Paul Hughes

The evolving story of a hopeful skeptic.

November 7, 2012 Religion , , , By Paul Hughes

The Argument From Design

I am a skeptic.1 No, that is not synonymous with “cynical” or “pessimistic”. No, I am a skeptic in that I ask questions about things that I don’t understand, and I question accepted belief in the hopes of uncovering new information. If I don’t see much evidence for something, I look for more evidence one way or the other. Now this blog is not about convincing anyone of anything in particular. No, it is a place that I’ve created to talk about my questions and, if anyone is willing to offer it, receive input on the various ideas I’m questioning. You’ll find many of my questions have to do with religion, but I cannot stress enough that I am not trying to sway my readers one way or the other, merely to present my questions, and to present the information that I’ve discovered so far, so that others can benefit, refute, or question (as I do!).

CloudsOn my spiritual journey through life, and in my quest to find truth, I ask many people many questions. A common question that I ask, in the hopes that someone can provide an answer that my skeptical head can wrap its brain around is, as one might expect, “Why do you believe in God?” All sorts of people have all sorts of answers, but there are some answers that come up more frequently than others. I’ve decided to write this first post about one of the most common answers I receive, which many people would call “the argument from design” or the “teleological argument.”2

The argument from design goes something like this: “I look around me in the world, and I see all the complex and intricate things that exist, and I cannot accept that all of those things happened to come about by chance. I mean, what are the odds? There must have been a designer.” At face value, the argument holds quite a bit of weight. We are, as humans, after all, very intricate beings. However, in my opinion this is one of the weaker arguments for the existence of God for two reasons primarily.

The first reason is pretty quick to explain. The asked person has said that life is so complex, and so it must have been designed. Well, that makes sense to me. Surely a watch cannot come into being by a chance collision of a bunch of pieces of metal. The watch had someone who made it. Similarly, humans are complex, and therefore must have had a maker—a designer. Makes sense so far. Where we run into trouble is when we consider the following. Surely the watchmaker is a being that is more elaborate/complicated/intricate than the watch itself, right? How can something simpler than a watch create a watch? The maker must be more complex than the watch itself. Ah, but this is the problem—if the watchmaker is a complex being, surely he could not have come about by chance, right? Surely HE had a maker. But who? Oh, that’s right, we have a solution: God made him. Problem solved! Uh oh; but wait… Surely the watchmaker’s maker is a more elaborate being than the watchmaker; as we said, something simpler than a watch cannot make a watch, and so is it with the watchmaker. So who made the watchmaker’s maker? Who made God? You can, of course, continue with this reasoning into an infinite digression of more and more complex beings requiring an even more complex creator.

The second reason I find the argument from design a bit weak is not such a simple logical digression. The asked person has said “I cannot accept that all of this complex life, like humans, came into this state of complexity merely by chance.” Again, a very reasonable point, until we realize that the person is limiting himself. He has arbitrarily decided that there are two ways that complex life could have come about: a creator, and chance. But what if there was another way? It would be like deciding that there are two forces that have the ability to hold two objects together: gravity and electromagnetism. There is no way that there could possibly be another type of scientific force holding things together. And so it was, until we discovered the strong nuclear force. Suddenly there is a third (and fourth—the weak nuclear force) type of force in the world that has the effect of pulling two things together. Going back to the person to whom the question was posed, we can see that he is limiting himself by accepting that there are only two ways complex beings can exist.

As you may have guessed by now, I am going to point out a third way that complex life can have come to exist. There is a force in nature, a very powerful force, that, in fact, does not act by “blind chance.” It is the only force in nature that we know of that can take something very simple and, given time, can create something much more complex. I am, of course, talking about natural selection. At this point, I don’t want to take the time to examine the undeniable evidence for the existence of process of evolution by natural selection (although if you are interested in reading about it, I can recommend several great books and websites to peruse). Instead, I am going to examine the complex life our hypothetical person has referred to, and look at things about it that surely no engineer would have designed as such. I will look at things that, as far as we know at this time, can only be explained by history of evolution.

The Recurrent Laryngeal NerveOne of the more commonly cited examples of inefficiency and “bad design” in nature is the recurrent laryngeal nerve3 that runs the length of a giraffe’s neck—twice! It runs from the brain ALL the way down the neck of the giraffe, wraps around the dorsal aorta and then goes right back up the neck and stops inches away from where it started. Surely a designer might have thought things through and made the nerve’s path a bit more… direct? The nerve actually behaves like this in all mammals; the giraffe is just the most blatant example, what with the nerve being more than a couple meters long.

Another example of intense complexity but with an error in design is in the human eye. What an amazing piece of engineering, allowing us to process a picture of the world around us! As most people know, however, we do, in fact, have a blind spot;4 just do a google search “blind spot test” to find yours. The blind spot is due to a particularly strange thing: the optic nerve “plugs in” not behind the retina but in front! The optic nerve must pass through the retina to get to the photoreceptors, and where it passes through, a blind spot is created. Of course, it makes a whole lot more sense for the nerve to connect behind the retina (as it does in octopuses, and many other invertebrates) to prevent the blind spot. But alas, we are left with an incomplete picture of the world around us. Luckily we have two eyes, so the brain does a pretty good job of compensating.

In any event, you can probably see why I have a problem with the argument from design purely on a biological basis (the basis by which the argument was made, I might add). The above two examples are two of many examples of inefficiency and “poor design” in nature. Surely if there were an engineer, he (or she) would have bothered to get it right the first time! Both inefficiencies exist the way they do because of evolutionary history, and those of you who are interested should go and read about it.

