Theistic arguments for beginners: #1 – The argument from design

NEAFtACDlZr2EB_1_1A familiarity with common arguments for the existence of gods is part of any atheist’s intellectual toolkit, and lately I’ve been trying to brush up on these arguments. In what I hope will be a series of posts, the arguments we’ll be looking at have been repeatedly examined, and refuted, by any number of professional philosophers, and what I present here are basic summaries of the arguments and their flaws (We’ll soon be moving these pieces onto a page of their own on this site for future reference).  But first, a few words, by way of introduction:

Atheism is defined, not as a knowledge position (“there are no gods”), but as a belief position (“I do not believe in gods”), which is to say that atheists reject claims for the existence of gods as irresolvable or unknowable (“there is no way available to us to confirm the claims you as a theist are making”), or as self-refuting (“it is logically impossible that a being such as you are proposing can exist”). An example of the first case would be a general claim for the existence of a single supernatural entity who created our universe, and an example of the second would be a claim for the existence of a supernatural entity such as the one defined in Biblical texts and the dogma based on those texts (a perfect being, which by definition would have no deficiencies and need nothing, but which nevertheless needs to be worshiped; an omniscient being capable of choice; or an all-powerful and all-loving entity that nevertheless consigns some of its creation to mass extinction or to eternal agony because of finite offenses).

In other words, atheists reject theistic claims, and they do so for three reasons:

Faulty definitions (such as those I’ve just mentioned): The difficulty of defining what a divine being is is where the problems start, because if you propose divine entity X that has attributes a, b, c, and d, you must provide valid justification for each of those attributes, and the more attributes you add, the more you have to justify, and the more likely your arguments will be refuted. On the other hand, if you avoid defining your god as much as possible and say that your god defies definition, is non-physical or “science can’t touch it”, you give others even less reason to accept your claim and also decrease any practical relevance your beliefs may have.

Flawed reasoning (such as we will be examining in arguments such as the argument from design, the ontological argument, the argument from degree, and so on): In addition to the faulty definitions and internal fallacies in the arguments themselves, logical arguments for the existence of divine beings are inherently flawed because they attempt to use logic alone to prove an existence claim, which leads to the third reason atheists reject theistic claims:

Lack of evidence: Only evidence can prove an existence claim. This is true in science, and it’s true for claims for the existence of gods. Many theists don’t bother with making logical arguments in order to justify them to themselves; they are content to regard their beliefs as personal and to tolerate other views. But when attempting to pressure others who may not believe as they do to conform to their beliefs, they take on a burden to justify such beliefs in a consistent and rational way, and one of the burdens they take up is the burden of proof that their god exists, which requires evidence.

So one doesn’t necessarily make the case for atheism simply by refuting arguments such as the ones we’ll be looking at, but people still make these arguments, and it’s helpful to know the arguments and why they don’t justify what they are trying to justify.  And now:

The argument from design

One of the most used arguments for the existence of a god, it is also one of the weakest. It runs basically as follows:

1. We appear to observe features in nature too complex to have occurred by chance.

2. These features show the hallmark appearance of design.

3. Design implies that there must be a designer.

4. Therefore nature must have had an intelligent designer.

5. This intelligent designer is God.

The first and most obvious flaws are found in the first premise: the idea that nature has features that are too complex to have occurred by chance. There are actually two errors here: first, that complexity of features cannot be explained by natural processes, which is an argument from ignorance (that is, we are excluding a possible correct explanation because we cannot yet furnish conclusive evidence for that explanation, and reach for the other explanation instead), and second, that natural processes are based on chance (which is a misunderstanding of how natural processes work: a “straw man” argument).

The second premise introduces the concept of design into the mix. But what is design, and if it is applicable to the argument, then how? To answer this question, we need to determine the definition of design and how humans recognize it.

Our real-world knowledge and experience of design is of people making things out of pre-existing materials, and our means of recognizing design comes from comparison to both human-made and naturally occurring objects. Both human artifacts and features of nature can, as the case may be, be simple or complex, beautiful or not, suited to a specific purpose or not. But a stone tool can be proven, through evidence, to have been made by humans, from pre-existing matter, with a specific intention in mind.

Humans have the ability to infer the possible intentions of others: we can run away from an angry lion because he might want to eat us, or we can refrain from running away from a friendly stranger because he may wish to help us. This is a cognitive bias hard-wired into our brains that serves as an important survival tool. But this skill is not always reliable in all situations and we can be apt to overgeneralize, as, for instance, when attempting to infer intention from the appearance of naturally-occurring objects: we cannot logically infer divine intention through examining features of nature.

Consider a species of tropical bird, the male of which has more colorful plumage than the female. As is the case with many species of birds, we observe that male birds with the most colorful plumage attract the most females and are therefore more likely to reproduce than males with duller plumage. The argument from design would have it that these birds’ plumage was designed for the purpose of attracting females. We can agree from observation that the female birds certainly do prefer the more colorful males, but we can’t logically conclude that the coloring was specifically designed to fulfill that, or really, any particular function.

There is also an unstated premise in the argument: the two explicit choices in the argument—features that are designed versus features that are not—exclude the possibility of self-design in organisms and systems. This premise is false, as self-design is possible and real and is the subject of evolutionary biology, which can be summarized as an algorithmic description of self-design by species and systems through adaptation and natural selection.

Finally, the conclusion of the argument is self-refuting. Beginning by arguing that there are features of nature too complex to have come about by chance (ignoring the straw man comparison here for the sake of the argument), the argument ends by invoking an intelligent designer. In other words, the argument asserts that complex features coming about through natural processes is so improbable that an infinitely complex (and by the terms of the argument, an infinitely improbable) deity is needed.

banana-71718The banana argument: A recent use of the argument from design comes from Christian evangelist/apologist Ray Comfort in an episode of his video series The Way of The Master. In the episode entitled “The Beauty of a Broken Spirit—Atheism”, Comfort shows a banana, calling it “the atheist’s nightmare.” Noting various features of the banana (curved and ridged to fit the hand, easy to peel, fits easily in the mouth, chewy, easy to digest), he argues that the banana “testifies to the genius of God’s creation.” What undermines the banana argument is not only the problems discussed above but also the fact that the banana we eat is the product of centuries of human domestication and cultivation: wild bananas have a different shape, have large seeds, and are on the whole not as easy or as pleasant to eat as the domesticated bananas we buy at the grocery store.

Finally, even if all the premises were accepted as true, as with so many of these arguments, the argument from design does not demonstrate that the god is the one the apologist has in mind, or whether the creator is actually a god or god-like. In fact, the intelligent design movement bases its mission on the syllogism above, only omitting the final conclusion calling the intelligent designer “God”, in a blatantly dishonest attempt to appear less like a religious argument.


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