Design Argument I: the General Argument

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This is the the twentieth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I finished discussing the cosmological argument for the existence of God. In this post, I'm moving on to the design argument for the existence of God.

[note: These design argument posts are based largely on discussions by Peter van Inwagen in his Metaphysics, 2nd ed. (2002) Westview Press and Gregory E. Ganssle, Thinking About God (2004) InterVarsity Press.]

The main idea behind the design argument is that something about nature is unexplainable unless a creator designed the universe for a specific purpose. Nature is hard to explain otherwise. As with finding a watch on a beach, it seems hard to conclude that it just occurred naturally on its own. It seems to be put together in such a way that calls out for an explanation.

Sometimes the argument is based on of the beauty of the world or the universe, and sometimes it picks out a specific fact. Can the fact that we find music beautiful be explained by science? Why do we happen to enjoy patterns of sound that just happen to be mathematically interesting? Some have looked at beauty in the world and wondered how anything can explain such wonder without appealing to a designer who wanted it to be beautiful. Others have questioned such arguments by saying the only reason we find it beautiful is because our preferences happen to match what's there.

The issue turns on what beauty is, what it is we perceive when we see beauty, if scientific theories can explain the nature of beauty, and many other issues. I'll focus on one particular fact that has led some to believe in a designer, but let's first look at the history of this general argument type when based on aother kinds of facts.

The argument has a cyclical history, each time repeating the same moves in a new context. Each stage seeks to explain a different fact - the complexity of life, the origin of life, and the cosmological constants. Each argument concludes that there must have been some designer making things this way, since it seems so strange that it came out this way. The standard responses to the first two help us see how someone might respond to the third, which will be our focus.

A. Complexity of life -- Life seems too complex to have arisen on its own. Darwinian theory responds that given lots of chances, a single cell could eventually develop toward more complex life, and given enough time, random chance, and natural selection, we get the complexity of life we now have. The chances are low, but they increase given enough time. This explanation doesn't disprove the designer hypothesis. It simply provides an alternate explanation. Then we decide which explanation is better. If both theories explain the evidence fully, we should go with the one without the extra stuff. So if evolutionary theory is a good enough explanation, naturalists, who believe the natural world is all there is, have an argument against believing in a designer, which would require going beyond the natural world.

B. Origin of life -- It's unlikely life could arise on its own from non-living material, but with many solar systems, some will have the right conditions. The chances are low, but there are more opportunities with more solar systems, raising the likelihood. As before, the naturalist's view explains the evidence as fully as the designer but without the extra stuff.

(Note: recent attempts have tried to revive this version of the argument, based on having no account of how a cell's parts could have come into existence on their own. Since each part of a cell has no known evolutionary advantage except in relation to the other parts, it's hard to imagine how the parts even came into existence, never mind how they all came to be in the same time and place to assemble into a cell. No theory in biochemistry exists to explain this surprising fact, according to those putting forward this argument. If this argument is correct, it's less clear that the naturalistic theory really does explain the evidence fully. Naturalists say we've done so well so far explaining things like this, and we should wait for further explanations. Theists may respond that such unexplained pieces of the puzzle are too significant to ignore. I'm not focusing on this newer version of the argument, but I wanted to mention it because this is what has been making the news lately and has been called "religion in the guise of science" by those who disagree with its conclusions.)

[Additional note: For an easy-to-read example, see Michael Behe, "Darwin Under the Microscope" from The New York Times, October 29, 1996, Tuesday Final Section A; Page 25; Column 2; Editorial Desk, available online here. Other supporters of this thesis include William Dembski and Stephen C. Meyer. Plenty of their work, criticisms of it, and responses by them, is available online also, which a simple Google search should turn up. "Intelligent Design" would be a good keyword, along with any of their names. I should note that they give other arguments about more complex biological structures, which would fall under stage A rather than stage B. In my limited understanding of the biological issues, my impression is that the stage B argument in its most recent version has a little more going for it than the new versions of the stage A argument, but I am not even close to an expert in biology, and I am totally unqualified to evaluate the biological basis of their arguments.]

C. Origin of universe -- The question has moved back to the beginnings or design of the universe itself, and we'll see how similar questions arise. That's the focus of the next post.

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