Thursday, May 17, 2007

The argument from design

Imagine that you are out walking an early Monday morning. Suddenly you detect something shining on the ground. You pick it up and see that it is a delicate watch. Intrigued, you take the clock back home and pick it apart. Amazed by the fine, very complex machinery inside you say to yourself "this cannot have just come about by chance, someone must have made this clock". Tuesday morning, when you are out walking again your foot suddenly bumps into something, and you look down… There lies a dead man. You take him home and dissect the body. With the aid of electron microscopy and other high tech tools you look into the cells and see how extremely, impressively complex they are. Again you look up and say to yourself "this human being is far more complex than the watch I found yesterday, this human cannot have just come from nothing, there must have been a creator"…

This argument which I believe is referred to as the argument from design or the watchmaker analogy, was put forward by a man named Paley (actually I think I have read somewhere that he was not the first person to use the argument, but it is associated with him). Unless this is the first time you read my blog you will probably know that I do not buy this argument, for several reasons. First of, this is an analogical argument, and analogical arguments are only as good as the analogy. In other words, the argument is valid only to the extent that a clock and a human being are similar, and we all know they are not very similar. For example, I happen to know that humans can make babies. In contrast, I have never seen clocks make new clocks, not even when I put my different clocks in the same drawer (though maybe that is because all my clocks are broken?). There are of course many other differences between clocks and human beings but I will let the reader use her imagination here.

The perhaps biggest flaw in the argument from design is to suppose that the alternative to design is sudden, random formation. Paley simply did not understand evolution, and neither does anyone today who argues that the theory of evolution by natural selection suggests that things just come about by chance (see my previous post called, "Natural selection is NOT blind chance"). Mutations, which are approximately random will give rise to new DNA molecules every now and then. Some DNA molecules, independent of whether they are in a virus, bacteria, mouse, dog, cat, whale, monkey or human being, will be more successful in terms of survival and replication, than the average DNA molecule. Sometimes the molecules just "gets lucky", but over time the phenotype (the characteristics) of the DNA molecule plays an important role in determining the fitness of that molecule. Say that one DNA molecule contains the code for making Prions, which then goes up and destroys the brain of its host. This molecule would not be very successful (unless it lets its host reproduce before starting to express the protein)... The Ebola virus is another example of a rather "unintelligent" strand of DNA (or is it RNA, I don't really know). Sure it is great at spreading between different individuals, however, this does not compensate for the fact that Ebola viruses kill their host really rapidly and brutally. Had the virus been a little bit more subtle and patient it would have been much more successful.

The point here is simply that the fitness of a particular strand of DNA is not random. Depending on what it does it will have a larger or lesser chance of getting into the next generation, and this process is referred to as natural selection. It is quite ironic that the argument from design so often comes from those who believe in God.

In essence, the argument from design becomes something like the following: No, humans surely cannot have come about through natural selection, that is just too unlikely! It is much more likely that we have a divine being, superior to all human being who came about (wait a minute, how did he come about???), and made the humans, that is much more likely… hmmm. Seems to me that creationists are undermining themselves…

For a much more thorough analysis of the argument from design I recommend Richard Dawkin's "The Blind watchmaker".


Anonymous said...

Personally, being a catholic, I would adress the question on origin and development of life, as well as the "hard question" (on consciousness) from also a philosophical perspective.

The world's largest Christian church, the roman catholic, does for example not give any particular support to intelligent design but rather evolution through natural selection but as well as the approach that there is nothing such as ontological randomness.

According to this outlook evolution was inevitable in a fine-tuned universe. This is sometimes critized in terms of "only when we wake up in a universe, we'll find ourselves with the question of the little chance of existing.." and that we should bear in mind that there might have been huge numbers of different universes and huge periods of time where no life existed. However from today's standpoint it is rather strange to speak about other universes as something obvious, the strongest hypothesis today is "Big bang", and we cannot in a philosophical sense speak about time or room before this event.

This might be a surprise to people who believe that most christians support the idea of intelligent design. It might also be a surprise that several of the leading people opposing intelligent design (including the pope) in US as well as internationally are catholic (in Stocholm there was a seminar in the issue a couple of days ago with Catholic thinkers critizing intelligent design), not to mention the judge who was holding the trial on the subject, as well as some of the leaders in the human-genome project.

