Argument from Design BUSTED!

Argument from Design BUSTED! November 6, 2015

The Argument from Design (the Teleological Argument) says that life looks designed. For example, we marvel at the cell’s tiny protein-building machines. Some bacteria have flagella that propel them at twice the proportionate speed (body lengths per second) of a running cheetah. A single microscopic cell is able to divide and differentiate into a full-grown oak or zebra or human.

William Paley famously said over two centuries ago, “The marks of design are too strong to be gotten over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is God.”

We must avoid the temptation, however, to imagine that complexity implies design. Elegance might, but mere complexity (especially unnecessary or sloppy complexity) gives little support for design. The cell, marvelously complicated though it is, may be more a Rube Goldberg machine than the elegant and sophisticated product of an omniscient designer.

What Does the Argument from Design Mean?

The Argument from Design imagines that we see the hand of a designer. All right, then: what would that look like? The only designers we know are human designers. (Let’s ignore the possibility of animal designers.) The Argument from Design then says: life looks like it would if made by a human designer with sufficient capability.

Consider the design criteria human designers use. A bridge might be designed for unusually high loads, so strength would be most important in this design. Or maybe speed of assembly is an important criterion. Maybe the bridge is remote, so it should have a long life or be maintenance free. Maybe it must use local materials. Maybe it’s in the middle of a town or city, so beauty is important.

These goals—strength, speed of assembly, durability, constraints on materials, and beauty—are some of the criteria designers might follow. But a criterion you never find in a human design is that the finished product should have added junk.

You may not like the Art Deco decorations at the top of the Chrysler building, but they were put there deliberately to follow the criterion of beauty. You may find a design that was poorly built or left unfinished, but that was never a goal of the designer. Useless junk is never in a design on purpose.

Contrast this with the crap that DNA has in it (as discussed in a recent post). Human DNA has a broken vitamin C gene in every cell as well as 20,000 other nonworking pseudogenes. Eight percent of our genome is composed of nonworking junk injected by viruses over millions of years. Atavisms (archaic genes that are accidentally switched on, like human tails) and vestigial structures (such as eyes in cave fish) are flashbacks to body features from species in the distant past. Onions have much more DNA than humans do, as do lots of other plants and animals, so either they need many times more DNA than humans or their genome has a lot of junk.

The Christian Response

The first argument Creationists often make is that made by Jonathan Wells in The Myth of Junk DNA. He argues that we keep finding new uses for fragments of human DNA that we previously thought were nonfunctional. Okay, so the fraction that we think is useless will decrease. Will it go to zero? Will we find that onions really do need five times more DNA than humans? There is no reason to imagine this, and junk DNA lives on.

The Design Argument says that life looks as if an omnipotent human designed it. It’s clearly wrong. DNA, the marvelous molecule that apologists point to as evidence of a designer, looks unlike anything that any sober designer would make. DNA alone is enough to sink the Design Argument.

Note that you can’t just say that life is impressive or amazing or marvelous or complex. True or not, that would be irrelevant. These attributes could apply to lots of things—crystals are complex and snowflakes are amazing and rainbows are marvelous, but they weren’t created by a designer. You must show how life follows design rules that a designer (and the only examples of designers that we have are human ones) would have followed.

Christian response #2: I guess that just shows that God has a broad palette. Tidy DNA or sloppy DNA, clearly these organisms work. I’m not complaining.

Yes, they work, but don’t make the Designer Argument to explain them. Richard Dawkins observed that Paley was doing good work, given that he was writing fifty years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and that he would likely have been on board with evolution if given the chance.

3. Intelligent Design proponent Stephen Meyer said, “DNA functions like a software program. We know from experience that software comes from programmers.”

Not really. Some software comes from programmers, and some comes from random processes. Genetic programming evolves software like evolution evolves life forms. Competing versions of a program are randomly mutated and then selected for fitness, all within a computer. The winning programs in such an evolutionary process are the sloppiest software imaginable—not at all what a human would design, but reminiscent of DNA.

Evolution’s random mutation + selection can make lots of things. Here’s a simulation of random polygons added to an image selected to look like Mona Lisa. Here’s an evolution of random parts selected to make a car.

4. But DNA is information! Show me an example of information not coming from intelligence. Show me information not coming from a mind.

