Theistic Arguments: Argument from Design

The Argument from Design, or Paley's Teleological Argument, is together with the First Cause argument probably the most important theistic argument. It seems pretty strong until looked at very well. And looking well is what we're here for.

A theologian-philosopher during the 18th century, William Paley's best known contribution to the field of theology is his Teleological Argument. This argument states that the world exhibits so much detail, sophistication, purpose en design that it is inevitable to come to the conclusion that it was designed by a being we call God. The reasoning goes like this:

1. Everything we've seen that looks designed has a designer. (Axiom)
2. The Universe looks like it has been designed. (Axiom)
3. Therefore the Universe must have a designer. (From 2 & 3)
4. This designer is God.

A better known version of this argument uses a watch as an allegory for the universe. It goes like this: Suppose that you were walking along a beach somewhere, and suddenly you saw a pocketwatch lying on the ground. Opening the watch you would see the intricate detail that makes it all work. You would immediately assume that something like this had been designed, that it could not have come about by mere chance.
If you look at the human eye you see even more detail and complexity, and you must likewise assume a designer for the human eye. The natural conclusion would of course be that the entire universe has a designer, being God.

Now does this line of reasoning work, or is it flawed? Let's look at Axiom 1, which states that everything we've seen that looks designed has a creator. You should, of course, think about watches, computers, televisions, Positive Atheism FAQ's, etc. However, if you really think about the axiom, you see that it is the prelude to a monstrous circular reasoning: saying that everything we've seen that looks designed has a designer assumes that the Universe and the solar system and many more things in nature, which look designed, have a designer. But how can we accept this statement as an axiom, since it is exactly what one wants to prove? Thus the first axiom should be 'Many things we've seen that look designed have a designer.' But changing the axiom in this way invalidates the third step of the reasoning, thus destroying Paley's argument.

But is there not a very strong link between the Universe and a watch? Is this not a powerful allegory? No, and for several reasons. First, as Hume said, it is almost preposterous to compare the Universe to a watch. We know very little about the universe, and almost everything about a pocketwatch. He argued that for a comparison to make any sense it should be made between two objects we have equal understanding about. The dissimilarity between the Universe and even the most complex of things we know are designed is so huge that the worth of the argument is almost zero.

Secondly, it can be easily seen that everything we know is designed was designed by living beings from earth. Thus, the first axiom might well be changed to 'All things made by living beings from earth that look designed have a designer.' This shows once again that the argument cannot be used on anything like the Universe, or for that matter, the eye. We could even change the axiom to 'All things that we know are designed have been designed by beings from earth'. This leads to the preposterous conclusion that the Universe has been designed by someone from earth! But this line of reasoning is no less valid than Paley's.

Thirdly, watches show marks of being made (marks from milling, stamping, etc.). The Universe does not show those marks. This is another huge difference between the Universe and a watch.

Fourthly, we can visit any number of watchmakers we want. We can see watches being made. We can read how watches are made. We can ask the local watchmaker to make a specially designed watch for us. If I showed you an egg and told you that I knew a man who made custom eggs, you would rightly doubt my word, for you've never seen an eggmaker. Thus the conclusion that a certain object was designed and made is based on the knowledge that such an object can be made, more than on the complexity of the object itself.

There are still more arguments against the Argument from Design. For God is surely more detailed, sophisticated and purposeful than anything in the universe? Then God must have been designed and created, by a being I will call GodGod. And GodGod must have been designed by GodGodGod, ad infinitum. If on the other hand we say that God does not need a designer, than surely we can say that the Universe, which is less complex, needs no designer. And again the Argument falls.

And in fact everything science finds seems to indicate that there is no design to the universe. Evolution shows us that life does not need to have a designer. Astrophysic models tell us how stars, galaxies etc can be formed from more or less homogenous clouds of matter. The Big Bang theory tells us how these clouds could have come into existence without any design at all. Everything we find seems to shout at us 'There is no designer! It's all just the laws of nature!' We do not need God to explain our Universe.

Until and unless all these problems are adressed, the Argument from Design is worthless. It is not proof of the existence of God.

Victor Gijsbers