Argument from design

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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.


Background information

The argument from design is one of the most common arguments for god. It ranges in complexity from Paley's watchmaker to the laughable plea of the average Christian to Just look at the trees!

Despite being one of the most popular arguments for god, and more or less providing the underpinning for the entire intelligent design movement, the argument is deeply flawed on almost every level. Logically it goes so far as to commit not one, but two separate cases of special pleading.


"I see and think about God every time I look around and see birds in air, trees, flowers, grass, sun and raindrops. I am thankful to be alive because God made me, the world and all that's in it."

Letter to the Editor, Hampton Roads Daily Press


Paley's watchmaker

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

William Paley in Natural Theology c.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."

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

"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.]"

Ray Comfort's divine painter

This version of the argument is commonly presented by apologist Ray Comfort or his many followers.

Ray Comfort on Atheist Central / Ray Comfort Food blog:

"First, I would say that I can prove that anyone who looks at a building and says that he doesn't believe that there was a builder, is a fool. This is because a building is absolute proof that there was a builder. Buildings don't build themselves, from nothing. Only a fool would believe that."
"Second, I would say that anyone who looks at a painting and believes that there was no painter, is a fool. The painting is absolute proof that there as a painter. Paintings don't paint themselves, from nothing. Only a fool would believe that."
"Then I would say that creation is absolute 100% scientific proof that there is a Creator. A creation cannot create itself, from nothing. But that's what the atheist believes--that nothing created everything from nothing. That's a scientific impossibility, and only a fool would believe that."


p1. We appear to observe features in nature too complex to have happened by chance
p2. These features exhibit the hallmark appearance of design
p3. Design implies that there must be a designer
c1. Therefore nature must be the result of an intelligent designer
c2. This designer is God

(note: The Intelligent Design movement ends their version of the syllogism at c1. in a feeble attempt to shoe horn creationism into science classrooms. They believe that by not naming this intelligent designer God, the argument by fiat, is not religious. This is analogous to a child's game of peek-a-boo. When small children cover their eyes and can't see you, they assume you also can't see them)

Counter arguments

Manipulating is not Creating

To say that the existence of manipulators manipulating pre-existing matter proves the existence of an intelligent being creating ex nihilo, is a non-sequitur.

Making consists of manipulation of pre-existing matter and energy. It is true that the existence of a building or car presupposes a maker. But it also presupposes something else: pre-existing matter and energy that the maker manipulates. The maker of a building does not “make” it by saying: “Let there be a house. And let it be of brick and have shingles of asphalt. And let the brick be yellow in color and the window trim be of almond coloring.” A “maker” makes something by starting with something that already exists. She then manipulates it by changing its shape or size or even applying energy to change its attributes and then assembles the modified pre-existing matter into the building.

A log cabin maker first finds existing trees, chops them down, removes the branches, shapes them and then piles them in a particular way to “make” the cabin walls. The raw materials of glass are subjected to heat until the heat manipulates it into a transparent substance that is then molded or cut to fit holes in the walls to make windows. A sand castle maker does not make the sand, he merely shapes existing sand into a shape we call a castle. Making is not “creating.” It is merely manipulating. And, of course, existing matter and energy can only be manipulated by a manipulator.

Creation ex nihilo or speaking something into existence is a completely different category of event. Where making presupposes the previous existence of matter and energy, creating presupposes the opposite – that nothing exists previously.

Noticing that existing matter and energy can be manipulated tells us absolutely nothing about how the matter and energy came to exist in the first place. Finding a piece of clay and noticing that it can be manipulated it the shape of a horse tells me nothing about how the clay got there to begin with.

False premise p1: Complexity

The idea that aspects of nature are too complex to have happened by chance (or more aptly natural processes if we wish to avoid straw men) is a fallacy of argument from ignorance, or even willful ignorance, in the case where the theist also has to reject what we already know about the facts of Darwinian evolution. It is essentially tantamount to the statement “I can't think how it could have happened, therefore God did it!” It's also begging the question as to whether something can be too complex for evolution, at all. How would we know whether something is too complex without a sampling of confirmed examples contrasting natural low-complexity cases versus supernatural high-complexity cases?

This has led to the formulation of such theories as Michael Behe's theory of irreducible complexity, which was laughed out of court during the Kitzmiller v. Dover court case, who when presented with counterpoints, "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))”.

Ray Comfort's version of the argument (in classic Ray Comfort "slap your knees" fashion) bypasses this entire premise by committing a fallacy of begging the question and simply assuming a priori in the premises that nature is a “creation”.

False premise p2: Definition of design

As taken from Wiktionary:

design (plural designs)
1. A plan (with more or less detail) for the structure and functions of an artifact, building or system.
2. A pattern, as an element of a work of art or architecture.
3. The composition of a work of art.
4. Intention or plot.
M. Le Page Du Pratz, History of Louisisana (PG), p. 40
I give it you without any other design than to shew you that I reckon nothing dear to me, when I want to do you a pleasure.
5. The shape or appearance given to an object, especially one that is intended to make it more attractive.
6. The art of designing
Danish design of furniture is world-famous.

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 of our knowledge of the world we can logically conclude that they are designed

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.

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.

