Excursus on Natural Theology (Part 17)

January 27, 2016

Objections to the Design Hypothesis

Today we are going to draw our discussion of the argument for a Designer of the universe based on the fine-tuning of the universe to a close. We will probably finish early today unless there is a considerable degree of discussion that you want to have on this material.

We saw last time that neither chance nor physical necessity provides a plausible explanation of the remarkable fine-tuning of the universe for the existence of embodied, conscious observers. These explanations are highly improbable, highly implausible.

But we cannot infer immediately to design because sometimes it can be justified to believe in an improbable explanation. You would be justified in believing in some improbable explanation just in case there were no better explanation available of the phenomenon in question. To borrow an example that David Manley used, imagine someone in a baseball game standing at home plate with his bat and he hits the ball over the fence and hits a pigeon flying by. That would be amazingly improbable. And yet you would probably say that it was just by chance that he hit the pigeon. Why is this chance explanation of this highly improbable event acceptable? Because there is no better explanation available in that case. The idea that the batter aimed at the pigeon and designed to hit it by swinging the bat so the ball would hit the pigeon is even more incredible and unbelievable. You can’t hit a pigeon with a baseball by swinging a bat and trying to hit it. So in the case that there is no better explanation available accepting the highly implausible explanation can be justified.

But suppose a better explanation is available? To illustrate, suppose that there is someone standing with a rifle on home plate and he shoots a pigeon in the distant outfield and kills it. In this case it would be enormously improbable to say he was standing there and just fired randomly into the air and struck the pigeon. You wouldn’t accept that explanation. Why? Because there is a better explanation available, namely, the man aimed to hit the pigeon and could do with a rifle what you couldn’t do with a baseball bat, namely, put your bead on that pigeon and bring it down. In this case, the improbable explanation (namely, it is just by chance that he shot the pigeon) would not be the best explanation because there is a better explanation available.

The question we are facing now with regard to the fine-tuning of the universe is: is design a better explanation than chance or physical necessity? If it is a better explanation then we ought to adopt it. But if it is just as implausible, just as improbable, as chance or necessity then it would enjoy no advantage over them. So let’s ask ourselves what objections might be raised against the inference that there is an intelligent designer of the cosmos who fine-tuned the universe to be life-permitting.

Sometimes detractors of design will object to the design hypothesis because the cosmic Designer himself remains unexplained. It gives an explanation of the design in the universe, but what about the cosmic Designer? What explanation is there of his design? This is what Richard Dawkins calls “the central argument of my book” The God Delusion.[1] He summarizes this argument (which is, again, the central argument of the whole book, The God Delusion) in six steps as follows:[2]

1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. (The reason the universe looks designed is because there is a Designer.)

3. The temptation is a false one because the Designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the Designer.

4. The most ingenious and powerful explanation is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. (There he is talking about biological complexity – the appearance of design in animals and plants.)

5. We don’t have an equivalent explanation for physics. (Here he is talking about fine-tuning. He is no longer talking about those examples of the appearance of design in the animal and plant kingdoms. Here he is talking about physics and the fine-tuning of those fundamental constants and quantities for the universe.)

6. We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. (Don’t abandon hope!)

Conclusion: Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

I think everyone in this class will find that conclusion jarring because the atheistic conclusion “Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist” doesn’t follow from the previous six statements even if we concede that every single one of them is true. There are no rules of logic that would permit you to derive such an inference. There are no rules of logic that would draw that atheistic conclusion from the truth of those six statements. Dawkins’ argument is just plainly invalid. The central argument of The God Delusion is a patently invalid argument.

At most, what might follow from Dawkins’ argument? At most, I think what would follow is that we should not infer God’s existence on the basis of the appearance of design in the universe. We ought not to infer that there is a cosmic Designer on the basis of the appearance of design in the universe. That would be the most, I think, that his argument would prove if its premises were all true. But notice that conclusion is entirely compatible with God’s existence, and it is even compatible with our justifiably believing in God’s existence. [The idea] that you shouldn’t infer to a Designer on the basis of the appearance of design says nothing about whether God exists or not. It is entirely compatible with the existence of God. Maybe we should believe in God, not on the basis of the design argument, but maybe we should believe in God on the basis of the cosmological argument or the argument from contingency or the moral argument. Maybe our belief in God isn’t based on arguments at all. Maybe it is properly basic, grounded in our religious experience or in divine revelation. The point is that rejecting design arguments for God’s existence doesn’t do anything to prove that God doesn’t exist or even that belief in God is unjustified. Dawkins’ lack of philosophical depth is plainly on display here.[3]


Student: Often times many theists, when they give arguments for God’s existence, are accused of God-of-the-gaps. When he says “we should hope for a better explanation,” isn’t this atheism-of-the-gaps?

