Arguments for a Designer

Anglican clergyman, William Paley (1743–1805) wrote Natural Theology, which was an influential book in the nineteenth century and was prescribed for students at Cambridge. Paley’s argument is an argument from analogy. These rely on the principle that if two things are similar in some known respect they are likely to be similar in other respects. The point of such arguments is that they enable us to draw conclusions as to likely similarities where these are not already known.

Premise 1

Watches invariably have a designer.

Premise 2

The universe is like a watch.

Conclusion 3

The universe has a designer.

“The machine we are inspecting demonstrates, by its construction, contrivance and design. Contrivance must have had a contriver; design, a designer; whether the machine immediately proceeded from another machine or not.”

His point is that anything that exhibits, as a watch does, such intricate adaptation of means to end, whose parts work together to serve a particular function is a contrivance and so must have had a contriver. And the universe is like that. Paley develops his argument by comparing an eye with a telescope. But we have enough familiarity with design processes to know how artefacts are commonly made to serve human purposes. We have no experience whatever, on the other hand, of any design processes relating to the works of nature. This objection is given further force by noting that there are cases of order in nature which have been misattributed to design; Giant’s Causeway, sand dunes, snowflakes. Paley was wrong in supposing that there was not a problem about what objects ‘demonstrate ... contrivance and design’. There are plenty of objects whose apparent construction (shape, etc.) has led people mistakenly to attribute design.

Darwinism and design - Once Darwin had hit on the idea of natural selection he came to think that there was no need to postulate an intelligent being in order to explain the marvellous adaptations in nature and hence that the argument from design was no longer acceptable.

We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.”

“Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.” –Richard Dawkins

If Dawkins is right, then Paley’s argument from design is simply out-of-date, and the hypothesis of a purpose behind the workings of nature has been proved ‘gloriously wrong’ by subsequent scientific developments. This is disputed by some philosophers, however. “The argument was only that the ultimate explanation of such adaptation must be found in intelligence; and if the argument was correct, then any Darwinian success merely inserts an extra step between the phenomena and their ultimate explanation.” Anthony Kenny

(Kenny is not writing with Paley’s argument in view but on behalf of the much earlier argument of Thomas Aquinas (1224–74).) Paley is not concerned to maintain that the immediate cause of all order in the universe is an intelligent being, but that we do need a designer at the beginning in order to explain the existence of clocks at all, that the universe must ultimately be explained in terms of purpose.

It would be quite wrong to interpret Darwinism as disproving the existence of a Designer of the universe. Darwinism is quite compatible with the existence of purpose in the universe. Science has identified an increasing number of objects that many people have just assumed to have been designed but, as it turns out, wrongly. Natural selection does not do more than further increase that number and so has further weakened the analogy between nature and human artefacts like the watch without which Paley’s argument does not get off the ground.

Fine tuning argument - Russell Stannard notes there are many arguments that infer design or intention from something’s being too much of a co-incidence. There could be an alternative explanation, or many universes with all sorts of ‘settings’? Against this second reservation he considers other universes to be scientifically unprovable – metaphysical, and in breach of Occam ’s razor – that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Criticisms:

  1. That the argument assumes that it makes sense to speak of how probable it is that the universe we know should have come into being, but that this is highly problematic.

If the universe was not designed so as to be suitable for life as we know it to evolve in it, then it was by the sheerest chance that it turned out to be so. It only makes sense to talk of the ‘chances’ of a particular outcome where there is at least one alternative outcome. The universe is the only one we know about and, for all we know, the only one there is. PCW Davies suggests a way to show the improbability: “Imagine the Creator equipped with a pin, blindly choosing one of the universes at random from among the vast collection of contenders, the chance of His picking a universe compatible with life as we know it is then exceedingly small.”But this brings in a creator to try to show the improbability of the universe, which is begging the question of a designer or no. Generally the argument needs premises that the unbeliever may complain do not make sense and perhaps only make sense on the assumption that the universe has a creator.

2. That the appeal to Occam’s Razor cannot decide the issue since it could equally be used on the other side.

It could be argued that the point of Occam’s Razor is not to reduce the sheer number of entities assumed but the number of new theoretical concepts. So Stannard et al are the ones who, within the context of scientific theory, are offering the conceptually more elaborate hypothesis.