The Design Argument

This is the fifth in a series of posts responding to a list of 20 arguments for the existence of god from this article. To be fair, the article does state that these arguments don’t make a case except when taken all together, using the metaphor of a rope, but I am analyzing them individually so I have responses when I encounter the argument later in other sources.

  1. The universe displays a staggering amount of intelligibility, both within the things we observe and in the way these things relate to others outside themselves. That is to say: the way they exist and coexist display an intricately beautiful order and regularity that can fill even the most casual observer with wonder. It is the norm in nature for many different beings to work together to produce the same valuable end—for example, the organs in the body work for our life and health. (See also argument 8.)
  2. Either this intelligible order is the product of chance or of intelligent design.
  3. Not chance.
  4. Therefore the universe is the product of intelligent design.
  5. Design comes only from a mind, a designer.
  6. Therefore the universe is the product of an intelligent Designer.

The first premise is certainly true-even those resistant to the argument admit it. The person who did not would have to be almost pathetically obtuse. A single protein molecule is a thing of immensely impressive order; much more so a single cell; and incredibly much more so an organ like the eye, where ordered parts of enormous and delicate complexity work together with countless others to achieve a single certain end. Even chemical elements are ordered to combine with other elements in certain ways and under certain conditions. Apparent disorder is a problem precisely because of the overwhelming pervasiveness of order and regularity. So the first premise stands.

If all this order is not in some way the product of intelligent design—then what? Obviously, it “just happened.” Things just fell out that way “by chance.” Alternatively, if all this order is not the product of blind, purposeless forces, then it has resulted from some kind of purpose. That purpose can only be intelligent design. So the second premise stands.

It is of course the third premise that is crucial. Ultimately, nonbelievers tell us, it is indeed by chance and not by any design that the universe of our experience exists the way it does. It just happens to have this order, and the burden of proof is on believers to demonstrate why this could not be so by chance alone.

But this seems a bit backward. It is surely up to nonbelievers to produce a credible alternative to design. And “chance” is simply not credible. For we can understand chance only against a background of order. To say that something happened “by chance” is to say that it did not turn out as we would have expected, or that it did turn out in a way we would not have expected. But expectation is impossible without order. If you take away order and speak of chance alone as a kind of ultimate source, you have taken away the only background that allows us to speak meaningfully of chance at all. Instead of thinking of chance against a background of order, we are invited to think of order-overwhelmingly intricate and ubiquitous order-against a random and purposeless background of chance. Frankly, that is incredible. Therefore it is eminently reasonable to affirm the third premise, not chance, and therefore to affirm the conclusion, that this universe is the product of intelligent design.

Premise 2 is a false dichotomy, at least as stated here. Corals, which do not have brains, are often quite intricate patterns that have an order. These patterns do not happen by chance, for the same species of coral will always grow in almost exactly the same way, but they are certainly not intelligently designed; the polyps which make up the coral, being brainless, cannot be intelligent by definition, and yet create the beautiful order of coral reefs.

Premise 3 is not properly supported. Indeed, there isn’t even an attempt to support it, only a refusal of the burden of proof and a redefining of “by chance” to something nobody means by the phrase in this context, which is the fallacy Victory by Definition. “To say that something happened “by chance” is to say that it did not turn out as we would have expected, or that it did turn out in a way we would not have expected. But expectation is impossible without order.” This is just wrong. When a biologist says that eyes arose “by chance”, he means the mutations leading to eyes could just as easily have happened as not. Given how useful we know sight is, we would expect any mutations leading to sight or increased sight to be favored, and eyes to evolve over and over in various ways. This is exactly what we observe, and the fact that it is what we expected does not make it not by chance. Again, words have meanings, and it is dishonest not to use them properly for the sake of an argument (especially when you are trying to prove that what you claim is the source of your morals exists). For another example, if I flipped a fair coin 3 times, I would expect to see heads at least once and tales at least once, but if those expectations were not met, I would not immediately assume the coin was unfair. The three heads (or tails) in a row would still be by chance.

We have no reason to think the human brain is anything but the product of chance random mutations, except a presupposition that “god did it”. Similarly, we have enough support for natural explanations of enough of the apparent design in the universe that the burden of proof for “not chance” does indeed rest firmly on the believer. Even if we did not have natural explanations for any part of the universe, it would still be the believer’s burden of proof for “not chance”, because it is the null hypothesis that there is no relationship between a proposed but unobserved supernatural being and the observed order of a moth having exactly the right mouth parts to reach the nectar of a particular flower. Even if we could otherwise demonstrate the existence of that being, that null hypothesis would still remain, per Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor says that bringing an intelligent designer in when we already have a natural explanation is bad practice because it complicates the hypothesis unnecessarily, and bringing in a supernatural being is a more complicated hypothesis than any natural explanation we could say because it raises more questions than it answers, such as “Where did that being come from? How does it work? What is it made of?” (Parenthetically, such questions are never satisfactorily answered about god.)

The argument fails entirely on these two important premises, but I also have a problem with premise 5 (which is really premise 4 because statement 4 is a conclusion). It is true that design by definition must have a designer, but not everything that looks designed is designed. As I mentioned earlier, corals might appear designed, but they are pretty clearly not, and that’s just one example. Eyes appear designed for sight, and in a way they were, but by blind natural forces and not by an intelligence. To say eyes are designed stretches the definition of design. Because we know that great complexity can and does arise from natural forces, we need a better piece of evidence than complexity before we can reasonably claim design. We know a painting is designed because we know we can paint; we know no such thing about the platypus.