Dr. Craig: I think you are right. Remember statement 6 was “we should not give up hope of a better explanation arising in physics.” I think that is naturalism-of-the-gaps. We don’t have an explanation now, but let’s not give up hope. There is no reason to think such an explanation will be forthcoming. Yeah, I think what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander here. Notice that what we are using the evidence for is to argue that physical necessity and chance are not good explanations. Many scientists would agree with those conclusions. Dawkins, himself, would agree that physical necessity is not a good explanation. He will present arguments against thinking the fine-tuning is due to physical necessity. By contrast, many astrophysicists will say that chance is not a good explanation. They will hold out hope for a physical explanation and physical necessity. But they will reject the chance explanation or multiverse hypotheses.

Secular scientists themselves will often reject chance and physical necessity as explanations of the fine-tuning. I don’t think that there is an objectionable God-of-the-gaps reasoning going on here. But I do think you are right in seeing this as a kind of naturalism-of-the-gaps.

Student: Two things. I think first of all he jettisons the keystone element to the scientific method which is observation. He says you can’t trust your observations. If the biosystem appears to be designed, you are rejecting observations if you say you can’t presume a design.

Dr. Craig: Let me just say something on his behalf here. He doesn’t deny the appearance of design. He agrees that our observations are that the world is apparently designed. But as we’ve seen he thinks there is a good naturalistic explanation of this so that you don’t need to punt to a supernatural explanation. Remember he thinks that Darwinian evolution based on natural selection will explain biological complexity. And if it does that then why punt to God? Moreover, as we’ve seen, he’s got an argument – an objection – against the divine hypothesis, namely, it leaves unaddressed the question “Who designed the Designer?” I think he is presenting an argument here. He is not just denying the scientific method that we should go on the basis of observation.

Student: Related to that, why would you have any more confidence in observations related to evolution if you couldn’t draw any conclusions from the weight of your observations? Secondarily, why would evolution or any naturalism or materialism be any better explanation for what you observe? I don’t see how that would follow.

Dr. Craig: Obviously, in this section of the class we are not discussing evidence for a Designer based on biology. We’ve done an end run around that to go back to the initial conditions in physics. When we get to the section of the course on the doctrine of creation, we will take up this question again. It is in the Defenders 2 series, if anybody is interested in looking at that.[4] We will revisit it again as we come to it in Defenders 3.

Student: I am befuddled by the conclusion drawn by Dawkins based on these six. What rule of logic is he purporting to be using in this, and what does he say when you say that is not a reasonable conclusion?[5]

Dr. Craig: He has never responded to my critiques. I have published them. His response to me is that I am an odious man. [laughter] But that is about it.

Student: That conclusion doesn’t follow either!

Dr. Craig: It really is remarkable to think that you could grant all six of these statements and the conclusion doesn’t follow.

Student: By any rule of logic.

Dr. Craig: No. Nothing that would permit that.

Student: Before I ask my question, can you repeat the challenge as he stated it?

Dr. Craig: The challenge, if I think I understand what you mean, is number 3 which says we should resist the temptation to infer a designer because it leaves unaddressed the question “Who designed the Designer?”

Student: The point I was trying to make is I think when knowing Dawkins the real first foundational belief “There is no God” it seems to me therefore he is trying to find out an explanation to not contradict his belief. For him, Darwinism was the answer to explain development of life and its lifeforms. Therefore he thinks for physics there has got to be an explanation we haven’t seen yet. He says the conclusion is God is not the probable cause.

Dr. Craig: That is not his conclusion though. The conclusion is, “Therefore God almost certainly does not exist.” If you are right about his presupposing it, he is arguing in a circle then. It is circular.