Now, it is my opinion that evolution most certainly does not exclude the possibility for the existence of God. Darwin himself, at the end of Origin of Species, mentions God setting the process in motion when he said,

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”5

I would, however, argue that the classic teleological argument perspective of why God exists is a bit weak, for the two reasons this post explains.

Thank you for taking the time to read this! I hope you found it at least a little stimulating, and I welcome any questions, criticisms, or ideas about this post. I only ask that all discussion be kept civil and well intentioned.



5 to “The Argument From Design”

  1. Kevin Fitzgerald says...

    One answer to your first reason is the definition of eternity, no beginning or end really exists in the plane that God exists, time is a mortal non-God concept, that exists for us in our fallen state, to experience trial and error without eternal repercussions to our flawed, human decisions. Now you may say that is gibberish as well, fair enough, not arguing its validity. But there is at least an explanation for that part of the problem you present. At least for crazy mormons that spend their formative years pretending to be a bounty hunter on message boards.

  2. paul says...

    Yeah… Who knows. I mean, I think it is impossible to prove God’s lack of existence, although the infinite digression I present is an interesting mind-puzzle I suppose. But yes, “God is beyond that,” is the general response. ;-)

    – P

  3. Kevin Fitzgerald says...

    Don’t mean to marginalize the rest of your post, this is good stuff. Mine was kind of a tangent.

  4. paul says...

    Not at all, man! My goal is to encourage discussion that follows no guided path. :-)

    – P

  5. Joey McCabe says...

    Hey Paul, I have been dying to comment on this post for so long. But with work and my show it was impossible. I’m going to keep this one short for right now. I wanted to call attention to your three main points.

    “Surely the watchmaker is a being that is more elaborate/complicated/intricate than the watch itself, right? How can something simpler than a watch create a watch?”

    This is of course NOT a scientific question. It’s one dealing with philosophical issues. Ones of which science has very little handle in. There are three reasons why I take issue with your rejection.

    1: It does not negate a causal explanation of one event to point out that the cause of that event may also invite a causal explanation. If you held this same standard to evolution you would be asking yourself the same questions! Well what causes evolution? And what causes the Universe…resulting in the same infinite regress.

    2. Why must a mind be more complex? What does complex mean in this instance? Is it based on the arrangement of the material parts? Intelligent design theory, like most others, define complexity as a feature that characterizes material effects. Meaning if It is even possible that an immaterial entity consisting of no parts can exist. Than your objection falls because the premise behind your conclusion is false. Mind in general has always thought to be a different and immaterial product of the brain. Therefore, since mind is not complex than it does not create an infinite regress.

    Your second point, “He has arbitrarily decided that there are two ways that complex life could have come about: a creator, and chance” Design inference are NOT based on limiting yourself to these two categories. ID is based on a positive argument that complex specified information has always been the result of intelligence. All historical sciences that are in competition use compare causes in order to identify the BEST causal explanation. ID advocates look at chance, natural selection, and intelligence. Since large amounts of complex specified information has NEVER been a result of chance or law-like processes(natural selection), and Intelligent agency HAS produced complex specified information, than this feature in this organism is best explained by intelligent causation.

    Finally your third point was talking about “bad” design, “Surely if there were an engineer, he (or she) would have bothered to get it right the first time!” This is such a fantastically flawed argument and I’m so happy you pointed it out because it actually shows not only why the design argument benefits science but also how evolution can hinder it!

    The first flaw in the argument is the use of the word bad to describe a process. What makes it bad? Bad in this context is VERY relative, just because you wouldnt have done it that way doesn’t make it bad.

    The second flaw is labeling the function as bad or sub-obtimal in the first place. The item may very well have a GOOD purpose, we just don’t know it yet! This is where evolution hinders the science. When scientist calls it “bad” design, they have made a conclusion about a system that seems to have no function and then dismisses it. The ID advocate, on the other hand, sees the so called “flawed system” and asks, “what is the purpose or function of this process?”

    It should be stated that the blind spot in the eye and the way it works actually does have a beneficial purpose. It clears our vision! It’s a recent study that came out a few years ago. This is something design theorists predicted, even though the research wasn’t done by a design theorist. Also, scientists once though that DNA was mostly “junk” because it didn’t have a function. Pretty large claim to make if you ask me. Design theorists predicted that most of the non-coding DNA would have purpose, we just haven’t studied enough of it yet. And a recent studies just affirmed that to be true! So while the “bad” design argument is based in ignorance under the evolutionary paradigm, ID advocates are working hard on studying the functions of these systems!

    The third flaw comes from your bias or inability to separate God from the design argument. Engineers make new and better products all the time. I hope that just because I made a few typos in this paragraph doesn’t dismiss me from being intelligent haha! Just because there are “junk” systems doesn’t mean that you can’t infer design. This is also a question design theorists use to produce more scientific information. Is this function really junk? If it is, is it a result of degenerative evolution? All design theorists believe in micro-evolution or natural selection as a real process BTW. So an organsm may had a feature that doesnt work anymore in the same fasion that the AC in my car doesn’t work anymore. It’s an old car and has been exposed to the elements and so forth. The car is still designed but my AC doesn’t work. Therefore, when we see “bad” design, it doesn’t make sense to say NO design, lots of other questions must be answered.

    IF i were a christian though, the answer is very easily answered by pointing out the fall and using degenerative evolution as your explanation for the loss of function. In a sinful world detached from God, we would expect to see degenerative systems in biology. As the bible says, “the world is passing away and so are it’s desires…”

    Thanks for the Posts Paul,

    Joey McCabe

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