Does Design Support God-Belief? (by Jeff Cook)

This continues our MWF series by Jeff Cook, information at the bottom of this post:

#5:  Design Flaws

  1. If God exists, he is an excellent architect of our world.
  2. The function of a human being is to attain happiness (Aristotle).
  3. If God is the architect of our world, God has made us to seek and attain happiness.
  4. Our world is poorly constructed for humans to attain human happiness.
  5. Therefore there is not an excellent architect of our world.

Therefore, no God.

This is my take on an argument from David Hume in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume has a great deal of fun arguing for Premise 4 citing “four unnecessary miseries”: the existence of physical pain, our world being governed by law and not miracle, God didn’t give us what we needed to be happy morally and intellectually (that is, human beings just aren’t that impressive), and the fragile nature of our world. Hume doesn’t think this disproves the existence of a creator, but he does argue that the creator is certainly indifferent, and as such God, a supremely good being, does not exist.

It seems to me this argument hinges on the idea of human happiness. If happiness means pleasure—as it often did for David Hume—I think the argument works. If the argument means goodness of soul—as it did for Aristotle—the argument fails, for I think it can be argued strongly that the difficulties we experience have a spectacular ability to fashion and shape our souls.

The list will conclude next time, but I must include an “Also Ran” category:

The Best Humorous Argument Against God’s Existence: The Ontological Argument for God’s Non-Existence

(1)     God can do the most marvelous acts imaginable.

(2)     The creation of our world is one of the most marvelous acts imaginable.

(3)     The merit of such an act is the product of its quality and the creator’s ability (That is, the greater the disability of the creator, the more impressive the act).

(4)     Non-existence would be the greatest handicap.

(5)     The creation of our universe by a non-existent creator would be a more marvelous act than the creation of our universe by an existent creator.

(6)     A non-existent creator of our universe can do more marvelous acts than a creator which exists.

Therefore, If God can do the most marvelous acts imaginable, God does not exist.

A version of this argument comes from the Australian philosopher Douglas Gasling. It seems logically impossible in my mind for a non-existent being to do anything, and therefore Premise 5 and 6 fail because they reference an impossible state of affairs.

(The list will continue soon…)

JEFF COOK teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and is the author of Everything New: One Philosopher’s Search for a God Worth Believing in (Subversive 2012). He pastors Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado. www.everythingnew.org

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://Whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    I’ve said it before, but: this is a brilliant series, Jeff. One of the best I’ve seen here. Thanks!

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    I agree that this hinges entirely on the ‘happiness argument’. But we don’t even need to know what Aristotle meant by his remark.

    It is clear from Jesus’ teachings that the purpose of mankind is not to find happiness, but to glorify the Father. He clearly demonstrated the way to do that, it’s a matter of love. This kind of love the always puts others first, demands sacrifice, and requires constant attention to what Father says and does.

    The argument falls because it ignores what the creator says about himself. In the end this is a matter of faith, not a matter of logical argument. Paul understood this well when he wrote that the foolishness of Elohim is wiser than the wisdom of men.

    Thanks for this excellent series. I’m looking forward to the next part.

  • Caleb Gates

    Happiness has connotations in modern English that are foreign to Aristotle’s concept of Eudaimonia (the Greek word often translated at “happiness”). Eudaimonia is better understood as “human flourishing.” The idea of “Christian hedonism” advocated by John Piper building on the thought of Jonathan Edwards, can easily mesh with Eudaimonia. Some will say, the purpose of life is to glorify God. I think Edwards, himself developing the thought of Augustine, would respond that glorifying God “and enjoying him forever” is not only the chief end of man, but also the very thing that leads to human flourishing. Yet if one takes out the human flourishing aspect, one must still rebut the basic argument.

    The Design Flaw argument could be more strongly reformulated as follows:
    1. If God exists, then he is the ideal architect of our world.
    2. An ideal architect would design optimal creatures with optimal features.
    3. Our world is filled with sub-optimal creatures with sub-optimal features.
    4. Therefore there is no ideal architect of our world.
    5. Therefore God does not exist.

    If G then A
    If A then O
    not-O
    Therefore, not-A.
    Therefore, not-G.

    The logic is valid, but premise 2 might be questionable. If God is defined as omni-benevolent and not just omnipotent, then the practical working out of premise 2 raises serious questions for those who argue from design. This formulation bypasses the issue of soul-forming because animals do not have souls (at least as traditionally defined).

    Darwin read and imbibed these kinds of arguments as a young man from Paley’s Natural Theology. Paley argued that all creatures are perfectly adapted to their environment because God had designed those creatures for that specific environment. Paley made arguments in the same vein such as that noses were specifically designed for eyeglasses to sit upon them, and that legs were specifically designed to fit in pants.

