The Argument from Design
The "Design Argument“ (like the Cosmological
Arguments and unlike the Ontological
draws on observations about the world. Further, the "Design Argument“
is similar to Leibniz’s version of the Cosmological argument in that
both arguments attempt to establish that a supernatural being (God) is
the only way to explain
what we observe.
But remember, the Cosmological Argument begins with the very
fact that the universe exists, and then attempts to extablish
God exists. The Argument from Design does not begin with this
fact. Instead, it draws on specific features
about the world (namely, various examples of "complex harmony" we
find in the universe).
class, I used the phrase "complex harmony" to describe a range of
different examples. This phrase was meant to capture the two points
that are common to the examples cited by proponents of the Design
Argument ("complexity" and "harmony"). I briefly discussed a few
possible examples of "complex harmony"
that a proponent of the Design Argument might point to:
The point of these examples is that they seem to cry out for an
explanation. The proponent of the Design
Argument claims that the best explanation for these example involves
- The human body. The human body (or, for that matter, the body of
or plant) is a complicated bit of machinery. Further, the various
systems and organs work together (in "harmony") to sustain life.
- The inter-relations between different species. For example, in a
bit of "harmony", humans consume oxygen and expel carbon-dioxide, while
plants do the exact opposite.
- Cosmological examples. In another example of possible "harmony",
tell us that the various cosmological constants in the universe are
in exactly the way they need to be. If any constant were even slightly
different than it is, life would never have been possible anywhere in
As I described in class, I think it's best to
the Design Argument as, officially, an "inference to the best
It relies on a general principle that is is reasonable to believe the
explanation of a range of observations (premise 1, below). I
the "official argument" as follows:
It is reasonable to believe whatever provides the best
explanation of some range of observations.
The conclusion of the "official" argument is that the universe was
designed. The idea of course, is that the universe was designed by a
supernatural designer, i.e. God.
2. We observe complex
harmony in the universe.
3. The best
of this complex harmony we find in the universe is that the universe
C. It is
to believe that the universe was designed.
The Watch Analogy
As it stands the official argument may be less than convincing.
Specifically, we might wonder why we should buy premise 3,
Why should we think that the best explanation of these examples is that
universe had a designer?
To motivate the Design Argument, proponents often discuss an analogous
arguments. (In your reading for class, Blackburn cites Hume to
describe the Design Argument. Hume will go on to question the argument,
but when he first discusses it, he puts it in terms of an analogy.) The
of such analogies is to help motivate the claim that the best
of something's "complex harmony" is that the thing had a designer.
(That is, the analogies are supposed to support premise 3
In an especially famous statement of the Design Argument, William
Paley draws an analogy involving the discovery of a watch in a forest.
The set-up is as follows: Let's say you were walking through the
and you came across a watch sitting on a stump. Upon inspection of the
watch, you would find that it exhibits a great deal of "complex
Not only would you find that it is a complex bit of machinery, you
see that the gears seem to be working together. The complexity seems to
be serving some function.
Paley claims that the reasonable thing to infer is that the watch
a designer. Thus:
1. Our universe
analogous to a complicated watch.
2. The best
of the complex harmony we find in a watch is that the watch was
C. So, by analogy, the
the complex harmony we find in the universe is that it too was designed.
Assessing the Argument
I went into the Design Argument in slightly
greater detail than Blackburn. I think it's useful to distinguish the
"official" argument from the analogies (like the watch analogy) that
are usually used to support it. Specifically, I think that this is a
useful format for assessing the argument. (There are a number of ways
that the argument can be criticized, and I think the distinction
between the "official" argument and the analogies can help us see some
of these different criticisms.)
So let's turn to the assessment of the Argument
from Design. To begin, let's focus our attention on the "official
(We'll puzzle over the watch analogy below.)
Remember our discussion of arguments.
If you'll recall, there are two ways of
to an argument. You can either question the truth of one or more of
the premises (questioning the "soundness"
of the argument) or you can attack the reasoning (questioning the "validity"
of the argument).
The reasoning in the official argument is
If those premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. But
are those premises true? Let's look at each one in turn:
Premise 1. Premise
1 is a
of the "principle to the best explanation". As I mentioned in class,
are some reasons for questioning this premise. However, for our
I think we should just give this one to the proponent of the Argument
Design. The principle does have a good deal of plausibility. And as we
will see, there are plenty of other possible objections to the Design
Premise 2 states that we observe "complex harmony" in the universe. The
strength of this claim rests on the specific examples cited. (In
class, I showed part of a video on BATS! to motivate this idea.) To be
convincing, the proponent of the Design Argument needs to point to
examples that really do cry out
for an explanation.
Premise 3 is the
(and most questionable) premise of the argument. This premise states
the "complex harmony" that we find in the universe is best explained by
the presence of a designer. But we might question whether God’s
provides the best explanation of what we observe in the universe.
First, we might raise some general
worries about this claim.
More precisely, we might question whether it really supports the
that the theist really wants to give. For example, most theists want to
is one single God, and that he presently exists.
But how could either of these claims be established on the basis of a
Argument. To make use of the watch analogy, most
watches are designed
manufactured, not by a single person, but by a team of
And of course, I have no way of knowing whether the designer of the
is still alive. (A more serious worry along these lines
comes up when we look at the Problem of Evil.)
Second, as a more substantial
objection, we could question
claim that God’s existence provides the best explanation of what we
in the universe on a case-by-case basis. That is:
Depending on what
of “complex harmony” we look at, we might very well come up with rival
As an example I discussed in class,
Darwin's theory of natural
provides a quite elegant explanation of the "complex harmony" we found
in the BATS! video. The point is that Darwin's theory provides a rival,
perhaps superior, explanation than the claim that the universe had a
Remember, the Official Design Argument is
by appealing to the watch analogy. But, as I
in class, there are a couple of ways we might question any instance of
One way to question the reasoning is to question the analogy itself.
That is, we might question whether the case of the universe is really
similar to the case of the watch. Notice, there are several
between the two cases. In class, I focused on two disanalogies:
The preceding two points both show ways in which the two cases (the
case and the watch case) are dissimilar. But remember, to block an argument
by analogy it isn't enough to simply point out some differences,
need to show that these differences are relevant to the
drawn in each case.
- In the case of watches, we know a lot about how
into existence. (We have a lot of background knowledge about
and such.) But we have no similar knowledge of how universes come into
- In the case of living organisms (which serve as one of the main
of the "complex harmony" we find in the universe) we know that they
about through a process of reproduction. But watches
(I think this is a deep and interesting issue. Are the cases relevantly
disanalogous for the reasons given above. Could the
example be modified to reinstate the analogy? These are questions that
you might think about as a possible term paper.)