User:Tim Sheerman-Chase/Design Argument

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The argument from design, also known as the teleological argument, is an argument for the existence of a divine designer based on instances of order or purpose in nature. The argument has been used since ancient Greece and is still a popular argument in modern times. The intelligent design movement is based on this argument. The conclusion only states there is a designer but does not support any particular religion.

Arguments for and against the validity of the argument have been advanced by many philosophers and apologists. David Hume was highly critical of the argument in his seminal book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. William Paley introduced the Watchmaker analogy which is a popular way to word the argument.

A typical argument from design is as follows: [1]

"Some natural systems, especially living systems, contain ingenious solutions for solving technical problems. Human inventors must solve the same physical problems in order to achieve similar results [...] Ingenious biological features were [...] engineered by our wise, benevolent, and powerful Creator. Nature has never been observed inventing these kinds of complex structures, each well-suited to its task, and there is not even a theoretical, realistic step-by-step evolutionary explanation for how they could have developed. Thus, in the same way that we infer a painter from a painting, or an engineer from an engine, we infer a Creator from a creation."


Formal Argument

There are three formal variants of the argument from design. [2] They are used individually or together in informal statements of the argument.

Deductive version:

  • a1) Objects that are designed by humans are ordered*.
  • a2) The order in any object originates from an external source.
  • a3) There is no other external source of order* other than a designer,
  • a4) An object X (for instance, an eye or the whole universe) is ordered*.
  • c1) X was designed.
  • c2) Therefore a designer of object X exists.

* or have purpose, complexity, beauty or any other characteristic property of design.

Analogical version:

  • a5) Objects that are designed by humans are ordered*.
  • a6) A certain object X (for instance, an eye or the whole universe) is also ordered*.
  • a7) By analogy human objects are similar to object X, and the causes must be the same.
  • c3) X was designed
  • c4) Therefore a designer of object X exists.

There is a third form of the argument which does not rule out other explanations for order, but selects design because it is supposedly the most probable explanation.[2]


Characteristic properties of a designed object

The argument from design depends on a characteristic property that is indicative of design. The characteristic property is either used to assert the similarity of human design to an ordered system or to rule out natural processes forming an ordered system.

Vague terminology

The argument from design asserts that human designed objects and natural objects share a property that is characteristic of design. While this characteristic property is usually called "order", "purpose" or "complexity", what these specifically refers to is vague. For instance, Paley does not specify explicitly state what he means by "the marks of design" in a watch.

Analogy with a single universe

We only have knowledge of our universe. To properly infer the properties of designed universe in general, we need to have experience of multiple universes. If we do not, any specific properties of our universe may have originated from a source other than design. Since we lack knowledge of multiple universes, we cannot infer the similarity between human design and the design of the universe.

Usefulness and purpose is a human construction

Ideas of usefulness as created though the action of our minds and are independent of an object's origin. Water is useful for drinking and cleaning but it has existed longer than life itself and will continue to exist after humans are extinct. Both designed and non-designed objects may be useful in a particular circumstance.

Purpose is also human invention and we should distinguish the use of something for a purpose with the design for a purpose. We can say a watch's purpose is to tell time. However, they can be utilized as a paper weight, a pendulum, a fashion accessory, etc, in which case the purpose of a watch is changed by our minds. Natural objects are also used for a purpose, such as a cave for shelter and it does not follow the cave was formed for that purpose.

Many versions of the design argument assume the purpose of an object is for the benefit of humans, such as the Fine-tuning argument. Without supporting evidence, the claim is arbitrary and anthropocentric.

Is there any object that was not designed?

Creationists assert that everything in the universe was designed. It is therefore impossible to establish a distinction between designed and non-designed objects, because there are no non-designed objects for us to experience! Therefore creationism is incompatible with the argument from design.

In the Watchmaker analogy, Paley claims a rock might have always existed but a watch was definitely created. The characteristic property of design is implicitly suggested to be the watch is not naturally occurring and is therefore designed. However, he then argues the universe, including the rock, was designed. This destroys the naturally occurring vs. not naturally occurring distinction he first established.


Beauty is a subjective human invention and does not reliably indicate the origin of anything. What constitutes beautiful varies from person to person, which prevents general agreement on any particular evidence to support the argument.