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.

Special pleading p2: Recognition of design

The truth that Paley only hinted at, and many creationists reject, is that we recognized design by contrast to the naturally occurring. The very fact that Paley singles out the watch 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. On some level Paley knows there is an intrinsic difference between the watch and the rock.

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. Also, in a universe that was actually designed, it would not be possible to compare, for there wouldn't be anything that would be naturally occurring.

  • In the case of the watch, 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. 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,
  • 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.
  • In the case of the tree theists sometimes instruct us to “just look at”, we also observe the proses of self replication and genetic variation. We do not observe this in any designed human artifacts.

False premise p2: Definitional paradox

Following the implied definition of design to its logical conclusions, 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, thus 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:

However, if we consider the stone, the watch, the tree and all things as evidence of a designer, Paley's original argument is completely destroyed. The logical contrast between the designed and the naturally occurring, which forms the basic definitions of the argument is thereby eliminated, along with the argument.

False unstated premise

Implicit in the argument is the unstated premise that such design cannot be done by the organism or the system itself, or rather that self-design is impossible. This premise however is false as self-design is both possible and real and there are multiple examples of it. Evolution, which is the scientific explanation for the complexity and design of life, is an algorithmic description of a process of self-design. Also, to some degree the human brain is capable of self-design. One can, simply by thinking about a problem come to a coherent answer to the question without outside influence, resulting in a more complex system. [[1]]

Special pleading: Intelligent designer

The conclusion of this argument is also self refuting. The entire premise for the argument is based on notion that there are aspects of nature too complex to have simply sprung into existence by chance (once again for the sake of the argument, ignoring the obvious evolutionary straw man).

Though as Richard Dawkins points out in his Ultimate 747 Gambit, the idea of solving this problem of complexity by invoking an infinitely complex, and thus by their own argument, an infinitely improbable deity, doesn't really make sense at all.

Probability and possibility are two different things. As said above an infinitely improbable deity, doesn't mean infinitely impossible. One needs to be careful when considering the possibility of an infinite deity. Though improbable it does not mean impossible.

Which religion

Main Article: Which god?

Even if we grant all the false premises, it does not follow that that god is the one the apologist has in mind, or even that there is only one god involved. It could just as likely be the Flying Spaghetti Monster, purple space pixies, Santa Claus, or invisible pink unicorns, as it could be Yahweh.

During an interview conducted under false pretenses for the creationist propaganda film Expelled, Ben Stein posed Richard Dawkins with a leading hypothetical question as to what Dawkins thinks about “the possibility that Intelligent Design might turn out to be the answer to some issues in genetics or in Darwinian evolution.”

Richard Dawkins in Expelled:

"Well, it could come about in the following way. It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved, probably by some kind of Darwinian means, probably to a very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. Um, now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it’s possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer."

This is the point were Stein attempts to use “creative editing” by pausing in the middle of the interview to call “Shock! Horror! Richard Dawkins accepts intelligent design!”

"And that Designer could well be a higher intelligence from elsewhere in the universe. But that higher intelligence would itself have had to have come about by some explicable, or ultimately explicable process. It couldn't have just jumped into existence spontaneously. That's the point."

Stein then continues with the tirade that “Richard Dawkins believes in space aliens.” and that “He doesn't have a problem with intelligent design, just when the designer is called 'God'.” Not withstanding Dawkins response was a hypothetical based on the premise that we actually had some evidence of design, Stein didn't actually bother to address the issue that an argument for intelligent design supports space aliens just as well as his God, and without breaking any of the known laws of physics to boot.

Other counter arguments

  • 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.

Argument from poor design

See the article Argument from poor design which seeks to display the imperfections of the natural world as a powerful atheistic argument against the existence of God.

Bertrand Russell and Design

"Really I am not much impressed with the people who say: "Look at me: I am such a splendid product that there must have been design in the universe." I am not very much impressed by the splendor of those people. Moreover, if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is merely a flash in the pan; it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions and temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. You see in the moon the sort of thing to which the earth is tending -- something dead, cold, and lifeless".


See also

External links


v · d Arguments for the existence of god
Anthropic arguments   Anthropic principle · Natural-law argument
Arguments for belief   Pascal's Wager · Argument from faith · Just hit your knees
Christological arguments   Argument from biblical miracles · Would someone die for a lie? · Liar, Lunatic or Lord
Cosmological arguments   Argument from contingency · Cosmological argument · Fine-tuning argument · Kalam · Unmoved mover · Why is there something rather than nothing?
Majority arguments   Argumentum ad populum · Argument from admired religious scientists
Moral arguments   Argument from justice · Divine command theory
Ontological argument   Argument from degree · Argument from goodness · Argument from desire
Dogmatic arguments   Argument from divine sense · Sensus divinitatis · Argument from uniqueness
Teleological arguments   Argument from design · Banana argument · 747 Junkyard argument · Laminin argument · Argument from natural disasters
Testimonial arguments   Personal revelation · Argument from observed miracles · Argument from personal experience · Consciousness argument for the existence of God · Emotional pleas
Transcendental arguments   God created numbers
Scriptural arguments   Scriptural inerrancy · Scriptural scientific foreknowledge
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