Posts from July 1998

The Argument from Design

The Argument from Design, also known as the teleological argument, is one of the most common arguments used by evangelists in defense of their god figure. It 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. In the form arguing against undesigned abiogenesis1, it claims that the probability of abiogenesis occurring without design is tiny to the point of absurdity. One 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–whatever it is–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 proposed that life could arise from silicon-based polymers rather than organic2. Many of the structures, seen in Earth life, even at the cell level, are contingent on the circumstances of evolution, and it is therefore quite possible to find huge varieties of even organic life with little if any resemblence to Earth life.

The few times that a formal probabilistic model is produced for abiogenesis, the model is almost always is based upon something along the lines of the random formation of some large organic molecule (often a strand of DNA) from scratch. However, scientific abiogenesis does not require complex organic molecules like DNA to assemble from primordial scratch. The simpler organic molecules such as sugars and amino acids would have formed first, and once they had formed, the probability of DNA and other large organic molecules forming would show a marked increase. Further, it is suspect to even attempt to apply a probabilistic model to the chemical formation of life; chemical reactions are not random and therefore any use of probabilism is risky at best.

A common form for the Argument from Design is 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. One of the most glaring errors is the faulty assumption about our method for identifying the watch as being designed: most of us would actually assume a watchmaker because we know from previous experience that watches are engineered by humans. Even if we were to encounter completely unfamiliar man-made goods, we would still be more likely to adduce their manmade nature from the materials and designs used (we know that most leather, plastics, pure metals, and so on are the results of human effort) than from their orderliness. Furthermore, when the analogy is applied to life, it must be emphasized that, unlike living beings, 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). Because of the effects of natural selection, organisms have a form that is approximates conscious engineering.

When the Watchmaker 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.

Another, less common argument known as the Theistic Anthropic Principle is basically the Argument from Design’s abiogenesis version, slightly reworded and placed in something approaching argument form. It draws upon the cosmological principle known as the Anthropic Principle. This principle comes in two forms. The weak version is little more than simple common sense. It states that one should not be surprised that life arose in this region of the Universe: if it weren’t conducive to life, then we would not be here to discuss it. Another form of the principle is more emphatic: the strong Anthropic Principle states that the Universe is in some way engineered for Earth-pattern life. Not surprisingly, this view has fallen into the hands of theists, and a theistic spin upon the principle has developed. The underlying principle behind the Theistic Anthropic Principle and other teleological arguments 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.

Nevertheless, one of the most critical flaws in these two nearly identical arguments is that they are based on a faulty understanding of probability. We may make an initial attack with another kind of anthropic principle: by the weak anthropic principle we can point out that, no matter how many Universes there have been, all those without the suitable parameters may be discarded because this Universe is the only one in which we would be around to talk about it. The second attack is best made by 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.

Finally, we must consider the most fundamental problem to all of these arguments: a probability for the outcome has not been determined and cannot be until all the possible outcomes are first defined. Neither the number of possible results nor even the possible ranges of the constants behind the Theistic Anthropic Principle have been defined. It is not necessarily valid to assume that the values of the physical constants are malleable, varying between possible worlds; if physics determined that our current Universe’s parameters were the only possible outcome, then the arguments would seem superficially 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


  1. Abiogenesis is the emergence of life from non-living matter (a+bio = without life, genesis = creation of life). The first doctrine of abiogenesis was the pre-scientific idea of spontaneous generation, which has long been discredited. Modern scientific abiogenesis is the hypothesis that primordial life formed from chemical reactions in early Earth history which produced larger and larger organic polymers. Under most theories, conditions in nature on Earth are no longer suitable for abiogenesis to occur.

  2. It should be noted that this has only been proposed as a possibility. It is in fact far less likely that silicon-based life exists elsewhere in the Universe than it is that carbon-based life does; it is much harder for silicon molecules to form the large polymer chains needed for life. It is merely raised in this paper as one possibility amidst many, another small chink in the teleological argument’s already swiss-cheesed reasoning.

This essay is a revision of an earlier version that dates back to 1997. –C.J. 2006-07-10.