Humans tend to see apparently meaningful patterns when they are not really present. [3] This bias makes alleged supposed patterns, such as "order" or "purpose" in the universe, very questionable unless they can be rigorously defined and evaluated.

Specified complexity

There are various definitions of specified complexity. William Dembski adapted earlier usage into a mathematical system loosely related to information theory. In this context, complexity is considered to imply it is highly improbable to occur by random sampling of possibilities. [4] Specified generally means "a significant, subjective [5] outcome". Specified complexity has been widely criticised for its inconsistent use of terminology, unique jargon, irrelevance and questionable validity [6] [7]. The concept assumes random sampling of possible configurations but this is of questionable relevance to natural processes which tend to vary progressively. Specified complexity is a subjective measure, which is liable to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy and anthropocentrism.

Irreducible complexity

Michael Behe introduced the concept of irreducible complexity. He defines it as the property of being "composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning". [8] Some human designs do not meet this criteria, such as redundant systems. The criteria of "cease functioning" assumes there is a purpose to the system, which is a subjective concept liable to anthropocentrism.

Does design generally have the alleged characteristic?

The argument from design claims that intelligence (similar to a human's mind) can provide an example of how the principle of design actually occurs. However, a designing intelligence on an alien world might operate quite differently. If we arbitrarily use human design as the model for design in general, that is assuming anthropomorphism without any evidence. An alien planet may have design manifested without the alleged characteristic of order, or whatever is chosen for a particular argument from design.

Direct experience of a designer

We know a watch has a designer from experience. Direct knowledge of the watchmaker and the process of watch-making is an certain indication of the origin of design in a watch. However, we do not have direct experience of the design process that planned the universe. Attempting to infer cosmic designer without having a way to investigate the cosmic design process is unreliable.

Ruling out natural processes

The claim that any specified object cannot naturally occur is hard to establish with any certainty, unless we have direct experience of its design and manufacture.

The system could not have occurred by chance

To consider a system could have arisen either through chance or design is a false dilemma. Other processes may have been responsible. Chance is rarely, if ever, used as the entire explanation of an ordered system. This point is sometimes expressed as the 747 Junkyard argument. Equating evolution with chance is a straw man argument, since it neglects the natural selection component of the theory.

The universe is obviously designed

This considers design as an presupposition. This cannot be used in the design argument without begging the question (i.e. assuming the conclusion in the assumptions of an argument).

Natural processes could not have done it

Unless evidence is presented why this is the case, this is an argument from ignorance. It is difficult to imagine what evidence could establish the conclusion that "natural processes could not have done it". If a naturally occurring system is ordered and there is no possible explanation from natural processes, this would be very curious. If there is no explanation for phenomena at this time, it may simply be we are not smart enough to discover it and future discoveries may change the situation. Because of this, science assumes every phenomena is explainable in terms of natural processes (i.e. materialism). To assert a phenomena is beyond explanation by natural processes at all is unscientific by definition. Arguments that are based on unexplained phenomena are an argument from ignorance and are on a most uncertain footing, which changes with new observations and new scientific discoveries (God of the gaps).


Many versions of the design argument use living things as examples that have no explanation. However, Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection showed complexity of life could evolve over long time spans. Like the case of the origin of species, it is likely that many new observations will be found to be inexplicable in an earlier time, only to be explained later.


We can only claim an object is designed for a purpose if we have experience of the design process and designer. To say the universe fulfils as purpose assumes that this specific purpose can be known. This is difficult to establish while avoiding gross anthropocentrism or the assumption of God, which is what the argument intends to establish. How can we say if the universe fulfils an unknown purpose?

Regarding the Fine-tuning argument, the universe appears to operate according to physical laws. These laws are formulated as equations that feature several constant values which have no apparent explanation. These constants include the strength of gravity, the density of the universe, etc. If these were slightly different, the universe would appear to be very different than its current state and would likely contain no life. To say this universe has a purpose, such as to support life, without any evidence is to commit the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. From this to claim there is a designer is an argument from ignorance. Some commonly used mathematical values have been cited as evidence of design, such as the golden ratio, but these are subject to the same objections.


While the universe is beautiful in many respects, it is also ugly in others. People disagree about what constitutes beauty. Without having an objective standard, it is difficult to establish which examples support the argument from design.