Show me an example of intelligence or a mind that’s not natural. Science recognizes no supernatural examples of anything, let alone intelligence and mind. We’re back to square 1, with supernatural claims without good reason to believe them.

But to your point, the examples of evolutionary software given earlier show information coming from a non-intelligent process. If you say that the software was intelligently designed, that’s true, so ignore the software. Make this a thought experiment. Imagine random polygons being added with a selection process that defines “fitness” as “looks like the Mona Lisa.” The software simply makes the thought experiment tangible.

5. Suppose I have dents in my car. Obviously, they’re imperfections of the design, but they weren’t put there by the designer. Just ignore them. Similarly, imperfections in DNA are no criticism of the Designer.

If your blue 2003 Honda Civic has dents, we can find a blue 2003 Civic without those dents to use as our standard of perfection. What’s the equivalent for human DNA? There is no perfect example to imagine that our DNA descended from.

There simply is no human DNA without pseudogenes, and the fact that some protozoa have 400 times more DNA than humans remains.

Where’s the evidence that going back in time, you find perfect DNA? Was human DNA perfect 3000 years ago when the stories that became the Bible began to be collected? Was it perfect in our last common ancestor with chimpanzees six million years ago? Was it perfect in the animals that came out of the Cambrian Explosion more than 500 million years ago? Science breathlessly awaits your evidence.

6. God’s design was perfect initially, but the Fall—that whole snake-and-apple thing—caused the imperfections in life that we see today.

Why would a human failing cause sloppiness in non­-human DNA? Anyway, this is irrelevant. It simply accepts that life doesn’t look designed, and the Design Argument fails. There is no perfect human DNA except in the imagination of this apologist.

7. Ah, but God is inscrutable. We don’t understand his ways. He designs in his own way that might seem bizarre to us.

If God’s handiwork is so bizarre that it doesn’t look like the work of any designer, then don’t make the Design Argument!

8. But you haven’t proven that God doesn’t exist.

Sure, God might exist. God might use evolution to carry out his plan. God might be a clockmaker who touched off the Big Bang and walked away. The focus of this post was simply to show the flaws in the Design Argument.

Does God exist? Maybe, but the Design Argument, which says that we see in life the attributes of design, is no tool by which to make the case.

There’s one thing the Bible makes clear: 
The biblical God is a sloppy manufacturer. 
He’s not good at design, he’s not good at execution. 
He’d be out of business if there was any competition.
— Contact by Carl Sagan

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/21/13.)

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  • busterggi

    “Will we find that onions really do need five times more DNA than humans?”

    Well they do have more layers than people who are rarely more than skin deep.

    And DON’T besmirch Art Deco or the Chrysler Building!

    • jh

      And they are known to make grown men cry like little babies…. never underestimate the gloriousness mightiness of Allium cepa. Those layers merely hide the core of evil deep within the glorious orb of tears-creation.

      • Greg G.

        I was not crying. My eyes just sprung a leek.

        • tsig

          Pretty shallot post.

        • Greg G.

          I don’t carrot all what you think.

        • tsig

          That gives me chives.

        • Greg G.

          I should warn you that I spent thyme in the cooler for assault and pepper.

        • tsig

          The judge didn’t accept your peas?

        • Greg G.

          Yes, exactly. I had heard my mouthpeas was outstanding in his field but it meant he was corny. My stint in the punitentiary made me like this.

        • tsig

          I almost escaped from there but I failed because I cantaloupe. Lettuce seek the high ground here because eager ears are listening.

        • Greg G.

          Why did they put you in the can?

        • tsig

          The jury was pickled.

        • Greg G.

          What a bunch of gherkins!

        • tsig

          Yep a mighty sour bunch. I thought it was packed by the prosecuter.

        • Greg G.

          You didn’t have a jury of your pears? That’s grounds for a peel.

        • busterggi

          totally tuberular!

        • Greg G.

          Blame the moderator. He lettuce toss this thread into a word salad.

  • Castilliano

    How can you tell when things are designed?
    By contrasting them with nature.
    Ergo, nature itself does not emulate the properties of design.
    (Bye, bye Watchmaker…)

    Digging deeper, we can explore the properties of design:
    (Mind you, there’s no consensus, but you’d think apologists would at least address the properties beyond “complex” & “odd”, if they’re trying to establish the properties are there.)

