The Failure of the Argument from Design

As has been noted by some, the obstacles confronting intelligent design are not merely limited to scientific verifiability. In addition to the typical scientific objections to ID, which are myriad and persuasive, there are a number of philosophical issues which ID, as it is typically accepted, is simply unable to deal with. It has often been said that ID is not only terrible science (not science at all in fact) but it is ghastly theology as well. In this post I would like to make some of the less well known reasons for this explicit.

One of the main differences between intelligent design and Darwinian evolution is that while the latter is fully composed of what Aristotle would called ‘efficient causes,’ the former is principally composed of ‘teleological causes.’ In other words, ID’s central point is that the causes responsible for the biological world we now observe are goal or purpose driven while Darwinism maintains that entirely purposeless causes are fully sufficient to cover the appearances.

It is for this reason that ID is called ‘intellectualized creationism.’ The entire enterprise is centered on the ‘argument from design’ or the ‘teleological argument.’ It is my intention to provide an account of the principles involved in the argument from design, drawing upon William Paley’s “Natural Theology: Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature,” and expose its serious short comings.

Paley’s points are as follows:

  1. We have the ability to recognize design when we see it. If on the beach we found a watch (he calls it a clock) next to a rock on the beach, we would easily be able to identify which of the two had been designed.

  2. Natural phenomena such as our eyes, thumbs and noses are more like clocks than rocks.

  3. Just as we are able to accurately infer the existence of a clock maker from the existence of a clock, we should also be able to infer the existence of an ‘eye-maker’ from the existence of eyes. While the maker of a clock need only be finite in nature, the designer of all these designed phenomena in nature must be infinitely wise and powerful.

  4. Thus the only adequate source of such designed features as our noses being pointed down so that we wouldn’t drown from rain is God.

And now for the problems with such reasoning. Before continuing I would like to acknowledge that the ID movement does not insist that the ‘designer’ be infinite in anything, only that he be ‘intelligent’ in some form. However, this has not prevented most who adopt ID from accepting the infinite nature of the designer regardless. While most of these criticisms will apply to a finite designer as well, many will only apply to an infinite one. Like I said, it is the theological use of ID which I am principally concerned with.

  1. The argument from designer violates Ockham’s razor, the principle of parsimony. It engages in serious explanatory overkill. While it may seem more natural to posit a designer, thanks to modern evolutionary theory, we really don’t need to. Without the principle of parsimony, no explanation which covers the appearances is any better than any other which also does. Jesse Prinz’s “theory” that birds are robots, which melt when they burn, were created by mad scientists from another planet and fly because they hang from ultra thin threads connected to spaceships that orbit the earth is just as good as the theory that they are animals which descended from dinosaurs that do not gestate their young. Without parsimony, these two theories are equally good. This argues strongly against (3).

  2. Design need not come from above. In fact, it should not. If design can only be bestowed by an more-designed-Designer then we will have to explain how that more-designed-Designer got to be so designed in terms of an even-more-designed-Designer and so on ad infinitum. Thus, our explanation is heading in the wrong direction. This also argues against (3).

  3. The entire argument depends upon the ability to infer certain characteristics about a cause from its effects. Such reasoning is incredibly unreliable. Are we supposed to be able to infer the properties of salt by the taste which is gives French fries? Such reasoning would never in a million years allow us to conclude that salt is composed of the metal sodium and the poisonous gas, chlorine. Again, this goes against (3).

  4. Closely related, how in the world can anybody reasonably infer from finite effects that the cause must have been infinite? This is not just a case of going beyond what is necessary, but is in fact a case of going against reason to establish a desired conclusion. Hume put it best in his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” where he asks if the designer could not have been stupid, or wicked, or a committee or simply vastly-but-not-infinitely powerful. All of these possibilities are actually MORE reasonable given the appearances which must be accounted for than is the all-wise, all-loving conclusion. This is a brutal blow against (4).

