How Can We Tell If The Universe Has Design?

This is another in a series of questions about Christianity from critics and skeptics.

Question: In most arguments from design, the universe is compared to a designed object. For example, Paley uses a watch to illustrate design, since we all know watches are designed. What other universe is the proponent of Intelligent Design comparing our current universe to so he can show design? We would need another universe that is designed or undersigned to compare this one so we can decide about design. With only one universe to evaluate, we can make no valid comparisons about design.

Answer: This question sets up a false dilemma. It is not true that we need another universe to compare ours. We can merely observe that everything that works toward an end has an intelligence behind it working toward that end. All things that are purposeless require no designer, a fact which many thoughtful atheists are quick to point out. Thomas Aquinas put it this way in On Truth (De Veritate), Q5.A2:

Those things that happen by chance, happen only rarely; we know from experience, however, that harmony and usefulness are found in nature either at all times or at least for the most part. This cannot be the result of mere chance; it must be because an end is intended.

Thomas is here saying that because we see harmony and usefulness in the universe on a regular basis, we can conclude that it is only reasonable that things are working toward an end. Atheist  Richard Dawkins has said “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Such is a hard position to take consistently, for even Dawkins will tell us in the next breath that religion is evil, a fact contrary to what he has just told us. If evil truly exists, then something in the universe is working toward an end; if evil does not exist, then a primary criticism of religion is taken away, namely that no good God would allow pain and suffering.

Thomas continues:

What lacks intellect or knowledge, however, cannot tend directly toward an end. It can do this only if someone else’s knowledge has established an end for it, and directs it to that end. Consequently, since natural things have no knowledge, there must be some previously existing intelligence directing them to an end, like an archer who gives a definite motion to an arrow so that it will wing its way to a determined end.

We do not observe total randomness and chaos in the universe; if we did, the language we use to communicate is meaningless. Dawkins’ very statement, saying that universe is meaningless clear to the bottom, is itself a meaningful statement. Thomas Aquinas recognized that we do indeed observe things working toward an end, therefore some intelligence somewhere is directing something.

To maintain that no design exists, the atheist would have to maintain that all of the universe is total randomness and chaos, a meaningless pile on top of a meaningless foundation. Similar to Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, if the critic were to observe the world and conclude that the universe has no design, then the basis for us making the evaluation would have no meaning, and the critic’s argument self-destructs. Indeed, the very concept of the existence of a critic self destructs.

Yet we know the critic exists, we know good and evil exist, and we know things in the universe move toward ends.

Further, the implication in the question is that there is no independent way to verify design. Intelligent Design proponent William Dembski has responded with a simple answer, namely that if the structures and design in nature can be duplicated without intervention, the theory would be falsified.

We then hold that design in nature is reasonable, and denial of it is not reasonable. Any design needs a designer. This we call God.

About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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7 Responses to How Can We Tell If The Universe Has Design?

  1. dwwork says:

    Reblogged this on Reasons For The Hope Blog and commented:
    Another post from my friend Glenn’s blog.

  2. Pingback: How Can We Tell If The Universe Has Design? | A disciple's study

  3. Why We Leave says:

    Opening question:
    > What other universe is the proponent of Intelligent Design comparing our current universe to so he can show design?

    Your response.
    > This question sets up a false dilemma.

    I don’t think you grasp what a false dilemma is. It’s an informal fallacy that happens when someone forces an argument into a few select categories while neglecting other options. (C.S. Lewis’ trilemma of “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” is an example of a false dilemma. There are other options to consider.) Here, the author makes a valid point: design is only know through other design and is something which cannot be inferred. Since there’s only one observable universe, we can’t say for certain if it was designed. Painters paint and engineers build. Who makes universes? That answer cannot be answered with our current set of knowledge.

    If you want to anthropomorphize the creation of the universe into a person and call that person God, I suppose you may do just that. I allow myself to let the mystery be.

  4. humblesmith says:

    As an informal fallacy, false dilemma is just that . . . informal. Perhaps I should have left off that line in my response, as it is not critical and muddies the water. But I still think it valid. The question sets up a comparison where, it seems, there must be either another universe to compare this one or we cannot make any conclusions about design. This is a false requirement. As I showed in the post, design is not known only through comparing the universe to another one. Design can indeed be inferred through the fact that harmony and usefulness do not appear regularly through unguided randomness.

    Dawkins has said categorically that the universe has “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good.” I maintain that it is readily apparent that evil exists, good exists, there is at least some purpose in the universe, and therefore design exists.

    As to the idea of the cause of the universe being personal, it is apparent that an effect must pre-exist in a cause, at least in some sense. If the universe has some personal aspects, those aspects must exist in the cause.

  5. John Moore says:

    You wrote, “Everything that works toward an end has an intelligence behind it working toward that end.” This probably isn’t true, depending on your definition of an end.

    Consider a river flowing to its mouth at the sea. The river seems to be working toward an end, yet no intelligence made it that way. Why does the Mississippi River come out at New Orleans instead of at Mobile? Nobody planned that.

    Another obvious and important example is evolution. Biologists will say evolution is unplanned, and yet it works to generate all sorts of interesting species. Thanks for considering my comment.

    • humblesmith says:

      Evolution says that things are purposeless and does not work toward an end (see the Dawkins quote above, but there are others) but also says that things work toward an end, namely survival. Such is an incoherent view, for it says there is no purpose but there is a purpose. To deny Aquinas’ point here, the critic would have to say there is no purpose at all in the universe, even the purpose of the language they’re using to explain their points. It is not that we can find something that appears purposeless,, but that no thing has propose.

      As for thing like rivers, I would maintain that the entire water cycle of evaporation and rain does indeed have a purpose and shows design.

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