The Argument From Design Part Two: What Would We Do If We Didn’t Exist? Plus Begging the Question, and What Is the River Trying To Do?

In yesterday’s episode, our heroine revealed how evolution demolishes the argument from design when it comes to the complexity of life, and how David Hume dismantles the argument from design when it comes to the complexity of the universe. In today’s conclusion, she reveals two more arguments against the argument from design – including the most devastating of all — and discusses how our minds can fool us into seeing intention where none exists.

Argument 2: If we didn’t exist, then  well, we wouldn’t exist.

The argument from design — both for life on earth specifically and the cosmos generally — often goes like this: The planet is so perfectly set up to support life — and the universe with its principles of physics is so perfectly set up to support the existence of the earth — that it can’t possibly be a coincidence.

My answer: And if it hadn’t happened the way it did, then we wouldn’t be here to be wondering about it.

Is it really that hard to imagine the possibility of life on Earth not existing?

Here’s an analogy. If your parents hadn’t met, hadn’t gotten together, hadn’t had sex on exactly the day that they conceived you, in exactly the right way to make that one particular sperm out of thousands fertilize that egg… you wouldn’t have been born. Ditto their parents, and theirs, and theirs… all making your birth even more unlikely, by several orders of magnitude.

Does that mean you were fated to be born? That everything about human evolution and reproduction was designed so that you could be born?

Or was it simply chance that you got born instead of somebody else? (Okay, chance plus adaptive descent with modification.)

The fact that you’re here doesn’t mean you were fated or designed to be here. It means that the million-sided evolutionary dice got rolled, and your number came up. You won the lottery. That doesn’t mean the lottery was designed so you could win it. If you roll ten dice, the chances that they’ll come up in the pattern 4636221434 is over 60 million to one… but the fact that this particular pattern is astronomically unlikely doesn’t mean it was designed to happen.

I get that it’s extremely difficult to conceive of a world without you in it. Here you are conceiving it, after all; your presence is kind of implied in the imagining. But if you step back from your own life and look at the world from an outside perspective, logically you have to admit that you’re not actually the one necessary lynchpin on which all of human existence turns. Sorry to be a buzz-kill (I’m pretty sure David Hume said that as well), but the human race could easily have happened without you.

And the exact same thing is true of life on this planet.

The universe existed for billions of years before this planet came along and spewed out this weird self-replicating DNA stuff. And it will continue to exist for billions of years after the earth is boiled into the sun. The fact that life happened to take hold on this planet doesn’t make it necessary that life had to have taken hold on this planet. If it hadn’t happened, then things would have happened some other way, and there’d be a bunch of planets and stars and stuff whirling around with nobody to wonder about them. (Unless there’s conscious life on other planets, which is of course a possibility.)

In the same way that you are not the necessary lynchpin on which all human life turns, human life is not the necessary lynchpin on which the entire universe turns. The fact that there is a hole in the universe perfectly shaped to fit the puddle of humanity doesn’t mean that the hole — much less the entire universe — was designed for that purpose. Our wondering about the universe isn’t required for it to exist.

And you know what? The exact same thing is true for the existence of the universe itself. Some have argued that the laws of physics and gravitational constants and whatnot are so perfectly balanced to allow the universe to exist at all, that it’s impossible for it to be a coincidence, for it to not have been designed. But I say again: If the laws of physics and gravity and such didn’t allow the universe to last billions of years, if they’d dictated that after the Big Bang the universe would either collapse instantly or expand so rapidly that everything just flew apart… well, then that’s what would have happened. And again, we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it.

Argument 3: God just begs the question.

If you’re going to argue that life and/or the universe is too amazing and complex to have just come into being on its own, that it had to have been designed by a creator… then where do you think that creator came from?

Wouldn’t the creator also be huge, amazing, complex, perfectly balanced  all of the qualities the universe has that make people think it had to have been designed?

If so… then who designed the designer?

And if not, if God has just always existed… then why is he logically necessary? If there’s some unbelievably huge, complicated, beautifully balanced entity that was the first thing to exist… why can’t that entity be the universe, and not God?

God doesn’t answer the question of design. God just begs the question. God just sets the question back one level, meanwhile adding an unnecessary layer of complexity to the explanation.

This is a rather shorter argument than the other two. But I think it’s far more devastating.

