Here is one of the more essays I wrote based on discussions I’ve had hereon and on other sites like Pandas Thumb. I think this is one of the more appropriate essays for discussions here and it also happens to be one I feel is fully finished at this point. Well…I’m happy with it, but clearly I may edit it a bit given constructive criticism… 🙂
I haven’t seen much press on this lately, but back in the late 1980s, Creationists – a slice of Christians who hold that the creation of the universe, Earth, and all living things on Earth were created by God exactly as described in the Christian Bible and that the Earth is roughly 10,000 years old…tops – tried an end around to the 1987 Supreme Court decision (Edwards v. Aguillard) barring the teaching of Creation Science in public schools. The attempted end-around was called Intelligent Design (ID).
ID, boiled down, is essentially a dressed up version of William Paley’s The Watch and The Watchmaker argument for the existence of God, or rather, a slightly gussied up Teleological Argument for the Existence of God. Paley’s argument goes like this: if you stumble upon a rock in the woods, you could reasonably surmise that it had been there, in that state, forever (keep in mind that Paley wrote his analogy in 1802 and was not familiar with what we now know about geology and in particular plate tectonics and erosion and similar forces. So, he can be forgiven for thinking that some items of the universe (like planets and stars) and the Earth (like soil, rocks, mountains, rivers, land masses, and so forth) exist unchanged forever) as a simple object of nature. By contrast, if you stumble upon a watch, you would not think that this item had been there forever, but rather you’d likely think that this item reflected the intent of a creator and, in particular given its complex parts working in intricate harmony, functions specifically for a purpose the creator designed it for. Given this, by analogy one can reasonably look at the universe and, seeing its complex interactions working in intricate harmony, infer it too must be designed and conclude, therefore, there is an ultimate Designer.
All Teleological Arguments rely on the same basic argument: certain features and functions of the world exhibit complexity that appears far too harmonious and intricate to have occurred by accident and thus must have been intelligently designed. Ergo…God.
It’s helpful to understand a bit about the history and use of the concept to better understand the application of teleology in theology, but it’s not absolutely necessary. That said, here are a definition and a brief summary:
Teleology comes from the Greek telos, meaning end (as in goal or purpose), and logos, meaning reason. So, teleology is about understanding the purpose of things. In its most basic form, teleology is the study of the purpose that phenomena serve rather than the cause by which they arise in order to provide an explanation for the phenomena. In other words, teleologists hold that the purpose for the sky being blue is more useful in understanding aspects of the world than studying and understanding optics and the Rayleigh Diffusion Effect. I admit, I’ve had no luck digging up a teleological explanation for the sky being blue, but apparently there used to be some popular ones back before modern science’s explanations. The point is, teleology attempts to address ‘why’ things occur, as opposed to scientific approaches that attempt to answer ‘how’ things occur. It’s also worth understanding that teleology, particularly as popularized by Aristotle and Plato in their day, was a reflection by analogy of the fact that nearly all human endeavors are goal-oriented and purpose driven. Thus by analogy, Aristotle saw the universe as rational and purposeful – analogous to human rational and purposeful behavior – and thus felt that all phenomena can only fully be understood when one considers and appreciates the purpose of the various phenomena.
There are a number of issues I have with teleological arguments and perspectives, but I’m going to focus on four main issues here.
First and foremost, technically there is no actual argument in the teleological approach to the existence of God as it’s simply a tautology and thus question begging. If your philosophy’s premise assumes that all things have purpose and goals, using that philosophy to argue for a goal-oriented and purpose-creating designer is simply restating your premise’s assumptions. It’s just arguing in a circle. Intelligent Design tries to dress the argument up a bit by focusing on complexity vs purpose and goals, but the issue remains the same. In ID, the argument is changed slightly to certain biological and informational features of living things are too complex to be the result of natural selection (or natural processes) and therefore must be the result of intentional and rational (intelligent) design requiring an intelligent designer. This, of course, suffers from the same tautological issue noted above: the first premise of ID is that living things are too complex to be the product of natural processes, but if the premise is that living things can’t come about from natural processes, what’s left? By premising that living things can’t be the product of natural processes, the premise implies something other than natural processes – i.e. design processes. To then conclude a designer is simply restating the premise. Yet again, a tautology.
