Intelligent Design: Pros and Cons

Who is this who darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now prepare yourself like a man;
I will question you, and you shall answer Me.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Job 38:2-5

Song of Los
The Song of Los by William Blake
The Intelligent Design (ID) argument was first put forth by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and made popular by William Paley with his watchmaker analogy. Simply put, because the universe is governed by rationally intelligible principles, there must be an intelligence behind it.

Ever since the ancient times, idealists (Platonists and Stoics) and materialists (Epicureans) have argued for and against the existence of a Creator by judging the quality of the design of the universe. It’s interesting how people reach opposite conclusions from the same evidence: The materialists would argue that the universe stands too full of flaws, and is by and large inhospitable to man, and therefore not designed with man in mind; Platonists and the Stoics would argue the contrary: the world is designed by god for a common dwelling place of gods and men. The design is good because the world is orderly, beautiful and life-sustaining.

For my part, I think it is rather futile, if not presumptuous, to argue whether the universe is well-designed or not. We simply don’t know enough to qualify as judges.

Firstly, we were not there when the universe was created, and we don’t know anything about its purpose or founding principles. Who then are we to judge its design? To argue that the universe is not well-designed, by fixating on an infinitesimal part that doesn’t meet our criteria, is like taking a few words out of context from War and Peace to prove the work is shoddy.

Secondly, this is the only universe that we know of, so we cannot prove its design, or lack thereof, by comparing it against other universes generated from truly aimless processes, if such universes can exist. Incidentally, long before the modern string theorists, the ancients, such as Aristotle and Lucretius, have contemplated the possibility of multiple universes, and, again, came to opposite conclusions. Without a genuine control to compare against, any argument of design is inconclusive.

Thirdly, the modern ID advocates have made a fatal mistake of conflating design and process. They attempt to defend supernatural design by asserting the improbability of a natural process, and understandably incurred the ire of the scientific community, theists and atheists alike. Atheists fall into the same trap on the opposite end: they dismiss design by fixating on the process and claiming that the process is purposeless. Science, as is currently practiced, is agnostic of purpose. Everything come into existence through a natural process, regardless whether the cause is supernatural.

Having said the above, I think the ID argument is very important in that it points to the future of mankind’s intellectual endeavour: ultimately, understanding the nature of the universe necessitates understanding the nature of man, of mind, intelligence and purpose.

Firstly, with regard to design and intent.

Nature is a work of science, but it is also a work of art. One can trace a work of art to the artist by recognizing the characteristics of the artwork as a whole. This is done in the art world when connoisseurs try to determine whether an anonymous work was created by an old master, or made by a performing monkey.

Things caused by a human agent come to effect through a natural process, but they also indicate the intent of the person behind it. For example, in forensics, the poison that killed a man can be traced to the murderer, and it is possible to prove intent, to tell the difference between what is spontaneous and what is premeditated.

Secondly, with regard to mind and purpose.

Lucretius, like many materialists, argues that human activities are purposeful whereas nature is not. Here is his rationale: whenever a man creates something, he already has some purpose in mind before he makes the thing; in nature, a thing exists for no pre-determined purpose but only adapts to whatever environment it finds itself in.

Note the change of perspective in his argument: when his speaks of human activity, his focus is on mind, not matter, but when he speaks of nature, his focus is on matter, not mind.

Obviously, purpose can only be found where there is mind. If you preclude mind behind nature in your premise, the conclusion that nature is purposeless is already built in. Conversely, to be logically consistent, if one accepts the purposefulness of human artifacts, he must also accept the possibility of purpose of things in nature and nature as a whole.

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19 thoughts on “Intelligent Design: Pros and Cons

  1. I, too, think it’s futile to argue about whether the universe is well designed. In order to determine whether the universe is well designed, we must first know the purpose of the universe. If the purpose of the universe is to create millions of unicorns, then it is not well designed (unless there are millions of unicorns on another planet). I don’t believe anyone knows the purpose of the universe, so arguing about whether the universe is well designed is impossible. The best we can do is argue about whether the universe is well designed in relation to an assumed purpose.

    However, just because we do not know the purpose of the universe does not mean that we cannot determine whether the universe was designed. I may come across a writing in Arabic (a language which I do not understand). I might not know the purpose of the writing, but I can conclude that it was designed by a human who can write in Arabic.

    As you noted, we do not have another universe to compare to this one and we were not present at the creation of the universe. Therefore, we cannot make the same conclusions regarding the universe as we can make regarding the writing in Arabic and the watch of Paley. We have seen people write in Arabic. We have seen other writings in Arabic. We have seen people making watches. We have seen other watches. We have not seen the creation of the universe. We have not seen other universes.

    Finally, regarding Lucretius, I agree with you. He precludes the mind when he considers nature; and therefore, he concludes that nature has no purpose. But to argue contrary to his position, one must make the assumption of a mind, and then purpose logically follows. To me, both Lucretius and his antagonist must make assumptions; I’m sure you won’t agree ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. I’d agree that recognizing a design and knowing its purpose are different things, it is the difference between intelligence and purpose. We have little understanding of the nature of either.

      As for your last point, yes, we all make assumptions. But my point is Lucretius is logically inconsistent in his argument, the Platonists are not. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I just thought I’d pop in to let you know that I am appreciating this series on origins/evolution. I look forward to reading the rest!

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I’m embarrassed to expose my ignorance by posting this series, but it seems to me this is not a time to keep silent, for silence gives consent.

      I’d appreciate your input on the Patristic understanding of Genesis, since you know classical Christianity much better than I. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. “They attempt to defend supernatural design by asserting the improbability of a natural process, and understandably incurred the ire of the scientific community, theists and atheists alike”

    This is one thing I don’t understand about the extremely conservative stance on ID. Everywhere we look we see continual natural processes (the cycle of a human life; conception, birth, procreation, death). Why cannot it be so for smaller and larger aspects of the universe? Or are there differences in natural processes that I am not making?