The idea that evolution contradicts the existence of a Creator is quite incorrect in my opinion. Quite the opposite I'd say.

And the idea that "inventing" a Creator wouldn't add anything new is also quite ignorant. And a bit funny I'd say. Because it says very much on how people saying this are thinking. And what they are not thinking about. You see, in a biological sense a creator indeed doesn't add anything new. But no catholic theologician today would claim theology to give answers to biological issues.

However, it certainly would make a difference for most of us to believe the whole universe is the creation of a personal God (outside time) as opposed to believe that we are the result of meaningless randomness.

I'd say many of the issues with american Christians believing in intelligent design are results from failures in some of these churches theology. It is theology starting to come up with it's own problems and contradictions. And in order to solve these issues one projects them into the field of biology.

A typical error, to give an example (in my opinion) is to place the Creator in time, which renders God either "not needed" or somehow he must be active in creation in terms of being "in time, intelligently modifiying life..". And so forth.

I am quite conviced we live in a enormously fine-tuned universe where the properties of matter, to form membranes, aminoacids and so fort, as well as "randomness" in general simply isn't the result of something random but rather the mind of our God. Which is intelligent.

So in that sense I could say I belive in "intelligent design". =)

Fine-tuning seems to me much more interesting than "intelligent design".

And one should bear in mind the huge issues put forward by philosophy that biology gives no whatsoever satisfactory explaination to.

Tnx for your article though.

Anonymous said...

"Natural selection is NOT blind chance"

Yes, and then, how come there is natural selection?

It would also be interesting if people truely adressed the issue of the second law of entropy. Atheists nowadays often answer this question with the idea that there really is no issue here, since the entropy will raise somewhere else etc. However what one really is missing is that there are strong reasons to consider that there are two different types of entropy (some of the leading physicians today have pinpointed this issue); termodynamical as well as logical.

And when looking at the argument of entropy with regard to the latter the former counter-agument will not do.

However, I am no supporter of intelligent design in terms of a biological explaination. But I do believe that our world was created and in a sense is being created through its intricate properties unfolding in "chaotic" systems of order.

Our God is powerful and intelligent beyond our wildest imagination. And everyday is an invitation into a dialogue with the eternal.

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for your comment anonymous!

I am well aware that many religious people do not believe in intelligent design, I never claimed anything of the kind. As a sidenote I will add that I think many other arguments for God are better arguments, and on a tolerant day I will accept deism as a valid stance since as you say, we have no idea what happened "before" the Big Bang.

I have never heard the hypothesis aobut many different universes, however, I know that Dawkins has put forward a similar argument where instead of talking about universes he is talking about other solar/planetary systems. That I think is a good argument against the "God is fine-tuning the universe argument". I think that Douglas Adams water puddle analogy also makes the point well.

Concerning contradictions between evolution and a creator I will also agree with you, the fact that evolution is occuring does not mean that there is no creator, but it does make him an unessecary complication to an otherwise simple transparent theory. A creator is not needed to explain everything that has happened since the Big Bang, and inventing a creator will only bring of the question of how he/she arised...

I also understand that there is a difference, on a personal level, between believing that everything that exists today is a result of natural laws, and believing that a creator has been involved. However, in a scientific sense, a creator will only complicate things, and personal sentiment should not be apart of the scientific endeavour in my opinion.

I guess that the main point on which we disagree is on whether there is a creator who is fine tuning things. I don't think there is because I think the case is a weak one, but I accept that it cannot be excluded because of the simple fact that it is virtually impossible to prove that something does not exist (do you have any suggestions as to how you would go about actually testing your hypothesis?)...

To second anonymous (perhaps you are both the same person).

I must admit that I have never encountered anything in which an alternative version of the second law of thermodynamic have been stated, what exactly does it say.

All I will say is that natural selection in no way contradict the normal second law of thermodynamics. Organisms constantly arise on earth and if earth had been a closed system I would say that we had a problem. However, this is not the case. We constantly get new energy from the sun, some of which leaves again, but alot is also absorbed by organisms which are therefore capable of staying alive and getting offspring. Someday, because of the second law (more dissorder as time passes), our sun will have no more fuel and all energy will slowly diffuse out into the universe. If at that point life would not dissapear we would have a problem...

