An Atheistic Assault upon the “Design” Argument
William Paley (1743-1805) was a British theologian/mathematician/logician who produced several erudite works, not the least of which was his volume called Natural Theology (1802). In this work, Paley argued that just as a watch logically implies a skilled, intelligent “watch-maker,” even so, a structured universe points to an intelligent universe-Maker.
The fundamental premise of the argument is this: when one observes an object that reflects design, the logical conclusion is — it had a designer.
Some atheists contend that this argument “proves too much,” hence, “nothing.” One of their ilk recently framed the following argument and subsequently offered his response in Letters: Who designed the universe? at TheCabin.net.
“[T]he claim [of the theist] is: (1) Everything we’ve encountered that appears to have been designed does in fact have a designer; (2) The universe does appear as if it has been designed; (3) Thus, the universe has a designer; (4) This designer is God.”
We will ignore the fact that this critic has oversimplified the argument; instead, we will examine the premise he thinks negates the “design” argument. The gentleman continues:
“Among the numerous objections to this venerable argument is that it lacks internal consistency. If we are truly wedded to the claim that organized complexity and purposefulness requires a designer, God — presumably the most complex and purposeful of all entities — must also have a designer (a ‘mega-god’ who, following the same reasoning, would also require a designer, a ’mega-mega-god, who, following the same reasoning).”
The foregoing argument is flawed in several particulars, not the least of which is that it does not take into consideration what constitutes “design,” and how “design” is identified. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines the noun “design” as follows:
“the arrangement of parts, detail, form, color, etc., especially so as to produce a complete and artistic unit; artistic invention; as, the design of a rug” (492).
Observation and Perception
In Paley’s work, he repeatedly called attention to the reason one may conclude that a watch (or the universe) is characterized by design; such is possible because constituent elements may be observed. Hence, the shape, arrangement, etc., characteristic of the parts, imply design, thus, a designer.
Observe the British scholar’s language: “when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive ….” Again, “We see a cylindrical box …”; or, “We next observe ….” (435, emphasis added).
The argument repeatedly is punctuated with references to visual observation and analysis. One may reason that an object has been “designed” by examining it. This is the basis of the design argument, even as employed by biblical writers (cf. Psalm 19:1ff; Romans 1:20).
Since it obviously is the case that our atheist philosopher has never seen God, nor does he admit even the existence of such a Being, he cannot assume that the ultimate Cause has been designed. He cannot observe, inspect, or analyze God as Paley argued for the elements of the physical universe.
The fact is, logic forces one to the conclusion that the origin of all material objects was caused by a non-material, eternally-existing Entity. There is not a particle of evidence that any material object has the power to create itself.
The Uncaused Cause
Had there ever been a time when absolutely “nothing” existed, nothing would exist today, because “nothing” cannot produce “something.” If the atheist’s case were true, the universe itself must be eternal, or else eternal nothingness would have prevailed forever, and we would not be contemplating this issue.
Since it is a reality, therefore, that “something” exists (e.g., the universe and we ourselves), then it must follow that some kind of “something” has existed always. That something, by default, must be either “material” or “non-material.” The logical “law of the excluded middle” demands that conclusion.
But the reality is this: science and logic point to the fact that matter is not eternal. Dr. Robert Jastrow has been characterized as the “greatest science writer” of his generation. He classifies himself as an agnostic (that you may know that he is not biased toward creationism). Jastrow, however, argues vigorously for the “beginning” of the universe on the basis of various astronomical data.
“It is really very surprising that the labors of the astronomers, studying the Universe through their telescopes, should have brought them to the conclusion that the world had a beginning. Scientists feel more comfortable with the idea of a Universe that has existed for ever, because their thinking is permeated with the idea of cause and effect. They believe that every event that takes place in the world can be explained in a rational way as the consequence of some previous event. If there is a religion in science, this statement can be regarded as its main article of faith. But the latest astronomical results indicate that at some point in the past the chain of [material] cause and effect terminated abruptly. An important event occurred — the origin of the world — for which there is no known [material] cause or explanation” (11).
I have bracketed the term “material” twice above, because that is precisely the thrust of Professor Jastrow’s discussion, and this clarification does no injustice to his affirmation. He even speaks of that moment at the beginning when “pure energy flashes into being” and the “first particles of matter appear” (4).
To his astronomical argument may be added the evidence from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, namely the reality that the universe is wearing out, growing old, and thus obviously had a beginning point, and so is not eternal.
Since it is the case that the material universe is temporal, and that it clearly, then, was caused by some eternal, non-material, non-visible source, no atheist is in a position to contend that this source is composed of elements that required a previous designer. That concept is a non-sequitur — the conclusion does not follow the assumption. On the other hand, if the eternal source is God, a self-sufficient Being, then he is not the result of a pre-existing designer.
Answer Your Own Argument
In attempting to avoid the conclusion that the universe was designed by an un-designed Designer, our atheist friend, while claiming that “supernatural design” is not a viable option for explaining the universe, yet conceding that “mere chance” is not a reasonable explanation for its “design,” he opts for the “Darwinian” concept of “natural selection.” This really is a hypothesis that is quite absurd, and for several reasons.
First, even if one admits that there is some limited validity to the principle of natural selection, i.e., the elimination of weak organisms resulting in the survival of the stronger, such does not explain the origin of the non-organic universe. No one, to my knowledge, contends that “natural selection” works in the inanimate world. It is supposed to be a function within the biological community.
Second, as the famous Dutch botanist Hugo DeVries (1848-1936), himself an evolutionist, once observed: “Natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest” (emphases added). “Natural selection” explains the beginning of nothing.
Third, since “natural selection” supposedly was the complex wonder-force that “designed” the natural world, then the “complexity” of the “natural selection” process itself, according to our philosophical friend, must also point to a designer.
But this is the very argument that purportedly rebuts the “supernatural design” argument (read it again in the 6th paragraph of this article). This means, then, according to our critic’s own logic, the “designer” of the “natural selection” method must have been designed by something further back, that also was designed, etc., etc. ad infinitum.
And so, to adopt our adversary’s jargon, there he goes, “chasing” those mega-mega-designers down that “rabbit hole” of infinite darkness. Clickety click, clackety clack, he meets himself coming down the track!
A logical person can clearly see that there is no validity in this skeptic’s attempt to nullify the grand “design” argument for the existence of God.
- Jastrow, Robert. 1977. Until the Sun Dies. Warner: New York: NY.
- Paley, William. 1839. Natural Theology in: The Works of William Paley. Thomas Nelson: Edinburgh, Scotland.
- Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. 1983. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.