Irreducible complexity

Irreducible complexity is problematic because some natural structures exhibit irreducible complexity (such as a sea or wind arch). The earth has a solid core, which if "removed" would break the Earth's magnetic field which has the "function" of shielding us. The moon stabilises the spin of the Earth, and if removed, would break the spin axis of the Earth which has the "function" of regulating the seasons. The solar system contains the sun but if this were removed, it would break the solar system's "function" of giving the Earth a stable environment. Based on these examples, irreducible complexity naturally occurs and is an invalid indicator of design.

Certain structures, such as the flagellar of cells, is supposedly irreducibly complex. [9] These examples are explainable by evolution because it acts by addition, removal, modification and re-purposing. To claim irreducible complexity can never arise from natural processes is to assume all natural processes are additive, which is false. It is possible that the physical constants do not vary independently and there is some process that determines what they are, although we are not smart enough to discover it.

Specified complexity

William Dembski claims that many biological objects that have specified complexity and because of their improbability they do not naturally occur via random chance. The improbability of complexity claimed by Dembski ignores the possibility of gradual accumulation of complexity. Charles Darwin observed that biological changes can incrementally accrue over many generations and invalidates specified complexity as an indicator of design.

Multiple sources of order

The deductive argument claims either natural processes or design is the origin of order. However, this is a false dilemma: it is possible that both intelligent and natural processes were involved. If intelligence was involved, it may have played a small or negligible role. Perhaps the "designer" had very little choice in the design of the universe, constrained by unknown limitations. In that case, the design choices would not be contingent but rather forced to take the observed parameters.

Dissimilarity leads to a weak analogy

The analogical version of the argument from design depends on the similarity between objects that have the characteristic properties of design. These objections do not apply to the deductive version. A strong analogy between two objects that share many properties can result in a relatively reliable conclusion. However, analogies between objects that are drastically different only results in a guess or conjecture with very little certainty.

Difference in scale

Human design operates on relatively small objects in a relatively small time using limited materials and skill. The design argument is often applied to all life or the entire universe, both of which are vast, ancient and mind boggling in scope. Such a creator would require vast resources, knowledge and skill, making it quite unlike a human.

The design analogy compares the entire process of human design to the current and known states of the universe. However, we do not know enough about the early universe to compare the cosmic design process to human designing.

Creation from ex nihilo nothing

Humans design based on available resources while situated inside the universe. To create the universe from ex nihilo nothing while situated outside the universe and using unknown materials (as creationists assert) would likely require a very different designer and a very different design process.

Sources of order

The deductive argument from design asserts that order (or any of the other alleged characteristic properties from design) came from one of a set of principles or sources. The principles are then eliminated until only design remains as an explanation of order. However, it is difficult to list and eliminate all possible sources, leading to a false dilemma, where the actual origin of order is ignored. To argue that one of an incomplete set of explanations is correct is also an argument from ignorance.

Chance by random sampling

Many versions of the argument from design, such as intelligent design, are a false dilemma between design and chance. In this context, chance means randomly assembled systems. Each random system is independent of previous attempts (known as random sampling). However, no natural process is known to work in this fashion (otherwise it is simply considered to operate by an unknown process). The universe progressively changes and each state is a modification of previous states. To compare natural processes to pure chance, as in the 747 Junkyard argument, is a straw man.

Natural processes

The design argument assumes that systems cannot self-organise. This is arguably false given the examples of evolution, crystal growth, planetary formation, ideas in a human mind (e.g. into a design), thermal convection patterns and in many other naturally occurring examples [10]. As mentioned previously 747 Junkyard argument is a straw man objection because it does not consider how natural processes operate.


There may be universes other than our own. The collection of universes is called the multiverse. An designer is not required as an explanation in this case. This would explain the alleged "fine tuning" of our universe: we exist in a universe that supports life (anthropic principle) but there exist other lifeless universes.

Indirect detection of primordial gravitational waves is evidence that the multiverse exists. [11] It is possible that the laws of physics in the other universes differ from our own universe. It is also possible that order in the universe was imported from the multiverse by inter-universe interactions.

Reproduction, similar to life

A living thing is a system that often seen to create another ordered system. This process is observed more commonly than examples of design. Since order can originate from reproduction, the universe could also be the offspring of a similar universe. A theory of a reproducing universe was proposed by Lee Smolin and called cosmological natural selection or fecund universes. It speculates each universe produces other offspring universes with similar but not identical physical laws.

