Guest Post: Arguing for God Based on the “Design” of the Universe is a Bad Idea

Today, Karl Giberson continues his six-part series of excerpts from his new book The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in a Fine-Tuned World . Karl Giberson, noted speaker and writer about the intersection of Christian faith and science. (See first post for intro; see his complete bio here.)

In this fifth excerpt, Giberson tells us that arguing for God based on the “design” of the universe is a bad idea.

Excerpt #5: Be Cautious with Design Arguments

Design arguments have been around forever and expressed in various ways. Most of them fall into what we call natural theology, which is the process of inferring something about the existence and nature of God by the inspection of nature.

The story of creation in Genesis launches the discussion in the Judeo-Christian tradition when it speaks of God ordering nature and driving back chaos. On the fourth day “God created the sun, moon, and the stars to give light to the earth and to govern and separate the day and the night. These would also serve as signs to mark seasons, days, and years.” All this suggests design and purpose. Job speaks of God making “water drops evaporate” so the clouds can “shower abundantly on mankind.” (Job 36:27-28 HCSB). The psalmist expresses awe at the grandeur of the night sky but remarkably does not comment on the grandeur of his own existence:

When I observe Your heavens,
the work of Your fingers, . . .

what is man that You remember him? (Psalm 8:3-4 HCSB)

In the New Testament, Paul speaks of the created order testifying clearly to the reality of God, arguing that “the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20 KJV). Biblical scholars have interpreted this to mean that an open-minded seeker can infer the existence of God by studying the creation.

As theologians reflected on the nature of the creation these arguments were repeated and refined. Augustine in the fourth century, Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, Luther and Calvin at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century—all were understandably convinced that the world had a grand design that was readily discernable. After all, nobody had any other explanation for why birds were adapted to fly, fish to swim and constellations to mark the seasons.

By the time we get to Isaac Newton in the latter part of the seventeenth century, we have the first carefully constructed scientific arguments. Newton, as we learned in high school,explained how gravity from the sun keeps the planets in their orbits. This explanation replaced previous medieval explanations that included the possibility that the planets moved because angels pushed on them. (It also replaced Galileo’s explanation that they moved because of a “circular inertia,” which turned out to be as much a fantasy as the pushing angels.) But Newton’s theory didn’t explain why the planets all go around the sun in the same direction and in almost the same plane. In fact Newton could not imagine any natural process that could produce such elegant design, so he argued that God must be the explanation.

About two centuries later the most famous design argument was developed by William Paley whose Natural Theology Darwin read voraciously as a young scientist. “Suppose I had found a watch upon the ground,” asked Paley, “and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place. . . . [W]hen we come to inspect the watch, we perceive . . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose. . . . [T]he inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker.” Paley goes on to compare the watch to an eye, arguing that if a watch implies a watchmaker, then an eye implies an eye-maker. The eye-maker, of course, can only be God.

Newton’s argument about the planets and Paley’s about the watch have the same logical form: We find something in nature that appears too ingeniously arranged to have been produced by known natural processes, so we infer that a Designer from outside the natural order—God— must be the source of the design.

Their arguments differ, however, on the question of purpose. It was not clear to Newton or anyone of his day exactly why the planets needed to be going about in the orderly way they were observed. If the order was indeed provided by God, no explanation for it could be discerned other than the creation of order for the sake of order. In contrast, the designs that Paley highlighted were clearly purposeful. Our eye is remarkably designed for a purpose other than to elicit awe at its complexity. We see with our eyes. We don’t do anything with Neptune’s nice orbit, other than admire it.

Arguments that the universe is designed are complicated. We certainly live in a remarkable universe with many features that inspire awe. Many of those features connect in astonishing ways to the habitability of the universe. The psalmist’s wonder at the heavens has only grown stronger as we have learned more about those heavens. The universe certainly does not become ever more boring and bland as we come to understand it.

But we also live in a world with earthquakes, plagues and tsunamis.

Our sun will burn out at some point, incinerating the earth in the process. The prospects of securing our future by colonizing other planets seem remote. The long-term prognosis of the universe, by the cold logical lights of science, is not good. Its temperature will continuously drop as it expands for billions of years. Eventually there won’t be enough heat left for any form of life, and finally there won’t even be enough heat for atoms and molecules to interact. This sterile icy blackness is frightening to contemplate. No matter what we do as a species, we and our cultural achievements are destined to perish.

No simple overriding explanation that makes sense of everything comes into view as we learn more about the universe.

