Existence of God (part 18)

February 08, 2011     Time: 00:25:10


The Teleological Argument continued.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ III. Teleological Argument
Lecture 5

Today we are going to wrap up our discussion of the Teleological Argument or the argument for design based upon the fine tuning of the universe.

Remember the big picture here. We are doing a survey of Christian doctrine, and we are currently on the section of the Doctrine of God. We looked at the attributes of God, and now we are doing an excursus, or a side journey, looking at Natural Theology – arguments for God’s existence. We talked about the Contingency Argument of Leibniz for God’s existence. We talked about the Kalam Cosmological Argument for God’s existence. And now we have been dealing with the Teleological Argument or the argument for design for God’s existence. And I have argued that the best explanation for the fine tuning of the universe is neither physical necessity nor chance but rather design. The design hypothesis will be the preferable explanation unless it can be shown to be equally implausible as physical necessity or chance. That is what we want to conclude with – what objections might be raised to the hypothesis of design as an explanation of the fine tuning of the universe.

Objection: Who Designed The Designer?

Sometimes detractors of design will raise the objection that this argument leaves the Designer himself unexplained. What caused the Designer or what designed him? In fact, this objection is what Richard Dawkins calls “the central argument of my book” (namely the book The God Delusion). The central argument of his book is precisely this objection. This is how Dawkins summarizes his argument:

1. He says, “One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.” (So one of the biggest problems confronting us is, how do you explain the undeniable appearance of design in the universe.)

2. He says, “The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.” (The reason the universe appears to be designed is because it is designed.)

3. He says, “This temptation, however, is a false temptation because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger question of who designed the designer.”  (So he says, don’t go down that road of saying that the appearance of design is due to design because then you are stuck with the question of who designed the designer.)

4. He says, “The most ingenious and powerful explanation of the appearance of design is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.” (The best explanation, he would say, of the appearance of design is Darwinian evolution.)

5. He admits that “we do not have an equivalent explanation for physics.” (In other words, this Darwinian explanation applies only in the field of biology, but it doesn’t apply in the field of physics, which is what we’ve been talking about. We have been talking about the fine tuning of the universe. We did an end run around biology by going right back to the very initial conditions of the universe and asking, “Why are the physical constants and quantities fine tuned for the existence of life and its inexplicable complexity and delicacy?” Dawkins admits in this step 5 that we do not have any explanation for that in physics. Darwinism only explains biology and the appearance of design there. It says nothing about physics.)

6. He says that “we should not give up a hope for a better explanation arising in physics – something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.” (So this is kind of an encouragement to hold fast and don’t give up! We don’t have an explanation in physics, but let’s hold on and hope that a better explanation can arise for the fine tuning which will be just as powerful as the Darwinian argument is for biology.)

7. “Therefore,” he says, “God almost certainly doesn’t exist.”

The conclusion for this argument is rather jarring. It comes out of left field. There is nothing in those previous six statements that would lead to the conclusion that “Therefore, God does not exist.” There is no rule of logic that would allow you to derive that conclusion from those six statements.1

At the very most, all that would follow from Dawkins’ argument about “Who designed the designer?” would be that you should not infer the existence of God on the basis of the appearance of design in the universe. If his argument were entirely successful, if we conceded everything, that is the most that would follow – that you should not use a design argument like I have given as a basis for believing in God. But, of course, that conclusion is quite compatible with God’s existence. It doesn’t follow from the failure of somebody’s argument for God, that therefore there is no God. It doesn’t lead to atheism in any way. In fact, it doesn’t even show belief in God is unjustified. Maybe we should believe in God on the basis of Leibniz’s Contingency Argument. Or maybe we should believe in God on the basis of the KalamCosmological Argument. Or maybe on the basis of the Moral Argument. The failure of the design argument doesn’t show at all that belief in God is unjustified. In fact, maybe we shouldn’t believe in God on the basis of arguments at all – maybe we should just believe in God on the basis of revelation and the witness of the Holy Spirit, as some theologians think. There is nothing here in this argument to show either that God does not exist, as Dawkins claims, or that belief in God is unjustified. I think here we see Dawkins’ lack of philosophical depth in this sort of argument.

But why should we concede the truth of the premises in this argument? Is it true that his argument actually succeeds even in undermining the argument from the fine tuning of design? I don’t think so at all! Remember we saw that step 5 of his argument, which says that we don’t have an explanation in physics, refers to the fine tuning of the universe that we have been talking about. And Dawkins has nothing by way of a good explanation for the fine tuning of the universe, in either chance or necessity. So the hope that he holds out in step 6 (let’s hope that some explanation will arise) really just represents the faith of a naturalist. It is just sort of naturalistic faith that eventually we will have an explanation, but there isn’t any real grounds for it. There is nothing here in the argument that would suggest that we have hopes for, or prospects for, chance or necessity as a better explanation of the fine tuning than the idea of an intelligent Designer.