Also, we see intelligence arise from reproduction but we never see reproduction arise from human intelligence. Therefore, intelligence less likely than reproduction to be the ultimate source of order.

Instinct and non-brain based construction

Many animals instinctively construct systems such as a spider weaving a web. Therefore, order can also originate from instinct and not only rational thought. Also the web is created using dedicated organs (spinnerets), so a ordered system may originate from an organ other the brain.


An intelligent designer is a popular explanation for order in nature because it is appealing to human vanity, patternicity, over-sensitive agent detection and our tendency towards anthropomorphism.

Innate self-ordering property

It is often asserted that God is a self organising system. If it is possible that God is self organising (or necessarily existent), it is also possible that the universe also has this property and does not require an external cause of order. The existence and properties of the universe may have been determined by some unknown physical constraints, implying the design of the universe was non-contingent.

Eternal order

The universe may have pre-existed the big bang and order have have always existed. Considering entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, would have to be an (as yet unknown) mechanism to reset or replenish this from time to time.

Chance, given infinite time

The 747 Junkyard argument claims that it would take an extremely long time for a complex system to form by chance. Our universe may have existed for an infinite time in many different forms and pre-date the apparent beginning of the big bang. A constantly changing system which is limited to finite states would very likely result in an ordered system, perhaps with the order limited to a local area, without any outside intervention. Various models of cosmology are compatible with this conjecture, including an oscillatory universe. However, this has become more problematic with the accelerating universe which implies no limit for the maximum age of our universe.

Chance, if order emerges and self-propogates for infinity

Given a universe which is ancient (i.e. far older than the big bang suggest but not necessarily infinity old), it is possible for local order to spontaneously arise. This local order may self-propogate and maintain itself in its environment for an infinite time into the future. This does not require outside intervention. This is similar to the idea of ordered life arising from non-living materials (abiogenesis), which continues to self-propogate.

Oscillatory order and chaos

The universe may have the innate property of oscillating between order and chaos. It may eventually settle into one of these states or an intermediate state. This may explain the currently observed phenomena. Entropy may increase for a time (described by the current model of thermodynamics) and than decrease (by an unknown process), which would maintain a mixture of order and disorder.

Unknown principles

It is possible that time came into existence at the moment of the big bang. For that reason, it may be meaningless to ask for a causal explanation for order in the universe. However, there may be a non-causal explanation.

We have imperfectly investigated part of the universe in the latter part of it's life (after the first fraction of a second after the big bang). Some processes have been discovered that only operated in earlier times, such as cosmic inflation. In such a different environment, what other processes might operate that are unknown to us? There is still a large amount of certainty about the physics of the grand unification epoch, which ended approximately 10−36 seconds after the Big Bang. Until we can simulate this environment or observe these phenomena, we cannot discount the possibility order was formed by natural processes in the early universe.

What caused the designer?

Based on the need for a cause of order, the argument from design concludes that a designer exists. This designer requires an explanation as much as the original order.

We may thing this question is beyond our comprehension, or irrelevant since we have already established the existence of the designer. However, we may then consider the cause of order to be beyond or comprehension or not requiring an answer. It is arbitrary to ask for a cause in one case (order in the universe) and to not in the other (the designer).

The designer of the universe may be the product of design of a superior agent, and so on to infinity. This is called an infinite regress and generally considered to be so absurd as to rule out the argument. This possibility is difficult to discount by argument (the argument of an uncaused cause is similar in this respect). One approach is to assert that the designer does not require a cause or designer (this tactic is also used in the Kalam argument). Since this "non-caused", necessarily existent property is arbitrarily granted to the designer and the universe is arbitrarily assumed not to have this property, this argument is a form of special pleading.

To claim the designer does not require a cause because it is necessarily existent is also begging the question. The term necessarily existent only means "to not require a cause".

It is also possible that the designer came from natural processes (such as alien, non-divine designers), or reproduction from an earlier deity. We observe intelligence arises from reproduction but never the other way around.

Absurd implications of design argument

Anthropomorphic implications of the argument

The analogical argument from design asserts the similarity between the ability of humans and God to design. This raises the issue of what other properties are shared between humans and God based on the alleged similarity.

When we experience a human intelligence, it is always accompanied with a human body, as well as other phenomena that co-occur with a mind. We would therefore expect a intelligent designer to have accompanying human attributes.

