“It is more likely that the universe was the result of chance than that it was designed.” Discuss [40]

The teleological argument is the oldest and probably the most persuasive argument for the existence of God.  Starting with observations of order and/or purpose in the universe, it reasons that these qualities cannot arise naturally and must have been caused by an intelligent designer… God.  Aquinas’ version of the argument, his Fifth Way, drew on Aristotle’s worldview and likened natural object fulfilling their telos to arrows hitting a target; just as an arrow doesn’t strike true without an archer to let it loose, so natural objects can’t fulfil their telos by chance and their doing so makes the existence of an intelligent designer “which everybody calls God” necessary.  Of course Darwin’s discovery of evolution through natural selection provides a compelling natural explanation for the existence of what appears to be order and purpose without the need to hypothesise an intelligent designer-God, but Paley’s development of the argument in Natural Theology shows that even this did not undermine the attempt to use design to argue for God.  This is because many people misunderstood Darwin’s theory, assuming that the end-point of human consciousness was fixed and that evolution operates through chance, both of which made design seem more probable than natural processes as an explanation.  The fact that these misunderstandings persist is demonstrated by Tennant’s use of them in his teleological arguments in 1930 and more recently by the glut of modern fine-tuning and intelligent design arguments, mostly presented at the behest of the Discovery Institute and via fellows of its Center for Science and Culture.  It follows that despite the persistence of design arguments for God, it is far more likely that the universe results from chance – or at least from the “designs” of natural processes – than that it was designed by an intelligent-designer-God.

In modern times it was David Hume who first identified the flaw in the design argument through his character Philo in “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” (1779).  In Part VIII Philo draws on the thinking of Epicurus to ask why the appearance of order and purpose in nature could not be the result of chance in an infinite universe.  He points out…“the universe goes on for many ages in a continuous series of states of chaos and disorder. But couldn’t it happen that it eventually settles down, not so as to lose its motion and active force (for we are assuming that that is inherent in it), but so as to preserve a uniformity of appearance through all the hubbub of its moving parts?” This suggests that if the universe is truly infinite, meaning that all possibilities have been realised, then the possibility of part of the universe being ordered and purposeful would have been realised as a result of chance and not design.  Of course the Big Bang Theory seems to falsify Hume’s assumption that the Universe is infinite in the sense that all possibilities have been realised.  The Standard Model of Physics posits a hard beginning to time and space only 13.7 billion years ago, meaning that only some possibilities have been realised, although others will continue to be realised until the universe collapses.  Given this, it seems less likely that we inhabit a patch of order and purpose that has been generated by chance.  Nevertheless, this underestimates the scale of the universe, which is truly infinite… despite having a hard beginning, an edge and shape and continuing to expand.  It also applies a dated Newtonian worldview to a Universe that we now know resists such a characterisation.  Nobel Prize winning Physicist Steven Weinberg has cast doubt on the Cosmological Principle on which the Standard Model depends and which assumes that the part of the universe we see is a fair sample, whose laws and characteristics reflect laws and characteristics everywhere.  This supports Hume’s point that the design argument relies on the Fallacy of Composition and that conclusions about this part of the universe cannot automatically be extrapolated to the whole universe.  Hume’s character Philo asked “can it be proper to argue from parts to the whole? Doesn’t the great disproportion ·between part and whole· bar all comparison and inference? From observing the growth of a hair, can we learn anything about how men come into being? Would the way a leaf blows—even if we knew this perfectly—teach us anything about how a tree grows?”  And it seems that our 21st century appreciation of the scale and character of the universe only makes his questions more apposite.  So, Hume’s suggestion that the order and purpose we see in our part of the universe is not typical and the result of chance in an infinite universe rather than design has survived the advent of modern Cosmology.  Thus it follows that despite the persistence of design arguments for God, it is far more likely that the universe results from chance than that it was designed.

