The Indisputable Appearance of Design

This is post seventeen in the series “The Case Against Physicalism.”

Evan Sanchez on unsplash. The remarkable beauty that is evident in the universe and the wonders of life and all creation have led virtually all humans to intuitively see in it the hand of a designer. The rejection of this most basic human intuition is an anomaly and a unique feature of our intellectual milieu. While physicalists and their proselytizers have preached against this intuition for many years, the vast majority of people persistently reject their denial of the obvious.

If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck… you get the idea. (After writing this I read Graham Pemberton’s excellent article on Darwinism and found that I inadvertently copied him. Great minds….) Does anyone seriously dispute the appearance of design in the universe as revealed through science? The argument today is not about appearance but whether or not the appearances reveal design or whether they are fooling at least some of us into thinking they are designed. That’s a basic question I’ve been dealing with in Top Down or Bottom Up and in the Case Against Physicalism series.

Simplifying things we can see the discussion coming down to, in this corner William Paley or Francis Collins, and in that corner David Hume or Richard Dawkins. Does nature reveal a watchmaker with a mind, intention, creativity and the requisite technical skills? Or, does what we have learned about nature tell us that the watchmaker is blind: there is no design, no intention, no purpose. It’s all accidental and meaningless. If we think we see design it is an artifact of evolution and proof of how we can be easily deceived by a brain evolved for the purpose of surviving in the desert or jungle.

Throughout most of human history it was understood by all thinking apes that the world where we lived didn’t just pop into being without a cause. Someone or something was behind it all. Maybe still involved, maybe not.

Even the most well-known New Atheist, Richard Dawkins admitted the primary premise here which is that the appearance of design is indisputable. As Graham Pemberton pointed on in a recent Medium post, in the 1982 book Current Problems in Sociobiology published by Cambridge, Dawkins wrote:

One of the most remarkable developments in intellectual history is that almost all major cultural drivers — education, media, journalism — now insist on a view that can be called “anti-design.” I’m calling it physicalism — the idea that physical matter and the forces that act on it are the only realities. The disrespect and animosity shown to legitimate scientists and philosophers who vary from this point of view illustrates this fact. Wikipedia’s dismissal of any idea, evidence or school of thinking that varies from physicalist dogma demonstrates that there is a great deal of vigilance on the part of the broader science writing community to maintain that position. The term “pseudoscience” is quickly applied to any idea or discovery that smacks of divergence.

This is denying the obvious. But, why is it then that most of us who are not scientists or cultural drivers have not bought into the anti-design idea? At least, not yet. Despite the strenuous efforts of the militant atheists and the virtual monopoly on physicalism in our education system, media and entertainment, most do not accept the orthodoxy we are sold. Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, Steven Pinker, Lawrence Krauss, Brian Greene and of course, Richard Dawkins are all outspoken “evangelists’’ for the physicalist belief system. Yet, the gap between physicalists and design believers remains wide. A 2019 Gallup poll showed only 22% of Americans hold to the physicalist idea that humans were created without any involvement of God while 40% hold to a biblical view of creationism and 33% to a view often called theistic evolution where God uses evolutionary processes to achieve his ends. The physicalist view excludes transcendence of any kind and insists on the finality of death. Both ideas are rejected by about 90% of Americans. Even the more secular Europeans believe in transcendence by a considerable majority.

Now, whether or not the universe demonstrates design or merely demonstrates the human capacity to be fooled is not a matter of polling or votes. However, these facts show that the intuition of design has not (yet) been overcome by the insistence of our cultural drivers who are driven in turn by scientists espousing a philosophy or belief system they claim is based on science.

Human observation and intuition about what is observed is most certainly fallible. So rejection of the very solid intuition of design is not unreasonable. But given the history of such belief combined with scientific evidence that leans strongly towards design, it seems that denying what seems obvious can be considered an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What is the evidence physicalists present? We’ll look at the philosophical and physical evidence.

