The Argument from Design and Anthropic Principle are Worthless

The Argument from Design, also known as the teleological argument, and the fundamentally identical Theistic Anthropic Principle are two of the arguments bandied about by fundies perhaps more often than any other in defense of their god figure. The Argument from Design, which only very loosely qualifies as an argument, basically states that due to the incredible order of the Universe, or the incredible odds against abiogenesis causing life on Earth, it seems unlikely in the extreme that the Universe was not designed by a Creator.

This argument has several critical flaws. Its first is that it is based on an extremely geocentric/anthropocentric view of the Universe, in its form arguing against undesigned abiogenesis. In this form, it posits that the probability of abiogenesis occurring without design is tiny to the point of absurdity. The flaw in this is that such a view is only on the planetary scale; given the chances of abiogenesis occurring at any given point in the Universe (rather than just on the planetary scale) multiplied by the size of the Universe and the amount of time in the Universe’s lifeline (so as to account for all possible timespace locations of abiogenesis), the probability becomes much more palatable. Life could have just as easily arisen on Planet Zeetar in the fifteenth sector of the galaxy Drizzlefump as on Earth. The abiogenesis version also hinges on the probability of Earth-pattern life, which is not at all the only form of life possible. As an example, it has been posited that life could arise from silicon-based molecules rather than carbon-based. Also, every single probabilistic model I have ever seen on the possibility of abiogenesis is based upon something along the lines of the random formation of some large organic molecule (often a strand of DNA) from scratch. The ridiculous and critical errors here are twofold:

  1. Chemical reactions are not random and therefore basing your probabilistic model on random assemblage is invalid.
  2. Abiogenesis does not state that complex organic molecules like DNA appeared from primordial scratch. The simpler organic molecules formed first, and once they formed, any measure of probability of the DNA and other complex molecules forming would show an increase.

The Argument from Design is often summed up in the Watchmaker Analogy, which runs something like:

If one finds a watch sitting on the beach, its orderliness would cause one to assume that there was a Watchmaker. In the same way, the incredible order of the Universe would seem to imply a Creator.

There are several flaws in this form of the argument. For example, when the analogy is applied to life, the watch is not a self-replicating structure with factors to modify the structure and selective pressures to regulate which structures are preserved (Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker), while life and pre-living self-replicating molecules are. Because of this, they have a form that is semi-designed via the principle of the chaos game: when unpredictable input is fed through a regular system of rules, it tends to produce predictable patterns (although there is no guarantee of any given result: there is just a liklihood of large-scale patterns). When the analogy applied to the Universe as a whole, what makes it truly worthless is that the assertion that the Universe is strikingly orderly is absolutely without basis, due to the fact that there is no backdrop to which we can compare the Universe. In the Watchmaker Analogy, the watchmaker is assumed because the watch stands out against the seemingly random backdrop of nature. However, there is absolutely no backdrop to which we can compare the Universe.

The Anthropic Principle is basically the Argument from Design’s abiogenesis version, slightly reworded and placed in something approaching argument form. However, the underlying premise is the same; the Anthropic Principle posits that there are some two dozen Universal constants which are necessary to hold the values that they do for life on Earth to arise, which, the proponents of the argument hold, makes undesigned abiogenesis unlikely in the extreme.

Since the Anthropic Principle hinges on universal constants, rather than on mere chance, it does not suffer from the same geocentric problems as the Argument from Design does. However, it does suffer from the same confusion of Earth-pattern life with all possible forms of life.

However, the most critical flaw in these two nearly identical arguments is that they are based on a faulty understanding of probability. The flaw in the reasoning is best illustrated in an analogy:

Assume that one has 1,000,000,000,000,000 (one quadrillion) dice. All these dice are cast in a fair roll. The result that came up is incredibly unlikely (there are 61,000,000,000,000,000 possible outcomes), so much so that an Argument from Design regarding the outcome of the roll would posit that such an incredibly unlikely outcome would indicate that each die was placed face up to the right number. However, the roll must have a result, and this one happened to be the one that came up. And, in fact, any other outcome would have been equally unlikely.

Of course, all of this ignores the problem that the probability for the outcome has not been and cannot be determined until you first define all the possible outcomes. If physics determined that our current Universe’s parameters were the only possible outcome, then the arguments would seem quite silly. Indeed, they would if the chances were found to be anything but astronomical.

For further reading:

  • Dawkins, Richard: The Blind Watchmaker
  • Dawkins, Richard: Climbing Mount Improbable
  • matthew: The alt.atheism FAQ

I first wrote this piece some time in 1997, but I’m unsure of the precise date. The first recorded appearance of the page in the Internet Archive is on 12 August 1997. —C.J., 2006-07-11.

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