Student: He is. I think the whole point of it is he has decided that God does not exist, therefore he is trying to explain circularly why there is no God. We have two areas to be concerned about – the physical and biological. He has explained it to himself on the biological side and said, See, we’ve found Darwinism to explain that side. We just haven’t come across the other one yet.

Dr. Craig: I can understand someone arguing, “Given naturalism, given atheism, the best explanation of biological complexity is Darwinian evolution.” In fact, Philip Johnson, who started the intelligent design movement, agrees with that. He says, If I were a naturalist, I would say the best explanation is Darwinism. But, of course, that begs the question whether naturalism and atheism is true. The way Dawkins presents this is as an objection to the argument for design. This is not a discussion of creation/evolution. This is his chapter on arguments for the existence of God. He wants to refute the design argument, and you can’t do that by arguing in a circle. Right?

Student: I understand that the orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart says that intelligent design – he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t think it is a solution to your interchange with Dawkins. I’ve tried to find something in writing, but all we have is a YouTube video of David Bentley Hart saying he doesn’t like . . . intelligent design is bad theology. I wonder if you knew more about what he had said.

Dr. Craig: Only a little bit. Kevin and I recorded a podcast this week on David Bentley Hart’s allegation that people like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and myself hold to something called theistic personalism. That is to say you think of God as a person who intervenes in the world to bring about, say, intelligent life or something of that sort. Hart is a Thomist who thinks of God in very abstract terms – as the pure act of being. On Thomism, we don’t really have any positive knowledge of the essence of God because God is the pure act of being and so cannot be grasped by the intellect. There is a kind of agnosticism about the nature of God that attends Thomism. That among other things disinclines me to Thomism. I don’t like this theology. Probably that is reflected in his claim that this is an inadequate theology because it is not Thomistic (I suspect).[6]

Student: What is the title of the podcast that addresses that?

Dr. Craig: I don’t know what the title will be.

Student: How will I find it?

Dr. Craig: You will listen to our Reasonable Faith podcasts every Monday over the next several weeks. [laughter] Eventually, in the queue, will appear this podcast recorded about David Bentley Hart and his critique of theistic personalism. But where Kevin puts it in the line up, that is up to him. What is au courant in the culture will come to the head of the queue. It will come sometime. One near the head of the queue I might say that is interesting to watch out for is on the controversy arising from Wheaton College’s firing one of its faculty for saying that Muslims worship the same God that Christians do. The Christian philosopher Frank Beckwith at Baylor University has come to her defense saying that Christians do worship the same God as Muslims. I am responding to Frank’s article in this podcast and showing why I think his argument fails. That will be one, too, that will be interesting to see.


We’ve talked about the invalidity of Dawkins’ argument, that is to say even granted the truth of those six steps the conclusion doesn’t follow. But what about those six steps? Are they true? Does his argument succeed in undermining the argument for design? I don’t think it does at all because I think that some of the steps in Dawkins’ argument are plainly false.

Notice that step 5 (which says we don’t have an equivalent explanation for physics) is a reference to fine-tuning that we’ve been talking about. Dawkins admits that he has nothing by way of an explanation for it, and so the hope that is expressed in step 6 (that we shouldn’t give up hope of a better explanation) is just nothing more than the faith of a naturalist. It is the naturalist’s faith that some explanation will be forthcoming.

Moreover, consider step 3 of the argument. That was that the temptation to infer design is a false one because the Designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem: who designed the Designer? His claim here is that you are not justified in inferring design as an explanation of the complex order of the universe because then a new problem arises, namely, who designed the Designer?

I have a couple of problems with this step in the argument. First, this claim is flawed on, I think, at least two grounds. First, in order to recognize an explanation as the best, you don’t need to have an explanation of the explanation. This is an elementary point in the philosophy of science. For example, if archaeologists digging in the ground were to come across things looking like pottery shards and arrowheads and tomahawk heads, they would be justified in inferring that these were indeed artifacts left by a lost group of people rather than the products of sedimentation and metamorphosis, even if they had absolutely no idea or explanation of who these people were. Similarly, if astronauts were to come upon a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that that was left there by intelligent agents, even if they had no idea whatsoever who those agents were or how they got there.