After all, with the first two arguments, people can always say, “Well, it just doesn’t seem likely to me.” Non-believers can wave evolution books and statistical principles in their faces all day; we can talk about Bertrand Russell’s imaginary teapot orbiting the sun and point out that just because something is theoretically possible doesn’t make it reasonable to believe it. But the believing mind can still say, “You can’t 100% prove it, therefore you still could be wrong, therefore the part of my mind that decides what is and isn’t likely still gets to make a choice.”

But I have never — and I mean NEVER — seen a counter to the questions, “Who designed the designer? And if the answer is ‘nobody,’ then why can’t that be the answer for the universe?” Not one that’s made a lick of sense, anyway. People always just say things like “There has to be an unmoved mover,” and when you ask them why there has to be an unmoved mover, they reply, “There just does. It just makes sense.”

They have no real reply. There isn’t one.


The thing you have to remember is this. The human brain is designed — not by God, but by evolution, and for very good evolutionary reasons — to see the world in terms of intention. Our brains are designed to see things as happening because somebody made them happen — tigers who want to eat us, rabbits who want to escape from us, other people who want to have sex with us or make alliances with us or steal our yummy rabbit stew. It’s embedded in our language in ways we’re not even conscious of: water seeks its own level, the river is trying to return to the sea, the plant is reaching for the sun. (I’ve done it myself, right here in this piece, talking about the process of evolution “designing” the human brain and the laws of physics “allowing” the universe to exist.)

But it’s not always true. According to the best evidence we have, intentionality seems to be a very specific biological process, probably limited to animal species with nervous systems. The river isn’t trying to do anything. The river is moving towards the sea in accordance with the laws of nature. It seems as if it’s trying to get somewhere, but it isn’t, except in the most metaphorical or poetic sense of the word. It seems as if it’s trying to get somewhere because we’re trying to get somewhere, and because our brains have evolved to see the world in terms of things that are trying to get somewhere.

But that doesn’t mean that life as a whole, or the universe as a whole, is trying to get somewhere. And it doesn’t mean that life or the universe was designed by someone who was trying to get somewhere. Yes, it may seem as if life and the universe have a designer, but it also seems as if the sun goes around the earth, and that doesn’t make it true. We don’t need the God hypothesis to explain life or the universe, and the God hypothesis doesn’t answer any questions about the universe that don’t then immediately beg to be asked about God himself. “This had to have been designed by someone” may be the most common reason that people believe in God, but it really isn’t a very good one.

The Argument From Design Part Two: What Would We Do If We Didn’t Exist? Plus Begging the Question, and What Is the River Trying To Do?
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13 thoughts on “The Argument From Design Part Two: What Would We Do If We Didn’t Exist? Plus Begging the Question, and What Is the River Trying To Do?

  1. 1

    Actually, from what I remember, Thomas Aquinas argued that it makes sense for God to be the creator of the universe because God is actually *simpler* than the universe. But then again he was using an Aristotelian model of the universe and confused semantics with reality.

  2. 2

    From the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill:
    It would have been wholly inconsistent with my father’s ideas of duty, to allow me to acquire impressions contrary to his convictions and feelings respecting religion: and he impressed upon me from the first, that the manner in which the world came into existence was a subject on which nothing was known: that the question, “Who made me?” cannot be answered, because we have no experience or authentic information from which to answer it; and that any answer only throws the difficulty a step further back, since the question immediately presents itself, Who made God?

  3. CL

    If I may play devil’s advocate…I wouldn’t say that the complexity of the universe DEMANDS design, but it sure as hell suggests it! Not trying to be mean or anything, ‘cuz, you know, we’re both kick-ass writers and insanely awesome human beings (smiley face here), but I feel your “beg the question” argument is far less persuasive than you opine.
    At least from a biblical standpoint, the question “who created God” is unanswerable because in the Bible God is described as eternal. This simple proposition is quite an elegant counter to your question, “Who designed the designer?” God doesn’t need a designer unless we force him into our worldview which states that anything that exists must have had a beginning. While I feel that to be true in the material universe at (?) vibration, why assume it must be true for whatever may be beyond the universe or realms of higher vibration? And I freely admit – the concept of something existing without a beginning completely boggles my finite little mind!!
    You ask, “And if the answer is ‘nobody,’ then why can’t that be the answer for the universe?” My personal reason “nobody” can’t be the answer for the universe is, again, every material effect in the material universe has a cause. I feel that if God exists, he / she / it must exist on some plane some place that is not material, and not confined to the material laws of physics, and thus not in requirement of a birthday.
    As a side note, as far as I know, the only material phenomenon to just come into existence seemingly without a material cause is them damn quantum / quarck particles (I apologize for my murdering of physics here, buy y’all get the point). Those little bastards just “pop” into existence and nobody knows from where. And to me, this strengthens my gut feeling that the material universe hangs upon an immaterial one. Otherwise, from whence does the lowly quarck spring??
    And while I’ll never ask you to think like me, I would be most honored if you at least considered my opinion a true counter to the question of who designed the designer. I feel it is a real reply.
    Okay, gots to go! Thanks again for the mental stimulation!!
    From one writer to another,