    -Form (beauty): Since there’s both beauty & ugliness in nature, a wash at best.
    Evidence too subjective to be called evidence.

    -Function (usefulness): As you mention, Bob, there’s a lot of extraneous biology. Also, nearly all of the universe is empty, not quite useful.
    Evidence against a designer.

    -Structure (strength & purpose): Entropy is an argument against strength, and there’s no evident purpose (a whole new apologetic by itself.) Arguably, the “purpose” of the universe is to create black holes:
    The amateur physicist in me doesn’t see black holes as purposeful, nor lending to the “strength” of the universe’s structure.
    Twofold evidence against a designer.

    The sad thing is, there is a lot of cool stuff in nature, so the wow! factor goes to apologists who dig up all sorts of crazy anomalies to demonstrate design (w/o actually referencing what good design entails) and it takes an encyclopedic knowledge to counter their claims.

    • Right–that is the irony of Paley. He says that a watch on the ground would stand out. But if it looks quite different from the flowers and rocks, then how would seeing design in the watch suggest design in the flowers and rocks??

      The watch is either like nature or not. You can’t have it both ways.

      • Greg G.

        If we found a lone flower growing on the Island of Lost Watches, would we think the flower was designed but the watches were not?

      • tsig

        IDers always confuse the mouse with the mousetrap.

      • Jim Jones

        Could an alien determine which of a cabbage and a sponge cake was made by nature having seen neither before??

        • That gets closer to the kind of question that should be asked. So often it’s, “Imagine if you saw Mt. Rushmore for the first time–would you doubt that it had a designer?” What we need are things we don’t recognize immediately.

  • SteveK

    I take heart in the irony that you are firmly arguing that design (the absence of it) can be detected empirically. I was beginning to think ID theory did not belong to the domain of science because it could not be falsified. Silly me. Just look at those cells – wow!

    • Greg G.

      Yes, DNA looks like it was ordered by the natural selection of random mutations plus random retrovirus insertions. Just what we would expect if it was not intelligently designed.

      • SteveK

        And something is ordering that process. Whatever it is, you’re telling me that you’ve empirically determined that there is no intelligence behind that cause even though you cannot empirically detect it. Got it.

        This is what you call a gap argument. The science says we don’t know, you say we do.

        • Greg G.

          Are you really trying to argue that the Intelligent Designer may have intelligently designed the design to not look intelligently designed is a sign of intelligent design? Ingenious. We can’t actually know anything because evidence means nothing. That is how vacuous Intelligent Design Theory is.

          I just said it looks like it was not intelligently designed. You reframed my statement to what you wish I had said.

          But when it comes down to it, it doesn’t seem like the world popped into existence in that particular state last Thursday but there is no way to eliminate the possibility. Nor can we we rule out that we are a brain in a vat, stuck in the Matrix, or a dream of Vishnu. Your version of Intelligent Design is in the class of solipsism.

        • SteveK

          >> I just said it looks like it was not intelligently designed.

          Yes, and in doing so you are saying ID theory falls under science and has been falsified via the methods of science. We can observe the absence of design.

          The irony is just amazing don’t you think?

        • The irony … that you think you’ve made a powerful argument? That sounds more tragic to me. Or maybe just sad.

          There’s a big long post up there. Respond to it. The points are conveniently numbered–give me 8 points to show how I’ve missed the boat.

        • SteveK

          >> that you think you’ve made a powerful argument?

          I’m not making an argument, I’m making an observation.

          >> give me 8 points to show how I’ve missed the boat.

          I can sum that up in one point: You’re an ID theorist who thinks that ID has been falsified. What else could “it’s clearly wrong” possibly mean?

        • I’m not making an argument

          Yes, my mistake. Thank you for that correction.

          If you ever do have any corrections to or arguments against the points above, let me know.

