By: Elias Moon
The physicotheological category of arguments for the existence of God is tempting, but fails under closer examination. This category has been called by many names; the teleological argument, the argument from design, and the fine-tuning argument to name a few. In brief, the general argument claims proof for the existence of God “based on perceived evidence of deliberate design in the natural or physical world” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Recorded versions of the argument date all the way back to Socrates, and may have even preceded him. However, the argument suffers from numerous flaws and has been refuted throughout history by the likes of Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Charles Darwin, and several others. Even famous theologians, such as Averroes and Thomas Aquinas have considered the argument acceptable but not great proof of God. The physicotheological argument fails as a means of proving the existence of an intelligent creator through its misattributed terms of empirical evidence to argue for an entity that would have to of existed ens realism (before reality; creator of reality,) erroneously misused probabilities, and denial of the more likely evolutionary explanation for biological complexities.
Kant: The Misattribution of Terms
As with the ontological and cosmological arguments for God, which I have discussed in previous posts, Immanuel Kant once again lives up to his reputation as the great “destroyer” of proofs which overstep the limits of human reason. Kant starts by contending that no observed experiences, despite how unlikely or amazing they may seem, could be adequate evidence for an eternally existing intelligent creator. A distinction must be made between the related but distinct ideas of a “designer” and of an ens realism (a predecessor or creator of reality itself.) Kant clearly separates the two ideas and argues that, at the very most, observed experiences could go as far as granting a certain degree of likelihood for a designer existing within reality. However, applying empirical evidence to argue for any form of ens realism would be a fundamental misapplication of terms. Empirical evidence can tell us about the likelihood of things existing in this world; it cannot tell us anything about what may or may not exist outside of sensible reality. Kant argues that proponents of the physicotheological argument secretly rely on the ontological argument in order to make their unjustified jump from empirical observations to claims about things which escape all possible sensibility. The ontological argument itself fails, and thus the physicotheological argument fails as well by its dependency.
Objections to the Fine-tuned Universe Argument
Some have argued that the precise conditions in our reality that have allowed for the universe to continue and furthermore, for life to emerge from its depths are so improbable that a fine-tuning designer is the best possible explanation. When advocates of this argument start calculating and displaying the immense odds against our universe existing as it does, it is very tempting to think that intelligent design must be a more probable explanation than mere chance. However, there is a clear and logical objection to this line of thought. The mere fact that something is very improbable, alone, does not give reason to conclude that it came about through design. Imagine flipping a coin 1000 times and recording the results. The likelihood of getting the specific outcome that you recorded is incredibly small: 1 in 2 to the power of a thousand. It is obvious that the improbability of this sequence occurring does not give us reason to think it occurred by design. Another argument is that many physicists have speculated that this universe is only one in a “multiverse” that contains all possible universes. If this theory is correct, then there is nothing odd about the fact that our universe appears to be “fine-tuned,” because in a multiverse such a universe as ours is inevitable (has a probability of 1:1). The fine-tuning argument ultimately fails because we are not in a position to say that a universe or world with conditions for life is more likely to have been caused by an intelligent agency than by chance and physical laws.
Breaking Down the “Watchmaker” Analogy
The watchmaker analogy, developed by William Paley in 1802, is an often used image in the physicotheological argument. Paley takes the image of a watch, which was obviously designed by an intelligent creator, and extends it to the rest of the universe, and in particular to biological complexities. Two major similarities between a watch and biology are that each seems to perform a certain function that would be valuable to an intelligent being, and each could not perform this function if its parts were any different than from what they are. In the case of the watch, it is obvious that it performs a function that an intelligent being might find valuable (ie. telling the time) and that if its mechanisms were slightly altered it may not be able to perform this task. With biological organisms, the function is life continuation, and if certain organs were slightly different or nonexistent the organism would most likely die. This leads Paley to the conclusion that, as with a watch, the most likely explanation of biology’s functionality and complexity is an intelligent designer and that although it is possible that these could have come about through natural coincidences it would be unlikely.
Paley’s argument is diminished by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s explanation for the development of complex organisms in The Origin of the Species shows an alternative to intelligent design without the involvement of supernatural forces. In Darwin’s theory, all organisms including the most biologically complex ones evolved gradually over millions of years through the process of self-copying, occasional errors/mutations, and competition leading to varying degrees of biological advantages and disadvantages. Those species that developed advantages would survive, and those that didn’t would likely die out over time. As Julian Huxley concludes, “The consequence will be differential reproduction down the generations-in other words, natural selection” (Huxley 1953, 4.) By this process, complex organisms of all types developed from past ancestors driven towards survival and reproduction; they were not simply brought into existence at once by the will of some divine power.
Richard Dawkins: METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL and Cumulative-Step Evolution
Biologist, Richard Dawkins, expands on the argument in showing how the Darwinian evolutionary explanation is far more likely than intelligent design through the use of a programming problem. Dawkins considers two ways a computer program might generate a specific sequence of characters such as METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL. The first type of program he considers uses a “single-step selection process.” The program generates a random sequence each cycle and the probability of getting the exact target sequence on any try is 1 in (10,000 x 1,000,0006). However, if the program incorporates a “cumulative-step selection mechanism” which begins by generating a random 28-character sequence and then “breeds” from this sequence by generating copies of itself with slight differences each cycle, and builds off of sequences that more closes resemble the target sequence, METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL, each time, then the program will reach the target quickly. This process reached the target sequence after only 43 generations, significantly reducing the time taken. Evolution is itself a "cumulative-step selection mechanism," and provides a likely explanation for biological complexity. Paley’s watchmaker argument ultimately makes the mistake of assuming that all other explanations, other than intelligent design, are unlikely, whereas the evidence proves otherwise.
The cosmos are incredibly complex and outright beautiful to observe. Life is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. It is tempting to look at the complexities of our world and imagine the hands of a divine being sculpting into an intricate design. It is tempting to look at the life that has formed on this world and seek the purpose behind it. Why is there life? What purpose does organic life have in the grand scheme of an enormous universe? All these questions can be answered by the theory of God. Immanuel Kant recognized in the physicotheological argument, the natural human need to recognize purposive unity and design in nature. However, none of the arguments posited on the side of the physicotheological debate have held up under logical scrutiny. It is more likely that life and the universe arose spontaneously out of physical material, chaos, and inorganic phenomena than by the prophesy of a creator. The human experience and life in general does not need a higher purpose, an objective function given by a divine being.
Kant, Immanuel, Marcus Weigelt, and F. Max Müller. Critique of Pure Reason. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.
Ahbel-Rappe, S. and Kamtekar, R., A Companion to Socrates, John Wiley & Sons, 2009, p. 45. "Xenophon attributes to Socrates what is probably the earliest known natural theology, an argument for the existence of the gods from observations of design in the physical world."
"Design Arguments for the Existence of God." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. 29 Sept. 2016.