The Argument from Design

The following is based on material first posted in a philosophy forum at Digital Equipment Corporation, around 1988.

The thesis of the Argument from Design is that the natural world exhibits evidence that it was produced by an intelligent designer, and so gives evidence or proof for the existence of God. It is probably the most empirical of the classic arguments for God's existence, and so most closely resembles a scientific hypothesis. Whether it belongs to science ("natural philosophy," as it used to be called) or to metaphysics is an interesting question of classification, but not the question of this topic.

The Design argument is a very old one. The apostle Paul makes a casual reference to it in one of his epistles. The most famous exposition of it was by William Paley (1743-1805), who said denying the Design argument was like denying that a watch had been built by an intelligent watchmaker. The most famous attack on the argument comes from Darwinian evolutionary theory, and the whole issue connects to the controversy about teaching creationism in public schools. (The creationism issue is also not the question of this topic.) Recently, the Design question has come up in cosmology, connected to discussions of the "anthropic principle."

Many items of empirical evidence have been put forward on behalf of the Design argument: the mathematical elegance and order of physical law, the intricacy and harmonic arangement of living things in general or certain species in particular, the stately pattern of the solar system, the delicate balance of natural forces required for any life to exist, etc. Some of these pieces of evidence have become favorites of one side or another in the discussion and have become little sub-topics in their own right. They'll show up later.

My own position is that the Argument from Design provides good evidence for God's existence, but not conclusive proof. I also hold that some of the particular evidence put forward on behalf of the argument does not, in fact, help it. I hold that the empirical nature of the Design argument makes it a permanently open issue to some degree.

I once heard Processive philosopher Charles Harteshorne give a short talk on the Argument from Design. As nearly as I can recall, it went like this:

We observe that the world is very ordered and wonder where this order came from. The possible answers fall into four categories:

1: The order comes from more order

2: The order comes from chaos

3: The order comes from nothing

4: The order comes from purpose

Option 1 (order) describes scientific discovery in general: for instance, we observe the orderly movements of the planet and, eventually, discover that they are produced by the laws of mechanics and gravitation, which are themselves very orderly. The problem with this is that we haven't really answered the question; we have just increased the total amount of order we have to explain.

Option 2 (chaos) is, almost by definition, unlikely. Something chaotic could produce something orderly by accident, but it would be accidental and a low probability. Anything chaotic that consistently produced something ordered would be, one feels, only superficially chaotic. Chaos is a negative, an absence of order, pattern, or symmetry. It does not have the resources to produce order.

There are apparent examples of order arising from chaos, but I think they always involved hidden order. See the next section.

Option 3 (nothing) has the same problems as 2 (chaos), aggravated. A chaotic thing is at least existent, and it might produce an orderly result by chance, though the chance grows infinitesimal as the quantity of order increases. But if you start from nothing, you have no resources at all, no potentialites to draw on.

Option 4 (purpose) does not suffer from the objections to the other three options. A purposeful agent is not itself just another layer of order; it would stand outside the system of layers of order, producing the order (presumably at the bottommost level, and perhaps at intervening levels too). Unlike chaos or nothingness, it can have adequate resources to produce cosmic order and still remain itself. Indeed, the magnitude of the result suggests godlike resources, and this of course is what the argument is aiming at.

That is my recollection of Hartshorne's talk. Since that recollection is more than fifteen years old, please do not hold Hartshorne to it. But I think it provides an interesting framework for further discussion.

Order from Apparent Chaos

Order does arise from chaos, but (except for freak events of very low probability), no significant order arises unless there are other, non-chaotic factors at work.

For instance, the ideal gas law describes the behavior of gases in a very exact and symmetrical way – a good example of order. And this orderly behavior of the gas as a whole results from the chaotic behavior of its constituent molecules. But the molecules, taken individually, are really very orderly and law-abidding, moving in accordance with those same laws of mechanics that determine the motions of the planets.

In quantum mechanics, particles move in a random manner, but the randomness is not total; it is biased, sometimes very strongly biased, according to the laws of wave mechanics, which are just as orderly as the classical laws they replace.

Take the example of a quantity of water, cooling and freezing. The ice is more ordered than the liquid water, and the ice forms because the water gets cold. It gets cold because the heat-energy in the water is transferred chaotically between parts of the water and between the water and parts of the surroundings. Since the surroundings are bigger, most of the heat wanders off into them.

So far, we have order (ice crystals) arising from chaos (an increase of entropy, the scattering of energy in the system of water + surroundings). But there are other causes necessary for the ice to form, orderly causes. The water molecules are of uniform size and shape; they are bilaterally symmetrical, and so is their charge distribution. The electrical fields vary in intensity according to the laws of electrostatics, and the molecules respond to the forces exerted by those fields in accordance to the laws of mechanics.

The chaotic features just supply the raw materials on a haphazard schedule. It is the orderly features of the situation which allow the raw materials to accumulate into an orderly whole.

