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The Argument from Design

Did God make the world? Nick McDonnell explains why he doubts it.

Of the three standard ‘proofs’ of God’s existence, the argument from design is the most popular and the most likely to actually sway opinion. Who could fail to be moved by the words of the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’? It conjures up an image of a country church, blue skies, daffodils in bloom, birds singing; of a place where God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. And yet, interestingly enough, the argument is the least able to withstand critical scrutiny.

It was given its classical form by William Paley in 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 for ever: 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 given before, that for all I knew, the watch might have always been there.

Watches are, after all, intricately and precisely fashioned, and were probably the most technically advanced instruments at that time. It therefore seemed obvious to Paley that such a device must have had a maker

who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

Indeed, just as the telescope is designed and made for viewing, so is the eye. Yet nature far exceeds any watch or telescope in complexity and coherence, so how much more obvious it must be that nature itself is designed, and that it has a designer and a purpose.

The argument takes the form:

(A) the universe is orderly
(B) order is always the result of design
Therefore: (C) the universe was designed
Therefore: (D) the designer is God.

Let us consider each step in turn. Firstly, bearing in mind that I cannot very well attack the wording of my own paraphrase, it is not clear what is meant by ‘orderly’ in premise (A). Exactly what features of a watch or an eye impress us as being the marks of design? It is not mere regularity – crystals exhibit that to a greater extent. And it is unlikely to be the result of a detailed knowledge of the workings of the eye. More likely it is a combination of three factors. Firstly, we have an awareness that there is complexity, whether or not we understand it. Secondly, we appreciate that there are parts which work together coherently; it is not a random jumble. And finally we know that eyes have a function, a purpose. But we must be careful about this last point. Because eyes work for us; they assist us in achieving our ends, and as such are an integral part of many of our human purposes. So it is natural to read purpose into them. But this does not imply that they were designed for a purpose. Paley’s stone could be used as part of a wall, but that does not mean it was designed for that function.

There is a further issue concerning our recognition of order. The reason Paley’s watch stands out as an example of order and design is precisely because of the contrast with the things around it, the things with no apparent design or purpose. We know order because we know disorder, and that implies that disorder exists. So Paley was being selective in the evidence he chose to present: the weight of evidence points to a disorderly and purposeless universe.

And even the appearance of order can be deceptive. When we look up at the night sky, the stars seem to be a pinpoints of light. But powerful telescopes reveal that many of those points are, in fact, immense exploding galaxies, and that stars are huge turbulent balls of gas which undergo incessant thermonuclear explosions. So not everywhere can be said to be orderly. This is especially relevant when it is realised that most of the universe is positively hostile to life. And yet order and complexity exist, and stand in need of explanation.

To support premise (B), Paley relies on what is essentially an argument from analogy, an argument that because X and Y are similar in some way, and because X has property P, therefore Y must have property P as well. Such arguments, however, are never conclusive. Paley wants to say that the universe is similar to a machine (a very weak analogy indeed) in that both are orderly, and the machine is the result of design, so the universe must be the result of design as well. However, he starts by comparing an eye and a telescope. They are similar in that both are ordered and complex. The telescope is designed for the purpose of enhancing vision. So can we say that the eye was also designed and has a purpose? Well, as we have already noted, the human eye does have a purpose in the sense that it enables people to see, but that does not prove that it was designed for a purpose, which is a quite separate point.

It is not obvious that even being made implies either order or purpose. Not if a painter achieved his masterpiece by throwing a pot of paint at a canvas, at least. There was, perhaps, an element of design, in that the painter decided to throw the pot, and presumably also in that he didn’t throw the canvas away afterwards, but the result was chaotic and unpredictable.

But can we say that order is always the result of design? David Hume argued that order is evident from design only to the extent that order has been observed to result from design. We know that watches and telescopes are the product of design because we humans do the designing. Any further inference has, strictly, no evidence to support it. This is a fair point, but on its own it is not very satisfying. The real question is whether design is the only possible explanation. And this brings us to an answer unavailable to Paley: the evolutionary theory of Darwin and Wallace.