  4. 4

    The point of “who designed God?” isn’t solely based on our notion of the laws of physics, but also on the idea that anything that exists must have a logical *reason* (not necessarily physical cause) for existing. So then the question is “Why does god exist rather than not exist”?
    Anselm essentially tried to argue that God contained the reason for his own existence as one of his characteristics, but virtually every philosopher has rejected his argument (it might work if you think human categories such as ‘perfection’ actually exist independent of human minds).
    If the answer is that he just exists and doesn’t need a reason, then one could say the same thing about the first instant of the universe (or even the universe as a whole).
    As far as I know, it isn’t suggested that particles literally ‘pop’ into existence out of absolute nothingness, rather out of a kind underlying energy that fills most of the known universe.

  5. CL

    @ Brandon – To clarify, I didn’t mean to suggest that quarks popped out of “absolute nothingness” but rather that they come from some non-material field – exactly as you suggest here: “a kind underlying energy that fills most of the known universe” and exactly as I suggest here: “an immaterial universe suspended behind the material one” (paraphrased)
    Good catch –

  6. 6

    I really like the section on “intention” however as to the arugment of a god (which one?) being eternal I have never heard a theist be able to answer the why question. For example, if god or gods created the universe for a reason but the god/s have always exsisted why have they existed. what is their purpose? I know it’s not a major point but sometimes it gets them thinking a little.

  7. 7

    CL, just wanted to let you know: I’m planning to reply to your comment son both posts, but it’s ten at night and I just got home half an hour ago, so it ain’t gonna be tonight. Didn’t want you to think I was ignoring you. -G

  8. 8

    I had this exact same argument with my wife’s pastor. It did not go over well; first, it offended my wife, and second, I don’t think the pastor understood the problem at all. He doesn’t understand the difference between carbon-14 and carbon-fibre, you see, so I have reason to doubt his intellectual background.

  9. 9

    I would be very, very cautious about deriving any sort of philosophical conclusions from the field of quantum physics, particularly since it’s one of the most poorly understood fields outside of the lab. My background is history, and my window into this is the argument between men like Heisenberg and men like Einstein. My understanding is that Heisenberg believed his equations and theory properly explained the EFFECTS of the sub atomic world, but not actual nature of that world.
    So, yes, some uses of the wave function show that a particals can suddenly appear, along with the appropriate anti-partical to keep the equation balanced. But, firstly, most of the time they mutually annihilate, turning back into background energy. Not really something inspiring. Secondly, maybe that’s only what it look like to us. The equations aren’t telling us what is actually happening, or what we would see if we could push aside Heisenberg’s uncertainty. They are telling us what the effects are, and those effects are simply the sudden appearance and disappearance of certain particles.
    But frankly, unless you’re part of Fermilab or a similar institution, I’m not sure we should be reaching for Quantum theory to help shape our worldviews. This is one of those fields that is easier to understand the less you know.

  10. 10

    It sounds like we’re talking about two very different uses of the term ‘energy’. I’m talking about energy in the material-universe sense as something that follows deterministic (or probabilistic), generally predictable laws. It sounds you’re implying some sort of mystical, supernatural use when you say “an immaterial universe suspended behind the material one”

  11. 11

    Excellent and elegant writing as usual, I just discovered this. But you may have left out a very obvious component of the rebuttal: Existence may be “complex” but it sure ain’t all “marvelous” or all “beautiful.” That little Hindu girl with four arms and four legs sure was complex all right. The only thing marvelous was the skill and charity of the surgeons who fixed God’s wondrous design, may they burn in hell for countermanding the Divine Plan.
    “He who made kittens put snakes in the grass”

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