        • MNb

          Thus far I couldn’t accuse you of stupidity, dear SteveK, but if this is a serious question

          “What else could “it’s clearly wrong” possibly mean?”
          you’re descending into stupidity indeed. Let me spell it out to you. It means that BobS is not an ID theorist exactly because as far as it makes testable predictions it’s falsified indeed.
          The most famous example is the Irreducibly Complex mousetrap:

          Now what a scientist would do is redefine, reformulate or just abandon the falsified concept. What IDiots do is making it unfalsifiable. Got the difference? If yes you’ll understand that your point is vacuous.
          Now the funny thing is that you actually could have made a point, though it would not do anything positive for IDiocy. You could have pointed out that BobS is not clear what he means with “design” and that that makes his analysis a bit shaky. Problem of course is that no IDiot ever properly described what “design” is supposed to mean either.
          A very simple question: are snowflakes designed?

          If yes, how does design point at an intelligent agent?
          If no, how can we recognize design without presupposing an intelligent agent (because that’s meant as the conclusion)?

          I think this is largely what BobS’ criticism is (and I also think that because of this he has less than 8 points, but that’s quite irrelevant). So yeah, not a perfect post, but that’s to be expected with an average of 120 articles a year. Once again you make yourself look like a jerk, dear SteveK.

        • Susan

          The irony is just amazing don’t you think?

          It never ceases to amaze me.

        • Greg G.

          No, science is powerless to detect a cleverly designed solipsism argument. That’s realm you are entering. The irony is that you have the irony backwards.

        • TheNuszAbides


        • Greg G.

          Irony oxide?

        • TheNuszAbides

          that would explain the encrustations.

        • GalapagosPete

          “…you are saying ID theory falls under science…”

          Just like homeopathy theory and astrology theory, but without the cachet of either.

        • An argument with less cachet than homeopathy or astrology–a scary thought.

        • Greg G.

          Doesn’t homeopathy work better with less cachet?

        • GalapagosPete

          Good point. Cancel that cachet.

        • TheNuszAbides

          water remembers the primordial ur-cachet.

        • FaithIsGlorifiedDelusion

          And something is ordering that process.

          Please provide evidence of this assertion.

          This is what you call a gap argument. The science says we don’t know, you say we do.

          This is what we call a designer of the gaps argument. The science says we don’t know, you claim otherwise.

        • tsig

          That something is called chemistry.

        • MNb

          “that there is no intelligence behind”
          IDiocy claims immaterial intelligence, silly. That’s exactly what it makes unscientific. ID is not IDiocy because it postulates a Grand Old Designer, it’s IDiocy because it claims that that immaterial, supernatural, transcendental Grand Old Designer can be detected with scientific means.

        • Jason K.

          …you’re telling me that you’ve empirically determined that there is no intelligence behind the cause…

          Nope, no one has determined an intelligent ghost cannot be involved somehow. However, the claim that an intelligent ghost was involved has absolutely no evidence to bolster it and much that works against it. Pointing out that a particular claim is unsupported by evidence is not a “gap argument,” it’s a refutation of that claim.

          No one needs evidence to dismiss an unevidenced hypothesis. That would be shifting the burden of proof. It’s the proponents of the hypothesis who need to provide evidence of their claims, which thus far IDers have been spectacularly unable to do.

        • SteveK

          >> No one needs evidence to dismiss an unevidenced hypothesis.

          Bob is doing more than dismissing it. Bob is saying “It’s clearly wrong”, not “There’s no evidence”. Here’s a simple way of summarizing the different views.

          ID = just look at that DNA/Cell. Designed!
          Bob = just look at that DNA/Cell. Not designed!
          Science = We can’t resolve hypotheses that involve intentional forces because we have no way to determine if an effect was intended, or not.

        • Why just “Bob”? Sounds like you’re on board as well. At least, I haven’t seen any rebuttal.

        • SteveK

          I’m not on board saying that intentional forces can be demonstrated to the point where a person (let’s call him Bob) pronounces that ID arguments have been ‘busted’ and are ‘clearly wrong’.

          To have that much confidence you’d need to show me an unintended force, and you’ve said that cannot be done (“Science recognizes no … intelligence and mind”).

          I am on board saying that ID theory is a reasonable philosophical position to hold. I hold that view, but I don’t limit it to DNA and cells. I include everything in the universe under that general theory/belief.

          I do that because the theory/belief reasonably explains the order we see and the physical “laws”, whereas your theory maintains that chaotic/unintended forces explain the order we see.

