Argument against Argument from Design
When confronted with the Argument from Design, people usually resort to various (perfectly solid) counter-arguments, pointing to the theory of evolution as the alternative explanation, or remarking that an intelligent designer must itself be more complex and difficult to explain than the things it designs. I’m not really revisiting the age-old debate surrounding the Argument; I’m rather trying to pin down an incoherence in the logical structure of the argumentation itself as it is practiced today. I believe we don’t even need the aforementioned counter-arguments because the Argument (in its fully argued form) isn’t logically valid after all.
- “Look how intricately and perfectly designed an organism is” implies that we are able to evaluate and appreciate the design; that we, as humans, are in the same frame of mind with its designer (be it God, extra-terrestrials, or others) in our design-thinking, even if we don’t yet fully understand every detail. This shared thinking means that we can inspect and begin to appreciate how the parts work together, what functions they have, why they are in the shape they are, etc. – as opposed to looking at it and having no idea whatsoever about its workings.¹ It is clear that we are in the former position in biology; in fact, this is the starting point of the Argument from Design, and I would add that the hallmark sentence “Look how perfectly designed it is” implies that the evaluator has a full understanding of the thing: you can’t judge perfection if you don’t grasp and approve every detail. (The partiality of our understanding isn’t important for my argument. The case is similar to me appreciating the design of an airplane even though I don’t understand every part; in principle, I can sit down and go through it with an aerospace engineer or become one myself with years of study and understand it fully. The key point is that it is possible for me to understand it, if I make the effort; it is something within our collective scope of understanding – not everybody has to understand it at any given time.)
- If, as humanity, we are in a position to understand and evaluate the designs of organisms, according to our professional specialization principle, we should get more reliable reports from people specialized in design-thinking: designers, engineers, etc.
- Engineers and biologists point out that there are many redundancies, inefficiencies and glitches (explained with frozen accidents, phylogenetic scaffolds, vestigiality, etc. within the theory of evolution) in the standard designs of organisms. In fact, there’s too much noise and arbitrariness in their designs for a rational designer like us. (On a personal note; I like to think that a biota by an intelligent designer would have looked like a Malevich, not a Courbet.) In addition, the supposedly perfect design of organisms frequently breaks, from birth defects to cancer.
- When 3 is pointed out, theists resume the Argument by reminding that “God works in mysterious ways”, that we cannot possibly understand his ways of designing and his intentions, and that they are categorically different from ours. This contradicts 1. Either organism design is an engineering problem or not. Either you can say that organisms look “designed perfectly” according to your understanding of design, thus declare yourself a competent understander and evaluator of the mind of their designer and expose yourself to rational critiques of these designs; or you can concede from the beginning that the design of organisms is categorically out of our horizon of evaluation, thus cannot be judged as good or bad, and so cannot be held as evidence of anything in an argument. You cannot choose to have both without their inconvenient consequences.²
In essence, the Argument from Design is first asking us to evaluate the designs of organisms, and then telling us that we are not in a position to do so. Let’s make it more abstract: the argument X is asking you to do x (as a necessary first step to prove its point), and then telling you that you are not in a position to do x. Now I don’t care what X is really talking about, and I don’t need specific counter-arguments to refute it, because it is logically flawed.
1- This point is also articulated at the end of the Section XI of Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in a dialogue with a “friend of his”:
“In works of human art and contrivance, it is allowable to advance from the effect to the cause, and returning back from the cause, to form new inferences concerning the effect, and examine the alterations, which it has probably undergone, or may still undergo. But what is the foundation of this method of reasoning? Plainly this; that man is a being, whom we know by experience, whose motives and designs we are acquainted with, and whose projects and inclinations have a certain connexion and coherence, according to the laws which nature has established for the government of such a creature. When, therefore, we find, that any work has proceeded from the skill and industry of man; as we are otherwise acquainted with the nature of the animal, we can draw a hundred inferences concerning what may be expected from him; and these inferences will all be founded in experience and observation. (…) The case is not the same with our reasonings from the works of nature. The Deity is known to us only by his productions, and is a single being in the universe, not comprehended under any species or genus, from whose experienced attributes or qualities, we can, by analogy, infer any attribute or quality in him.”
to which Hume replies:
“In a word, I much doubt whether it be possible for a cause to be known only by its effect (as you have all along supposed) or to be of so singular and particular a nature as to have no parallel and no similarity with any other cause or object, that has ever fallen under our observation. It is only when two species of objects are found to be constantly conjoined, that we can infer the one from the other; and were an effect presented, which was entirely singular, and could not be comprehended under any known species, I do not see, that we could form any conjecture or inference at all concerning its cause. If experience and observation and analogy be, indeed, the only guides which we can reasonably follow in inferences of this nature; both the effect and cause must bear a similarity and resemblance to other effects and causes, which we know, and which we have found, in many instances, to be conjoined with each other.”
2- Sam Harris describes a similar contradiction in moral judgments in Letter to a Christian Nation:
Along with most Christians, you believe that mortals like ourselves cannot reject the morality of the Bible. We cannot say, for instance, that God was wrong to drown most of humanity in the flood of Genesis, because this is merely the way it seems from our limited point of view. And yet, you feel that you are in a position to judge that Jesus is the Son of God, that the Golden Rule is the height of moral wisdom, and that the Bible is not itself brimming with lies. You are using your own moral intuitions to authenticate the wisdom of the Bible—and then, in the next moment, you assert that we human beings cannot possibly rely upon our own intuitions to rightly guide us in the world; rather, we must depend upon the prescriptions of the Bible. You are using your own moral intuitions to decide that the Bible is the appropriate guarantor of your moral intuitions. Your own intuitions are still primary, and your reasoning is circular.
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