In order to recognize an explanation as the best, you don’t need to have an explanation of the explanation. In fact, if you think about it, that requirement would lead to an infinite regress of explanations so that nothing would ever get explained![7] For before any explanation could be accepted as the best, you’d need to have an explanation of the explanation, but before you could accept that you’d need an explanation of the explanation of the explanation. And so on and so forth. Nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed!

In the case at hand, in order to recognize that intelligent design is the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe, you don’t need to be able to explain the Designer. Whether the Designer has an explanation can simply be left an open question for further inquiry.

Second problem with step 3, Dawkins thinks that in the case of a divine Designer of the universe, the Designer is just as complex as the thing to be explained, so no explanatory advance is made. This objection raises all sorts of questions about the role played by simplicity in assessing competing explanations. For example, there are many other factors that scientists consider besides simplicity when they weigh the question of which explanation is the best. For example, they will consider explanatory scope, or explanatory power, or other theoretical virtues. An explanation which has broader explanatory scope might be preferred over a simpler explanation simply because it explains more things. So simplicity is not the only, or even the most important, criterion in assessing theories.

But we can just leave those questions to the side. Dawkins’ fundamental mistake lies in his assumption that a divine Designer is just as complex as the universe. This is plainly false. As a pure mind without a body, God is a remarkably simple entity. A mind (or soul) is not a physical object composed of parts. In contrast to the contingent and variegated universe with all of its inexplicable constants and quantities, a divine mind is startlingly simple. Certainly it is true that such a mind may have complex ideas—it might be thinking, for example, of the infinitesimal calculus—but the mind itself is a remarkably simple entity having no parts out of which it is composed. Dawkins has evidently confused a mind’s ideas, which may, indeed, be complex, with a mind itself, which is a remarkably simple entity. So, in fact, postulating a divine mind behind the appearance of design in the cosmos actually does represent an advance in simplicity. It is a simpler explanation than just saying the universe is fine-tuned the way it is by chance. So his argument fails on multiple accounts. It is not true that simplicity is the most important or only factor in assessing explanations, and moreover the explanation of a divine mind is more simple than the complex and variegated universe.

So it seems to me that of the three alternatives before us—physical necessity, chance, or design—the most plausible of these three is design.


Student: One thing I was pondering . . . I know the argument doesn’t argue to a specific Christian concept of God, but I was still thinking – considering we are Christians here and you were talking about a mind is a simple thing – but we also believe God is a Trinity (three persons, one being). What if somebody says, “You believe God is a Trinity, but that doesn’t sound like a simple explanation – this idea of three persons in one being.” Does that not factor into the argument?[8]

Dr. Craig: I think you would be unjustified to infer to the Trinity as the best explanation of design. I think that is right. That would be an ad hoc hypothesis for which there is no justification. This gives you a personal, intelligent Designer of the universe, but whether he is a Trinity or not, that is going to depend upon divine revelation or other factors. The argument doesn’t draw the conclusion that therefore a Trinity is the best explanation of the appearance of design.

Student: I am writing a chapter on philosophy of neuroscience right now. It is on my mind. To me it seems that simplicity is rarely even a consideration from both a philosophical point of view (trying to explain physical phenomena) or just a scientific method sort of view. Rather incremental validity or additional explanatory power are offered by an account of some sort of phenomenon or entity is really what matters because that is what avoids just unnecessary, redundant, or contrived details.

Dr. Craig: You’ve said it well. As I indicated, this appeal to simplicity on Dawkins’ part raises a whole host of questions about what are theoretical virtues of scientific theories that would make one preferable to another. I think one of the points that you are spotting here is that Dawkins conflates the simplicity of the hypothesis with the simplicity of the entity that the hypothesis posits. A hypothesis can be very simple in terms of its explanatory power. It doesn’t add these ad hoc devices like the explanation is a Trinity, or that it is purple. Those would be a violation of Occam's Razor or simplicity. You do not want to posit any more causes than are necessary to explain the effect. That is what you are pointing out. But the causes that you do postulate might themselves be quite complex entities – DNA molecules, and all sorts of other things. You are quite right in saying there is a confusion, I think, going on here in Dawkins’ mind.