And experience with past arguments raises red caution flags. For example, Newton’s design argument about the planets was an argument from ignorance that now bears the label “god of the gaps.” There was a gap in Newton’s explanation for the planets. He could explain why their orbits were elliptical and what kept them in their orbits. But he could not explain the uniformity of their orbits, so he invoked God as the explanation to plug this gap—hence the label for such arguments—god of the gaps.

A century after Newton, French physicist Pierre Simon de Laplace dispelled the mystery of the structure of the solar system. He showed that a better understanding of gravity and how solar systems originated could explain the things that Newton attributed to the direct action of God. Laplace’s work did not refute the existence of God, of course. But it did dismantle Newton’s argument that the planetary orbits must have been set up by God, thus eliminating an argument that some had been using to argue for God’s existence.

In a similar way, Darwin’s theory of evolution offers an explanation for the design that Paley marveled at in the eye. Scholars of Paley’s generation knew nothing of natural selection, mutations or genetics, so they could not imagine how nature might craft something so remarkable as an eye. Paley’s argument, like Newton’s, turns out to be another god of the gaps explanation that disappears with further scientific insights into the way the world works.

So this is the first red flag to note—design arguments are all-too-often based on gaps in our knowledge and will disappear when those gaps are filled.

The second red flag concerns the apparent purpose of any design.

“Design” can point in many directions or no direction at all.

The science museum in Boston has a grand contraption that does nothing except move balls around to no end. The only possible purpose is to impress a visitor with the juxtaposition of complex design and lack of purpose. There is likewise no significance to the patterns of the stars that we call constellations. The “design” of the Big Dipper is simply interesting.

The fine-tuning of the universe for life, on the other hand, encourages us to wonder if life may be important in some way. But it does not specify which life forms are relevant and why. And we must note that some features of our world exhibiting a high level of design—like the AIDS virus or the poison of the rattlesnake—seem to have the purpose to destroy human life. If rattlesnakes could reflect on their existence, they could marvel at the carbon resonance that makes that existence possible.

A third red flag we must note is bad design. If marvelous design in the universe motivates reflection on the possibility that God created the world what do we do about the counterarguments?

Consider asteroids. A gigantic asteroid struck the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago and so disrupted the ecosystems and the atmosphere of the earth that the dinosaurs went extinct. Absolutely nothing prevents the same thing from happening again. We are protected today largely by the vastness of space and the structure of our solar system with large outer planets that “vacuum up” a lot of stuff that could hit the earth. These various protections make collisions of the sort that wiped out the dinosaurs unlikely. But they offer no guarantees.

If the Goldilocks features of our universe are intended to make it habitable, then why does the universe also have anti-Goldilocks features?

Many such issues complicate the process of figuring out why the universe is the way it is. And as we have learned somewhat reluctantly in the last few centuries, the great explanatory power of science disappears entirely when questions of purpose enter the conversation. Science is quite extraordinary at telling us how the world is but quite unable to tell us why the world is like that. Science illuminates the remarkable features of our universe that make life possible, but it goes silent when we ask whether any particular life form is the reason why the universe is the way it is. That deeply religious question has to be explored somewhere else.

These challenges caution us against naively selecting—cherry-picking we call it—a few Goldilocks features of the universe, assuming the friendly design work is for our benefit, and jumping to the conclusion that everything points simply and unambiguously in the direction of God as Creator.


"I think you're arguing with what I'm not saying. I'm not saying there are no ..."

the best defense of the Christian ..."
"Don't you have one? Or do you just want to read it twice?"

we have lift off…my new website ..."
"Ooh yes. Free copy of 'Inspiration and Incarnation'?"

we have lift off…my new website ..."
"My first comment. You should get a prize or something."

we have lift off…my new website ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I don’t know if the question of purpose is the entirety of our quest for understanding. Perhaps the idea of contextual existence within a chaotically ordered universe has some utility for our contemplation as well.

    After all when we step back and look at the big picture of human existence we have a very short period of presence that we have existed as players in this nearly unfathomable universe. Biological life that has brought our relative brief reality into existence has depended upon the destructive qualities of nature as well as its seemingly chaotic possibilities in order to form us. Indeed this fragile bloom on the rose for our natural existence sets the stage for our interaction with whom we believe holds it all in His hand.

