flask?
Mink: Gladly. So it seems to me, based on reasons of this sort, that the design argument fails, since it either leads into a neverending regress of ever more Godly designers whose existence is itself ultimately unexplained – in which case the task of explaining all this intricate order is never really fulfilled at all – or it leads to the acceptance of reasoning that can be employed just as easily in the service of atheism.
Brace: So how do we explain the astonishing intricacy and order of the universe?
Mink: Well, it isn’t always so nicely ordered – but we can shelve that concern for now… How do we explain it? For all we know, I suppose it’s possible that the universe was created by God, or a god, or gods; but, for the reasons I’ve covered, the design argument alone can’t show that. At the same time it’s also possible that the universe is only a vast collection of mindless laws and energy which, among the various combinations they take throughout time, produce ordered systems that allow for organic evolution, at least sometimes, all the while being at bottom ‘designed’ by nothing more than a mass of mindless patterns, regularities, and energies blindly working out algorithms. And of course Darwin’s work gives us a compelling naturalistic explanation of natural ‘design’ – one that doesn’t lead to an infinite regress. But anyhow, I’m getting off the theme a bit. Does the design argument show that God exists? No. God may exist, but the design argument doesn’t establish it. God may even be the explanation of the existence of the universe, but the design argument doesn’t show that, either.
Brace: That sounds very reasonable.
Mink: Well now, that’s a rarity!
Brace: What is?
Mink: A philosopher who doesn’t mind agreeing with another philosopher! In my experience, most philosophers seem to think that they’re not doing their job if they don’t find holes in other peoples’ arguments.
Brace: Ah, you’re committing a hasty generalization there. Sláinte!
Mink: Touché and sláinte! Brace, the floor is yours. What do you think?
Brace: Honestly, I’m not sure I have any further thoughts. Well, that’s not entirely true. I suppose I could sift through the history of the argument a bit, and point out people who made important contributions – in which case I’d talk a lot about Hume’s argument that the nature of the universe doesn’t necessarily support the idea that anything that might have designed it would be particularly benevolent or wise; or I could spend some time analyzing the meaning of the terms used in the argument, and the like… But why bother? I think you’ve done the trick. We might as well consider the matter resolved, and move on to something else.
Mink: : But we don’t have anything else to move on to. The conference concerns the design argument, and I think we’ve shown that it’s a bust.
Brace: Begging your pardon, Mink, but that rubs against the modesty I’ve been cultivating for the past few decades.
Mink: Well, in any case, we certainly don’t deserve the credit. Give it rather to Hume, as you suggested. But perhaps we’ve done a service by echoing his conclusions.
Brace: Not that it will affect the wider public. The design argument will live on, of course.
Mink: No disagreement there – it’s one of the Greatest Hits of philosophy. But its enduring popularity should, if anything, give us further motivation to show up its flaws. An old professor of mine once said that there’s no virtue in recycling arguments. I think he was mistaken, at least concerning arguing against people who keep making the same mistakes. Anyway, it looks like the flask is empty and the snow and cold aren’t particularly concerned about our discomfort. I’d say it’s time to engineer a better situation for ourselves, yes?
Brace: Quod erat demonstr-
Mink: Brace, please. If you’re going to lapse into Latin, at least give me a chance to refill my flask!
Thus ended the unforeseen and unheralded conference of Mink and Brace on the design argument for God’s existence. Although unoriginal, it remains one of the most productive conferences in the history of philosophy.
© Dr Mark Piper 2018
Mark Piper is Associate Professor of Philosophy at James Madison University, VA.