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Argument to Design

According to the argument from design, or teleological argument, the design or order found in the universe provides evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer (or orderer) usually identified as God. A classic version of this argument appears in William Paley's 1802 Natural Theology, where Paley compares the complexity of living things to the inferior complexity of a watch that we know to be designed by an intelligent being. Just as a watch could not exist without a watchmaker, Paley argued, living things could not exist without an intelligent designer. This argument from analogy runs as follows:

Since watches are the products of intelligent design, and living things are like watches in having complicated mechanisms which serve a purpose (e.g., having eyeballs to enable sight), living things are probably the products of intelligent design as well.

Paley's version of the argument focused on biological complexity, however, and thus was severely undermined when Charles Darwin unveiled his theory of evolution by natural selection in 1859. In explaining how living things can become so well-adapted to their environments that they appear to be intelligently designed even when they are not, evolutionary theory weakened the intellectual foundation of a biological argument to design.

In the 20th century, however, a new version of the argument would emerge based on cosmology. According to the cosmological argument to design, or fine-tuning argument, even if the origin of all life on Earth can be explained in terms of impersonal natural processes, the mere fact that the universe allows life to exist in the first place is evidence of intelligent design. For instance, for life as we know it to evolve, there must be an unlikely combination of just the right initial conditions and just the right values of a wide variety of physical constants (so-called anthropic coincidences). If any one of the values of several dozen physical constants wasn't "set" to a value extremely close to the actual value we find, then life would not be possible in our universe. The unlikelihood of the universe forming with just the right conditions to allow life by chance is presented as evidence that those conditions were actually set by an intelligent being in order to produce life.

Our authors below have offered various objections to this new argument to design: that the values of the various physical constants aren't really "tunable" and thus couldn't have been "set" to anything other than the values we find (Hurben, Drange); that altering the values of various constants does not, in fact, make the emergence of life particularly unlikely (Stenger); and that the possibility of multiple universes entails that "fine-tuning" may be an illusion (Carrier, Drange).

In addition to the articles below, see also related Debates, Reviews, and Links. To purchase related reading, go to the Secular Web Book Store.

-- Keith Augustine

Biological Argument to Design

Analysis of the Teleological Argument (1993) by Eric Sotnak

Sotnak analyzes "some of the more common manifestations" of the teleological argument, including those of Hume and Plantinga, finding that the argument "fails to make it even probable that living things were designed." From Appendix of Commentary on D. James Kennedy's "Why I Believe" (1995) by anachronist.

Are the Odds Against the Origin of Life Too Great to Accept? (2000) by Richard Carrier

All too frequently we hear statistics being offered to "prove" that the odds against the origin of life are so great that we must posit a Creator to explain the event. This is a summary analysis of all known examples. Carrier writes, "Although I cover a wide range of sources, I am certain that I have not found all of them. If you ever encounter a statistic being cited from a source which is not discussed here, please let me know and I will investigate and expand this essay accordingly."

Arguments to Design (1996) by Antony Flew

Flew explains why complexity in nature is not a convincing argument for the existence of a creator God.

At the Intersection of 'Metaphysical Naturalism' and 'Intelligent Design' (1999) by William A. Schultz

Schultz asserts that our universe can be the product of "'intelligent design' and yet never require any supernatural phenomena to effect the 'intelligent design' of our universe."

Complexity--Yes! Irreducible--Maybe! Unexplainable--No!: A Creationist Criticism of Irreducible Complexity (Off Site) by Terry M. Gray

Gray responds to Behe's notion of "irreducible complexity" with arguments both scientific and theological, suggesting among other things that "the appeal to God's special activity to explain various difficulties with a naturalistic account . . . is unnecessary and premature," even within a Christian theistic framework.

A Counterclockwise Paley (2002) by Kyle J. Gerkin

Gerkin takes the classic Argument to Design from William Paley's Natural Theology, "the watchmaker analogy," argues that it is logically flawed as an argument for theism, then turns it on its head and reformulates it as an argument for atheism, incorporating an atheological argument from biological evolution.

