Atheistic Design Arguments

by Eric Steinhart

All design arguments reason from the organization in our universe to the existence of some divine designer. What does this designer do? Design implies deliberate selection from a plurality of alternative possibilities. It cannot be selection from one possibility nor can it be random selection. It has to be rational selection.

According to Leibniz, God selects our universe for actualization because God knows that it is the best of all possible universes. But how does God know that? It’s not sufficient to say that God just knows it. God’s knowledge of the best universe requires an explanation. And Leibniz gives one: God runs a search algorithm. The search algorithm starts with a sorting algorithm. God compares possible universes with respect to goodness:

The infinity of possibles, however great it may be, is no greater than that of the wisdom of God, who knows all possibles. . . . The wisdom of God, not content with embracing all the possibles, penetrates them, compares them, weighs them one against the other, to estimate their degrees of perfection or imperfection, the strong and the weak, the good and the evil. It goes even beyond the finite combinations, it makes of them an infinity of infinities, that is to say, an infinity of possible sequences of the universe, each of which contains an infinity of creatures. By this means the divine Wisdom distributes all the possibles it had already contemplated separately, into so many universal systems which it further compares the one with the other. The result of all these comparisons and deliberations is the choice of the best from among all these possible systems. (Leibniz, Theodicy, sec. 225)

The output of this sorting algorithm is an ordered series of equivalence classes of universes. All universes in the same class are equally good. Leibniz uses an architectural metaphor to illustrate the output of the sorting algorithm. The totality of possible universes is like a library. The library is organized into levels. Each level is an equivalence class of possible universes. Higher levels of the library have better universes. Leibniz refers to the library as the Palace of the Fates. Leibniz describes this Palace in a story in which the goddess Athena takes a priest Theodorus for a tour of the mind of God:

You see here the Palace of the Fates . . . Here are representations not only of that which happens but also of all that which is possible. God, having surveyed them before the beginning of the actual universe, classified the possibilities into universes, and chose the best of all. . . . These possible universes are all here, that is, as ideas [in the mind of God] . . . . They went into other rooms, and always they saw new universes. The halls of the Palace rose in a pyramid, becoming even more beautiful as one mounted towards the apex, and representing more beautiful universes. Finally they reached the highest hall which was the most beautiful universe of all: for the pyramid had a beginning, but one could not see its end; it had an apex, but no base; it went on increasing to infinity. That is because among an endless number of possible universes, there is the best of all . . . but there is not any one which has not also less perfect universes below it: that is why the pyramid goes on descending to infinity. (Leibniz, Theodicy, secs. 414-417).

According to this Leibnizian story, the divine designer runs a search algorithm that involves two steps: first, it sorts the universes; second, it actualizes the universe that comes out on top in the sort. But if that’s all the divine designer does, then it isn’t God. All the design arguments show is that there is some computer running a trivial search algorithm. The computer is not a person; it isn’t conscious; it doesn’t have free will. It isn’t God. It isn’t even any of the Gods of the Philosophers. (Or, if it is, the term “God” is so trivial that it’s not worth arguing about, not worth worshiping, not really worth much of anything.) The designer is simply an abstract mathematical machine. It converges to a solution (to a final or halting state). The solution is the universe.

Design arguments are wonderful! They justify the existence of a platonic computer that is in no way divine. Atheists ought to use design arguments against theists. Why don’t they?

Guest Contributor Eric Steinhart is a professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. Many of his papers can be found here .

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • CalebTheGnome

    “All the design arguments show is that there is some computer running a trivial search algorithm. The computer is not a person; it isn’t conscious; it doesn’t have free will. It isn’t God. It isn’t even any of the Gods of the Philosophers. (Or, if it is, the term “God” is so trivial that it’s not worth arguing about, not worth worshiping, not really worth much of anything.) The designer is simply an abstract mathematical machine. It converges to a solution (to a final or halting state). The solution is the universe.”

    Why is the computer not conscious? And, most importantly, what is this “free will” you speak of? Are you so sure that human brains aren’t simply wet computers running algorithms as well, algorithms which arguably are, at least in some ways, less sophisticated. This article claims that the search algorithm is trivial, but it is not at all obvious to me why ascertaining which of all possible worlds is the best should be a trivial task. Such a computer, in my view, would certainly be quite divine. Maybe not meriting worship (I don’t see why it would need or desire worship), but certainly an awe-inspiring entity.

    Furthermore, where on earth did the designs for these worlds come from? It seems to me that Leibniz is not describing a program which merely analyzes a set of pre-existing data to discern the best design, but also actively constructs or imagines the designs. This construction may be done through some “Generative algorithm,” but it would be impressive nonetheless.


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