Image: Wikipedia. David Hume, one of the greatest philosophers, is well known for his atheism and denial of design. I was among those who believed that he defeated William Paley’s “watchmaker” argument. Turns out he died a number of years before Paley wrote. Paley’s book on natural theology was instead a response to Hume’s arguments against design. How does Hume’s argument hold up today? Current science shows it to be seriously flawed.

The philosophical argument

Many seem to believe that Scottish philosopher David Hume demolished the “argument from design,” specifically the argument as formulated by William Paley. Actually, Hume died in 1776 and his Dialogues on Natural Religion which disputed the argument from design for the existence of God, was not published until 1779. But Paley’s book Natural Theology which presented the famous watchmaker illustration was not published until 1802, three years before Paley’s death. Paley’s work was a response to Hume’s, not the other way around as many (myself included) falsely believed or still believe.

It’s important to note, that unlike today’s version of Intelligent Design which only seeks to establish a scientific basis for the existence of design without addressing who or what may be behind the design, “natural philosophy” typically argued that the evidence of design in nature led to the conclusion that the biblical God was the designer. William Paley’s “watchmaker” argument is often viewed as the typical argument from design leading to a belief in a creator God. As just noted, Hume had already made his case against the argument from design.

Others far more competent than I have argued the positions of Paley and Hume. Here is one from Paley’s perspective, and here is one from a more neutral analytical perspective. What surprised me when taking a bit closer look at Hume’s arguments against the design argument is that it seems far less bulletproof than I believed — another example of the biased nature of our education and media systems.

Jeff Speaks, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Notre Dame identifies the three arguments from design, with page references to Hume’s book:

The objection from the lack of evidential basis (pp. 15–21)

The objection from a regress of explanation (pp. 30–33)

The objection from the limitations of the design argument (pp. 34–38)

Lack of evidential basis.

As I understand it, the first argument says that it is true we can infer a cause when observing things like things we already know. We know that a car and screwdriver are designed because we know who designed them. When we look at another car or mode of transportation or another screwdriver or tool, it is rational to assume they too have a designer. But the universe is not like a car or screwdriver. It stands alone. We do not have more than one universe we can observe, so we cannot use the analogy. Only if there was a universe that we observed and knew for a fact that there was a designer behind that universe would we be able to make the analogy work.

I’m not sure about you, but that seems sophistry to me. We infer a lot of things by analogy and some of them get pretty far away from the things we are comparing them to. It strikes me that this is severely limiting the ability to use analogies purely for the purpose of defeating an argument that Mr. Hume doesn’t like.

Infinite regress

The objection is simple: unless you can identify who designed the designer, you can’t talk about a designer. A friend explained to me why he is an atheist. Who made God? he asked. It seems a reasonable question, but the answer also seems reasonable. At least it seemed so to St. Anselm and a great many who followed him. God is defined as a being of which nothing greater can be conceived.

Stephen Hawking answered the question of what came before the Big Bang by saying that is like asking what is north of the north pole. It is a nonsensical question. I would suggest to those who take delight in Mr. Hawking’s response that if they do not see the same response in the infinite regress response they are being inconsistent.

Limitations of the design argument

Hume, as Speaks explains, has two objections to the design argument:

The universe is nothing like things that humans have made so creating an analogy between a watch and life, for example, doesn’t work. Second, he says that given what we know of nature, we can hardly agree that if there is a designer, he/she/it cannot possibly have the characteristics of the creator as described in the Bible.

As for the first, it seems that science today has destroyed Hume’s argument for the vastness of difference between what we find in nature and what humans create. Take Artificial Intelligence as an example. Few would argue that these machines are getting closer and closer to the remarkable capability of the brain including the ability to take in new information and learn from it independently of human interaction. Most of psychology and neuroscience today is based on the Computational Theory of Mind in which we treat the brain as an incredibly powerful computer. In part so we can understand it, and in part so we can replicate its functions. One thing is absolutely certain and that is the machines we create to replicate the brain’s functions are designed. Since they are replicating nature and getting closer and closer to the brain’s capability, how does Hume’s argument stand up? It seems this area of science alone defeats his objection.