    When Darwin toured the world, what he observed did not fit this picture. He observed many examples of sub-optimal adaptation (a.k.a “design flaws”). Later in his life he wrote to Asa Gray, ” I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” (Darwin to Asa Gray, May 22, 1860) Now in the context, Darwin clarifies that he is not writing this to promote atheism. But he does argue against the God of traditional Christianity.

    Sir David Attenborough makes similar remarks in response to Creationist inquiries about why he does not give God the credit on his nature shows: “When Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that’s going to make him blind. And [I ask them], ‘Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’s full of mercy’.” (http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/03/24/1048354544138.html?from=storyrhs)

    In this sense this argument plays back into the “Evidential Problem of Pain” argument. So setting aside the human flourishing aspect of this argument, how do you respond to the Design Flaws Argument?

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Caleb (3) Great post. You rewrote the syllogism:

    The Design Flaw argument could be more strongly reformulated as follows:
    1. If God exists, then he is the ideal architect of our world.
    2. An ideal architect would design optimal creatures with optimal features.
    3. Our world is filled with sub-optimal creatures with sub-optimal features.
    4. Therefore there is no ideal architect of our world.
    5. Therefore God does not exist.

    Some of the place my mind goes: (1) I’m not a fan of value dependent concepts–”optimal”, “ideal”, “would” (which is prescriptive) in such arguments. It seems to me these words can be assaulted: “well, what is “optimal”? How do you authoritatively define “ideal”?”

    (2) I don’t think your reformulation has the punch of the argument I constructed. Granted “happiness” is now up for reconsideration (being a value dependent concept itself if one rejects Aristotle’s work), but as you show with the eyeball worm example there are ways to argue against the initial wave of redefinitions of happiness. As one might argue from you response: “Certainly the eyeball worm is not necessary for “human flourishing” or “enjoying God forever.”

    Good thoughts man!

  • NateW

    I’m not a logic expert by any means. Never taken a class or anything, though I wish I had, so please forgive me if my argument is technically unsound. These are my thoughts:

    To be happy is to know that one has all that he desires
    To know that one has all that he desires one must be able to imagine not having all that he desires.
    To desire is to imagine an unpossessed good
    To imagine an unpossessed good one must believe that he does not already possess every good.
    To believe that one does not possess every good one must perceive the absence of a known good.
    To perceive the absence of a known good is to experience pain
    Pain is necessary to imagine an unpossessed good
    For a good to be known and not possessed it must be unattainable, or undesirable.
    An unpossessed good cannot be undesirable
    If God is Good all good things come from Him.
    For man to know that he is happy God must withhold good before giving it.
    For God to withhold good is for god to do evil.
    For God to do evil is to cease being God.
    For man to be happy, God must die.

  • NateW

    Rereading my post above, I fully realize that not every point flows logically into the next and that some, especially the last couple that I finished in haste, don’t really follow strictly as I have them here. Obviously “God must die” could just as easily read “God does not exist and man cannot be happy”

    Perhaps someone better versed in these type of logic expressions could help me out. It works in my head, I’m just not sure h ow to get that into words concisely and clearly. Mainly, I was trying to show that conscious happiness is impossible without first experiencing suffering, even if a good and all powerful God does exist. In other words, an excellent architect who is concerned with man experiencing happiness (and recognizing it as such) can only do so by creating a world that is ill suited for human happiness.

  • Mike M

    I love this series. Thanks for making us think.
    I think the logical flaw is at #4 (“non-existence would be the greatest handicap”) so 5 & 6 are superfluous. Bringingi it down to reality instead of a head game, I’m sure any handicapped person would disagree. Maybe the “greatest handicap” (again, a value judgement) would be “existence yet impotent” which still leaves us with the existence of God. Then that begs the question: how did God in his powerlessness mastermind creation?
    I agree though, that pain and suffering must be addressed. The greatest Christian thinker (Lewis, Volf, and de Chardin come easily to mind). It seems that pain and pleasure need to be re-evaluated. Pain is objective: something hurts, whether it’s joint pain, eyeball worm pain, or psychological pain. Our reaction to that pain is subjective but that’s different than the pain itself.
    Pleasure however, is totally subjective. Pleasure is usually internally generated (“I like this so I want to do or experience it again”). Christians, however often an externally-generated pleasure that must eventually be internalized by another person. And that outside pleasure amounts to convincing another that the joys of the Lord far exceed the daily strivings of our “natural man.”
    In psychology, the avoidance of pain (or perceived pain, or even more powerfully, anticipated pain) is a stronger motivator than the pursuit of pleasure. Which is why Hell is such a great ally of Evangelicals. Just a side note from an incurable insomniac.


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