What about step 3 of his argument? If you propound a design argument based on fine tuning, then you are going to be confronted with the problem of who designed the Designer. Does that objection subvert the design argument? I don’t think so for at least two reasons.

First, in order to recognize an explanation as the best, you do not need to have an explanation of the explanation. This is an elementary point in the philosophy of science. For example, suppose some archaeologists were digging in the earth and they came across entities that looked for all the world like tomahawk heads and arrowheads and pottery shards. They would be rational in inferring that these artifacts are not the result of the chance processes of sedimentation and metamorphosis. They would be rational in inferring that these were, in fact, artifacts that are the products of intelligent design. They would be rational in drawing that explanation, or that conclusion, as the best explanation even if they had no explanation at all of who these people were or where they came from. They might have no explanation at all of who these designers were, but clearly the best explanation for the arrowheads and the pottery shards is that they were the product of intelligent design. To take another illustration, imagine that astronauts landing on the moon were to discover on the dark side of the moon a pile of machinery. They would be rational in inferring that the best explanation for this machinery is intelligent design, even if they had no idea at all who made this machinery or how it came to be there.2 Suppose they were able to determine it wasn’t American made or Soviet made. They don’t have any idea who made this machinery or how it got there. Still it would be obvious that this was the product of intelligent design. You do not need to be able to explain the explanation in order to recognize that the explanation is the best.

In fact, when you think about it, demanding that you have to explain the explanation in order to recognize an explanation as the best would lead to an infinite regress of explanations. Because before you can recognize that the explanation is the best, you’d have to have an explanation of the explanation. But then you would need an explanation of the explanation of the explanation. And then you’d need an explanation one step further back from that. You would launch on an infinite regress, so that nothing could ever be explained, and science would be destroyed. So the Dawkins’ principle would actually be destructive of science itself, which is ironic from a man who is a career scientist!

In order to recognize that something is the best explanation, you do not have to have an explanation of the explanation. With respect to the Designer of the universe, we can just leave it an open question as to whether that Designer has some explanation for its existence or not. That can be the subject for future inquiry. We just leave that open and recognize that the best explanation for the fine tuning is intelligent design. That’s the first problem with his objection.

Here is the second problem. Dawkins thinks that in the case of a divine Designer – that is to say, if you say the Designer of the cosmos is God – , then he says God is less simple than the universe. God is just as complex as the thing to be explained. So you haven’t made any advance in simplicity. You are positing a Designer which is just as complex as the thing to be explained. The explanation has not achieved an advance in simplicity. It is not any simpler than the phenomenon that you are trying to explain. Therefore, the conclusion is that you should not draw that inference because the thing that you are using to explain the universe is just as complex as the universe.

This objection raises all sorts of interesting questions about the role of simplicity in scientific explanations. The fact is that simplicity is just one, and not even the most important, criterion that scientists use for assessing competing explanations. When scientists weigh rival hypotheses, simplicity is just one of the factors that they consider, and it isn’t even the most important. They will also consider explanatory power – how well does the explanation explain the phenomenon? They will consider explanatory scope – does it have a wide range, or does it explain a lot of facts, or does it have a very narrow explanatory scope? They will consider plausibility and other sorts of factors. It may be that in some cases, an explanation may be less simple but it may have great explanatory scope or great explanatory power and therefore is the preferable explanation, even though it is less simple.

So simplicity is not the only criterion that should be at work here, and it isn’t even the most important one. But we can just leave that to the side because the objection is even more fundamentally flawed than that. So just put that to the side. The more fundamental mistake that Dawkins makes is his assumption that God is just as complex as the universe. He thinks that because God is able to have complex ideas and can do complex tasks that that means that God is just as complex as the universe; and that is plainly false. Think of what God is. God is an unembodied mind. He is like a soul without a body. He is an unembodied mind or consciousness. Therefore, he has no parts.3 He is not made up of pieces. A mind is a purely spiritual or mental entity not composed of parts and therefore remarkably simple. It is hard to conceive of anything that could be more simple than an unembodied mind. Certainly this mind can be entertaining complex ideas; for example, this mind may be thinking of infinitesimal calculus. It may be able to do complex tasks like trace every particle trajectory in the universe. But the mind itself, as an entity, is a remarkably simple thing.

Dawkins has obviously confused a mind’s ideas with the mind itself. That is clearly a confusion because a mind could have simple ideas. It could be thinking of simply a patch of blue. Or it could have very complex ideas – it could be thinking of calculus. Yet the mind itself is incredibly simple, having no parts. He has obviously confused a mind’s ideas with a mind itself. While a mind’s ideas may be complex, an unembodied mind is a remarkably, incredibly, simple entity. Therefore, postulating a divine mind behind the cosmos is definitely an advance in simplicity, for whatever that is worth. A single, unembodied mind behind the universe is vastly more simple than the complex universe with all of its unexplained and various constants and quantities. Dawkins’ argument really shoots itself in the foot. In fact, when judged by simplicity, the hypothesis of a divine Designer is definitely more simple than the universe and certainly more than its rival hypotheses, such as the World Ensemble.

