Home > atheism, philosophy, religion, science > An Atheist’s Perspective: Being Part V of an In-Depth Look at the Argument from Design

An Atheist’s Perspective: Being Part V of an In-Depth Look at the Argument from Design

If we took anything from last post, it should be that an achievement is not great just because it is large. The universe is not an incredible achievement because of its size, and it’s doubtful that it could be considered an achievement anyway. However, we do consider—and I think this can be said without controversy—that complexity really lends itself to consideration of what is and what is not an achievement. The LHC, perhaps the most incredible achievement built by the hand of man is not incredible because of its size, but for what it does. Perhaps, also because it depowers an entire town when it runs at full capacity and that’s just a cool side effect of it. The complexity of a thing is directly related to how we, as lay people, would go about even beginning to comprehend how such a thing was possible. Our incredulity extends not only to things which are large and complex but also to those things which we know exist as possibilities but are so rare that we cannot consider that they could happen on their own.

[Special note to philosophers: I categorically reject that “modal properties” are anything other than linguistic exercises, that just needs to be said in anticipation of a particularly virulent strain of objection]

The Argument from Design (AfD) contains a conflation of terms that, colloquially, we all make. It is the confusion between what is possible and what is probable; as well as their opposites impossible and impossible. This is confusion that goes back to Aristotle, who points out the misuse of the terms in De Caleo (“On the Heavens”), explaining that while we use the terms interchangeably they do not have the same import of meaning. For instance a thing which is impossible is also improbable but not for the same reason. That which is improbable is a thing which is unlikely to happen, while something which is impossible; cannot ever happen. Cicero uses the example of placing letter tiles in a bag and throwing them in the air, the odds that they would land to form the writings of a Roman poet are far from likely. For him, as well as other AfD’ers, this is proof of some guiding intelligence in the universe. Cicero’s mistake should be obvious, just because the odds are incredibly remote does not indicate that the letters will never fall in a particular order. Even if we were to attempt this experiment a million times and never get the desired result; we may even never get the letters to form a single word does not mean that it isn’t possible. Just as a roulette wheel may never land on red for fifty spins, an unlikely event but an entirely possible one.

That which is impossible contains within it some kind of inherent contradiction in terms. We can never have a geometric circle that possesses a corner, or a right triangle that violates the Pythagorean Theorem. Also I cannot be considered to be both standing and sitting at the same time. The AfD argument wishes to make this claim that the armillary sphere could not have come into being through non-intelligent means thus the universe which it is made in mockery must also have come into being through design. One might be tempted to dismiss the claim of the Stoics by pointing out that there perfectly designed universe is not astronomically correct, but that is a mere quibble that ought to be rejected. What matters is that the measurements and principles, by which the armillary sphere is made, are made through human intellect. There representations but not the actual thing in question. Gravity pulls the planets around the sun, but it doesn’t abide by a rule. Those rules are those which we invented to predict the placement of the planets. As an analogy think of a life sized mannequin of you. The mannequin is designed in imitation of you, but it does not legislate your size; and importantly the measurement of your height does not make your height.

The improbability of existence being able to support any thing is taken up by contemporary philosopher Peter Van Inwagen. To his argument’s credit he comes at the AfD in a clever way: by working backwards. If we look at something like the gravitational constant, which causes things on Earth fall toward the center at the rate of 9.8 m/s2 we can come to the understanding that this measurement is so precise and so integral to the very existence of matter that if it were slightly different things would not hold together. Van Inwagen’s argument is that we could imagine a machine that is used to form the universe having all kinds of dials, levers, and buttons by which to set features like gravity so that they could support matter and eventually life. While clever, his argument still falls into the same trap as Cicero’s and Paley’s. The measurements do not create the thing itself, they only measure it. I am not quite certain that this is a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc in which two unrelated but chronologically sequential events are assume to have a causal relationship but it is close to that.

Another issue is that if such a machine exists, then it reduces the god being to a mere tinkerer. One who, through trial and error has been messing around with the settings until something worked out. It negates the omniscience of the creator (so does the existence of such a machine but since Van Inwagen is arguing from analogy that would be a trite quibble to make) since it’s got to fiddle around with the dials until everything is just so. It’s akin to the curious statement that Alan Rickman as Metatron makes in Kevin Smith’s Dogma about having gone through “about twelve Adams” before they figured out why their heads kept exploding. This raises the issue that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins bring up regarding this very argument, those who find it convincing have replaced the master craftsman with a bumbling tinkerer. The only button on that machine should be labeled “create,” and everything else ought to settle itself. I see nothing regarding complexity that necessitates a creative intelligence.

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