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 â including the most devastating of all — and discusses how our minds can fool us into seeing intention where none exists.
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 doesnât 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.
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 balancedâŠ 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 donât 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.