Anonymous said...

With scientific you refer to nature science. However without philosophy nature science stands completely vulnerable and weak. We should note how we use and misuse language.

And within philosophy there are plenty of issues which nature science cannot adress nor explain.

Some of these arguments, not to mention on the matter of free will - at the basis of understanding things, are the reasons why I would say believing in a Creator is more reasonable than not.

Ultimately it is a matter of perspective. So it is quite interesting to analyse where one is looking out from.

Sure, one could argue that there are millions of planets, solar systems and that one planet made it, became the host of self-replicating things..

But yet again, this argument would only be valid if one proves the existence of ontological randomness, which I do not believe in.

From my perspective nothing would be beyond the understanding of God, and so the very reason there are billions of solar systems is a consequence of properties of the universe and ultimately of Gods intention. The very same properties that lead up fractal patterns, formation of prereseqiuites for life etc.

Regarding the counter argument on God that you mentioned - i.e. that the existence of a God would pose the question on what/who created God I find it misleading.

The Christian (at least catholic) concept of God is not a physical, anthropomorphic being in time (well time doesn't really exist, but we could translate it as "in change") but rather an eternal being outside time not being equal to anything we know. He is not just love. Not the universe, the world, a human etc.

Being outside time He has access to every piece of time as 'now'.
And so creation take a whole new meaning in relation to what we cannot concive. We are linearly thinking organisms =)

You make the assumption that God was created. But being the Creator
of time he began the beginning, so to say. And so the whole idea of something creating the Creator is somewhat invalid from start. I guess it comes down to the question whether one could accept that not everything is caused by something, but rather it's own cause.

So why could not nature or matter in itself be eternal? Well, reasonable most things point in the opposite direction. In (nature) science "Big bang" (ugly name =) is the leading hypothesis (just look at the nobel prize..) and according to that matter is not eternal..

But why God? Why not an non-personal force...or..just nothing

Well in catholic philosophy there are plenty of arguments on this matter, probably availble online if one is interested.

Aside. Well, personally I'd say that finding proof of God is a matter of speaking with him. Of course you risk imagining things. But it is also a matter of coming to the insigt that your own freedom and understanding also have deep foundations. Which in themselves are expression of the very properties of the world we live in and the world which constitutes us as beings. If we for a minute can test this idea we might glimse the idea of being created ourselves - with everything that means(!)

And so imagination and understanding would also be within reach for God's understanding and something he could, so to say, "overcome" in order to bring true meaning into the dialogue between you and your Creator.

My point is that eventhough many things/events in life also could be given a nature scienfic explaination (far from always though - quantum physics has surely put forward some hard questions on our own part in what we see) one should not be to fast with ruling out the existence of personal meaning (in relation to you!) within things/events/thougts you meet in life. In my experience there are also, as strange as it sounds for someone who thinks of God as limited and human-like, invitations to a meaningful dialogue throughout the everyday events of life.

But belief and trust in God, of course with a critical eye, are preresequites for such a dialogue.

Give it a try for a couple of weeks, speaking and praying to your very origin, and you might start to find meaning throughout your everyday life.

Well, you say; mind will find meaning, eventually it will look for structures of meaning within the meaningless and find something. Well yes this could be, but your very mind is in the perspective of creation in itself also created. And so one should not be too fast in believing that you (because 'your mind' is basically an abstraction) could not find meanings God intended for you to find..

Basically, we are not just living in a static world. But our inner life is also actively forming and affecting the "outer" world so as our way of interpretating things. And God does, in my own view, indeed speak to us in this whole movement. Not just in outer things as isolated events but in this, so to say, holistic movement that living in a world (living the world) means (to you).

“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.”

For some catholic philosophy..

rasmussenanders said...

Sure you need philosophy as well, and sure there are questions that science will never be able to answer. However, if one assumes that God is constantly changing the world then one would expect that there are some deviations from the natural laws, and to my knowledge the evidence of such deviations is very weak (see my post on James Randi who tests supernatural claims)...