    I’m not convinced Karl’s musings here are complete enough at this point yet. Nature and its majesty have always pointed toward the reality of intelligence behind it in some manner. Explaining that majesty doesn’t seem to be in jeopardy of having any resolution for a God of the gaps implementation but it doesn’t appear to be exhaustive either.

    There is always bigger questions looming that take us beyond our present observable universes such as its origins, its ending, it’s cycling possibilities over and over again including all forms of speculation that leave us with nothing to contemplate but what lies beyond. By the time we get it all figured out; our existence, the good earth, the solar system, the galaxy we reside in may indeed have gone cold dead.

    That is unless you have a literal reading eschatological framework of a return to paradisiacal earth like N. T. Wright and some postulate. It’s funny how we science types won’t venture to read Genesis as literal but we will jump all over Revelation as literal. It tells me our present landscape of understanding has a long way to go in the matter of a biblically consistent hermeneutic in contemplating origins and what lies beyond.

    The good news IMO is that the Bible really skirts most of these issues and is more interested in rectifying our lives in the here and now. It’s a story about “life” in the here and now with an eternal gift that is intriguing but hardly fully comprehensible from our current existence. Perhaps the creator understood His creatures most basic needs was reverence for Him as the creator and respect for His other created ones.

    Fulfilling Christ as the model for us to reach a higher level of earthy existence of Image bearers appears to be the conclusive intent and fulfillment from the beginning narrative to its consummated implementation. Perhaps that was the message Job was supposed to have grasped as it appears the Hebrew 11 faithful grasped.

    • Beau Quilter


      Yes, there are always bigger questions looming about the universe, but while science continues to search (and find) natural answers to these questions, the concept of God remains a meaningless shortcut – an answer that continues to lack any evidence or explanatory usefulness whatsoever.

      • Beau Quilter says: “the concept of God remains a meaningless shortcut – an answer that continues to lack any evidence or explanatory usefulness whatsoever.”

        Beau, there appears to be an instinct within humans toward recognizing a transcendent power encompassing our natural order of things. All peoples that have existed historically have gravitated toward that concept in myriads of methods. That doesn’t prove there is a transcendent power but it does seem to attest to the common proclivity of humans to recognize and gravitate toward such. I realize that idea is spurned as an unenlightened people but perhaps we make those observations from the comfort of a civilization that has been blessed with some higher attributes of protecting peoples thinking.

        There may be many reasons to forsake the entity that is revealed in the Bible and many do. However behind that multifaceted account is revealed a store of divine order that can help shape humanities time spent here dwelling in this piece of real-estate called the universe if we search it out with respect.

        I’m a pragmatic theistic evolutionist who has delved into scripture extensively and I believe I understand the thematic story line and it’s really quite simple. That ancient story is told in colors that confuse us but ultimately it boils down to the story of humanity coming to grip with a proper relationship with the transcendent being of this universe. That prescribed order is simply to acknowledge this entity and respect Him from our humble perspective and treat our fellow humans with utmost dignity and respect. It took a long time for this idea to become manifested in the one we call the Christ but the idea was always out there to be recognized and grasped.

        The order that preceded it was the fits and spurts of the various nations and tribes of the world and their numerous forms of paganistic disorder. The closest things to the messiah’s teachings were from those who attempted to draw closer to the one entity of the universe instead of a plethora of inanimate idol approaches. However they (Israel) got off track themselves and so there was a need to clarify the situation to set the simple eternal principles in place forever. This story line evolved over hundreds of years in the OT and manifested itself with the simple teachings of Christ. This projection was talked about and was stated many times centuries earlier that it would occur at a certain time in history and it apparently came to pass as projected. It’s divine timely fulfillment is what convinces many.

        There were enough people who grasped and understood the new higher plane of living that the old way was discarded even under severe persecution of the times, and thus it took hold without the adherents having to foment a violent revolution to enable it. Supportive circumstances fell into place and this new order took hold. We are still attempting to grasp its higher calling and sometimes it appears that civilization is making progress and sometimes it goes backwards. I’m not sure what the world would look like if there had been no messiah, perhaps it would have looked like the unadulterated civilizations that we found in pristine condition when the Americas were discovered by the European nations.

        Those civilizations were sometimes highly cultured and organized and “Blood Thirsty”. Human sacrifice and tribal warfare that was prevalent here in the Americas only 500 years ago was a look back at the OT days of the struggles of similar types of religions and tribal peoples from the ANE. Even with all the wars of the 20th century death from violence has decreased in huge percentages from the ancient times. See “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker” a professor at Harvard University.

