Argument from design

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Arguments For the Existence of God
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The argument from design is an attempt to prove the existence of God based on the natural order of the universe.


The watchmaker

This is the watchmaker argument, one of the earliest formal expressions of the argument from design.

"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."

William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

"Upon the whole; after all the schemes and struggles of a reluctant philosophy, the necessary resort is to a Deity. The marks of design are too strong to be gotten over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD."

William Paley, Natural Theology (Ch. XXIII, Pg. 441)


  • The appearance of design is subjective. What features denote design? Complexity? Order? Beauty? Suitability to a purpose? Any of these can be lacking in objects we know to be designed (i.e., manufactured by humans). We recognize designed objects by comparison with previously known designed objects and by contrasting them with naturally occurring objects. Thus, we know the watch had a designer because there is no evidence that watches occur naturally and a mountain of evidence that they are designed and manufactured. Furthermore, the fact that the watch is being singled out in the argument as an apparently designed object implies that the natural environment around it does not appear designed, which seems to refute the whole point of the designer argument.
  • Seeing design in nature involves confusing the direction of causality. Humans are the product of a long evolutionary process that has adapted us to the environments where we live. That our surroundings seem well suited to us (to the extent that they are) is not surprising, but is not evidence that it was designed for our benefit; rather it is a testament to the power of evolution to produce well-adapted organisms. See Douglas Adams' puddle analogy.
  • Continuing in the evolutionary vein, one of the beneficial adaptations of humans is the ability to infer intent. This allows us to anticipate behavior on the part of other organisms that might be detrimental (or beneficial) to our survival. However, this ability can be overgeneralized; we can see intent and purpose where there is none. Seeing design in nature is an example, since the religious view is usually that the universe was designed for our benefit. Thus, inference of design is really a kind of fallacious inference of intent.
  • We know that man-made objects are designed a posteriori. We have heard of designers. We know of companies that make such things. They are made out of plastic which doesn't occur in nature or finely polished purified silver which doesn't appear in nature. We know such things are designed because from our knowledge of the world we can logically conclude that they are designed. When presented with this notion in Kitzmiller v. Dover Michael Behe resorted to note that the inference held in science fiction movies: "Professor Behe’s only response to these seemingly insurmountable points of disanalogy was that the inference still works in science fiction movies. (23:73 (Behe))." Often times the construction of the argument involves aliens or time travel to avoid the flaw.
  • The conclusion does not follow. If we overlook the flaws in the argument, we could never conclude God. Rather some kind of designing intelligence. Watches are made by large groups of people and generations of tinkering with the design. As such, it might be better to conclude a pantheon of gods rather than Paley's one single deity. One could conclude the Flying Spaghetti Monster or aliens.
  • If the appearance of design is all it takes to show that something couldn't have evolved, then who designed God? After all, in order to be capable of designing an entire functional universe, God himself must be incredibly complex and would need a designer as well. This makes the argument from design a subset of the cosmological argument.
  • Judging the intelligence of a designer who created the natural world would not lead to the conclusion of a perfectly intelligent one. There are a large number of rather stunning defects in nature that a competent designer wouldn't make, the human eye for example certainly relies on the principles of optics, but the ganglia is situation such that the nerves and blood which feed the eye are backwards and run across the light sensing cells of the eye. A hole is placed in the center such that humans and other mammals have a blind spot. Appendices serve no purpose and get infected and need to be removed. The human jaw is too small to properly fit wisdom teeth. Embryos sometimes implant themselves outside of the uterus and without abortion would kill the mother. If you were to conclude design, you would need to conclude an idiotic tinkerer rather than a divine perfect creator.
  • Was the English language created? It is obviously a product of humanity, so the answer is, of course, yes. Who, then, "created" English? Just as English has evolved without an overall conscious design, with words being added and becoming obsolete based on their necessity, so too has life itself formed, without pre-determined design.

Claiming design

Paley compares the watch to a stone, noting that it's perfectly reasonable to presume that the stone occurred naturally, while the watch must be the result of intelligent design. This is entirely reasonable and consistent with science, yet Paley fails to clearly identify the precise reasons we're able to make such a distinction. Additionally, proponents of this argument often portray this as an argument that complexity, order and beauty are, on their own, evidence for design.

This view is logically flawed and raises problems which transcend Paley's original argument. If complexity and order are, on their own, evidence for design then everything must have been designed (as all things are complex and ordered at various scales) and everything must serve as evidence for this designer. Essentially, that rock which Paley dismisses can also be considered complex and ordered and must also serve as evidence for a designer. Indeed this is precisely what many Christians claim, utilizing verses from the Bible to support it:

"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."
Romans 1:20

This view destroys Paley's original argument, essentially pointing out that the stone, the watch, the grass and all things are evidence of a designer. The contrast between "designed" and "naturally occurring" is eliminated.

Recognizing design

The truth that Paley only hinted at, and many creationists reject, is that we recognized "design" by contrast to the "naturally occurring". In the case of the watch, we have no evidence to support the idea that the watch is naturally occurring and overwhelming evidence that it was designed. We have knowledge about how watches are designed, we can identify specific designers and manufacturers we even teach these skills to new designers and manufacturers.

Where the rock is concerned, the opposite is true. We have no evidence to support the idea that the rock was designed and overwhelming evidence that it is the result of natural processes.

Other arguments from design

  • Some proponents of Intelligent Design claim sightings of the Golden Ratioin nature as evidence that life was designed. The chambered nautilus in particular is often cited as an example. These claims have been discredited, however, because much variation in proportions has been observed in these cases.

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