However, the more we know of life, the more we see examples of machine-like features. The flagellum of single celled bacteria are but one of many examples. I explored the meaning of these in an earlier post. All machines that we know of are human-made: designed. Designed for a purpose. It was understandable, perhaps, given the limitations of empirical science in 1770 when Hume was writing, that he should see such a difference to discount the analogies between human artifacts and aspects of the natural world. But, today, no such excuse makes sense.

Finally, Hume dismisses the claim of “natural theologians” that design in nature demonstrates that the positive attributes of God depicted in the Bible cannot be accurate. The colorful language he uses to express his view of what the designer would have to be like given what we observe in nature likely explains his continuing popularity with the anti-theists:

“The world, for aught he [someone believing the design argument] knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: It is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity, and is the object of derision to his superiors: It is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him . . . ”

So, based on Hume’s observations of the world, a creator God must be an “infant deity” who abandons his creation out of shame for his “lame performance.” Or the work of some inferior deity who is laughed at by his superior Gods. Or some ancient deity suffering from dementia.

There are those who see breathtaking beauty and majesty in creation. There are those who see nothing other than the “red in tooth and claw,” the corruption, decay, suffering and death. I am in the first group who also sees and recognizes the second. Hume, approaching his end, held a curmudgeonly view of the world he lived in. It appears he lost any sense of “the good.”

But, that is not exactly the point. While natural theologians argued for the existence of a designer, they attached to that argument the identity of that designer: the biblical God. Many of those today who believe that nature provides nearly indisputable evidence of design have greatly varying ideas of who that designer might turn out to be and exactly what he/she/it may be like. One of the criticisms leveled against Dr. Stephen Meyer and others of the Intelligent Design movement is that they refuse to identify who they think the designer behind Intelligent Design. They criticize these scientists and philosophers for refusing to fall into a very obvious trap. Hume himself exposed the trap.

There is no reason why scientists cannot point to evidence of design without being compelled to explain their own theology or ideas of who that designer might be.

Greg Rakozy on unsplash. There are a great many indications from science that support the nearly universal human intuition of design. One of the most compelling is the fact that without a whole string of very specific values in very specific combinations life in the universe would not be possible. This “fine-tuning” argument for design is countered with the idea of the multiverse. Chance or design are the two options. For chance to have any chance, an infinite number of possible universes with differing laws is necessary. So we are left with two options that are unprovable by science.

The physical evidence

Whatever one thinks of the nature of the designer by observing the design, the question remains: does our scientific knowledge provide evidence for design or not? Most of this series The Case Against Physicalism is related to that question. The arguments against design depend on chance or probabilities directed by absolutely nothing — no purpose, no teleology, no intention. Just pure randomness. But can random chance explain some of the deep mysteries that continue to deepen?

What is the chance that life emerged from inanimate matter all on its own? There is a chance, sure. But so far, we’ve struck out in finding it replicated elsewhere despite billions spent and thousands of planets identified. We’ve also struck out in finding any reasonable scientific explanation for it — yet.

What is the chance that protein folds so necessary for virtually every aspect of life can fold in precise ways based on chance? The folds depend on a very precise arrangement of a long string of amino acids, plus other factors including environmental. One scientist has estimated those chances at 10⁷⁴. With 10⁸⁰ particles of matter in the universe, the chances are pretty slim.

What is the chance that all the exquisitely specific numbers necessary alone and in combination to allow for life in the universe to occur are found in this, the only universe we know? The chances haven’t been calculated to the best of my knowledge, but the only explanation offered other than design is an infinite number of chances which requires an infinite number of unfindable, unprovable universes with different laws of nature.

Human intuition is often wrong. But, more often right. That’s why we tend to trust it and why we get so baffled and befuddled by proven things that violate it, like quantum mechanics. But the no-design hypothesis remains a hypothesis — a weak one at that with little if any viable evidence. Science today seems to take us further and further in the direction of proving the universal human intuition that we are not here by accident.

Husband, father, grandfather, semi-retired, farm advocate, author, communicator. Deeply curious about science, nature, spirit and history.

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