Classic Arguments, Part II
Posted by That Other Mike on 17/11/2007
Classic Arguments for God – And Why They Don’t Work
- Argument from Design,or Intelligent Design, or the Teleological Argument, or The Cosmic Watchmaker – is the universe designed?
- The Anthropic Principle – A close relative of the Argument from Design; how is it that the universe is so hospitable to life?
- The Argument from Improbability – Is life really so unlikely that it needs a god to exist?
- Irreducible Complexity – Is life too complex to have functioned as less complicated forms?
- Physical Laws – Can there be laws without a law-giver?
The Argument from Design
The world is characterized by such a degree of order and regularity it must have been designed for some purpose. The order and regularity in the world were bestowed by a “divine craftsman”, who created the world for a definite reason.
Another modern favourite, especially among Theists who would like to believe in special creation, but are honest enough to admit to themselves that it really doesn’t have a leg to stand on (it may have evolved without legs, perhaps from some sea-dwelling argument).
Anyway… There are quite a few things wrong with this argument. David Hume4 criticised it on the following grounds:
i. It assumes too much
Inferring an effect – a cosmic design – from a cause – the beginning of the cosmos – is basically assuming what the argument wants to prove. Order and regularity do not imply design, supernatural or otherwise.
ii.The universe is unique
On this basis, Hume argued that it cannot be inferred that there is anything like a designer behind it; where is the undesigned universe by which one can make comparisons?
iii. Who designed the designer?
If functional complexity requires a designer, then the designer also needs a designer, because the designer must be at least as complex as the thing it designed. How else could it have designed the Universe? Maybe there was a team of imperfect designers. A Universe designed by committee would explain a lot.
iv. The universe shows just as much evidence of imperfection and disorder
Seeking a cause of the order when such order only partially represents what the universe is like is asking for trouble. If an all-perfect, all-good designer made the universe, why is it so full of suffering for life forms? Even if one could infer a designer from the world, there is no reason to suppose that it is the Judaeo-Christian or Islamic god. In fact, there are reasons to suppose it is not.
The perceived design in nature is not necessarily intelligent by definition. Life is the result of the mindless design and repetition of natural selection. Order in the cosmos comes from natural regularity.
The Anthropic Principle
The Universe is so hospitable to life, it must have been designed with life in mind.
Right… Please excuse me while I laugh…
This implies that life is somehow apart from the Universe, that it consists of some kind of special matter which only forms stable bonds in this Universe. Besides, are there any examples of Universes which were specifically designed with the intention of hostility to life?
Just as you would expect to find ashes and cinders in a fire but not in the dregs of a shot glass (a possible origin for this argument?), you expect to find life which is adaptive and reflective of the environment it resides in. If it isn’t adapted to its environment, it dies.
The Anthropic Principle is essentially saying that water is so easy to swim through that it was designed with swimming in mind.
It’s so circular you could roll it down a hill.
The Improbability Argument
It is improbable that the complexity of life occurred by accident. If the probability of something happening is less than about 1e-15 (or 0.000000000000001) it is considered to be impossible. The probability of life occurring ‘by accident’ is far less than this, therefore there must have been a Creator.
This argument ignores the size of the universe. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, any of which might have planets capable of supporting life. Even an impossibly improbable event is almost a certainty – and we already know of one planet that supports life.
This also falls into the same trap as the Design Argument and Anthropic Principle: there are no other Universes to compare it with. It is impossible to see how the probability of existence can be measured, with or without a deity, given the lack of comparative material. It could be said that the Universe in any form is impossible by this standard, given the innumerable possible permutations; its actual form is no more improbable than any of the other possibilities. It is only the fact that humans are around to look at it, combined with small-minded humanocentrism, that makes the Universe seem so special.
This argument also ignores an important fact: if something has a probability, no matter how small, it can happen. Impossibility comes when there is no degree of probability.
A single system, like the human eye, which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced gradually by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, since any precursor to an irreducibly complex system is by definition nonfunctional. This shows the hand of a Designer.
The best known charlatan… sorry, proponent of this argument is Michael Behe.