To take another example, mutations occur randomly in the genetic patterns of living things. But changes in the DNA would have no evolutionary significance if they were not translated into anatomical and metabolic features by a very orderly, not to say intricate, system of growth and differentiation. Furthermore, mutations would not matter, would produce no new biological features, if they were not inheritable; the mechanisms of inheritance are also intricate and orderly. Finally, the mutations would produce no new structures if they were not selected for by an environment exhibiting lots of subtle symmetries.

Chaos can certainly be involved in processes that produce order, but I have not heard of an example of chaos producing order without the assistance of some pre-existing order.

I have even heard the suggestion that there can be no thing which is purely chaotic, with no orderly features whatever. I have not heard any arguments for this position, but it does seem hard to eliminate all orderly features from our conception of anything.

Limits of the Argument

There is a long distance between the Argument from Design and any fully developed theology. Even supposing we accept the Design argument, this only tells us that the universe was made by a massively intelligent and powerful agency with, we might also grant, a profound artistic ability.

We still would not know whether that agency still existed, whether it was one being or many, whether it knew or cared about our existence, or whether it had any interest in moral issues. The Argument is simply silent on these points.

The Design argument also does not tell us the origin of this world-maker, or how it might do without an origin. Although we might apply the Design argument recursively: if the world-maker needs an origin, and if the Design argument holds, then the world-maker's origin is also a powerful intelligence, call it the grand-world-maker; behind the grand-world-maker would stand a great-grand- world-maker, and so on, either forever or until you come to an agency that requires no origin. The Argument from First Cause claims that there must be such an originless agency, but that is not the same thing as the Argument from Design.

Unqualified Chaos

It is important to understand that "chaos" does not mean only disorderly states of matter acting under the (orderly) laws of nature. The Argument from Design proposes an explanation of all natural order, and that would include the orderliness of the laws.

"Chaos," then, would refer to a complete disorder of matter, spacetime, natural law, everything. If you leave in any order as your initial state, you aren't really talking about order arising from chaos.

Could such absolute chaos exist? Possibly not. But if not, then there is some kind of residual order that absolutely must exist. I touch on that possibility in the next section.

Could such complete chaos produce the ordered cosmos? There's the famous example of a vast horde of monkeys pecking randomly at typewriters for eons and eventually producing the works of Shakespeare. The moral is that chaos can produce anything given enough opportunity.

How much opportunity would this hypothetical chaos have to produce a universe? If only a single chance, then its probability of success is low. That makes chaos a low-probability explanation.

So, to make chaos a probable origin, we would have to grant it scope for a large number of "attempted" universes. I'd suggest an infinite number as being less arbitrary, for if we suppose some finite number N, we are left wondering why it should be N rather than a few billion times more or less than N.

Even with an infinity, we'd be left wondering which order of infinity, and why that order rather than another. And of course we're also left wondering why chaos gets an infinite number of chances rather than one or none. But let's grant the infinite number and see what happens. This vast chaos is rather a large thing to suppose, but then God too is vast, so perhaps there is little to choose between them on that basis. But there is another problem with chaos as an explanation.

Bob Newhart once did a comedy routine based on those Shakespearean monkeys. He imagined the job of the people screening their material, waiting for Shakespeare's works to show up. "Hey, George! Here's some! 'To be or not to be, that is the gezornenplatt frab c lijq 4fij ecioj 3 89u...'" The problem is that the chaos can resume at any time. It is still "out there," not somewhere in space and time, certainly, but "behind" them, generating them ... by chance ... so far. It's really remarkable that order has lasted for fifteen billion years, a very low probability indeed. Is there any reason to suppose it will last another half hour? The odds are very much against it.

I don't see any way for the universe to keep an absolute chaos at bay; that would imply some sort of fixed limits to the behavior of chaos, which is contrary to the hypothesis. It appears that any belief that the laws of nature will remain in force another half hour or more implies that we really don't believe those laws arise from total chaos.

Necessary Order

Might the order of the universe come from some other order? Very likely, but it doesn't really help. It just enlarges the scope of the natural order you had before.

Here you have a subtle, intricate, arbitrary pattern (e.g. the movement of the planets) that you want to explain. You can explain it by referring to a larger, more general pattern (e.g. the laws of mechanics and gravitation), but this explaining pattern is itself just as arbitrary. Science has made progress by this, but metaphysics has not.

I think the problem really lies in the word "arbitrary." No one asks for an explanation of the patterns in arithmetic and algebra and number theory, because these systems derive from axioms that we all feel to be inarguably true, that it would be nonsense to deny.

In physical theory, the axioms are augmented by initial conditions and the physical laws. These don't look like axioms. They look arbitrary; we can imagine them to be other than they really are, and it doesn't produce impossibilities. So why are they one way and not another?

If the physical laws and initial conditions that describe the universe and its development could be reduced to axioms, then physics would become a branch of mathematics, it seems to me. The course of nature would be as inevitable as the multiplication table and would need as little explanation. In that case, the Argument from Design would fail.

I do not see much prospect of physics turning into pure math, however.