Creation and Evolution of a Controversy (1999) (Off Site) [ PDF format only ] by Robert T. Pennock

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This is the first chapter of Pennock's book Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism.

Reply and Rejoinder to Pennock's Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism (Off Site)

This exchange was published in the Science Pages of Christianity Online, and begins with an Introduction, followed by an answer to Pennock's book by Phillip Johnson and then a response to this by Pennock.

Design Yes, Intelligent No: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory and Neo-Creationism (2000) by Massimo Pigliucci

"A new brand of creationism has appeared on the scene in the last few years. The so-called neocreationists largely do not believe in a young Earth or in a too literal interpretation of the Bible. While still mostly propelled by a religious agenda and financed by mainly Christian sources . . .the intellectual challenge posed by neocreationism is sophisticated enough to require detailed consideration."

A Designer Universe? (1999) (Off Site) by Steven Weinberg

"The question that seems to me to be worth answering, and perhaps not impossible to answer, is whether the universe shows signs of having been designed by a deity more or less like those of traditional monotheistic religions. It used to be obvious that the world was designed by some sort of intelligence. Today we understand most of these things in terms of physical forces acting under impersonal laws. Above all, today we understand that even human beings are the result of natural selection acting over millions of years of breeding and eating."

Discovery Institute's "Wedge project" Circulates Online (1999) by James Still

Still exposes the CRSC's five-year plan to replace the naturalistic methodology of science with the theistic alternative of "intelligent design."

Evolution is a Fact and a Theory (1997) (Off Site) by Laurence Moran

Excellent rebuttal of the frequent Creationist canard that evolution is "just a theory."

God of the Gaps (1996) (Off Site) by Doug Craigen

From a Christian viewpoint, Craigen criticizes those who interpret the Bible literally and seek evidence of "God's work" only in those things that science cannot explain. 

Hume's Tacit Atheism (1975)

In this interpretation of David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Echelbarger critiques George Nathan's argument that the Dialogues indicate that Hume believed that "God is the ultimate cause of order in the universe" and that Hume's criticisms were only intended to question the nature of God, not his existence. After analyzing the text of the Dialogues and determining what Hume's ostensible God can't be, Echelbarger concludes that Hume's atheism is "tacit, subtle, and ironic," and that it is "more accurate to say that, for Hume, Nature takes the place of God."

Intelligent Design: The New Stealth Creationism (2000) [ PDF format only ] by Victor Stenger 

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Stenger argues that intelligent design arguments amount to just one more set of variations on the ancient argument from design and as such should be considered pseudoscientific rather than scientific. "The intelligent design movement," Stenger writes, "is nothing more than stealth creationism, yet another effort to insinuate the particular sectarian belief of a personal creator into science education."

Life's Grand Design (1994) (Off Site) by Kenneth R. Miller

"Though some insist that life as we know it sprang from a Grand Designer's Original blueprints, Biology offers new evidence that organisms were cobbled together layer upon layer by a timeless tinkerer called evolution."

Thinking About The Theory of Design (1995) (Off Site) by Paul Nelson

A Report on the Symposium "Can There be a Scientific Theory of Intelligent Design?" held at the 48th Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA, August 9, 1993.

The Watch In The Desert (1999) (Off Site) by Robert J. Riggins

Riggins confronts Paley's analogy with the observations that "watches have evolved; they aren't created miraculously, ex nihilo; and their inability to self-assemble has nothing to do with the obvious ability of chemical compounds and living things to assemble themselves out of available materials."

William Paley and Design (1999) (Off Site)  

A brief biographical sketch of William Paley, whose metaphor of the watchmaker is a favorite of Creationists.

The Wizards of ID (2000) (Off Site) by Robert T. Pennock

Published in Metaviews 089 (October 12, 2000), in this letter Pennock responds to William Dembski and criticises "Intelligent Design Creationism," arguing that Dembski is a young Earth Creationist in sheep's clothing and that Intelligent Design Theory is sectarian Christianity and bad science.

