Does God exist? Theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas was at the fore in addressing this question to conciliate the relationship between faith and reason. He set out five proofs of the existence of God the fifth one being a teleological argument or argument from design. Teleological argument assumes one can infer the existence of intelligent design from the evidence of order and complexity in nature. This essay will consider a classic argument from design and compare it against a modern argument from design presented by Stephen Meyer whose argument is based on biological information. I will argue not only is the modern argument an improvement on the classic argument, but its conclusion is sound. The classic argument from design was put forward by philosopher William Paley (1743-1805) and is sometimes referred to as the watchmaker analogy.
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Paley’s uses an analogy where he attempts to show if something has been designed then logically it suggests there was a designer (Paley-1803) cited in Chappell (2011, pp.67-70). Paley speaks of if going for a walk his foot hits a stone he might wonder how it got there and supposes perhaps it had lain there forever. However, if he found a watch on the ground and was asked how it got there would the same answer as for the stone be appropriate. Paley says not, whereas the stone can be used for multiple purposes and if broken in two each piece would remain a stone the watch performs a specific function. It is made up of intricate parts and mechanisms any of which if sized or arranged differently would prohibit the watch from performing its function of keeping time. This, Paley argues proves there was a watchmaker who made and designed the watch for a specific purpose. Paley argues if intricacy and order are representative of design in the case of the watch, they must be representative of evidence of design in the case of the universe. He continues by stating nature is also mechanical and designed to be fit for a purpose, but it surpasses the most perfect constructions designed by humankind. Therefore, considering the precise organisation and mechanics of the universe there must be a designer who is God. Paley’s argument works on the assumption one can deduce the existence of intelligent design through examination, since life and the universe is reminiscent of something humans might design, it too must have a designer. This design claim is challenged and criticised by others who argue one cannot use an argument from analogy as proof of a designer who is God.
Most often cited criticisms as a powerful argument against Paley were ones presented by philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) in forms of dialogue the two main characters being Cleanthes who bases his beliefs about God’s existence on the teleological argument and Philo who argues human reasoning is inadequate to make assumptions as to the nature of God (Hume-published posthumously in 1779) cited in Chappell (2011, pp. 50-66). Although Hume’s criticisms are applicable to Paley it is a criticism of the design argument in general-Paley had not yet written ‘Natural Theology’ (1802).
The basic principle that underlies the design argument are that similar effects are based on similar causes. However, Hume uses what he calls ‘argument from experience’, if one observes something happen on many occasions one can infer what the result will be. If one has seen a plate being dropped and smash on the floor many times it is reasonable to infer if a plate is dropped it will smash. We can also work backwards if we see a smashed plate on the floor it is reasonable to infer someone had dropped it. However, if one has only seen one smashed plate one can’t be sure it was dropped. As only one universe has been observed and we didn’t see it begin how can we say for certain what caused the universe to come into existence and even if one could prove there was a first cause it doesn’t prove he first cause was God.
Philo’s argument in response to Cleanthes’s claim the world is an organised system, accurately suited to bring about particular outcomes is that it is a weak analogy. Although some parts of nature are highly organised accurately suited to enable particular outcomes there is also a degree of chaos and randomness in nature. Also, any similarities between the natural world and human creations are superficial and therefore any conclusion will be weak and require evidence. If we see a house, we know it had a builder and designer because we have experience of houses being built. If the universe is compared to a house the dissimilarity is so great any conclusion based on the analogy is guesswork. However, one could argue that if Hume was transported from the eighteenth century to our time and he saw an aeroplane would he have the philosophical right to say it was designed if he had never seen an aeroplane being designed?
It may be reasonable to say parts of the natural world resemble a machine, but this is a tendency to attribute human characteristics to non-human things, namely God and if God is perfect how can He be compared to imperfect human designers. Cleanthes’s argument says nothing about the attributes or the nature of God. As most human constructs are made by teams of designers and builders maybe the universe was created by a team of gods. Another argument is how could a benevolent God design a world with so much evil and suffering, couldn’t an omnipotent god have made a better world? From a human perspective it appears God is indifferent to human suffering, therefore a cruel God. Another challenge came later from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution which throws doubt at Paley’s design argument that if nature shows signs of design it must have been created by an intelligent designer. Darwin’s theory showed over time random processes could produce things with signs of design and It is not the strongest or most intelligent one of the species that survives but the one that is most adaptable to change. The modern argument from design is presented by philosopher and scientist Stephen Meyer.
Meyer (2000) cited in Chappell (2011, pp.92-105) argues that the building blocks that started the evolutionary process such as DNA, RNA and protein molecules are preconditions to evolution and as life depends on genetic information any theory must provide an account of the origins of such information. He argues to produce even a single functioning DNA molecule or protein in a pre-biotic setting that to put it down to chance even in a thirteen-billion-year-old universe is so small as to be absurd. Even a marginally complex cell requires about one hundred complex proteins all operating in close collaboration. Then there is the chicken-and-egg paradox, proteins cannot arise apart from DNA, yet proteins need DNA to function. Therefore, Meyer argues chance is not an adequate explanation for the origin of such biological complexity and specificity and origin-of-life biology are unable to offer an adequate explanation of how life originated.