          Not sure how that works exactly.

        • I’m not on board saying that intentional forces can be demonstrated to the point where a person (let’s call him Bob) pronounces that ID arguments have been ‘busted’ and are ‘clearly wrong’.

          Who needs intentional forces? I’m simply saying that the Design Argument fails.

          I am on board saying that ID theory is a reasonable philosophical position to hold. I hold that view, but I don’t limit it to DNA and cells. I include everything in the universe under that general theory/belief.

          ID has been specifically defined. You might want to go check to see its limitations.

        • Susan

          ID theory is a reasonable philosophical position to hold.

          If you make a statement like that, you are taking on the burden of demonstrating that it is a reasonable philosophical position to hold.

          I include everything in the universe under that general/theory belief

          Virtual particles on an event horizon? Help yourself. Make the argument that ID is a ‘reasonable philsophical position to hold’.

          I do that because the theory/belief reasonably explains the order we see and the physical “laws”, whereas your theory maintains that chaotic/unintended forces explain the order we see.

          Have you ever opened a science book on any subject?

          I don’t think you know what any of those words mean.

          A philosopher who isn’t trying to manipulate you would explain why. An apologist, on the other hand….

    • There’s no support for the Design Argument. I’m a little surprised that you’re delighted to see that.

    • Kodie

      Maybe it was designed by some schmo like SteveK, and that would explain things. But you say “perfect” and “design”, and those things can be analyzed and compared to reality together. Your assessment of god is based on excuses, I mean, he’s the artist and we just have no choice to accept his vision and assume it’s perfect, but not for us, for himself. This makes you happy for some reason.

    • RichardSRussell

      I take heart in the irony that you are firmly arguing that design (the absence of it) can be detected empirically.

      I don’t think that “detected” is quite the right word here. Of course we have experience with designing things and watching those designs get transformed into physical objects, but that’s more akin to invention than discovery, if you get the distinction.

  • tsig

    ID is merely a restatement of this bible verse:

    Romans 1:20 “For the invisible things of him from the creation
    of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made,
    even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”

    In secular terms.

    All science so far!!

  • Scott_In_OH

    Note that the design argument, like many religious arguments about nature, slips back and forth between two versions.

    1. The amazing stuff we see–humans, mountains, rainbows, supernovas–show there was a designer.

    2. The stuff that CAUSES those things–evolution, the Big Bang, quantum mechanics–show there was a designer.

    In an honest debate, design proponents would abandon version 1 once they saw all the crap that looks undesigned in the final products. Instead, they return to it as soon as it is convenient.

    • Greg G.

      I think a beautiful sunsets and rainbows are awesome especially when I think about all the physics that goes into producing the separation of colors. When I think about them being caused by an omnipotent artist, I think, “Is that the best he can do? I was expecting something a million times more spectacular. Imagine what he could do if he had money and didn’t need beggars in pulpits hitting the congregants up for God’s retirement checks.”

  • Jim Jones

    Life on earth! Maybe ‘god’ likes steam punk?

  • Paul

    “Science recognizes no supernatural examples of anything, let alone intelligence and mind.”
    I think you mean scientists instead of science. If so, which scientists? Why don’t they recognize the supernatural, intelligence, or mind?

    • I’m crowdsourcing. There is no consensus view within science that any miracle or ghost or other supernatural claim is valid.

      You’ve heard of James Randi’s million-dollar challenge?

    • Dys

      The supernatural has inherent problems with evidence, repeatability, and testing.

    • MNb

      No, he means science. The scientific method is not called methodological naturalism for nothing. As soon as you start to talk about the supernatural (whether positively or negatively) you quit science.

      • Dys

        Not to mention that the supernatural has a terrible track record in terms of explanatory power.

        • MNb

          Oh, the supernatural is very good at explaining after the fact – it’s so good at it that it explains everything. My favourite example is
          1) Perfect design hence god.
          2) Imperfect design hence god.

    • Mike Nunyabiz

      @”I think you mean scientists instead of science. If so, which scientists? Why don’t they recognize the supernatural, intelligence, or mind?”


      First you claim he’s using the wrong word, and then you challenge what he means by it?

      Congratulations, you’ve just brought “strawman argument” to a new low.