Of the three alternatives that are before us, physical necessity, chance, or design, it seems that the best explanation of the fine tuning of the cosmos for intelligent life is intelligent design.


Question: When you read Dawkins or hear him speak, he employs two different things that defeat his own argument. First, he does tend to be a believer in the multiverse which, like you said, lacks simplicity. Secondly, he has said he would rather concede an alien race seeded the human race – the idea of panspermia.4 This again doesn’t seem to get you to simplicity; it just pushes the question back.

Answer: Right! You make a good point. In the movie Expelled, Dawkins says if we are forced to say the fine tuning is due to intelligent design (really he’s talking about biological complexity), then the designer is some alien race somewhere in the universe that has seeded our planet for life, and there the explanation lies. You are right: that doesn’t represent an advance in simplicity. That is even more complicated than the thing to be explained. That is in contrast to a divine Designer, which is just incredibly simple. In fact, although we didn’t discuss it in our attributes of God survey, simplicity is one of the classical attributes of God. It is one of the classical properties that God is said to have. I think you are right on that.

Question: Your analogy is great. He is violating what he is experiencing with his own mind. You can envision various simple tasks or situations or very complex ones.

Answer: Exactly! It is incredible! When you are asleep and you are not dreaming, your mind isn’t entertaining any complex ideas. But when you wake up you can think of your math homework or a business problem. It is obvious that the mind is distinct from its thoughts and ideas, and yet he seems to conflate the two.

Question: Do you see the objection that Dawkins raises, that the Designer himself requires a designer, as parallel to the cosmological argument objection that the First Cause would itself have to have a first cause?5

Answer: It is only superficially similar because in the cosmological argument, if you cannot have an infinite regress, you get back to an absolutely First Cause. The cosmological argument demonstrates that there is a first, uncaused cause, something that didn’t come into being. In the design argument, technically speaking, the design argument doesn’t get back to an undesigned Designer. It just leaves it an open question. So in that sense, I think, it is not analogous. It is different. The cosmological argument demonstrates a first, uncaused cause, but the design argument does not demonstrate an undesigned Designer. It simply demonstrates a transcendent Designer beyond space and time who has established the laws of physics and all of the constants and quantities of the universe, but it leaves it an open question as to whether this Designer has himself a cause. And I like that about the argument – it is modest. It is a modest argument, and it reminds us that these arguments are to be taken together in a cumulative case for theism. One argument will give you an uncaused cause but not its moral qualities. Another argument may give you that it is intelligent but not its metaphysical necessity. Another argument may give you its moral properties but not its being the uncaused cause of everything. It is the arguments taken together, like a lawyer’s case – it is the cumulative force of the evidence that leads us to the conviction that theism is true.

Question: Why is simplicity such a necessary ingredient in the argument? Why not just make the argument that God is the most complex thing that ever existed and therefore it is so complex that he is entirely capable to do anything to overcome the objections.

Answer: It would be quite legitimate to infer to a more complex entity to explain the universe if that resulted in an increase in explanatory power, for example. The idea that simplicity is the only criterion to judge theories is just completely wrong headed. Think of it this way – the simplest explanation in one sense would be not to explain anything at all. Just take the phenomena as they are and offer no explanation! Then you don’t have any additional level of complexity. But you want to have explanatory power. You want to explain where the fine tuning came from, and if that is bought at the expense of postulating a complex entity, no problem. But I do think that it is ironic that even when you judge the argument by his own standards, it caves in.

Question: I think we need intelligent design back in the schools. I think to get that we need to show that alien races is one possibility. That is a different argument, and it puts it on equal footing.

Answer: You are quite right that the intelligent design proponents are not being disingenuous when they say that the Designer need not be God. It could be some other sort of reality. And if intelligent design is ever to get into the public schools, which I think is highly unlikely myself, it would have to be on the basis of some sort of religiously neutral plank.

We have an argument map of the argument from fine tuning. Remember the way the argument map works. You have in blue the positive assertion of the argument’s proponents. And then in red, the skeptic’s response to the argument. Then you will see how you can respond to that red box in the blue boxes that follow. In the argument map, if the arrow goes down to another box of the same color, that is supporting evidence for that assertion. If the arrows go up from a box of a different color, that is an objection or a response to what went before.6


1 5:12

2 10:13

3 15:04

4 The theory that alien beings or some other unknown extraterrestrial source seeded Earth with life is known as “panspermia.”

5 20:04

6 Total Running Time: 25:09. For argument maps of all the arguments see Dr. Craig’s On Guard.