Meyer continues by asking if it was possible life could have originated without an intelligent designer by a self -organising system. Chappell (2011, pp. 95-96) uses analogies to explain this system, smaller cornflakes are more likely for gravity to push them to the bottom of a pack because it is easier for them to fall through the gaps. When shaken the smaller cornflakes fall even further and settle at the bottom, one could argue this is self-organisation without the need for an intelligent designer. These self-organising systems also occur in nature, when waves push pebbles up a beach the smaller pebbles end up at the top of a beach whilst the large pebbles remain at the bottom. This doesn’t happen due to intelligent design but because it takes more force from a wave to push large pebbles up a beach. As the force of each wave is inconsistent the larger pebbles remain at the bottom because the force is more likely to push the smaller pebbles to the top.
Meyer refutes this argument by saying whilst self-organisation can produce systems of some complexity it doesn’t produce such complex systems as one finds in DNA, RNA and nucleic acids which he calls information-intensive systems. He concludes as human experience of information-intensive systems especially those containing codes and languages doesn’t occur by chance or physical necessity but by design. Therefore, mind or intelligence is the only cause of creating an information-rich system such as functional proteins, the coding found in DNA and the cell as a whole. Does Meyer’s argument improve on Paley’s and does he give a valid argument there must be an intelligent design behind the building blocks of life?
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Paley argued from a particular philosophical understanding of the designer and his purpose whereas Meyer’s argument from design is based on science and doesn’t rely on any theological beliefs. As Darwin’s theory of evolution wasn’t developed until after Paley’s death, he was unable to change his philosophical framework of his argument. Meyer doesn’t make argue for or against the evolutionary theory because his examples of design is prior to the evolutionary process. Hume’s argument of Paley is one may conclude a watch was made by human’s, but one cannot conclude the universe or life was designed by a creator because of no experience of such and no direct observation. However, Meyer’s argument begins with the premise that intelligent beings produce certain types of complexity and does not argue from the position of the degree of complexity but for the kind of complexity. Philosophers Hume and Dawkins refute Paley in part because of ‘evil’ found in the world which contradicts Paley’s claim of perfection and symmetry in nature. How does Meyer approach this issue?
Meyer doesn’t, his theory doesn’t ‘wander’ into the world of metaphysics he relies solely on science to make his argument. Philosopher Richard Dawkins in his critique of Meyer talks of how Darwinian evolution explains how complexity can come from simplicity. Dawkins is missing the point Meyer is making, Meyer is arguing about the complexity needed to start life which is necessary to get evolution going. Another claim by Dawkins is that Meyer summons a designer God to explain complexity, so this designer God must also be complex, but Meyer offers no explanation of his complexity. Meyer is not arguing for there being a God, he is arguing there must be an intelligence behind the complexity and specifity we find in biological systems. If those with theological beliefs wish to call this intelligence God, this is a personal decision. There is a current theory called the RNA world hypothesis which claim that maybe self-replicating RNA molecules reproduced rapidly before the evolution of DNA and proteins. However, there is no consensus amongst the scientific community as to the validity of this hypothesis according to molecular biologist Professor G. F. Joyce (2018) who states many scientists have come to the conclusion life couldn’t have started with RNA.
Although Paley’s argument may not be inherently wrong Darwin has shown at least one of Paley’s arguments is invalid, so he has failed to prove the existence of God. Whether science in the future may or may not prove as to how life got started currently there is no concrete scientific evidence to refute any of Meyer’s arguments, in my opinion Meyer has been successful in proving at the very least the likelihood there is an intelligent designer some may choose to call God. I think the modern argument from design is an improvement on the classic argument from design because it has a true premise, valid arguments so therefore a sound conclusion.
- Chappell, T. (2011), The Philosophy of Religion, the classic argument from design, second version: Paley, Exploring Philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 67-70.
- Chappell, T. (2011), The Philosophy of Religion, the classic argument from design, first version: Cleanthes, Exploring Philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 50-66.
- Chappell, T. (2011), The Philosophy of Religion, the modern argument from design, second version: Meyer’s argument from biological information, Exploring Philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 92-105.
- Joyce, G. (2018). The RNA world: Life before DNA and protein. [ebook] Available at: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19980211165.pdf [Accessed 24th Nov. 2018]
Anon, 2009. One hundred and fifty years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species, the British population remains uncertain and divided about evolution and the role of God in creation, with at least one-quarter showing some sympathy to intelligent design or creationism, according to a recent study. (CURRENT RESEARCH) (Brief article). Religion Watch, 24(4), p.8.
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