The above quote is a modification of the definition given in one of his books. However, there are plenty of examples of things which are irreducibly complex, which have grown up over time. Ecosystems, cities, the modern economic system of the West, and so on.
An irreducibly complex system is either one which has been designed, or which is the result of an undirected process. Such systems are to be expected in evolutionary biology: the underlying processes are called co-adaptation and co-evolution, and have been well understood for a long time. Biological functions are not built one iteration at a time in order to meet some static function. They evolve in layers, always in a state of change, and always ready to change to serve current needs. Irreducible complexity does not indicate design, and therefore the argument collapses into its own filth.
The mistake of this argument is to conclude that no Darwinian solution for irreducible complexity remains without a designer. This is an incorrect assumption, either based on a desire to hoodwink people, or a misunderstanding of the principles of evolutionary biology. An irreducibly complex system can be built by gradually adding parts that are initially just advantageous. These later become necessary because of further changes.
Later changes build on previous ones. Previous refinements or changes might become necessary. The evolution of air bladders that allowed fish to breathe oxygen from the air was essentially just an added advantage to start with. The addition of such organs would allow individuals or species to explore areas which were less in competition, like dry land, which their rivals would have been unable to colonise. It would have provided a haven from predators, and easy food supply, and so on.
Evolution is arranged around this kind of process. Fish grew lungs. They are now essential; land-dwelling creatures cannot survive without them. This is an irreducibly complex system growing up from one which was not, and it is thoroughly Darwinian. Changes are built on previous changes, and changes are built onto those changes, and further changes, and so on.
The claim that irreducible complexity indicates design is utterly without foundation, and shouldn’t even enter into the argument. The biggest problem with the concept of irreducible complexity as an argument for the existence of a designer is that it is an argument by analogy, rather than facts or logic.
When it comes to explaining scientific matters to a public which usually has little knowledge or interest of the subject at hand, analogies are essential to getting the information across. We all can better understand something new if it is compared to something we already know and can visualise. Analogies can be used to explain science, but they should not be used in place of it, as do intelligent design advocates. An example of this, as put forth by Michael Behe:
A mousetrap is “irreducibly complex” – it requires all of its parts to work properly.
A mousetrap is a product of design.
The bacterial flagellum is “irreducibly complex” – it requires all of its parts to work properly.
Therefore the flagellum is like a mouse trap.
Therefore the flagellum is a product of design.
There’s no excuse for this. This is simply an attempt by stealth to hoodwink a gullible public into believing in Creationism. It is quite interesting that Michael Behe has become a big figure in anti-evolutionary circles. He is something of a spokesman for the Creationism movement. He admits to being Christian, yet when questioned on who he thinks this ‘Designer’ is, he refuses to answer. He seems more than willing to speak at fundamentalist-sponsored events, however, and has had articles published in right-wing magazines. Apparently Behe is trying to eat his cake and have it too.
The general public won’t know the limitations of his argument, or be aware of his misrepresentations of the facts, and therefore will be easily seduced by his arguments. It’s a lot easier on the brain of Joe Public to accept that God did it all, even if it has to be dressed up in fallacious arguments, bad logic and misrepresentations of the facts. Peddlers of the irreducible complexity theory are seductive to the public alright – but like all seducers, they lie and never say anything of substance.
The universe is governed by natural laws. Laws require a lawgiver.
This is essentially a misinterpretation of what a law actually is. It’s pardonable – most people don’t know. A law is a description of how things usually happen, which has been so well observed and documented that there is virtually no doubt that if Event X happens in Situation Y, Effect Z will be the result. For example, if you drop something, it will hit the floor. If it doesn’t, you’re either in space, or the law of gravity has spontaneously vanished, in which case you’ll shortly be in space anyway.
Natural laws are descriptions of behaviour: they do not regulate anything. They’re simply human perceptions of how the Universe normally reacts. The confusion probably arises because of the confusion between the laws which society uses to mandate or forbid specific behaviour and physical laws. The reason they’re called laws is because they are so universally applicable that they might as well mandate physical events. They do not, however, do so. Laws, like Theories, are subject to change if new evidence arises which may contradict them or alter our knowledge.
Stay Tuned For Part Three, After These Messages!