The Design Argument — six critical questions

The core idea of the Design Argument is that to explain the cause-and-effect order of the natural world, we must appeal to a divine Designer: the complexity of reality cannot be the product of random chance, so there must be a powerful intelligence behind it all that brought order into existence and keeps the operation of the universe on track.

St. Augustine asked about himself, 1,600 years ago:

“Where could a living creature like this have come from, if not from you, Lord? Are any of us skillful enough to fashion ourselves?” (Confessions, 6:10).

Here is a version of the Design Argument in step-by-step development:

1. The natural universe is orderly — the regularity of the seasons, the consistency of chemical processes, the biological development of organisms’ capacities, and so on.
2. Complex order cannot have arisen from within the universe itself.
3. So complex order implies the existence of an external orderer that imposed order upon the universe.
4. To do so, the external orderer must be very intelligent and powerful.
5. So, a very intelligent and powerful orderer exists.
6. For brevity’s sake, let’s call the very intelligent and powerful orderer “God.”
7. So God exists.

Anyone can see why the argument has some logical force and must be taken seriously. At the same time, it is properly judged to be weak due to the following objections (and others).

About step 2: Here the entire evolution-versus-creationism argument must be engaged. Evolutionary accounts claim that complex orderly systems can evolve bottom-up from simpler systems. If so, then assuming that complex order can only occur from external and top-down sources is illegitimate.

About step 3: This step infers that only one external order exists. But it could be that there is any number of orderers, each with its own specialty. That is to say, the argument makes polytheism as reasonable as monotheism.

About step 4: With this step we cannot show that the orderer is infinitely intelligent or powerful. In fact, we might look at the world with all of its “mistakes” and “inconsistencies” — useless organs like the human appendix, or the floods that wash away carefully planted fields, etc. — and infer that a semi-competent god or a number of warring gods are behind it all.

About step 5: This step assumes that the orderer still exists. But it could be that the orderer had one great metaphysical reason for being — to create order in the universe — and having fulfilled its purpose went away or faded into non-existence.

About step 6: Here we have to be careful not to import all of the baggage that goes with the “God” label. Giving it an upper-case G is to give it a proper name and assume it has a personality, while the argument at most supports an impersonal ordering force. The argument also does not show that the orderer is good or bad, involved in our day-to-day affairs, or even cares about us particularly.

About step 7: If we grant for the sake of argument that God exists follows, then we can raise the following question about God: Is he a complexly orderly being? Either he is or he isn’t, and in either case we are caught in a dilemma. If we say that God is a simple and/or disorderly being, then it seems hard to see how such a being could create a complex, orderly universe. But if we say that God is a complexly-ordered being, then we must remember step 2 of the argument which says that complex order cannot emerge from beings themselves. So following the logic of the Design Argument, we’d have to infer that God’s complex order was imposed upon him by a Super-God that was even more intelligent and powerful. And that a Super-Duper-God made possible the Super-God, and so on into an absurd regress.

Of course, we might try to avoid the regress by saying, “God does not need an external power to impose order upon him. He is an exceptional being and is self-ordering.” But if we are going to start making exceptions — then why not make one right at the beginning and assume that the universe is self-ordering?

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[The featured image is William Blake’s The Ancient of Days (1794). This post is excerpted from my article “On the Proofs of God’s Existence,” first published in 2015.]

5 thoughts on “The Design Argument — six critical questions

  • September 16, 2017 at 6:23 pm
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    1. The theist accepts that his body is made of various components: brain, eyes, nervous system, skin, teeth. These systems are made by specialized cells. These cells are made by various chemicals (molecules). The molecules are basically made of Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Sulfur, Phosphorous, which are made of subatomic particles. The argument is that some god assembled or created from nothing all these atoms. The problem is that they mention the word “god” but don’t talk about the components that make up these “gods”. In other words, it is just a word with a very loose definition. I have been told it is a spirit but spirit is also a word with very loose definition.

    2. The word complex is also an almost meaningless word. There is no methodology for measuring complexity. People say “so-and-so is very complex” just based on gut feelings. In any case, a glass sheet that comes out of a glassmaking factory is pretty simple, however, glass sheets don’t exist in nature. A brick is also simple but this is also a shape that nature can’t make. A nail is also simple. So is a sheet of paper. So is a hammer. Nature can’t make these things because a mold and tools is requires to shape these materials. They are bulk materials. The stuff inside a cell doesn’t require molds&tools. The stuff inside a cell is just various molecules. They self assemble. They have intrinsic properties. The processes in a cell are self-guided. It is a biological (chemical) machine.

  • September 18, 2017 at 11:35 am
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    We don’t need to invoke evolution to demonstrate that #2 is in error. Order erupts from disorder constantly in nature–see crystals, or chaotic systems such as trees. Even allegedly irreducibly complex structures can form spontaneously–any driller is familiar with “bridging”, or the formation of an arch as you send particulate materials such as bentonite chips or sand down a boring. Arches are the type-specimen of irreducible complexity, and yet unless they are willing to argue that God takes a hand in the way sand is poured down a 2″ boring, we must accept that they form naturally. There are numerous other examples of this, any one of which demonstrates that #2 is untenable.

    Further, the term “Complex” is a weasel word. It has no set definition in my experience–it exists merely to appear to provide a standard, which nothing can live up to and which can easily be shifted to wherever the Creationist wants it to be. To put it less harshly, the lack of definition makes #2 untenable; we need to define complexity with regard to order before we can accept or reject that premise, and therefore before we can move on to any others. This has not been done. Attempts have been made, sure, but no rigorous or consistent definition has been presented. Ergo, while we can define the steps necessary to accept the Design Argument, we cannot, in reason, accept it.

  • September 18, 2017 at 3:29 pm
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    I’m planning to use Ed Feser’s book the next time I teach Philosophy of Religion.

  • September 19, 2017 at 4:44 pm
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    Guys, it may interest you to know that there is a whole field called complexity theory; as far as I know they have perfectly fine definitions of the term/concept. In other words, read up, Gentlemen!

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