        Perhaps the seeds of kindness and respect are helpful and perhaps they are not. Perhaps humans would have attained a higher plateau of civilized living without the instruction of the Ten commandments and the messiah. It would be interesting to rewind the clock and see where we would be on planet earth without respect to a higher authority and the instruction to treat each other humanely. However we seem to have a controlled environment to examine where we know what the condition of civilization was like when there were no guiding principles of authoritative care and concern. I choose to believe what I consider strong evidence that God exist and has concern for us but I understand those that don’t.


        • Beau Quilter


          I just noticed your lengthy and thoughtful reply to my comment.

          I don’t agree with your assessment of the history of Christianity. Christianity’s growth truly became exponential when it became the state religion of Rome, and the history of Christianity’s spread throughout the world is quite bloody. However, barbaric our assessment of North American precolonial societies, it pales to the barbarism of North America’s Christian conquerors and enslavers.

          But I thank you for this response.

  • Beau Quilter

    A good cautionary against arguments from design.

    However to say that Galileo’s circular inertia was ” as much a fantasy as the pushing angels” is a mistake. Angels pushing planets is a clear grasp at religious fantasy to explain something that seemingly had no natural explanation. Circular inertia was a attempt to explain the natural world with a scientific hypothesis, testable by observation. The hypothesis failed, but that does not make the scientific practice of forming hypotheses an exercise in fantasy akin to religious story-telling.

    Perhaps the largest example of “bad design”, at least to a religious observer, is death itself. The bible characterizes death as the wages of sin, but the natural world shows no evidence of a deathless Eden – death appears to one of the natural driving forces of evolution throughout the history of life.

    If our bodies are designed, they are designed to painfully deteriorate over time.

  • Mark Chenoweth

    Unlike most people on here who admit that Genesis is myth in the classical sense and that it matters very little whether Adam existed or not, I’m not completely and utterly opposed to Intelligent Design.

    To be perfectly honest, I’ve never read Behe. I think the evidence is very clear regarding an ancient universe and common descent. I believe we descended from Apes. I think the evidence gets a lot murkier and harder to make out regarding the mechanisms of evolution. Now I’m sure I’ll get people on here saying I’m an idiot, but I don’t want to pronounce ID dead yet.

    I’m very comfortable with the idea of evolution being taught in such a way, where the teacher lays out what we know, but also says what we don’t know.

    I don’t think ID should be taught in the classroom, BUT…I think it would be perfectly appropriate for a teacher to say, “We don’t know exactly how life came initially came about on earth. We may eventually find the correct chemical pathways…we may not. There may NOT be a natural chemical pathway that life originated, or there MAY be.”

    I’m open to following the evidence whereever it leads. I’m not a fan of the theistic evolutionists that seem to declare a proiri that God NEVER intervened in the evolutionary process. Isn’t this putting God in a box? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.

    Also, I think Gibberson should interact more with Robin Collin’s work on the fine tuning argument. His objections are nothing that Collins hasn’t responded to before. I also think William Lane Craig’s Kalaam argument still holds water as well.

    I’m probably much more optimistic about apologetics than a lot of people on here.

    Not that my faith depends upon these arguments working.

  • Kyle

    Few arguments are foolproof. Accordingly, design arguments for God’s existence have challenges, the most notable being the looming God of the Gaps fallacy and the Problem of Evil. But this doesn’t mean all design arguments, nor the project of natural theology in general, is hopeless. It simply means we have to take stock of the counter evidence, and weigh all of the evidence accordingly. I don’t see any reason to think that this process will lead us to total agnosticism regarding the deliverances of natural theology.

  • $51751848

    A few thoughts:

    1) It is a distortion of Aquinas’ thinking in particular to assert that his fifth way stems from the inability to otherwise explain why birds are adapted to fly, fish to swim, etc. His argument is based on the observation of pervasive, immanent teleology at the most fundamental levels of physical behavior, rather than at the level of complex biological adaptations. And it is not an argument from ignorance.

    2) Newton did not EXPLAIN anything about gravity. He came up with a spectacularly successful generalization of the behavior of massive objects, but the actual nature of gravity remained elusive in his system.

    3) The fine-tuning argument only requires the premise that the Universe is minimally biophilic, that is, it just barely allows for the emergence of any life, regardless of how easy it is for life to take hold and thrive. It does not require the premise that the Universe is comfortable for life-forms. I’ve elaborated on this here: