This argument for the existence of God is sometimes called the TELEOLOGICAL argument (TELOS is Greek for “purpose” or “goal”). It can be set out like this:
In this argument, X is usually “the world”, sometimes “the universe” or occasionally “life” or “human life”! There have been several famous proponents of the Design Argument, including Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) and William Paley (1743-1805).
Paley’s argument concentrates on the ORDER and COMPLEXITY of nature. Other arguments focus on the APPARENT PURPOSE in nature (such as the conditions for producing intelligent life) or nature’s BEAUTY or MORAL QUALITIES.
Examples of ORDER/COMPLEXITY include:
Because the universe is “religiously ambiguous” this argument is more compelling for some people than others. If you perceive the balance in nature as being fragile and living organisms to be beautiful, the laws of physics to be elegant and human consciousness to be awe-inspiring, then the Design Argument will settle a lot of your questions. Other people may find these natural phenomenon to be unremarkable and not be motivated to look for a supernatural designer behind them.
This criticism of the Design Argument is sometimes called the DYSTELEOLOGICAL argument (after the Victorian biologist Ernst Haeckel) or the "argument from POOR design". Examples of poor design in nature include:
One of the first critics of the Design Argument was the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776, right). His classic book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is written like a play and the main debate is between Cleanthes (a Theist) and Philo (a sceptic, giving Hume’s views). Hume's main criticism is based on an accusation of ANTHROPOMORPHISM, which is misleadingly giving human qualities to non-human creatures or forces. According to Hume, the Design Argument presents God like a human designer, just with more power. This is very limiting and even silly.
Philo/Hume doesn’t really believe in baby gods creating universes; he’s pointing out that the Design Argument can lead to conclusions like this, and if the conclusions are silly then the Argument must be faulty.
Another of Hume's criticisms is based on the WASTEFULNESS observed in Nature. Hume argues that the best human designs are elegant, unwasteful and achieve the best results with the least effort. However, the world developed over countless years (very slow), during this time many species became extinct (wasteful) and even present-day species live by preying on each other, or experience starvation, thirst, disease, etc (inelegant). Philo/Hume presents Nature as “red in tooth and claw” – a vicious state of affairs where the majority of creatures suffer and die so that a tiny minority can survive
Hume's final criticism is based on CHANCE. He argues that, for all we know, matter/energy might be everlasting, just changing form over time. If this is the case, then eventually, matter/energy will fall into an ordered arrangement - it's just a matter of time. Hume claims that ordered arrangements tend to stay in place once they are established. So, Hume concludes that it is possible that order could come about by chance. Hume calls this the "Epicurean Hypothesis" and, although he didn't know it, this ties in with a modern debate in science – that every quantum interaction produces a separate parallel universe; in an infinite number of parallel universes, order and life will arise in at least one. This is equivalent to the old story that if you put an infinite number of monkeys together in a room, each one with a typewriter, one of the monkeys would type all the works of Shakespeare. According to this principle, no special intelligence or guiding purpose is needed to explain the universe.
Hume finishes by suggesting that animals are well-suited to their environments because the badly-suited ones die out, so the balance of nature and complexity of organs may be no argument for design. Hume is very tentative about this but when Charles Darwin (left) published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the THEORY OF EVOLUTION provided just the sort of explanation for biological adaption and complexity that Hume was imagining. Today, the plausibility and widespread evidence in support of Darwin's theory create a major obstacle for the Design Argument because Evolution suggests a simpler hypothesis than a Designer God to explain the complexity and apparent order we find in Nature. And, as William of Ockham pointed out, we should not "multiply hypotheses" - in other words, the simpler explanation is to be preferred. It is of course possible that a Designer God created the evolutionary process itself and that evolution is the tool God uses to design creatures. However, there is no philosophically compelling reason to believe this, since the Theory of Evolution explains the apparent design in living creatures without needing a God.
Darwin's idea of natural selection quickly gained scientific support and seemed to destroy completely the idea of design in living organisms or the need for a godlike Designer. Most of the main Christian Churches now accept evolutionary theory but some Christians have responded to this by adopting a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis even if this means rejecting scientific discoveries about the evolutionary origins of life on Earth. Young Earth Creationists even deny that the Earth is millions of years old; they calculate from the timeline in the Bible that the Earth was created about 6000 years ago rather than the 4½ billion years estimated by scientists. These beliefs are interesting but, because they are based on revelation rather than reasoning from evidence, they have not added anything to the philosophical debate.
Recently, the theory of Intelligent Design (ID) has suggested that some unusual and complex features in the universe and in living things are best explained by an intelligent force rather than by undirected natural forces. William A. Dembski, one of ID's leading proponents, claims that "there are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence". This certainly sounds like the Design Argument never went away! One of the main ideas in ID is called irreducible complexity, proposed by Michael Behe in his book Darwin's Black Box. Behe uses the analogy of a mousetrap: a mousetrap consists of several interacting pieces (the base, the catch, the spring and the hammer), all of which must be in place for the mousetrap to work. Removing any one piece means the mousetrap doesn't work. Behe assert that natural selection could not create irreducibly complex systems, because the complex organism only has a function when all the parts are complete. Examples of irreducibly complex biological mechanisms supposedly include the bacterial flagellum of E. coli, the blood clotting cascade and the adaptive immune system.