Student: The explanation of the explanation argument to me sounds like a three-year old kid just asking his parents over and over, “Why?” But doesn’t he run into the same problem of needing an explanation of the explanation? It doesn’t just apply to the Designer. It applies to the mechanisms of the naturalistic world, too. You end up coming to a beginning somewhere.

Dr. Craig: You are absolutely right.

Student: Where does Dawkins end up out of the three choices? It is not design. So where does he end up on the other two? Is he going with chance there?

Dr. Craig: I don’t think he has any explanation for fine-tuning. All he has is a hope that something will emerge in physics that is comparable in power to Darwinian evolution in biology. He would see Darwinian evolution as a combination of chance and necessity. The mutations I think he would say occur by chance, and then natural selection operates deterministically on the chance mutations to weed out those that are unfit and can’t survive in the struggle for survival. He would see that explanation as a kind of combination of chance and necessity. But he offers nothing with regard to the fine-tuning. He admits he doesn’t have an explanation.

Student: I wonder what you think about a potential rejoinder that you might get regarding the idea that the mind is simple. Of course it is not composed of parts. I would agree. But it seems to me that there can be lesser and greater minds in the sense of they can vary in their faculties and how those faculties relate to one another.[9] My beliefs might inform my desires. Perhaps complex isn’t the right word to use, but our minds are certainly more complex in their rational faculties than any animal mind that might exist. Conversely, on the other end of the spectrum, God’s mind is perhaps potentially infinitely more complex (maybe complex isn’t the right word to use) in his faculties and how those faculties might work with one another. Even with a single mind, can you not have varying degrees of complex faculties or additional faculties?

Dr. Craig: I would say two things in response to that. First, the way Dawkins himself defines simplicity is in terms of physical composition. If you look at the way in which he discusses his objection, he is saying that things that are composed of parts are more complex than simple things like electrons, for example. It is his own concept of simplicity that is at work here in the objection. But then, secondly, I would say that even though a soul or a mind might have complexity with regard to its faculties like intellect, volition, maybe emotion, still this is not very complex. They might be very powerful faculties, but I don’t see that that is a sort of objectionable complexity that would be anywhere like the complexity of a fine-tuned universe. Remember the odds we talked about – 1 part out of 10120 power and so forth. There is nothing comparable to that in the faculties that God has, I would say. At least, what we could say is there is no reason to postulate that kind of complexity in such a design argument. We are not asserting that, so we get to a relatively simple Designer.

Student: I am a little baffled by this simplicity argument. I understand in the design argument we say, we take all these simple parts and we put them together in a unique way that can’t be evolved. None of these parts will do this. None of them have any value whatsoever. But when I put them together in a unique way it has function – like the mousetrap (that is one I always like). His argument that I’ve got to find something to break it all down into simple parts to assemble in a unique way is the idea of design. But the idea of a Designer can go immediately to the complex and not put it together with simple parts. I think he is trying to find a naturalistic solution to saying you’ve got to have all these simple parts that could be put together uniquely and that is design. Well, God didn’t do it that way.

Dr. Craig: The objection here is that postulating a divine Designer – God – is somehow postulating a very complex entity and that that is objectionable.

Student: Why?

Dr. Craig: Because then you’ve postulated something just as complex to explain something complex. He thinks that is illegitimate. As I say, that raises all these questions about simplicity and explanatory power that are wrong. But in any case, it seems to me he is just fundamentally incorrect in thinking that a divine Designer is a complex entity. His thoughts might be complex. His activities could be complex. But a pure mind without any body has no composition. It is not made up of parts. At most maybe you could say it has diverse faculties, but that is still very simple. I am suggesting even on his misconceived argument (and I do think it is misconceived) he hasn’t shown that a divine Designer is a complex entity. On the contrary, theologians and philosophers would typically say that God is very simple.


With that we are out of time. We draw our conclusion that the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe is design so that now we have a third argument in our cumulative case for the existence of God.[10]

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), pp. 157-8.

[2] 4:56

[3] 10:19

[4] See Defenders Series 2, Section 9, “Creation and Evolution” at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/s9 (accessed January 27, 2016).

[5] 15:04

[6] 20:06

[7] 25:06

[8] 30:00

[9] 35:02

[10] Total Running Time: 40:17 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)