Pick Your Design Argument

I recently mentioned the contrast between two very different sorts of “design argument.” Now another Patheos blog, The Secular Outpost, has gone even further, suggesting that the addition of additional design arguments undercuts others.

The point of that post in a nutshell is this: If one argues for evidence of design in biology, brought about through direct intervention, then you undercut the argument that the universe is fine-tuned for life to emerge and flourish. The former is rendered less persuasive if the claim is made that the universe actually fails to produce living things and further action is necessary on the part of the Designer. And likewise, if one posits that further intervention was required in order to have sentient beings, then one is arguing that the Designer is less adept than the process of evolution, which the evidence suggests produced sentience through natural processes.

And so it would seem that those who want to claim not simply that there are one or more Designers, but that there is one competent Designer, ought to adopt the argument that the universe was created in such a way as to produce living things and ultimately sentience, and leave it at that. Positing further interventions undercuts the force of that argument and demeans the competence of the Designer.

To put it briefly, while the evidence suggests that from the Big Bang onward, natural processes can account for the emergence of stars and planets, of living things, and of sentience, arguments for Intelligent Design suggest that God was not capable of making the universe science discloses to us, and had to fix, improve, correct, and further create things along the way.

If you are a religious believer who posits a Creator, which sort of Creator do you choose? The one that fits the scientific evidence and can accomplish everything necessary through a single act of creation, or one who has to keep tinkering to get it to work the way he wants it to?

See also the post on God of Evolution about another dubious argument sometimes used by Christians against evolution.

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  • TomS

    May I suggest that this is just another way of pointing out that the advocates of “Intelligent Design” have not told us anything about what “Intelligent Design” is?
    What happens, when and where, why and how? What raw materials are used in “Intelligent Design”?
    For example, when the bacterial flagellum was designed into a bacterium without flagellum, where did the flagellum-less bacterium come from? Was it designed?

  • arcseconds

    It’s an interesting point.

    One of the problems with creationists/ID people in general is that they often seem to lack imagination. They see something that’s clearly fit-for-purpose, and conclude that it must be designed and couldn’t possibly have come about by random processes. Going hand-in-hand (with creationists, at least) is an allegiance to strict categories: a fish is a fish and can’t be a frog; an ape is an ape and can’t be a human (and also often a woman is a woman and can’t be a man, etc.).

    I’ve often wondered what could shake them out of this unimaginative complacency. I think I’ll try “So you’re saying God couldn’t do it, then? There’s no way that God could arrange for random processes to create complex life? There’s no way that God could create intermediate forms?” next.

  • David Evans

    I’m not convinced. A universe could be fine-tuned so as to be favorable for the emergence of life. That doesn’t mean it could be tuned so finely as to make the subsequent emergence of life certain. Both quantum mechanical uncertainty and chaos theory suggest that that’s impossible. Or the fine-tuning needed might have other undesirable consequences such that the end result is better if some things are left to later intervention.

    I imagine if God saw an asteroid heading towards his most promising clump of pre-life chemicals he would probably divert it.

    • If a universe cannot be so finely tuned that life is bound to emerge somewhere, then you are suggesting that there is something that God cannot do, correct? I suspect that most proponents of Intelligent Design would balk at that statement, but you are suggesting that it is actually an implication of their viewpoint. 🙂

      • David Evans

        There is much food for thought there:

        1 It could be that quantum mechanical uncertainty is required for the existence of a stable universe (before QM it was a mystery why every electron in an atom didn’t quickly lose energy and spiral into its nucleus). The price of QM may be that it’s (logically?) impossible to predetermine the future in detail, and we know God can’t do the logically impossible.

        2 Alternatively, QM may be necessary for human freewill. In which case God could have made a universe in which life was certain to emerge, but chose not to.

        3. It may be possible to fine-tune so that in an infinite universe, or a multiverse, life is certain to emerge, as you say, “somewhere”. But in such a Universe everything logically possible will happen somewhere. There will be universes where Jesus dies as an infant, where Pilate releases him instead of Barabbas, even where humanity is wiped out by a flood (no Ark this time). That seems like a poor sort of providence.

        • arcseconds

          It’s not logically impossible to know in advance the outcome of every QM event, surely.

          And anyway, aren’t ‘hidden variable’ theories still at least in principle a going concern? The Bell inequality just rules out locality.

          Non-locality doesn’t seem like a problem for an omniscience, omnipotent God.

        • arcseconds

          Also, why are you being so stingy with your probabilities? you seem committed to the idea that life is intrinsically improbable, and requires an infinite universe to realise.

          Why can’t the probability of the emergence of life be 1 in a finite universe?

          Also, I’d have to quibble with your treatment of logical possibility here. The scenario really needs to be worked up a bit more to say for sure. But let’s take a universe like ours, but let’s stipulate it’s infinite (I think this is still an open question in real cosmology?).

          Such a universe will not realise every logical possibility. It might at most realise every physical possibility. But assuming that we’re right about the existence of some laws of physics (we don’t need to be right about the exact laws, just that there are some), then there will be logical possibilities the universe does not realise, to wit, those requiring different laws (including different physical constants. And no law situations.)

          Also, there are cardinality issues, too. If there are continuum-many physical possibilities (perfectly conceivable and indeed likely, Wolfram notwithstanding: last I checked physics was still using continuous functions), but only countably-many opportunities to realise them (countably many solar systems, for example, or countably many contiguous space-time regions), then a negligible proportion of the physical possibilities will be realised.

          • David Evans

            “Why can’t the probability of the emergence of life be 1 in a finite universe?”

            Well, start with one star, and assume the probability of life NOT emerging around that star is p. Make that N stars, and the probability of life not emerging around any of the N is (p to the power N). (Or, if the p’s are not all the same, it’s the product of all the N p’s) Which is never strictly zero, so the probability of life emerging in a finite universe can never be 1. Though I admit, it could be as close as makes no difference.

            You’re right, I should have said “physical impossibility”. It was late at night here.

        • arcseconds

          Finally, so long as the probability of life is non-zero, God doesn’t have to create infinite universes to guarantee the existence of life. That would only be necessary if for some reason They were required to create all the universes at once.

          All They have to do is create universes until one contains life — like tossing a coin until it comes down heads. That only requires a finite number of universes 🙂

          • David Evans

            True. A bit boring for God, but maybe he can do something else while he’s waiting.

            I feel that a plausible God would want to guarantee the existence not just of life, but of life able to be ensouled. That changes the parameters, but not the principle.

  • The only problem I have with your statement (which I otherwise like) is that it presupposes that we understand time and in consequence it tends to relegate the action of God to the past. It’s not that easy. As one wag noted: the reign of God is now … or never. Time is not so linear – it is the fog we live in while the breath is in us. (Hugh McLennan – Canadian author 1950s). The Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world is now being slain in many places (e.g. Syria) and our actions, our thoughts, our failures, our prayers have an impact on this Lambkin.