Letters: Who designed the universe?

From Ron Novy,
Published Wednesday, January 05, 2005

In her letter of Dec. 19, Leona Brudjar claims that we can conclude that God exists if we "consider the complexities and the intricate design of our bodies." The writer goes on to claim that faced with this evidence, it would take "a fool to think this wonderful creation happened by accident and that there wasn't a plan by a power much higher than me."

The writer here is referencing one of the most powerful, clever and flawed arguments for the existence of God - the argument from design. Perhaps most famously advanced in "the watchmaker analogy" by William Paley in 1802, one variant of the story runs:

One day while crossing a desert, we stumble upon a pocket watch. On examination, we see it is a complex organization of springs, wheels, and cogs. Obviously, this object - so finely crafted for the purpose of timekeeping - could not have come into existence through the unthinking actions of wind, water and sun that had formed the nearby stones and dunes. Instead, a creative intelligence - a human watchmaker - is necessary to explain this object. Now, no matter how complex and useful this watch, the structure of the universe (or even just some small part of it such as the human eye) reveals a far greater complexity of design suited to a much wider variety of purposes. Thus, the existence of you and I and the universe must be the result of a super-designer - God.

Roughly put, the claim is (1) everything we've encountered that appears to have been designed does in fact have a designer; (2) The universe does appear as if it has been designed; (3) Thus, the universe has a designer; (4) This designer is God.

Among the numerous objections to this venerable argument is that it lacks internal consistency. If we are truly wedded to the claim that organized complexity and purposefulness requires a designer, God - presumably the most complex and purposeful of all entities - must also have a designer (a "mega-god" who, following the same reasoning, would also require a designer, a "mega-mega-god" who, following the same reasoning ).

As this chasing of "mega-gods" down the rabbit hole is likely unacceptable to many readers, we could instead declare that God requires no designer - but this too undermines the fundamental claim that organized complexity and purposefulness are evidence of a designer. For, if the most complex and purposeful of entities - God - requires no designer, surely things so comparatively simple - human eyes and pocket watches - would not require one either?

It seems that the "argument from design" is simply too unwieldy a device to demonstrate the existence of God.

The writer claims that it would take "a fool to think this wonderful creation happened by accident." Correct - as far as she goes, but "mere chance" and supernatural design are not the only possible explanations. That Darwinian natural selection may well provide a logically consistent third explanatory option for the existence of organized complexity is a subject for another time.

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