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A Counterclockwise Paley


Everyone who has studied theology to any degree has encountered William Paley’s “Argument to Design.” But, in case anyone is in need of a refresher course, allow me to briefly formulate it here:

  1. If you were walking through the forest and happened to come across a stone, you might suppose that the stone had lain there since the dawn of time.
  2. However, if you were walking through the forest and came across a watch, you would not suppose it had lain there since the dawn of time.
  3. Inspection of the watch would reveal a complex organization of gears and other mechanical parts clearly designed for the purpose of keeping time.
  4. As we know, a creative intelligence (that of humans) is responsible for the design of watches.
  5. When we examine the structure of biological organisms (such as humans), they reveal an astounding complexity of design well suited to various purposes.
  6. Thus, biological organisms (including humans) must have been designed by a creative intelligence.
  7. We may call that creative intelligence God.
  8. Therefore, God exists.

There are various philosophical objections to this argument, many of which can be found in the Secular Web’s section on “Argument to Design.” For my part, I’ve always felt that the most elegant objection was to point out how the argument sabotages itself with its own logic before it even gets off the ground. The whole argument rests on the premise that organized complexity must be the product of an intelligent designer. Yet, in the conclusion, this very premise is violated without so much as the batting of an eyelash! A being of organized complexity (God) is conjured up without a designer. This is not playing by the rules laid out in the argument. In fact, it is a gross violation of the rules, since God would likely be the most complex being of all.

Nevertheless, Paley’s argument remained a compelling one. After all, he did have a point. Everyone agreed with points 1-5 (above). And although God was perhaps not a logically consistent answer to the issue raised, it was difficult to imagine any other mechanism that could account for the design of the living world. But the human mind is a fertile ground for new ideas and it wasn’t too long before a man named Charles Darwin discovered that there was such a mechanism: natural selection. Darwin’s ideas would go on to revolutionize the entire field of biology, and Paley’s argument was effectively demolished by the demonstration that there was indeed a watchmaker, but it was the blind forces of natural evolution doing the designing–not a conscious, creative God.

But, while evolution may have refuted Paley’s argument, the concept of God has not suffered appreciably. Some theists have simply chosen to deny the validity of evolution, despite a staggering mountain of evidence that is impossible for an honest thinker to ignore. Other theists have opted for a view in which evolution and God are compatible. They agree that the scientific picture of evolution is correct, but would have God kick starting the whole process. Since God is completely unnecessary in this view, it has always offended my sense of parsimony, but I could not discount the compatibilist view as a theoretical possibility–until now.

While pondering the two objections to Paley’s argument (violation of internal logic and evolution by natural selection) that I mentioned at the outset, it occurred to me that they could be synthesized to form a powerful argument for atheism. Thus, I propose the following “Argument from Evolution”:

  1. Organized complexity is the product of conscious design or natural selection.
  2. Intelligence is an example of organized complexity.
  3. Thus, intelligence is the product of conscious design or natural selection.
  4. Intelligent beings are capable of designing intelligence (i.e. computer artificial intelligence programmed by humans).
  5. However, only one mechanism has been discovered that can produce intelligence without requiring the existence of a prior intelligence. That mechanism is evolution through natural selection.
  6. Thus, the first intelligence evolved.
  7. Evolution requires:    
    1. Self replication (heredity) with slightly imperfect copying fidelity (mutation).
    2. An environment that can favor one replicator over another (competition).
    3. Time for (a) and (b) to manifest themselves.
  8. None of the conditions in (7) were present before the existence of the universe.
  9. Thus, intelligence did not exist prior to the universe.
  10. Therefore, the universe did not have an intelligent creator.

Possible objections to my argument:

Point (5). This is the linchpin of my argument. I can imagine two objections to it:

  1. Creationists will deny evolution outright. Thus, they will also to object to the phrase “or natural selection” in (1) and (3), asserting that natural selection cannot account for the production of intelligence (if they even recognize the existence of natural selection!). Evolutionism vs. Creationism is obviously a metadebate, discussed extensively by the Secular Web’s section on Creationism and Talkorigins.org (or Answersingenesis.com for the creationist perspective), among other places. I can only invite creationists to educate themselves on the findings of science since the 18th century and hope they accept.
  2. It may be pointed out that natural selection is the only mechanism discovered that can produce intelligence without requiring the existence of a prior intelligence so far, but this does not mean there are not other mechanisms which could, theoretically, be discovered in the future. Naturally, I cannot rule out such a possibility, however, unless another mechanism actually is discovered, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that one does not exist. Additionally, it should be noted that the future discovery of an alternative mechanism for producing a first intelligence would not rescue the theist’s position. For any mechanisms we discover will be nested within the properties of the universe, and such a mechanism cannot therefore exist prior to the universe.

Point (7). Biologists might squabble over my conditions for evolution, but I would think that at least those three conditions are necessary. In fact, if even one of those conditions is necessary, my argument holds, since all three require the prior existence of the universe.

Point (8). One might insist that I have no right to declare what conditions were like before the existence of the universe. But what does it mean to have conditions outside of the universe? I suppose we could posit a sort of heaven dimension where the evolutionary conditions exist and have produced an intelligence which in turn carved out our dimension. But, in addition to its extreme inelegance, this proposal solves nothing. We have simply divided the universe into alpha and beta dimensions, and the alpha dimension is left without a creator.

Point (10). Note that I say “the universe did not have an intelligent creator,” not “God does not exist.” This is because while my argument precludes the existence of the Christian God (among others), there is still a possible, if completely unsupported, incarnation of God. In theory, a being (or beings) may have evolved to harness powers far beyond our comprehension and appointed itself lord over humanity (and perhaps the rest of the cosmos). Better yet, perhaps the powers of said being are so great, that it was able to mold the earth out of stellar debris and seed it with the first primitive life. But until evidence emerges in favor of such a scenario, it is best left to the speculations of Star Trek episodes.

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