Fine-Tuning Argument

Alvin Plantinga Can't Say That, Can He? A Review of Where the Conflict Really Lies (2016) by Richard M. Smith

In Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga maintains that any apparent conflict between science and classical Christian theism is superficial at best, and that the real conflict lies between science and the "quasi-religion" of naturalism. In fact, because there is evidence of biological and cosmological "fine-tuning," he claims, science may even provide evidence that God exists. In this review Richard M. Smith critiques what Plantinga has to say about three main topics: design arguments that purport to show a deep concord between science and theism, scientific challenges to theism from biological evolution and divine action in the world, and Plantinga's frontal assault on naturalism—that thinking would be impossible and cognition would be unreliable if naturalism were true.

Another Case Not Made: A Critique of Lee Strobel's The Case for a Creator (2005) by Paul Doland

In this chapter-by-chapter critique of Lee Strobel's The Case for a Creator, Paul Doland comments on the general direction of the book before analyzing Strobel's interviews with his various experts on specific topics. Topics include the origin of life, evolution, the relationship between science and religion, the origin of the universe, the alleged fine-tuning of the universe, whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, intelligent design, information theory, the origin and nature of consciousness, and whether consciousness can survive the death of the brain. Particularly noteworthy is Strobel's silence when his experts make conflicting claims (e.g., Wells and Dembski on evolution).

The Anthropic Coincidences, Evil and the Disconfirmation of Theism (1992)  by Quentin Smith

"The anthropic principle or the associated anthropic coincidences have been used by philosophers such as John Leslie (1989), William Lane Craig ( 1988) and Richard Swinburne (1990) to support the thesis that God exists. In this paper I shall examine Swinburne's argument from the anthropic coincidences. I will show that Swinburne's premises, coupled with his principle of credulity and the failure of his theodicy in The Existence of God, disconfirms theism and confirms instead the hypothesis that there exists a malevolent creator of the universe."

The Anthropic Coincidences: A Natural Explanation (1999) (Off Site) by Victor J. Stenger

Stenger argues that the fine-tuning argument is flawed because it assumes that only one kind of life, ours, is possible in every configuration of universes. Stenger also provides a naturalistic explanation for the anthropic coincidences.

Anthropic Design: Does the Cosmos Show Evidence of Purpose (1999) (Off Site) by Victor J. Stenger

A shorter version of Stenger's "Anthropic Coincidences" article.

The Anthropic Principle Does Not Support Supernaturalism (1997) (Off Site) by Michael Ikeda and Bill Jefferys

Michael Ikeda and Bill Jefferys respond to apologist, astronomer, and physicist Hugh Ross. They argue that "even if Ross is correct about 'fine-tuning' and even if ours is the only universe that exists, the 'fine-tuning' argument fails."

The Case for Cosmic Design (Great Debate) (2008) by Robin Collins

Robin Collins offers three design arguments for the existence of God, with the primary fine-tuning argument contending that life or intelligent life depends for its existence on the fact that a number of physical parameters of the universe have (numerical) values that fall within a range of life-permitting values that is very narrow. Such fine-tuning entails, Collins argues, that the existence of life is much more surprising on naturalism than on theism.

Collins' Case for Cosmic Design (Great Debate) (2008) by Paul Draper

Robin Collins argues that three facts implicate a designer of the universe--that life depends upon the precise tuning of physical constants, that the laws of physics show evidence of beauty, and that the universe is intelligible. But Collins' case is pervaded by vague arguments which shift between defending theism specifically and defending a more generic design hypothesis. This provides the appearance of having all of the advantages of the generic design hypothesis, such as greater initial plausibility, while masking the implication that intelligent life is just as unlikely given design with unspecified motives as it is given "chance." If design is to provide us with any expectations at all about what the world would be like, Collins has to defend theism in particular throughout. Moreover, while on single-universe naturalism the existence of anything as impressive as human beings may be very unlikely, on theism the existence of intelligent beings as unimpressive and flawed as humans is also very unlikely. And given that human beings do exist, single-universe naturalism, but not theism, entails that they exist in this particular universe.

