Debunking the "Design" Argument: Part 4 in a Series of Refutations

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 thousandIt 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.

Darwinian Objections

                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.

Further Reading:

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.

Source: Debunking-the-argument-from-design

Cosmological Argument Debunking: Part 3 in a Series of Refutations

By: Elias Moon


                One of the most often quoted arguments for the existence of a God is termed the cosmological argument. This argument has several different versions, most notably those by Aristotle, Aquinas, and medieval Islamic scholastics. Recently, William Lane Craig has restated the argument of the medieval Islamic scholastics under the title of the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA.)  Craig’s revised argument is certainly the most sophisticated and well developed version. The basic form of this argument is as follows:

1.       Whatever begins to exist has a cause;

2.       The universe began to exist;

3.       The universe has a cause;

4.       Since no scientific explanation (in terms of physical laws) can provide a causal account of the origin of the universe, the cause must be personal (ie God.)

Though intuitively convincing, this argument falls apart in many ways, as I will demonstrate briefly in this post. The logic of the Kalam argument relies on intuitive notions which just may not hold when it comes to questioning the origins of existence itself. In this post I will list noteworthy objections to each one of the Kalam argument’s premises in order to show where it grasps beyond human comprehensibility and leaps into a faith merely disguised as proof.

Kant: Misattribution of Terms

                The most convincing counterarguments to KCA and God “proofs” in general, lie in Immanuel Kant’s many demonstrations of the limits of human reason. Kant dubbed the concept of God as the “ideal of pure reason,” which it strives to prove in order to fill the gaps left by its own limitations. Kant claimed in the Critique of Pure Reason that the cosmological argument rests on an attempt to infer from the nature of contingent reality (within human experience) to some cause outside of the world of sense altogether, which is an effort involving a complete misapplication of categories. He argued that the reality which exists to us (as sense) could not tell us anything conclusively about things existing outside of this reality. The cosmological argument, however, makes claims about an entity supposedly existing outside of sensible reality, even though its premises are all based within sensible reality; the two realms do not bear any provable relationship to each other. Anything existing outside of sensible reality is likewise outside of human reason’s ability to know anything conclusively about it, including its existence. This was not Kant’s only problem with the cosmological argument, but the one I find most convincing against nearly every metaphysical attempt to apply logic past what is possible. If this counter alone is not enough to sway a defender of KCA, perhaps one of the other many holes in its basic premises will suffice.

Objections to the Causal Principle

                Premise one, which is essentially the causal principle, is intuitively convincing due to the fact that it applies to any readily visible physical phenomena. However, there is no concrete justification for applying the causal principle in this manner to quantum phenomena, and it is likely that the origins of the universe were in quantum phenomena. In quantum mechanics, cause and effect may not be connected at all, or at least the link may be significantly loosened. Electrons seem to pass out of existence at one location and return into existence elsewhere unpredictably. We cannot trace the causes and intermediate existences of this phenomena. Craig argues that the unpredictability of quantum phenomena does not hinder the Kalam argument because quantum events, though unpredictable, do not lack certain “causal conditions.” The question of whether the causal principle applies to quantum phenomena rests on what kind of significance indeterminate causality has. This form of “causality” must be analyzed further philosophically; if the ontological significance is high then quantum phenomena violates the causal principle. However, if the significance is merely epistemic, then the causal principle may still hold.

                The causal principle has also been attacked on a more philosophical level by both Bertrand Russell and David Hume who deny that the universe, as a whole, needs any explanation. Hume argued that we derive the concept of cause from our observation of particular things, but since we cannot experience the whole universe, we cannot inquire about its cause; it just is. Furthermore, Russell points out that defenders of the cosmological argument move from the contingency of the components of the universe to the contingency of the universe as whole, falling into the Fallacy of Composition, by unjustly claiming that since the particular parts have a property, the whole must also have that property. For example, an argument that since all the bricks in a wall are small, the wall must itself be small, is an obvious fallacy. Russell claims that this example is akin to what cosmological arguers state about contingency and the universe. According to Russell, although things experienced within the universe are themselves contingent, the universe, as a whole, does not need to be.

On the Possibility of Infinite Causation (without beginning)

                Premise two can be toppled in a number of ways, both philosophically and at a more scientific level. Craig argues that an actual infinite is impossible. If an actual infinite is possible, than the universe’s contingency may extend back infinitely without ever requiring any exterior necessary being. Craig uses the example of a library with an infinite number of red books and an infinite number of black books. He contends that if such a library were to actually exist, the conclusions would be absurd. For instance, the set of black books would not contain the set of red books and the set of red books would not contain the set of black books, yet either set would be equal to the total library, which contains both infinite sets of books. Craig argues from the intuitive “smaller than” notion: that the nature of red books (B) must be less than the number of all books (A), but if they are equal to each other this would break our intuitive notion and appear “absurd.”

                  However, Cantor set theorists have countered that when this intuitive notion of “smaller than” is exchanged for a more precise definition, it becomes clear that finite sets and infinite sets must be thought of differently. Cantor theorists define “smaller than” as follows: a set B is “smaller than” a set A, just in the case that B is the same size of a subset of A, but A is not the same size as any subset of B. With finite sets, when set B is a proper subset of A, B is smaller than A. However, this does not hold for infinite sets which can always be placed in one-to-one correspondence with each other. To give one common demonstration of this truth, imagine the set of all natural numbers, then imagine the set of squares of each one of these numbers; you will find that the former set contains certain members that the second set does not. Nonetheless, each number of the first set can be placed in one-to-one correspondence with a number from the second set. This nature of infinite sets, though troubling intuitively, creates no contradictions in either numbers or within actual physical phenomena. Thus the basis for the second premise, that an actual infinite is impossible, is doubtful. And, if either the first or second premise do not hold up in reality, the conclusion in (3) falls.

Alternative Explanations of the Universe

                However, even if the conclusion in (3) were true, (4) can also be easily doubted. Philosophers divide causal explanations into two general forms; natural explanations (precedent events, causal laws, or necessary conditions) or personal explanations (intentional action of a rational agent.) Numerous scientific theories exist in opposition to the theory that a personal creator may have caused the Big Bang. One example, is Paul Davier’s claim that the law of conservation did not apply in the initial expansion and that the initial burst of energy was simply caused by cosmic repulsion. These theories, like the God theory are of course not testable though, and speaking of things which precede time, as we know it, with any attempt at certainty is futile. Simply put, there are alternative explanations for the cause of the Big Bang which do not appeal to a God even if the universe did need a cause in the first place.


                The Kalam argument fails to prove God’s existence, though it is a valiant effort. Kant’s argument, that it is foolish to apply one’s logic in an attempt to surpass the limits of human perception, still hold strong. Humans can only apply their reason to that which they experience, or to that which is at least possible for them sense. The Cosmological Argument, appealing to something outside of all physical phenomena, outside of the tangible universe, with principles that apply within sensible reality is, as Kant put it, “a transcendental misapplication of categories.” By this this post and series, I do not mean to disprove the existence of God. I cannot say that I know whether God exists or not, but I can say that even if this entity does exist, it would be outside of reason’s limits to seek to understand its nature or prove its existence. Belief in the God theory is a faith, and arguments such as Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument, though intellectually tempting, cannot provide one with knowledge. Reason demands that it knows its own limits, and must keep its quests for knowledge within the boundaries of what is possible, the boundaries of human sensibility. 


Further Reading:

Kant, Immanuel, Marcus Weigelt, and F. Max Müller. Critique of Pure Reason. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Reichenbach, Bruce. "Cosmological Argument." Stanford University. Stanford University, 2004. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.