      1. Hello, again. Still thinking about all of this, and I am wondering…

        You said, “For my part, I think it is rather futile, if not presumptuous, to argue whether the universe is well-designed or not. We simply donโ€™t know enough to qualify as judges.” I saw you say the same thing in our discussion of Lucretius. So what do you think of the argument for the existence of God from fine-tuning? In a sense, the argument is arguing for the existence of God based on the assumption that the universe is exactly situated for life. Or is it different because we actually have scientific evidence that if such and such were out of order (the earth tilted on it’s axis to a different degree, for example), life would not be possible?

      2. The argument from fine-tuning is a variation of the argument from design. The universe is well-suited for carbon-based life, but one cannot prove conclusively that it comes to existence by divine agency, unless one accepts certain premises, which the atheists deny. That’s why some of them resort to the multiverse theory, though there is no evidence for it whatsoever.

    1. Strictly speaking, a human being cannot prove his own existence to another human being either. The most he can do is to enter into a relationship with another.

      I think, for a Christian, the best way to prove the existence of God is to be Christ-like, so that when the world see him, they may see God in him. This is the mystery of Incarnation.

      1. I agree. ๐Ÿ™‚ What do you mean by existence? His physical body? His mind? We observe bodies, but not minds, right? Or when someone talks, we observe the results of the workings of their mind and draw conclusions from that?
        I know that Plantinga wrote a book called God and Other Minds and have always wondered about this particular line of thought….

      2. There are basically two types of proofs, deduction and induction.

        Deduction is the most rigorous, and it is based on necessity. If the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the premise, there is no proof. A human being’s existence is not a necessity, he may or may not exist, therefore, his existence cannot be proven.

        Induction is much less rigorous but more widely used. We infer that if someone looks and acts like ourselves outwardly, he is like us inwardly, having intellect, will and emotion, etc. That is not necessarily true, as in the case of dreams and hallucinations.

        P.S. If you’re still interested in rational proofs of God, check out Peter Kreeft’s lecture on YouTube. He is not as rigorous as one might hope, but he demonstrates how difficult it is to think rigorously as a philosopher. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I suppose it is pretty difficult to be rigorous in an hour. ๐Ÿ™‚ I really enjoyed this. A lot of arguments I was familiar with, though I really enjoyed his discussion of time and causality. One thing that struck me was his dismissal of Anselm’s ontological argument. In God, Freedom, and Evil, this is the argument that, of the three traditional arguments for the existence of God, Plantinga thinks is most effective. I saw on wikipedia, that Kreeft had converted from Calvinism to Catholicism. Plantinga is Reformed. I wonder what’s at work here and if there is some connection….

    at 49:53, Kreeft says that he thinks some atheists are so because of pride (which I do think comes into play alot). He says that we are “programmed at birth to want what I want when I want it”. Earlier he discusses the argument from desire, that we are born with an innate desire for God, basically. So what I am wondering is, if we are programmed with both of these desires at birth, one seems to lend itself to atheism and one to theism. Do they cancel each other out? I suppose the former would be the result of sin in the world, but then I suppose the latter could be seen to be so also??

    1. According to William James, the difference between the Catholic and Protestant mind is that the former gravitates towards richness and structure in a belief system. and the latter purity and simplicity. That seems to explain Kreeft’s conversion very well.

      I disagree with Kreeft on a few points, and the ontological argument is one of them. But I don’t think it has anything to do with his Catholicism; His argument from desire is not as robust as could be, perhaps because desire belongs to the domain of psychology not philosophy. Pride and desire are two different things, I think. Pride is to think that one’s desire can be fulfilled without the grace of God.

      1. “I disagree with Kreeft on a few points, and the ontological argument is one of them. But I donโ€™t think it has anything to do with his Catholicism;”

        That might have seemed like a strange comment. I was just wondering if there was some fundamental difference in their beliefs that caused them to see the argument differently. Some nuance in thinking..

        His argument from desire is not as robust as could be, perhaps because desire belongs to the domain of psychology not philosophy. Pride and desire are two different things, I think. Pride is to think that oneโ€™s desire can be fulfilled without the grace of God.

        If pride is to think that one’s desire can be fulfilled without the grace of God, and desire is a hunger for a being than can fulfill that desire, and they are both innate, do they cancel each other out? Or do you think that the desire something we are born with and pride something that develops later???

      2. Yes, there are nuances in their ways of thinking. Kreeft prefers the “bottom-up” approach, building up arguments from particular examples and concrete experiences, whereas the ontological argument is an abstract, “top-down” approach. However, both converge on the principles of causality. They are not fundamental differences, only differences in emphasis, imo.

        There is a similar difference in emphasis regarding faith and works between Protestantism vs Catholicism. But I don’t know much beyond that. ๐Ÿ™‚

        If desire is innate, then pride is contrary to the fulfilment of desire. So I tend to think pride is not innate, just as evil is not innate. We’re back to where we started.

  5. Ps- I will return the favor with another list of arguments for the existence of God, unsurprisingly from Plantinga. ๐Ÿ™‚ One of these days I will go through these in detail one by one. One day…

    These are lecture notes so are not in fully developed form. You are probably familiar with most, but in the event that there might be one or two that you aren’t familiar with, I forward it on.
    https://www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/virtual_library/articles/plantinga_alvin/two_dozen_or_so_theistic_arguments.pdf

    1. Thank you for the link. I like that Plantinga combine arguments from philosophy, science, ethics and epistemology. The Christian perspective is different from the atheist in all these disciplines.

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