The Proof from Fine Tuning

Over the years, some interesting data have come up suggesting that our universe is peculiarly suited to support life. These data are usually of the form: "If this natural constant were just slightly different, the universe would be uninhabited."

The constant under discussion may be the speed of light, Planck's constant, the ratios of the four forces, the gravitation constant, the fine structure constant, the average density of the universe, etc. The reason the universe would be uninhabited is equally various: stars and planets would never form, hydrogen would be the only stable element, the stars wouldn't burn, the stars would burn too quickly, or the universe would collapse on itself immediately.

So a fruitful, life-producing universe depends on a delicate balance within the structure of natural law. Natural laws very similar to the ones we know, but with slightly different natural constants, produce barren universes. This suggests that something systematically aimed at producing a fruitful universe.

But this is arguing from a sample of one – one universe. For this delicate balance to be evidence of deliberate design, we need two more propositions:

  1. There is a large ensemble of possible universes.
  2. The fruitful/barren ratio for actual universes is much greater than the fruitful/barren ratio for possible universes.

Is there really a large ensemble of possible universes? So far as present physics can see, there is. The fundamental physical laws appear to be arbitrary, if elegant and consistent, in nature. The values of many funda- mental constants, like Planck's constant and the speed of light, appear to be equally arbitrary, and to be unrelated to each other. Fiddle (in your mind) with these values and the universe goes barren more often than not.

Of course, our understanding of physics changes. Someday, we may see that quantities like Planck's constant, the speed of light, or the gravitational constant are all related and you can't change them independently of each other. But then you'd have the law relating them and you could fiddle with that. The only way the laws become fiddle-proof is if they are a priori, pure mathematics with no experimental content. There's no indication that things are headed that way.

How about the fruitful/barren ratios of actual and possible universes? That depends on whether or not there are any universes besides our own. Certainly there is no observational evidence for more.

There are, however, some cosmological theories that would predict more. For instance, a school of physicists (headed, I think, by a Dr. Guth) has rather more basis for multiple universes. They are dealing with the new Grand Unification Theories (or GUTs as they call them – I'm not making this up, you know). According to these theories, all four forces of nature behave identically at high enough energy levels, such as those found right after the Big Bang. As the universe cooled, the single force split up into many. As I understand it, the way it split up was arbitrary. The forces might have had different ratios and characters.

Now we bring in a variation on the Big Bang called the "inflationary model." In this model, the universe started out as a sea of densely packed energy, which "fizzed" in a manner analogous to a carbonated drink. Each bubble is an expanding zone of low-denisty, low-temperature energy in which more conventional particles can form and remain stable. As the bubble inflates, the unified force breaks down into separate forces. But the descriptions of the forces in different bubbles may be different.

So, in Guth's inflationary model, we have multiple bubble-universes embedded in the foamy sea of the for-real, all-inclusive universe. There is less evidence for design in this system – our universe just happens to be one of the fruitful bubbles, otherwise we wouldn't be here to claim it as ours.

But that's just the theoretical side of the system. Assuming that we're in a bubble and there are other bubbles out there, we would have to observe them somehow and see how many of them were fruitful before we could begin to compare the actual and theoretical fruitful/barren ratios. If this could ever be done, it would give an experimental check on the Argument from Design.

All that supposes that the Grand Unification Theories and the inflationary cosmology are true. At the moment, they are just popular speculations. In fact, the Grand Unification Theories are in trouble already. Protons stubbornly refuse to decay on schedule. Various predicted particles refuse to show up in accelerators.

And, I have repeatedly heard that the physical constants of the hypothetical other universes might be different, but:

As long as there is no known mechanism for producing more actual universes with different laws and/or constants, then all we have is an array of possible universes (mostly barren), and one actual one (fruitful), with no need to suppose any more. That fits the criteria for evidence of deliberate design.

Please note I said evidence, not proof. And please note that I admit the evidence stands only so long as scientific knowledge, experimental and observational, is in a given state.

Let's reduce the scale. We know roughly the kind of planet needed for life like ours, based on carbon chains and water and oxygen. We can make vaguely educated estimates about how common such planets are. Let us suppose we get more educated and come to have more confidence in our estimates. Then we develop interstellar flight and explore the galaxy.

If we discover that our kind of life-bearing planet is about ten times commoner than we expected, we might want to re-evaluate our theories. But we might also consider that something powerful had been deliberately cultivating carbon-oxy-water life. (And if we found our kind of planet was one tenth as common as it ought to be...?!)

Of course, the design question not only has a larger scale (universes instead of planets), it has a radically smaller sample size (one). It's as if there were only one star, and lo, it has an earth-like planet and here we are. If astronomical theory said the odds on that were 0.5 or 0.05, we might just count ourselves lucky. But if the odds are 0.000005?

If a package drops out of an airplane over a wilderness, each square meter has, say, a 0.0001 chance of catching it. After it lands, you have no reason for supposing it was aimed at the square meter where it landed. But if the package lands in the square meter at the center of a camp, it's different. We might suppose the package to be accidental if there were thousands of them being dropped all over the landscape, but we have no indication that there are.

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011