Given these points, it is likely that God has a physical body. Possibly the body of God is the universe itself, similar to the concept of Pantheism. Also, all designers we have experienced have a gender, a family, different phases of life, an eventual death, therefore God (or Gods) also has these attributes.

Analogical difficulties

The analogical design argument states that, since the design of order is so complex, the designer must be proportioned to the scale of the work. God therefore exceeds humans in power. However, the analogy brings with it some less flattering implications. The universe and the phenomena are finite, therefore the designer of the universe is finite. An infinite god can never be demonstrated by finite phenomena.

Argument from poor design

If the designer created the entire universe, we may assign praise and blame depending on the quality of the work. This is called the argument from poor design. The universe is filled with examples of poor and good design, needless suffering, natural disasters, uninhabitable areas of the Earth and the universe, both good and evil actions, and therefore the designer has:

  • both good and evil attributes (similar to manichaeism or polytheism), or
  • is finite and somewhat incompetent, or
  • is amoral (i.e. without morals)

To assert that God is entirely good and all powerful has the problem of evil: why does a supposedly good, powerful God not prevent intervene and prevent evil? Evil exists and we must assign a cause, and the argument for design implies God created good and evil.

Design as a explanation

The argument from design has been used by multiple religions to argue for the existence of God. A confirmation of one monotheistic God would rule out the existent any other God or Gods. Even if we assume the designer is divine, we do not know which God was responsible for the design. The argument from design does not necessarily support a divine designer or any particular religion.

To explain the universe that may not have arisen "by chance" by positing an God that is even more improbable to occur by chance (due to God's higher complexity in his infinite knowledge) is absurd. Richard Dawkins called God the Ultimate 747 in an attempt to subvert the 747 Junkyard argument. Some believers counter this by asserting divine simplicity, although that seems incompatible with a knowledgeable God that is capable of design.

What is the designer like?

The explanation of a designer has limited explanatory value. The deductive argument from design establishes no properties of the designer but gives us no insight into the design process. The analogical version weakly suggests the designer is somewhat like a human designer but the extent of that is impossible to verify. Without further evidence and many alternative types of designer, we cannot assert that the designer is divine.

There is a possible designer of life on Earth was designed by non-divine, extraterrestrial aliens (which has as much evidence as a divine designer i.e. none). The entire universe may be a simulated reality that exists in a vast computer and created by a non-divine entity. This possibility has been considered by physicists [12] and has often been featured in fiction, such as in the novels by Douglas Adams and the sci-fi movie series "The Matrix".

If there is a designer, our universe may have been one of many universes that were designed but there were many botched designs and failed experiments in many aborted universes before the current design was found. In that case, the designer is not worthy of much admiration. Along similar lines, the universe could be:

  • the product of an infant or subordinate God which he then abandoned, being ashamed of it,
  • the work of an ancient God who has since died and the universe had continued without further intervention.

For large projects, humans usually attempt to work in teams. Therefore it is likely that a large project like the design of the universe would require multiple designers. This is more likely than a single creator, since we have no experience of a single entity that is powerful enough to undertake the entire work. This idea is accepted by many polytheistic religions.

Related Arguments


  1. Institute for Creation Research, God’s Design Is an Engineering Wonder [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Teleological Arguments for God's Existence, published Jun 10, 2005; revised Oct 3, 2010.
  3. Michael Shermer, "Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise", Scientific American, Dec 2008.
  4. William A. Dembski, "No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence", 2002, p. 111
  5. William A. Dembski, "No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence", 2002, p. 66
  6. "Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism", edited by Matt Young, Taner Edis, 2004
  7. Thomas D. Schneider, Dissecting Dembski's "Complex Specified Information", Updated 2008 Dec 01 [2]
  8. Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Michael Behe, 1996, quoted in Irreducible Complexity and Michael Behe (retrieved 8 January 2006)
  9. Scott A. Minnich & Stephen C. Meyer, "Genetic analysis of coordinate flagellar and type III regulatory circuits in pathogenic Bacteria," in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Design & Nature, Rhodes Greece (2004). [3]
  10. Wikipedia, Self-organization [4]
  11. Lisa Grossman, Multiverse gets real with glimpse of big bang ripples, New Scientist, 18 March 2014 [5]
  12. New York Times, Is the Universe a Simulation?, Feb 14, 2014 [6]
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