You say that you do not believe in ontological randomness, and neither do I. Without randomness though, I see no room for a fine-tuning God...

I also think that is a bit strange to say that God is another type of entity completely, and at the same time say that he is interacting with this world. What exactly is he then and how does he interact with this world? Can we affect him in any way? I see a similarity to the dualistic arguments that one encounters in consciousness literature. If we have a soul, how would it then interact with our flesh and blood?

At last, about personal revelation as a source of knowledge I have to disagree with you simply because, as you mention, personal revelation is so often wrong. One of the popes found out through personal revelation that the virgin mary story was true, something I see as extremely implausible... Personally I prefer empirical data.

Anyway, I want to thank you again for your comments, I feel convinced that we are probably not going to resolve the issue of whether there is a God or not here, but I do like my readers to get another point of view as well. I you desire you may have the final word in our discussion...

Z said...

I don't think the catholic church has anything against evolution theory. It's embraced 'n' everything. The church differs and doesn't agree with the atheist CONCLUSIONS of evolution.

We believe evolution, like other laws of nature & physics, is created by God.

( & go figure
You guys with blogspot seem to be right... )

rasmussenanders said...

To Z,

Beneath is a quotation I found at "". It seems that the catholic church claims that God has been involved to some extent in evolution. I agree with you when you say that they do not deny evolution and I have never claimed that they do deny it. This post was meant to critizise creationists, and I am well aware that creationists and catholics are two different groups which share some beliefs but not others.

Regarding the atheist conclusions of evolution, I for one do not directly conclude that there is no God because evolution has taken place. I do think however that a God becomes superflouous since we can explain everything since the big bang in terms of natural laws. Why invent a God when the picture is so clear?

Here is the quotation:
"Concerning biological evolution, the Church does not have an official position on whether various life forms developed over the course of time. However, it says that, if they did develop, then they did so under the impetus and guidance of God, and their ultimate creation must be ascribed to him"

Anonymous said...

Hi again,

well I'm not intending to hold a lesson on catholic philosophy and theology (you asked about how to view God in terms of not creating a dualistic view). Neither am I very clear about your use of 'dualistic' here. But the issues you mentioned have all been extensively adressen within catholic philosophy and theology.

So if you are truely interested I suggest you find some reading (perhaps online). I belive you will find it interesting, as I once did.

In my experience most of the counter-arguments against a Creator are resolved when adressing the catholic concept of God instead of different other, or our own concept(s) of what one believes catholics mean by "God".
My belief is that the catholic concept (being the original Christian church) on God is correct while many other other ones (not to mention in many american churches) are wrong. With a wrong concept of what/who God and creation is errors such as "intelligent design" follow.

Regarding your use of 'nature laws' I oppose the all-too dogmatic way of referring to statistical behaviour as laws. Far to often people seem to exclude the amplifying of quantum effects and the huge role this plays in everything from physics to biology.
And so "no randomness" wouldn't close the door for quantum effects that appear random but indeed could be directly related to consciousness and ultimately God.

There are many serious researchers and philosophers working with this issue. An example is the "Global consciousness project" on Stanford (if I recall it right) where many researchers (worldwide) are studying the issue of what appears as patterns in randomness.

Regarding my use of 'ontological randomness' I do not agree with your belief that a world without randomness would rule out fine-tuning. First and foremost 'fine-tuning' could also be expressed in terms of 'fine-tuned'.

Thus intrinsicate properties that so to say unfold in "chaotic" systems (and what is striking about them is the order that derives out from these, reflecting what many mathematicians still today find as a genuine mystery of how simple mathematics are capable of making up highly complicated, and "design" appearing, patterns & things) as change (time) go by.

When we think of 'fine-tuning' as related to God we have a tendency to place God in time (at the origin, time zero so to say). This I believe is incorrect. Unfolding takes a whole new and more more dynamical (rather than static) meaning if God is indeed not in time (but ever present) as we are.

But then fine-tuning in time is also an alternative. You mentioned physical constants not changing, however I recall reading an article this year on the results as put forward by a group of researchers at MIT suggesting this is not the case but rather that slight changes (that are immensly important) in one of the "constants" have occured. Unfortunately I do not have any reference at hand, so if you're interested in this give it some search on the web.