Critics of ID are quick to suggest all sorts of natural processes that could have led to what looks like irreducible complexity and have even attacked the mousetrap analogy as false. Other scientists complain that ID is in fact what Eugenie Scott calls "Creationism by the back door." Although those arguing for ID are careful not to mention God, Judge John E Jones ruled in Kitzmiller vs Dover Area Schools District (2005) that intelligent design is not a science and is essentially religious in nature. The biologist Richard Dawkins is quick to condemn ID and this "God of the Gaps" approach. He points out that as time goes by more and more phenomenon that used to be explained by God now have scientific explanations. Theists, claims Dawkins, are too quick to seize on any "gap" where science has not yet come up with a definitive answer and claim "God did it!". He argues instead that:
A similar point was made more humourously by Bobby Henderson in a 2005 open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education which was insisting that ID be taught alongside evolution in state schools. Henderson suggested that the "intelligent designer" is like the Flying Spaghetti Monster and demanded that his new religion ("Pastafarianism") should be given equal time in school science lessons:
Henderson's argument is a type known as REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM: if you take the Kansas Education Board's thinking to its logical conclusion, then any idea cloaked in scientific language deserves to be taught in science lessons. Although Henderson received much hate mail and several death-threats, the "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" has gone on to become an Internet sensation.
Leaving behind the debate about evolution, a different view on the Argument from Design is put forward by F.R. Tennant, who argued for a more harmonious relationship between religion and science.
Tennant turns Darwin's catchphrase on its head: not "survival of the fittest" but rather "the survival of the fittest presupposes the arrival of the fit." This view is known as the ANTHROPIC PRINCIPLE because it suggests that the reason and purpose of the universe is to support human life. Tennant suggests that scientific explanations of life and the universe are compatible with the Design Argument because evolution or the Big Bang can be seen as the tools by which God brings the universe to the stage it needs to be at. In fact, the order and interlocking structure of the universe could be seen as virtually impossible to come about by chance. In other words, a universe that can support human life is next to impossible: the fact that it has occurred suggests a Designer God has been at work. Features of the world used in support of this argument include:
This view is very persuasive to many people and is summed up by Richard Swinburne in Is There a God?:
It certainly is remarkable that conditions friendly to life exist, but critics say that reigious conclusions cannot be drawn from this. After all, there are 8 other planets in our solar system on which there is no life; there was no life on Earth in the distant past and one day in the future the sun will expand and make life on Earth impossible too. Does this prove anything good or bad about design?
The scientist Cressy Morrison suggests we look at this as a matter of odds and invites you to imagine you have ten pennies in your pocket, numbered 1 to 10, which you take out one at a time; you note the number on each penny, put it back with the others, shuffle them, and draw out the next penny until to have drawn ten. The odds of drawing number 1 on your first draw is 1/10; drawing 1 and 2 in succession is 1/100; 1, 2 and 3 in succession is 1/1000. Drawing all ten out in the right number order would be one in ten billion! That gives us some idea of how staggeringly unlikely life is. Morrison's analogy falls down in two ways. Firstly, since life on Earth is in fact here, the odds of it existing are in fact 1/1 or 100%. After all, if you have 20 billion years to try Morrison's coin game, the chance of getting all the coins in sequence at least once are pretty good.
The debate about the amount of order in the universe boils down to this: even if life on Earth is a staggering fluke, we are here on this planet to observe it because we couldn't possibly be anywhere else. Richard Swinburne illustrates this puzzle with a parable (reminiscent of something from the Saw horror films) in which a madman kidnaps a victim, who is locked in a room with a deadly machine. The machine will shuffle 10 packs of cards then draw a card from each pack simultaneously. Unless the machine draws an ace of hearts from every pack, a bomb will go off so suddenly the victim will be killed without seeing which cards were actually drawn. The machine is turned on and, to the victim's amazement and relief, an ace of hearts is drawn from every pack. The victim thinks the drawing of the ten aces to be extraordinary and supposes the machine to be rigged in some way. The kidnapper casts doubt on this suggestion: “It is hardly surprising,” he says, “that the machine draws only aces of hearts. You could not possibly see anything else. For you would not be here to see anything at all, if any other cards had been drawn.”
Who is right, the victim who suspects the machine is rigged or the kidnapper who argues that the machine couldn't in fact function in any other way? Swinburne argues that the victim is right and the kidnapper is wrong: there IS something extraordinary in need of explanation in ten aces of hearts being drawn. When we study the universe we perceive order rather than disorder, but order rather than disorder IS ACTUALLY THERE. It is true that only in an orderly universe can we know anything at all, but that makes an orderly universe no less extraordinary and in need of explanation.