Evolution is often portrayed as the argument that the life is the product of ‘blind chance’, and this is caricatured as being like arguing that Shakespeare’s plays could have been written by a monkey at a typewriter. Even though it is possible, the chances of it happening are vanishingly small. So the idea that the eye could have arisen by chance is equally improbable. But evolution is not like that. The empirical fact is that order arises spontaneously given simple operational rules – rules which allow only certain configurations. In nature, those rules are the laws of physics, and their principal agent, where life is concerned, is a self-replicating molecule called DNA. True, there is an element of randomness in its mutation, but not in natural selection. Life is not a catalogue of arbitrary creations, but an everchanging process which has had hundreds of millions of years to reach the particular dynamic equilibrium in which we find ourselves.

The case for Darwinism is strong, but it is complex, and I cannot argue it here. Suffice it to say that it provides a powerful and detailed explanation of not only how things are, but also how they came to be that way. And this last point is something which the creationist answer leaves out. There are many natural phenomena which have no obvious purpose (the male nipple and the human appendix spring to mind), and many which serve as examples of bad, or at least less than optimal, design. Richard Dawkins describes how one eye of the bony flatfish actually moves around to the other side of its skull as it grows, and how the vertebrate retina has its optic nerve connected backwards. [Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker p.92-3] No competent engineer would use these inefficient methods.

But even this is not a disproof of design – it is simply a rival explanation. However the evidence produced during the Darwinian debate cast serious doubt on the plausibility of benevolent design. Stephen Jay Gould describes one such case, that of the ichneumon wasp. The female injects her eggs into caterpillars via a long thin tube. The eggs develop into larvae which feed on the bodies of their hosts, eating them from within, but in such a way that the caterpillar is kept alive for as long as possible. In the Darwinian view, life is an endless struggle to survive, and in the process countless species have become extinct. Here Nature is merciless and the individual is expendable.

But perhaps the theist (believer in a single God) can accept evolution, at least in principle, and point instead to the laws of physics as being the evidence for order and design. After all it is their existence which underlies and ultimately explains the success of Darwinism. And if they had been just a little different, then life as we know it would not have been possible. There are two points to be made here. Firstly, the idea of a ‘law’ in the sense used here needs clarification. The word is the same as that of a judicial rule, but its meaning is different. When we say that there is a law prohibiting parking on double yellow lines we are describing a prescriptive law. The existence of such a law does not mean that no-one ever parks on double yellow lines. But when we talk about the law of energy conservation, we are talking about a descriptive law, one which describes the way in which nature actually behaves. The two uses of the word are distinct; there is no implication that a law of physics can be repealed or amended in the same way that the civil or criminal codes can. Now, it is possible to read into the existence of ‘the laws of physics’ the idea that not only were they were laid down, but also they were laid down with the intention of producing life as we know it. But there is no reason to suppose either of these assumptions. To do so would presuppose the very issue in question. In fact it is only the existence of the laws themselves that needs explaining.

But is it not remarkable that these exact laws exist, and no other? Well, we really have no idea whether it is remarkable or not. We can have no notion of what the consequences would have been if one of the laws had been different. It could be that ‘our’ fundamental laws are in fact the only ones possible. We just don’t know enough about them to say.

Secondly, as the moral philosopher John Mackie pointed out, when we observe subatomic particles and their behaviour, albeit indirectly, any reason we had to suppose the existence of purpose at a higher level seems to dissipate. We can certainly discern patterns, but not what those patterns might mean. Indeed the orthodox view is that at the quantum level the normal regularity of a given cause always producing a given effect breaks down. And if that is the case then any appearance of order must be illusory. Indeed there’s no reason at this level to suppose the universe is not the product of chance. So rather than viewing the solar system as “a marvellously coherent machine with mutually assisting and mutually adjusted components (like a watch, only more so)”, it should be clear that it is “something that, given the gravitation laws, … could be botched up with no thought at all, or that could emerge from a fortuitous concourse of masses.” [Mackie, The Miracle of Theism p.142] Furthermore, “as the problem shifts back towards the more fundamental, the burden of explanation has grown. lighter: there is literally less to explain.” So shifting ground to a more fundamental level does not help the theist.