Clarifying the Case for Cosmic Design (Great Debate) (2008) by Robin Collins

Paul Draper rightly argues that fine-tuning gives us no reason to believe in a generic design hypothesis that tells us nothing about the motives of the designer. He also correctly notes that "The Case for Cosmic Design" does not establish the existence of God; but it nevertheless offers evidence for the existence of God. Fine-tuning is more surprising under the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis than under theism, and thus constitutes evidence for theism over the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis. When all of the evidence is considered, whether theism is objectively more likely to be true than the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis is an open question that depends upon a difficult assessment of the prior epistemic probability of theism. Since there are independent motivations for believing theism apart from fine-tuning and other design evidence, that evidence counts in favor of theism even if we cannot show that theism is true. Moreover, unless we have good reason to believe that the existence of evil is very improbable under theism, the combination of the fine-tuning data and the existence of evil supports theism over the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis. It is reasonable under the theistic hypothesis to think that the existence of limited, vulnerable moral agents is an overall good despite the evils that almost certainly would accompany the existence of such agents.

Cosmythology: Is the Universe Fine-Tuned to Produce Us? (1996) (Off Site) by Victor J. Stenger

"Undoubtedly, if the universe were to start again from scratch with random parameters it would not look at all the way it does today. However, it can be shown that the conditions necessary for the evolution of some form of life would have arisen from a wide variation in physical constants."

The Fine-Tuning Argument (1998) by Theodore Drange

Currently, a very popular theistic argument is the so-called "fine-tuning argument," the argument that God is the best explanation for the combination of physical constants which allow life. Drange argues that (1) God is a poor explanation, and that (2) there are better explanations than God for the combination of physical constants.

The Fine-Tuning Argument Revisited (2000) by Theodore Drange

Professor Drange provides an improved formulation of the theistic fine-tuning argument, but then demonstrates that it still contains many flaws.

Intelligent Design: Humans, Cockroaches, and the Laws of Physics by Victor J. Stenger (1995) (Off Site)

"Just as we must continue to educate parents and teachers on the facts of evolution, we must also inform them that science has by no means confirmed the traditional belief in a created universe with humanity at its center."

In Defense of the Fine Tuning Design Argument (2001) by James Hannam

The Internet Infidels have long been interested in publishing theistic defenses of the fine-tuning argument against our criticisms, which are collected among our many essays on the Design Argument in general. James Hannam is the first to oblige, and the following essay is his defense of the Fine Tuning Argument for a creator. He argues that atheists have yet to refute the Fine Tuning argument to Design, and therefore we may have reason to believe there was a divine creator.

Response to James Hannam's 'In Defense of the Fine Tuning Design Argument' (2001) by Richard Carrier

Response to James Hannam's defense of the Fine Tuning Argument for a Creator. Lists and discusses several sweeping problems with even carefully-stated versions of the argument like Hannam's.

Examining the Hidden Value Judgment of the Fine-Tuning Argument (2015) by Aron Lucas

The key premise of the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God is the alleged improbability of the physical constants taking on values that fall within the narrow life-friendly range. In this paper Aron Lucas examines whether this improbability alone is enough to ground a successful theistic argument from design. He concludes that the fine-tuning proponent is impaled on the horns of a trilemma: he can either reject the argument for having a false premise, reject it for being circular, or accept it at the cost of rejecting the moral argument for the existence of God.

Is God in the Details? (1999) (Off Site) by Kenneth Silber

Surveys some of the natural explanations for apparent "fine-tuning" in the laws of physics and evaluates claims that science points to the existence of God.

Is the Weak Anthropic Principle Compatible With Divine Design? (1997) by Kyle Kelly

Kelly responds to Craig's Barrow and Tipler article, arguing that the Weak Anthropic Principle "makes it clear that the mere improbability of our own universe is not evidence for divine design." 

Naturalism, Fine-Tuning, and Flies (2015) by Aron Lucas

If the values of the physical constants of our universe were even slightly different, life could not exist. Some have argued that the fact that life does exist thus provides strong evidence that God fine-tuned these values to allow life to emerge. According to the fine-tuning argument, the existence of a life-permitting universe is very improbable on naturalism, but not so on theism. However, we have no way of determining the probability or improbability of actualizing a life-permitting universe on naturalism, for we can only compare our universe against the infinitesimally small subset of other possible universes that have the same physical laws—not the infinite set of all other possible universes.