Next, there’s the fallacy of the General Rule. The fallacy of the General Rule is a logical fallacy wherein someone assumes that something in general is true in all possible cases. A standard example is the claim that “all chairs have four legs”. But clearly rocking chairs have either no legs or two legs, depending on the design, and there are plenty of modern chair designs with three legs, and not a few bar stools that are essentially held up on a single pole. In the case of ID, the assumption is that complexity implies design and since biological objects are complex they must be designed. The thing is though, not all designed things – well, human designed things – are complex. Consider toothpicks, paper clips, floss, and Popsicle sticks as but a few examples. These objects are never used in teleological arguments for obvious reasons. And while it’s certainly possible that a toothpick could come about through natural processes, we know a human-designed toothpick when we see it and not because of the harmonious workings of its complex parts. No, it’s because of two things: man-made toothpicks have tell-tale evidence of being manufactured and they exist in greater collected numbers than nature could reasonably produce.
Another issue with ID that is related to the fallacy of the General Rule noted above is that it relies upon a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is a logical fallacy wherein someone argues that some condition has only two alternatives when in fact there are more. An example would be someone who insists that the only alternative to driving a car is walking when clearly bicycles, skateboards, pogo sticks, and air travel all exist. In the case of ID, even if one were to agree that most, if not all, living organisms are too complex to have come about through evolutionary processes, it’s questionable at best whether a designer (and specifically God) is the only alternative. There are abundant natural processes that lead to complex organized structures (think snowflakes, tree rings, and the Giant’s Causeway). And even if we grant a necessitated designer, since there’s no way to assess or know anything about the supposed designer inferred by ID, the designer could very well be invisible pink unicorns or aliens. The bottom line is that it’s a rather large (and unrealistic) stretch to assume the only way to get biological complexity is either evolution or God.
Lastly, as noted above, we don’t infer design from complexity so much as we infer design from indications of manufacturing. This, for me, the primary failure of all forms of teleological arguments for the existence of God and ID in particular. Designs are a very specific form of plan and planning. We make designs (usually written and drawn) to help us visualize how various components and processes will interact and work in a given environment in order to (hopefully) highlight problems and issues before we actually manufacture the object of design. So the truth is that looking at an object tells one very little about the actual activity that went into designing that object. And while looking at an object can indicate something about whether the object was designed, it’s really the indications that the object was manufactured through some tool use process that provides that inference. Manufacturing leaves evidence; design does not.
I’ve never found the ID arguments for the design of biological organisms all that compelling for a number of reasons. The dubious math, the fallacious arguments, the disingenuous bait and switch to Christian apologetics, and so forth. But even beyond that, there was something about the objects in nature – organisms themselves – that just don’t seem designed to me. There is something different about them compared to man-made objects, but I was not able to put my finger on what I felt the difference was. And then it hit me one night: replaceable parts.
All man-made objects – every single one – are either designed specifically to be replaced or have components that are designed specifically to be replaced. Why? Because tool users and manufacturers learn really quick that tools and/or certain parts of tools wear out. So as designers, we anticipate the need for maintenance.
No such anticipation or planning for maintenance can be found in nature. None. If something breaks in an organism, either that organism learns to live without it or it dies. Or, in the case of humans, that part gets replaced by human designed or human configured replacements (as in my case). But even in the later case, humans have to create a work-around, because biological parts actual resist being replaced. You can’t just replace human parts with other human parts willy-nilly. In most cases, the new parts just won’t work, or worse, they’ll be rejected by the body’s immune system. But of particular note, there’s no surplus of replacement parts anywhere; no storage unit somewhere with a bunch of eyes or hearts or toes or hair or kidneys or…anything. Not even bark or leaves or antennae or scales. Nothing.
Of course, this makes perfect sense given evolution and other similar natural processes. It makes no sense if there were an actual designer, particularly an omni-god Designer, behind it all.