However, this is a secondary issue in my opinion. Because if they would have remained completely constant there are still so to say dynamical aspects of nature. Quantum physics being a quite strong case against the idea that nature just behaves according to stricts laws, not to mention in living systems.

And so in my opinion creation is unfolding out from an eternal plan, where everthing we do is in relation to the plan of a God who is not himself in time. I regard the idea that creation started at one point of time and that God after this point of time in inactive as invalid. Such thinking places God in time and this is regarded as a main error in the discussion on Creation.

But. There is probably no need to discuss God within the field of strict biology. And so you are probably right about God being superfluwous in this sense. But only in terms of biology as subject. God creating the world in the eternal plan that unfolding means (which yes, would appear as "random" for us in terms of following "nature laws" in a statistic sense) is still not something superfluwous in the theological or philosophical sense. Quite the opposite!

If Big Bang and nature was indeed caused by the ultimate cause that is causing itself (which I find the only philosophical reasonably thing to say, and which I belive to be a personal God) then why should this be uniteresting?

Molecular biology, and ultimately 'nature science', is not the only science there is, as some atheist seem to believe.
This is largely why I oppose the atheistic movement today. Because it is simply anti-intelletctual in its way of often making its arguments appear scientific (often by adressing itself as scientific and opposing some well choosen "enemy" easily described as "unscientific") while skipping a ton of philosophical issues important even to speak about such a thing as "scienctific"..Ah, well there are exceptions. I belive you are person who's more open and less dogmatic than many of the people you seem to have allied with.

(Back to biology..)
Neither is it the only subject of relevance to us as living being.

Opening up just a little to God, even if we humans also have immensely wrong ideas on who he is, is something that shakes one's self in its very boundaries.

And the more this inner experience of this Person correlates to the real Person the more constructive and real this dialogue becomes. So what starts out as a very unreal thing, a hope, ideas, a fantasy will as one tries to follow the way the Jesus taught become (not just in a personal but in an objective sense) become more and more of a real dialogue.

When we meet someone this someone will be physically apparent to us. However the person we experience is far from necessary the person itself. We are equipped with our interpretations, ideas and fantasies. And we try to make sense of it.

And so we might find someone very real. And in term of this personal unit existing it is most likely true. However the case could indeed be that the person as we experience him/her really doesn't exist but in our mind.

So with God it is somewhat similiar, but different. Only when we start to know God, as he really is, will he be apparant to us. We will see ourselves and the people we meet as reflections of his creation, and ultimately him. And that brings strong love for one self and the people we meet, since these glimses in everyday life make us want to get to know God, our Creator, even more through love.

Oh, gosh this has become the longest post in my history.

Z said...

Ok, so today i'm proving God's existence once and for all (not!)

Adam Whittaker said...

Whenever I talk to a creationist I get the feeling they think a theory is something you come up with when you're drunk.

Intelligent design, especially irreducable complexity is nonsense.

rasmussenanders said...

The amount of complexity in the ID arguments (not very complex), do indeed suggest that the people proposing it cannot have been at their intellectual peak.

However, I suppose one has to keep in mind that when a person has built all his or her values on the bible then there is a strong motivation to keep your head in the sand and away from the evidence showing that we are monkey decents....

Alfonso said...

Well, I don't think anonymous would show up here again, so I don't know if there's any point to this. But he seems to be preaching about a "gap-god". He talks extensively about quantum physics, but in no way explains what aspects of quantum physics he believes explain god's existence.

Also, I find it very unsettling to find people see themselves as strict catholics but somehow still accept the theory of evolution. As Dawkins states in "The Root of All Evil" catholics believe that Jesus died to cleanse humanity from the original sin. The original sin was caused by adam and eve. Now, if a catholic accepts evolution, how can he accept the garden of eden, as they are conflicting views. And if he doesn't believe in the Garden of Eden, then there wouldn't have been original sin, and thus Jesus died for nothing.

This creates a big problem in the catholic logic because Jesus dying for humanity's original sin is one of the pillars of catholicism, and evolution would disprove that.