Another problem with premise (B) is that if order is always the result of design, then the designer, who presumably is not disordered, must in turn have been designed. And this leads to an infinite regress. The theist must therefore admit that not all order is the result of design, but amending (B) to:

(B1) order is sometimes the result of design

weakens his position substantially. He then requires a further argument to show that the universe is the product of design, but that is what the original argument was intended to show! And if he tries:

(B2) order is always the result of design except in the case of the designer

then further argument is needed to show not only why this is an exception, but also why it is the only exception. Again, this undermines the whole argument as it amounts to an admission that, because any further justification would have to lie outside the design issue, order itself is not the criterion by which the existence of the designer can be inferred. So we arrive at:

(C) the universe was designed

which would follow deductively from (A) and (B), and inductively from (A) and (B1) or (B2). The problem now is how to get from (C) to the desired conclusion:

(D) the designer is God

Premise (C) on its own is insufficient, and further argument is clearly needed, but this is made more difficult because the theist has a shopping list of requirements. For him the designer must be omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent, necessary, one, and eternal, but the design argument does not yield any of these conclusions. The qualities of omnipotence and omniscience are rendered implausible by the obvious imperfections in the world. Eyes just don’t work all that well – I myself have both short sight and astigmatism – and neither does anything else. Disease, decay, death, destruction… if the universe was designed, then the flaws in the design point to a flawed creator. And all this also counts against the benevolence of the creator. As Epicurus succinctly put it: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence evil?”

The necessity of the creator is difficult to argue from design, because of the implied logical constraints. To arrive at a necessary conclusion, the theist must argue from a necessary premise, but his premise – the existence of some object – is ordinarily thought of as being contingent. So the only way to get to the conclusion is to say that the existence of the object is in fact necessary. But if he is arguing about the design of the universe, then this means that the existence of every object is necessary. And this implies that everything that is and everything that happens is logically necessary; logical necessity would somehow pervade causality. So there is only one possible world: this one. This is the ‘best’ of all possible worlds. Leibniz held this view, as did Voltaire’s caricature M. Pangloss, but it is a conclusion which is usually thought of as unacceptable for a theist. It implies that every evil, say a Nazi gas chamber, was actually necessary, and furthermore that no apparent ‘improvement’ in the world is in fact possible. Perhaps this view is tenable, but it is wildly implausible.

There is no reason to suppose either that the universe was designed by one individual – given its flaws, a committee seems more likely – or that the creator still exists. After all, given the basic laws and the initial conditions, the universe just gets on with it. The basic problem for the theist is that he is trying for too much. He is trying to argue:

  • from the finite to the infinite
  • from the contingent to the necessary
  • from nature to the benevolent
  • from the imperfect to the perfect
  • from the many to the one
  • from the past to the present

and none of these are going to work. The design argument even moves from ‘design’ to ‘purpose’ without explanation; but one does not imply the other. Of course it’s natural to read purpose into the world because that is how we experience it. If I am thirsty, I perceive a glass of ice-cold lemonade as the thing I want. The object and the purpose are not separate experiences. The glass of lemonade embodies my purpose. But purpose presupposes a conscious being with goals. The difficulty with assigning purpose to God is that because there is nothing that he doesn’t have, how can he have desires?

The great appeal of teleological explanations is their simplicity. Lightning is caused by the anger of a god, luck by the favour of a goddess, and so on. So, many people in the past would sacrifice to a variety of gods in the hope of gain, a good harvest, perhaps, or the birth of a healthy child. Similarly, misfortune was blamed on the malevolence of witches. Such attitudes have become less common in recent times because they don’t satisfy the educated mind. Natural forces are no longer personified now that science has shown what is actually happening. But theistic explanations persist. And yet they typically end with God, and, as such, have little or no explanatory value. Answering the question: ‘where did I come from?’ with ‘God made you’ is not answering the question at all. And this is clear from the inevitable followup: ‘where did God come from then?’ which is never answered. The antidote to ‘All Thing Bright and Beautiful’ is Monty Python’s satirical ‘All Things Dull and Ugly’, the first verse of which is:

All things dull and ugly
All creatures short and squat
All things rude and nasty
The Lord God made the lot.

By his actions shall he be known.

© Nick McDonnell 1999

Nick McDonnell works as a computer programmer. He took eight years parttime to achieve a BA and an MA at Nottingham and is now recovering with his wife and four children.

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