Naturalism vs. Theism: The Carrier-Wanchick Debate (2006)

In this online debate between Richard Carrier and Tom Wanchick, Carrier opens with a discussion of method followed by 5 arguments for naturalism and 2 arguments against theism, while Wanchick opens with 9 arguments for theism. In the first rebuttals, each debater criticizes the arguments offered by the other in the opening statements. In the second rebuttals, each debater defends their opening arguments against the criticisms of the other in the first rebuttals. Both closing statements focus on the purported deficiencies of the other debater's overall case.

On Universes and Firing Squads (1998) by Michael Hurben

"Appeals to the alleged 'fine-tuning' of the cosmos will have to wait until there is a compelling, definite reason to suspect that the existence of our universe really is improbable. Vague analogies with firing squads and arbitrarily selected probabilities may lead to some interesting speculations, but they do not point to any significant evidence for some kind of creator."

Re: Probability of star formation (1998) (Off Site) by Nathan Urban

Creationists "after the fact designate some particular configuration of the system as 'special,' such as 'those molecules in the corner' or 'the existence of life on Earth,' and say 'Wow, things must have been set up in the beginning exactly so that this configuration will occur!'"

Review of The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2018) by Aron Lucas

The massive Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology aims to be the standard reference work supplying the best reasons to believe that God exists from the foremost experts on various arguments for the existence of God. It is not recommended for readers without some background knowledge of the philosophy of religion, modal logic, and Bayesian confirmation theory. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored by anyone who wishes to argue that belief in God is irrational or intellectually bankrupt. In this review, Aron Lucas focuses on its chapters on the kalam cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, the moral argument, and the argument from miracles. Despite some valuable novel contributions, the volume focuses too heavily on defending some premises while ignoring others, and is highly technical even for advanced readers, with one argument presented in 87 steps purely using symbolic logic. One can only wonder why God would make the evidence for his existence accessible only to a select handful of professional academics, let alone punish people with eternal torment because they failed to properly apply Bayesian reasoning to little known historical data. The very fact that the volume needs to dig so deep in order to make its case is, in a way, evidence against the existence of God.

Review of The Hidden Face of God (2007) by Scott Oser and Niall Shanks

After examining Gerald Schroeder's academic credentials, Scott Oser critiques his arguments from Big Bang cosmology, quantum mechanics, and alleged "fine-tuning" for the existence of the biblical God in The Hidden Face of God. Oser tours such perennial issues as what, if anything, came before the Big Bang, various interpretations of quantum mechanics and whether it requires us to believe that atoms are literally "aware" and "make choices," whether entangled states indicate a universe underpinned by Mind, and whether purported fine-tuning is grounded on solid probability calculations or would even require a grand "tuner" if real given the possibility of a cosmic lottery playing out across a hypothetical multiverse. Niall Shanks turns to Schroeder's discussion of origin-of-life studies and purported "intelligent design" on the cellular level, noting that current biochemistry actually reveals substantial evidence of unintelligent design by mindless, trial-and-error processes such as self-organization. Moreover, good scientific hypotheses for such "mysteries" as the origin of sexual reproduction exist but simply lack confirmation at this stage, undermining the need to postulate any guiding supernatural agents. Oser and Shanks conclude that if the history of science is any guide, Schroeder's God of the gaps will be supplanted by natural explanations as our current scientific understanding advances.

Review of Jordan Howard Sobel's Logic and Theism (2006) by Theodore M. Drange

Jordan Howard Sobel's Logic and Theism is long, abstruse, and technical, but valuable for those who have an interest in its topics. Those looking for arguments based on empirical phenomena said to be best explained by the God hypothesis should look elsewhere. Sobel's focus is, rather, issues of definition and logical structure. He addresses everything from the ontological argument to the fine-tuning argument, demolishing all of the main arguments for God's existence. Moreover, he argues that the kind of omnipotence and omniscience that theists ascribe to God is incoherent, and defends both evidential and logical arguments from evil against the existence of God. Finally, he turns to a discussion of practical reasons for belief in God, such as those invoked by Pascal's wager. No cutting-edge research on these topics should omit Sobel's work.

