“This can’t have all just come into being by itself. It’s too big, too complex, too perfectly balanced. Nothing this amazing could have just come into existence on its own. It had to have been designed.”
This is the argument from design. And it’s not just for wacky creationists. According to Michael Shermer’s How We Believe, it’s the single most common reason that people give for believing in God — including progressive, rational, science-loving believers in God.
It’s the single most common argument for the existence of God. And it’s a terrible one.
I want to talk about why.
The argument from design essentially says, “Look at the world, how wonderful and complex and perfectly balanced — it has to have been designed!”
The response to that argument: No, it doesn’t.
That’s the whole point of the theory of evolution. (Let’s start there — we’ll get to the cosmology in a minute.) If you believe in the argument from design, you really need to read about the theory of evolution a whole lot more. (I suggest The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, easily the best explanation of modern evolutionary theory for the layperson that I’ve read.) The whole point of evolutionary theory is that it explains exactly how life came to be the complex and amazingly balanced web of interconnections that it is, with species beautifully adapted to their environments — not through design, but through natural selection and descent with modification.
Some people — mostly creationists — mistakenly see evolutionary theory as saying that life evolved by accident. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evolution is the opposite of accident. Evolutionary theory says that accidents — mutations — happen… but only the ones that help the life form survive and reproduce will get replicated in the next generation. It’s the opposite of accident. It’s a series of accidents that get filtered out through the harsh, unforgiving, entirely non-accidental process called survival of the fittest.
Douglas Adams (the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” guy) summed this up beautifully in his posthumous book The Salmon of Doubt: “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'” That’s evolution in a nutshell. Just like the hole was not designed for the puddle, the world was not designed to fit us — we evolved to fit into the world.
Other people — many non-creationist theists — argue that evolution happened, but God helped it along. But there’s no evidence for that theory whatsoever. There’s no explanation as to what the mechanism for that process would be, or for how we would determine whether it’s true. And more to the point, there’s no need of it. There is an unbelievably enormous mountain of hard physical evidence — fossil records, DNA, anatomical studies, you name it — supporting the idea that evolution is entirely capable of happening all by its lonesome, as a 100% natural event with no divine intervention necessary at any point.
This is where David Hume comes in.
I’m going to paraphrase here, since I don’t have his books handy, and don’t feel like ordering them from Powell’s just so I can quote them in my blog. Hume argued that order and stability in the universe can easily be explained without a designer. He pointed out that, even if you start with a completely chaotic, random, unstable universe, given enough time some forms are going to come into being, purely by chance, that are stable and orderly. And because they’re stable and orderly, they’re going to last longer than the forms that are unstable and chaotic.
Therefore, given the filtering process that you naturally get from huge gobs of time (I’m pretty sure that’s how Hume put it), you’ll eventually have a universe with fewer and fewer unstable and disorderly forms, and more and more stable and orderly ones.
Bear in mind — Hume was writing a good century before Darwin. And yet this is one of the best broad outlines of evolutionary theory to date. Especially if you add “self-perpetuating and self-replicating” to “stable and orderly.” Hume’s theory works even better then: in a chaotic universe, forms that are not just stable but good at perpetuating and replicating themselves (read: surviving and reproducing) will not only stick around but will proliferate. Hume was a goddamn genius. He rocks.
And the thing is, this principle DOESNâT just apply to biological life on earth. It applies to the cosmos as well. There are planets because planets are a stable form. There are stars because stars are a stable form. It’s not really evolution — it’s not descent with modification — but the filtering process over time is not at all dissimilar.
Now, it’s true that we know far less about the cosmos than we do about life on earth. (We know a lot more than we did fifty or even five years ago, but there’s still an enormous amount we don’t know.) Why the universe developed the way it did, how it came to exist in the first place… these questions, along with “What is consciousness?” and “What, if anything, is free will?” and “Will the Cubs ever win the World Series?” are the great mysteries of our time, the great questions that science is working on but has yet to answer.
So for about the billionth time on this blog, I’m going to cite my piece The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely. And I will again say this: Look at the history of the world, and the history of knowledge in the world. The number of times that a once-mysterious phenomenon had a divine or supernatural explanation successfully replaced by a natural one — thousands upon thousands upon thousands. The number of times that a once-mysterious phenomenon had a natural explanation successfully replaced by a divine or supernatural one — zero.
Therefore, with any given unexplained phenomenon — including the nature and origin of the universe — it is about a billion times more likely that the explanation will eventually turn out to be a natural one rather than a divine or supernatural one. And David Hume’s “order out of chaos” filtering process provides an excellent basic framework for reaching that explanation.
To argue, “We don’t know exactly how this happened, therefore it’s reasonable to say that God made it happen” is called arguing from ignorance, and it’s a logical fallacy. There’s no more need to explain the cosmos with intelligent design than there is to explain life with it.
End of Part 1. In tomorrow’s conclusion: What we would do if we didn’t exist; begging the question; and what the river is trying to do.