  5. The argument from design engages is HIGHLY biased data selection. Sure, when flowers are blooming and suns are setting its easy to be caught up in the awe of it all. But what about when tsunamis and hurricanes hit? What about famine and disease? What about birth defects? What about the obvious injustice of the wicked prospering while the righteous dwindle in utter poverty? What about all the horrible our simply stupid cases of design we observe in the biological world? If these imply a Designer then it must be a relatively stupid or malevolent one. This works strongly against (3). (It should be also kept in mind that we simply can’t say “well, we simply don’t know about these cases” because if such is the case, then we really don’t know about any of the cases and we shouldn’t be using the argument from design at all.)

  6. The problem is that most IDers believe that EVERYTHING, not just some things, shows design. God, sorry, the Designer designed everything including the rocks. This undermines (1).

  7. Issue is not simply one of design vs. non-design. Instead, follow Michael Ruse, the issue would be better phrased as an issue of chaos vs. complexity vs. design. It is not so easy to distinguish chaos from complexity or complexity from design as it is chaos from design and Paley does us a great disservice by ignoring this point. This also works against (1).

  8. Consequently, thumbs, while they may resemble clocks more than rocks, do not really resemble either very well. Nobody has ever seen a rock come into existence, loosely speaking. Lots of people have seen how clocks come into existence, namely by a clock-maker. Lots of people have also seen how thumbs, eyes and noses come into existence, namely by the birth of an organism. This final example shows how biological entities cannot be considered to be rocks or clocks, not by a long shot. This seriously undermines (2).

  9. The argument from design attempts to show that since biological phenomena are not chaos then they must be design, but such is not the case. Biological phenomena, as we have seen, do not suitably fall into the same categories as rocks or designed artifacts. Instead they are something different from both categories and Darwin proposed what is so far the only suitable mechanism for this third category “complexity.” Inheritance of information by birth simply cannot be equated with design, nor does it imply it at all. This too speaks against (2).

  10. Darwinian evolution (which is uncontroversially true to at least some extent) suggests that the equivalent of upside-down happens all the time. The appearances are equally compatible with the proposition that some individuals, in the beginning, were created with upside-down noses, but those people all drown some time in the past, leaves us “right-side-upers” to marvel at the benevolence of the creator. This, however, tells us more about us than the creator. It cannot be emphasized enough that this is uncontroversially true to some extent. (3) is again under attack.

  11. Finally, and a little off topic, the argument from design to the existence of God, rather than a mere designer, simply does not work. Just because some entity designed this world and even us is no reason whatsoever to suppose that this Designer is deserving or desiring of worship. Of course this argument against (4) only goes to show the underlying motives which trump the inadequate reason involved in ID reasoning.

For all of these reasons, which are in addition to the typical scientific objections, perhaps it is time we all got off the ID train.


The problem I have with the above is that there is that assumption I sense that efficient causality is all there is. It seems to me that one can object to ID without necessarily rejecting final causality.  

Posted by clark

1/25/2006 06:42:00 PM  

Your last line is a nice retort to Aaron Cox's "Get of the Speculation Train"!

Did you really go back and read the original Paley? If so, that's pretty cool.

Some combination of points 7, 8, and 9 are quite compelling. We can definitely tell the difference between three major kinds of things, both in their instrinsic properties and how they come into being: inorganic natural things, organic natural things, and man-made artificial things.

I think it's interesting that traditional Mormonism took seriously the "organic natural things" category that Paley left out, in its insistence on an eternal regression of procreation of various kinds of plants and animals. When it comes to organisms, the argument from design doesn't really have a natural place in Mormonism. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

1/27/2006 06:02:00 AM  

Did that "speculation train" story happen at all? Was it someone else you knew who did it?

1/27/2006 11:27:00 AM  

No, no "expansion theory" at work in the Speculation Train story. It was 100% unadulterated "inspired fiction" all the way. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

1/27/2006 11:50:00 AM  

Jeffrey, I'm totally enjoying your input on GeoffB's M* DNA thread. I'm adding you to my blogroll and look forward to reading your site.

2/17/2006 04:44:00 PM  

Just so you know Watt, my actual site is "Issues in Mormon Doctrine ". This site is the group blog which I contribute to every now and then. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

2/17/2006 11:14:00 PM  



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