The Question Intelligent Design Can’t Answer

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 3 min.

God Cooking by Gary LarsonThis morning, I started writing about a podcast episode I enjoyed that touched on the theme of reductionism. In doing so, I was reminded of Intelligent Design exponent Michael Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity, which led me to write an extensive aside about Intelligent Design that I’m now going to publish as a brief post in its own right.

The gist of the Intelligent Design argument – of which irreducible complexity is an important part – is that the universe is too complex, too fine-tuned and too statistically unlikely to have come about without a designer. Even the simplest life forms are far too complex to have come into being out of natural causes.1 The existence of a designer is, therefore, the most plausible theory, they claim.

Many (practically all, in fact) supporters of Intelligent Design use the theory to support belief in God.2 Behe himself, however, has pointed out that the theory does not tell us much about the nature of the designer or designers.3 After all, to apply one of 18th century philosopher David Hume’s many ideas on the topic: a skyscraper is designed and built not by a single entity, but by a large group of workers who are dead within a hundred years of building the thing.

There are many strong arguments against Intelligent Design, but the one great big question that completely destroys the theory is the following (note that I’ve worded this to emphasize notions of complexity):

If the universe is too complex to have come into being on its own and therefore required a designer, and if God himself is infinitely more perfect and complex than the universe, then is it not required that a designer designed God?

In other words, there is the implication in Intelligent Design that at some point, a complex un-designed designer came into existence, presumably – Behe’s qualifiers notwithstanding – one who is perfect, all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, etc. Most Christians, however, will point out that God is infinite and has no starting point.4

That’s fine, but it only further takes the steam out of Intelligent Design theory, which presents itself as a more rational, scientifically plausible explanation for the existence of the universe and life than what most scientists currently accept. That is, it’s harder to accept an infinitely complex and perfect sentient creator coming into being without a designer than it is to accept a far less complex and less perfect finite universe coming into being without a designer.

I propose an alternative perspective: That the complexities of the universe are beyond human understanding says more about the simplicity of the current state of the human mind than it does about the nature of the universe. I have a hard time believing that a species that has not yet even figured out how to live peacefully and nondestructively has evolved anywhere near the point of being able to make accurate declarations about what qualifies as impossibly complex.

My favorite argument for the existence of God is the simplest: “I look at the world and, inexplicably, I feel His presence.” It seems to me that to acknowledge the possibility for science to threaten such a feeling is to point to the possibility that the feeling is dependent upon special conditions in which there exists the idea that God exists. If God exists, the effects of God’s presence should obtain regardless of explicit philosophical or implicit scientific claims to the contrary.

  1. If you want to hear someone arguing this position, there are many examples on YouTube, such as Dinesh D’Souza arguing here that for a cell to have come to being in a warm pond would be tantamount to a skyscraper or car suddenly appearing:
  2. Intelligent Design theory is a contemporary facet of the old Teleological Argument for the Existence of God, which is most popularly associated with William Paley:
  3. I heard Behe, himself a Roman Catholic, interviewed on this topic in the documentary, Flock of Dodos:
  4. For a philosophical explanation of this, see Thomas Aquinas’ Cosmological Argument, which has its roots in Aristotle via Islamic philosophers:

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Further Reading

4 Replies to “The Question Intelligent Design Can’t Answer”

  1. Hi David –

    Thanks for your comment. The articles you linked intelligently elaborate on some of the creationist arguments I touched on in my blog post. Boiled down, they are:

    1. The cosmological argument, which was introduced into Christianity by Thomas Aquinas, who got it from Aristotle via Muslims. The argument says that all matter must have a cause, and therefore there must be an initial cause of the material universe that is not subject to the laws of matter, and is therefore immaterial. That immaterial cause is – and here’s the leap – God.

    My issue with the argument is that even if all the stuff about matter is true, it doesn’t tell us anything about the initial cause except that it is itself not matter. It doesn’t even begin to address the difficult questions of how an immaterial being can affect matter, or whether it really is just one being, and whether that being is good or evil, etc.

    2. The teleological argument, or argument from design, which says that the universe and life itself are too complex to have simply happened out of nowhere. William Paley used the example of a pocket watch, pointing out that we intuitively know that a pocket watch was designed and man-made, and Michael Behe more recently uses the intuitive example of Mount Rushmore.

    There are MANY problems with this argument, but my favorite response to it is: When I look at those examples, I do feel intuitively that they were designed. When I look at a cell (whether it’s a cancer cell or a healthy one), the stars in the sky, or the powerful forces of nature, I do not get that feeling.

    That said, here are a few additional comments I’d like to make:

    I don’t have a problem with people believing in God so much as I have a problem with people using arguments such as the above as rational support of their belief in God. An example of a smart Christian philosopher who was against the idea of pursuing rational support of theism was Soren Kierkegaard. According to him, attempting to rationally understand God’s ontological makeup gets one further from God, not closer.

    Arguments for God are not automatically made true just because an argument against God does not seem to hold water. So, true, science doesn’t have all the answers, but that doesn’t automatically prove the metaphysical claims of any particular religion.

    From my perspective as a human being, the world is full of beauty and ugliness and love and hate and wonder and mystery, and I am absolutely fascinated with what it means or doesn’t mean to be human, and I cannot accept the reductionist notion that animals are *just* animated matter with varying degrees of sentience. I have an overwhelming innate curiosity about these things that I can’t turn off (otherwise I would stick to safer topics on my website, which was initially designed to expose people to my music), and no religious perspective has yet to satisfy that innate curiosity.

    Daosim and Zen Buddhism are the religions I find most compelling, but each with much qualification.

    I think Michael Behe is a sincere person, and I accept the fact that his own curiosity and skepticism have lead him in a direction that makes sense to him.

    Finally, I’m going to be picky about which comments I approve on this post. Hateful or patronizing comments from any perspective are unlikely to get approved. Comments by nice, respectful people who want to have a reasonable discussion will be approved.


  2. Dan —

    Very good article. I believe in a creator-God, and I am also well educated in rhetoric and logic (insert joke here). I cannot find logical fault with your argument, and I appreciate your well-thought and respectful post.

    At some point faith has to be illogical. Even in the Bible, faith is expressed as the “…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. [He 11:1]”.

    One fallacy I often see in this debate is the false dichotomy — if Creationism is true, Evolution is not (and vice versa). So often I see people defend Evolution with “Creationism is silly” (and vice versa). While such an approach can work:

    A is false because B (incompatible with A) is true

    It fails in this respect:

    A is true because B (incompatible with A) is false

    This is an important distinction, and were the truth of it known, half of the internet noise on this topic would be removed without comment.

    In short, the arguments of Intelligent Design can be used to disprove Evolution, but they cannot be used to prove Existence of a Creator-God (this is the point of your post).

    The existence of a Creator-God can only be proven if one could produce such a being (or such a being appeared)… the proof would be beyond rhetoric at that point.

    Until that happens (and yes, I believe one day we will all come face-to-face with the Creator-God), it is simply an article of my faith that He exists. While I have great time discussing the implausability of Darwinism using I.D. arguments, I don’t pretend I could convince a faithless person my God exists using rhetoric.

    Again, good post, good discussion!

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