My final complaint about this argument (besides the condescending tone towards nonbelievers and the strawman questions I did not quote here) is that the numbering scheme is confusing. Those last three statements should be labelled C1, P4, and C2, and the first three should have a P in front of the number, because four of the statements are premises and two of them are conclusions. Similar complaints apply to many of the arguments on this list, and it’s hard not to see this as a sign of laziness. To be fair, that laziness in regards to the numbers might not be on the part of Peter Kreeft but someone else involved in placing the article on that website.

We are a quarter of the way through the list, and none of the arguments thus far are free from error. Even if they were, and we could accept them, they can prove nothing more than deism, and I wonder how long I can continue saying that about this list.

6 thoughts on “The Design Argument

  1. You are correct about the false dichotomy in #2. Even William Lane Craig realizes that this is not complete, and adds a third option: physical necessity. Still, the more problematic issue with this premise, in my opinion, is not what it excludes, but rather that which it includes. I see no reason to accept the idea that the apparent intelligibility of nature can be explained by Intelligent Design. We have rigorous, falsifiable mathematical models and physical theories by which we can show how this apparent intelligibility could arise either from physical necessity or from chance. However, we have nothing more than an unfalsifiable theistic assertion that this apparent intelligibility could arise from Intelligent Design.

    As an analogy, let’s pretend that we are having a discussion about the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980. Let’s say that I include in my argument the premise that “The Mount St. Helens eruption of March 27, 1980, was either the result of chance, or the diabolical plan of a mad scientist.” Using geological data for the area, as well as volcanic eruption rates worldwide, I can conclude that the circumstances of this eruption occurring precisely as it did are extremely improbable. I therefore conclude that the eruption was caused by the diabolical plan of a mad scientist.

    I have conveniently avoided showing that it is even possible for the diabolical plan of a mad scientist to cause such an eruption, and instead rely on the rarity of the event to confuse my audience into thinking improbable is somehow equivalent to impossible. Apologists do no less with their assertions for Intelligent Design.

    1. I was planning to disagree with your point that we should not include intelligent design, but upon re-reading, I think I do agree.

      While it is clear that intelligence is capable of design, and it is possible in theory that a great intelligence could design the complexity we see in life, we have no idea of how that could work. This is a place where our intuition can fail; our intuitions say “OF COURSE the greatest intelligence can create basically anything! Look what limited human intelligence has made!”

      1. Precisely. This argument is combining what should be two premises into a single false dichotomy which assumes the intended conclusion of the argument. Even if I were to grant #3 just for the sake of argument, this should be formulated:

        1. Apparent intelligibility is either due to chance or it is not.
        2. Not chance.
        3. Apparent intelligibility is either due to intelligent design or it is not.

        This would be followed by an evaluation of the evidence for Premise #4. However, since apologists have no reasonable evidence for #4 except for the negation of #2, and since that would constitute a fairly obvious Argument from Ignorance, they instead attempt to confuse matters by smashing these premises together.

  2. I really like how you tackle this one, and boxingpythagoras adds more important points in his commentary. I do have to say that it is grating whenever I read the preamble about how the arguments must all work together. Gosh, man–I know I’ve said this before but it’s like they’re trying to argue that you can only argue against the whole, and not the components, so arguing against the pieces misses the point. I mean, it is what they’re doing–and I’ve actually seen people who defend these kinds of arguments ignore or attempt to invalidate posts like this on that basis.

    I’ve been reading this great take down of “Darwin’s Doubt” and the dissenters who take issue with the critical analysis always complain that he’s not dissecting the book as a whole, but just parts of the book that, when wrong, are fractally wrong (remember the joke: fractally wrong = wrong in every conceivable point in time and space).

    But you’re right: they don’t even define chance the correct way (I’ve noticed that apologist like to use weird, idiosyncratic definitions of things as often as possible).

    I don’t really know that I have much to add. Usually, design arguments, or fine-tuning arguments fail very bad for me because they proceed from a completely human perspective that I think I grew out of in childhood. Remember when we were kids and we thought, “Gee, the sun must set so I can go to sleep!” That’s what I think these arguments are based on.

    If you step back, and try to look beyond that kind of thinking–starting from the universe and getting to us, you realize that it has the appearance of design because we look at how it fits us, not how we fit into it. This is why why the anthropic principle is important. We would expect to see the universe function like it is if we exist in it, and we exist in it, so to us it looks designed for us.

    This appearance of design, and the childish way of thinking, leads us to down these dead ends. We are products of the natural workings of the universe, not the reason for it–that, at least, makes sense without the mental gymnastics required to make theology seem relevant and sensible given what we know.

    I do want to add that I take issue with the idea that all we say is “chance.” It’s not true. We also say chemistry, physics, biology, and so on.

    1. One of the comments on the original article points out that nobody needs a list of 20 arguments that the sun exists. An apt point.

      Saying chemistry, physics, and biology, to the person in Kreeft’s position, would probably just push it back a step. “Why are the laws of science what they are? Chance or design?” To the best of my knowledge, “chance” or “because they are – if they weren’t, we likely couldn’t exist to observe them” are the best answers we have.

      1. I see your point. Why? I dunno. And you don’t either.

        You may claim it, but you don’t. Perhaps not satisfying to him. But in the end, true.

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