Ten Things Wrong with Cosmological Creationism (2000) by Richard Carrier

Response to a short series of exchanges on cosmological creationism which explains many of my views on the subject and exhibits what I see are paradigm examples of what is wrong with the thinking and methods of creationists. This essay is aimed at those creationists who are not beyond all reason, but who admit they may be wrong, and thus may yet notice their mistakes and learn from them, and who at any rate are genuinely open to honest debate.

Two Fatal Problems with the Fine-Tuning Argument (2015) by Ryan Stringer

If any of a number of the universe's physical constants had been even slightly different, then life as we know it could not exist. According to the fine-tuning argument, the extreme improbability of the actual constants having, by chance, their uniquely life-permitting values suggests that they were "fine-tuned" by God to allow life to exist. But there are at least two fatal problems with the fine-tuning argument. First, if the fine-tuning argument's premises hold, then its conclusion does not, since a parallel "divine-pruning" argument yields the opposite conclusion using the exact same line of reasoning. Second, the fine-tuning argument wrongly assumes that the extreme improbability of a unique outcome's occurrence by chance in this lottery-like context implies that that outcome did not occur by chance. Both problems show that the fine-tuning argument does not justify theism or even supernaturalism more generally.

Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists (2003) by Sean M. Carroll

Those who closely study the origin, development, and structure of the universe tend to disbelieve in any spiritual dimension to it. Science has inadvertently discovered that religious pictures of the world are false; when speaking to the same questions, science and religion invariably get different answers. Cosmology has no need for a First Cause since the Big Bang might simply be a transitional phase in an infinitely old universe or, alternatively, there may be no "before" the Big Bang anymore than there is a "north" of the North Pole. Appeals to alleged fine-tuning are presumptuous: physicists extrapolating from the earliest well-understood moment after the Big Bang using the laws of physics alone would erroneously deem our universe inhospitable to life. How, then, can we reliably anticipate the likelihood of life arising in hypothetical universes with different laws? Even supposing that physical constants are in fact "tunable" (which they may not be), constants might take on different values in other universes; and as Carroll puts it, "intelligent observers will only measure the values which obtain in those regions which are consistent with the existence of such observers." Finally, cosmology betrays unintelligent design: entire classes of fundamental particles exist that would have no impact on life if they had never existed. Evidently, a simple materialist formalism could offer a complete description of the universe.

Why I Am Not a Christian (2006) by Richard Carrier

In this explanation of why he is not a Christian, Richard Carrier outlines the top four reasons why he rejects Christianity: God's silence, God's inactivity, lack of evidence, and the overt conflict between discovered reality and Christian theory. Though a lay exposition geared at a general audience, the essay appeals to a variety of atheistic arguments, including the argument from religious confusion, an evidential argument from evil, divine hiddenness, the argument from biological evolution, and the argument from physical minds. In an interesting twist on the argument from design, Carrier turns the fine-tuning argument on its head, noting that several features of our universe--features predicted by naturalism--are highly improbable if Christian theism is true.

Why I Am Not a Christian (2006) by Graham Oppy

Graham Oppy explains the ways in which his reasons for rejecting Christianity differ from those offered by Bertrand Russell in his famous paper of the same title. In section I, Oppy considers how Christianity should be characterized, the best way to build a case against theism, and the nonrational reasons why people believe in God, among other things. In section II, he offers an account of his journey to unbelief and the philosophy of religion. By section III, Oppy explains why he is not a Christian, as well as some of the things that he does believe. Here he pines in on appeals to contingency and causality in theistic arguments, the problem of evil, free will, the mind-body problem, the history of the universe, human history, and the historicity of the Gospels--outlining his "supervenient naturalism" along the way. Oppy wraps up by considering the meaning of life and whether virtuous behavior relates to Christian belief.