In Part II of “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” Hume’s character Philo went on to ask how we can hope to pronounce about the characteristics of the whole universe from our own, still very limited, experience.  He pointed out how “A very small part of this great system of the universe, during a very short time, is very imperfectly revealed to us” asking “Do we then pronounce confidently about the origin of the whole?” Philo also asks whether the appearance of order and purpose might not be a property of how we see things, rather than how they really are, not least because of the many examples of disorder and chaos in nature, later documented by Darwin and JS Mill as reasons why they cannot agree that nature suggests an intelligent designer-God.  These observations of Hume’s are again supported by modern scientific developments.  Psychology has documented how the human mind is predisposed to see patterns (order) and faces (purpose) even where they do not exist; the phenomenon is called pareidolia and so common is it that the famous Rorschach inkblot tests rely on it.  Further, psychology has documented how we are subject to Confirmation Bias, being more likely to see, notice and remember experiences which confirm our existing beliefs than those which challenge them.  Given these tendencies, Hume’s suggestion that our impression of order and purpose existing everywhere and confirming our existing belief in a supernatural deity seems very plausible.  Of course, accepting Hume’s point has wider consequences than undermining the design argument for God’s existence.  If we accept that the process of spotting patterns and extrapolating from them “universal natural laws” leads to flawed conclusions, then the whole scientific method is in jeopardy.  The fact that this same method has yielded technological advances and results such as the laptop on which I am typing this essay does suggest that Hume’s point is unreasonably sceptical and that his character Cleanthes was onto something when he called Philo’s reasoning “the most perverse and obstinate metaphysics.”  Yet there is an important difference between science and religion when it comes to the use of inductive reasoning; whereas scientific laws are always falsifiable and produce useful results, God is not a falsifiable hypothesis and the results of believing in him are mixed at best in terms of their usefulness.  As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, religion “teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world…” so that “faith is a cop-out.”  It follows that fear of the effects of Hume’s point on science is not a good reason to reject Hume’s point, so it is more likely that the universe results from chance than that it was designed.

Of course, recent arguments from Intelligent Design argue that it is more likely that the universe was designed than that it occurred by chance.  For example, William Dembski argues that any natural structure whose existence passes the (somewhat arbitrary) “Universal Probability Bound” of 1 in 10150  is more likely to have been designed than to have occurred naturally “by chance”.  He uses examples of structures such as amino-acids and DNA which exhibit Specified Complexity, being both finely tuned and extremely complex, whose existence he suggests strains the credibility of naturalistic explanations.  Michael Behe agrees, suggesting that there are irreducibly complex biochemical structures which resist standard evolutionary explanations and are suggestive of an intelligent designer.  Nevertheless, statisticians and biochemists have united in their criticism of Behe and Dembski, arguing that they have made basic errors in their science.  In particular, Behe ignores the possibility that structures can evolve out of as well as into existence, making “irreducibly complex” structures explainable through standard evolutionary theory.  Further, it is wrong to suggest that evolution itself operates entirely randomly; in fact it has a “design” of its own although not an intelligent one, in seeking to replicate genes.  Given this the result; a universe saturated with dysteleological suffering, makes sense.    As Dawkins wrote “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation… The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” [River Out of Eden]  This suggests that despite the persistence of design arguments for God, it is far more likely that the universe results from the pitiless “design” of evolution than that it was designed by any intelligent-designer God.

On a wider scale, recent fine-tuning arguments argue that the precise conditions necessary for the Big Bang to produce a life-sustaining planet like ours are so improbable that they are more likely to have been designed than to have occurred by chance. For example, Alister McGrath focuses on the fine-tuning of carbon, writing “[The entire biological] evolutionary process depends upon the unusual chemistry of carbon, which allows it to bond to itself, as well as other elements, creating highly complex molecules that are stable over prevailing terrestrial temperatures, and are capable of conveying genetic information (especially DNA). […] Whereas it might be argued that nature creates its own fine-tuning, this can only be done if the primordial constituents of the universe are such that an evolutionary process can be initiated. The unique chemistry of carbon is the ultimate foundation of the capacity of nature to tune itself” [A fine-tuned universe] In 1989 John Gribbin and Martin Rees wrote a detailed defence of the fine-tuning argument in their book Cosmic Coincidences. They argued: “The conditions in our Universe really do seem to be uniquely suitable for life forms like ourselves, and perhaps even for any form of organic complexity. But the question remains – is the Universe tailor-made for man?”  yet Richard Dawkins has rejected this line of argument, pointing out that the improbabilities attached to naturalistic explanations assume that a life-sustaining planet like ours was always bound to happen.  If we embrace the possibility that it was far more likely that no such planet would ever exist, we will really begin to appreciate that “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” [Unweaving the Rainbow] So, wouldn’t design be more probable than this degree of “luck”?  For Dawkins, absolutely not!  To hypothesise the existence of a supernatural, intelligent designer God, let alone one with the many attributes of the Christian God, only multiplies the improbabilities. Who would have designed and fine-tuned this God after all?  Suggesting a whole new category of “necessary existence” without supporting evidence to solve this question makes God far more improbable than any alternative and. as Ockham’s razor suggests, the simplest solution of science is the best, even when that solution is not very simple!

In conclusion, despite the persistence of design arguments for God, it is far more likely that the universe results from chance – or at least from the “designs” of natural processes – than that it was designed by an intelligent-designer-God. The continuing popularity of design arguments for God despite their obvious flaws stems from our reluctance to accept let alone confront the precarity of the human condition.

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