The twelve basic arguments for god #3: Argument to Design

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This argument usually claims that life on Earth or some other aspect of nature is too well designed for evolution or natural processes to explain it (either evolution would work too slowly or not as well, or life would have to have begun too complex for chance to explain it, and so on).

A popular type argument for god’s existence is the god of the gaps argument.  It’s an extension of the argument from ignorance.  Such arguments begin by pointing out something science has not explained and saying that is where god is.  A popular iteration is “Science can’t explain why I love my daughter/wife/etc!”  Of course, this specific argument is patently wrong.  We do understand the science of love and attraction – it comes down to simple, mindless chemicals.  Although even if we couldn’t explain love or anything else, that does not mean that religious people can.  The proper answer is simply “I don’t know,” not “I don’t know, therefore I DO know!”

But god of the gaps arguments are losing space as science explains more and more things.  The other way they’ll try and get around science infringing on claims their religion had previously tried to secure with god of the gaps arguments is to claim that science and religion are not in conflict.

Science and religion are in conflict, and religion has been getting its ass kicked

We so often hear the faithful claiming that science and religion address different questions.  The claim is subsequently made that religion is the best means of explaining the who and why to the universe while science best explains the what and how.  However, while religion makes assertions of explanatory power, I think it’s quite a leap to say that religion/faith explains anything.  Sam Harris makes this point beautifully by proposing two questions:

  1. Think of one thing for which we once had a religious answer, but for which we now have a scientific answer (this one should not be difficult).
  2. Think of one thing for which we had a scientific answer, but for which we now have a religious answer (don’t waste too much of your time).

If religion did explain things or if it truly claimed mastery over a sphere of knowledge that science is not fit to handle, then the claims of religion would not be continually being replaced by scientific explanations.  Order of the stars?  Miracle.  (Crap, turns out it was gravity)  Disease?  The devil. (Nope, just germs)  Lightning?  God’s wrath.  (Nope, just friction and heat)

The question “Did a man rise from the dead 2000 years ago?” is a question of biology.  And the question “Did Jesus walk on water or transmute water into wine?” is a question about physics.  The Christian faith makes a magnificent glory of how these propositions fly in the face of science, which is why they’re called “miracles”.  But science has the (obvious) answer to both of these questions, and religions have no sound evidence for why the natural order was abrogated in the ways they claim.  The entire Christian religion is based on the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, which could not conflict with science more.

A look at the universe reveals it to be the work of a fairly incompetent engineer at best, as it took billions of years of trial and painful error to reach its current state.  A perfect designer would not require such a system.  It is also still riddled with a host of simple errors that are just what we would expect to see in a universe that operates on a series of mindless rules, but that are just bizarre if a god created anything.  These are things like the existence of the appendix, babies heads being bigger than the birth canal, and the clunky nature of DNA.  Did you know that cancer and a whole host of other maladies are the result of a flaw in DNA replication?  What intelligent designer, let alone a competent one, would use a system that contains basic flaws perceptible to even a moderately informed mortal?  Additionally, why would god saturate the DNA chain with junk DNA or place markers on the DNA chain that help us monitor the evolution of DNA which inevitably leads us to the conclusion that we have evolved?

And while there is obviously a what and a how to the universe, what evidence to we have that there is a who and a why?  We shall see that complexity/order does not require an intelligent hand, and the cosmos appears devoid of any purpose relevant to humanity.

Order from disorder and the Law of Entropy

An argument that often comes up in an effort to disprove evolution is the Law of Entropy Argument (they’ll often refer to it as the Second Law of Thermodynamics argument).  It will be advanced that the second law states that all interactions produce more disorder than order, so for things to be ordered we would need interference from a designer of some sort.  However, this is not at all what the second law says.  What the law really says is that when a reaction occurs within a closed system (a system in which energy/mass remain fixed) then the disordered energy will always be greater than the ordered energy.  During such reactions, the disordered energy is emitted into what’s called dissipative systems.  As long as the ordered energy is less than the disordered energy, the second law is conserved.

A good example of this would be our atmosphere.  It’s pretty ordered – it’s been there for millions of years.  However, the friction of the molecules contained therein creates heat that is then radiated into space as disordered energy, giving us order in a closed system.  Our solar system is another example.  If you get a giant cloud of hydrogen such that it hits a critical mass for gravity to take effect on it, it will compress into a young star and possibly a new solar system (see the Jeans instability).

Religious people often, and understandably, infer that where there is order, there must be design.  However, this is not necessarily true.  The universe produces order all by itself.  Take water as another example.  What is the natural state of water?  It’s actually ice.  If you thought it was water, you only thought that because we live in an area of abundant energy.  Energy is required to keep water in a higher state of disorder, rather than greater order.

If you were to take almost all the energy out of the equation in dealing with water you would get ice (specifically, ice crystals), the most complex form of water.  Ice crystals are highly ordered, and we know precisely what natural mechanisms create them.  Nobody feels the need to invoke a crystal-making god to explain them because we already have a complete understanding of the process; mindless forces operating upon inanimate objects do the job just fine on their own.

Order out of chaos is easy to observe, and it is responsible for virtually every instance of complexity in the universe.  This is why if we were to find ourselves in a disordered universe, in which things were observed to exist in a state of greater disorder rather than forming complex systems, we could conclude that something, like a designer, was fiddling about.  This is not what we observe.

Because we know that the universe produces order on its own, there is no need to appeal to god to explain it since we know that complexity gets produced without intention all the time.  Therefore design cannot be an answer without evidence to support it.  Without such evidence, it’s just a lack of imagination.

Abiogenesis

Abiogenesis is the science surrounding the origin of life.  It is important that we are very specific on what we mean when we say “life” in this context.  Many religious people will assert that the odds of an operable strand of DNA assembling on its own are so astronomical that we my as well consider it impossible (or more probable that a god had a hand in it).  However, this is not the question that should be asked.  As we shall see, we only need to be interested in the origin of a self-replicating molecule, which is highly probable in an early Earth.

The first DNA strand would not have held much information, but instead it would have held just enough to get it started so it could evolve.  It would need only an array of polypeptides, which biologists believe were plentiful in the pre-biotic Earth. Of course, you’d also need a little luck (however, spread out over a vast planet of similar events, such a lucky event would become probable: go here and run a text search for “lottery fallacy”): you would need fluctuations of temperature sufficient to remove portions of the pools from thermal equilibrium, and these occur in just the same way that organized convection cycles arise naturally when water is heated. With these things in place, as they likely were in the beginning stages of our planet 3.8 to 4.4 billion years ago, the existence of a self-replicating molecule becomes very, very likely. [1]

Once the first self-replicating molecule gets started, it only needs evolution to take care of the rest.  My post defending the validity of evolution can be found here.

Outro

Contrary to what many creationists advance, the universe does not need a who or a why – it appears to be chugging along just fine with its mindless processes and inanimate objects.  Also, note how differently science and religion work.  In science it is never noble to pretend to know things you do not.  Yet, this is precisely what the argument to design is: pointing to a piece of complexity we’ve yet to explain (or have already explained and the creationist just doesn’t know it) and claiming that because we currently lack an explanation that the believer does know how that little piece of order came to be – and don’t you know, it was god.  In doing so, they are claiming to have knowledge about the cosmos that the collective battery of science lacks.  Only in faith could such pretension be praised.

[1]  (Ricardo, Alonso; Szostak, Jack W.. Scientific American, Sep2009, Vol. 301 Issue 3, p54-61, 8p)

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