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Intelligent Design: Appeal to Purpose

Introduction

Nature is full of patterns and artful composition. Snowflakes exhibit sixfold symmetry, and many of us are familiar with naturally occurring Fibonacci spirals, such as in seashells or the horns of sheep. Furthermore, plants and animals alike have come to have some awesome adaptations. For example, fish living in the Arctic ocean produce antifreeze proteins to avoid freezing in the frigid waters. The cuttlefish can detect how much light is present in its surroundings and change its color accordingly. On the macro level, ecosystems are carefully balanced environments, with each organism fitting what is seemingly a special and precise role. It is not hard to look at nature, with its intricate and detailed parts, and imagine that it is somehow designed.

Explanation

If nature is designed, then something must have designed it. It can be helpful to appeal to evolution, but even still, how did the workings of evolution come to be so well crafted? Some people look at the proportions and particularities of the natural world and conclude that it is the product of an intelligent designer.

Definition of Intelligent Design

Intelligent design, also known as the teleological argument, is an argument for the existence of God that contends that the order and patterns present in the universe are evidence for God’s existence.

The History

18th century English philosopher William Paley provided the most famous account of the argument from intelligent design, known as the watch and the watchmaker. His argument goes as such: Imagine you are walking one day and find a watch on the ground. Assume that you have never seen a watch and know nothing about its creation or use. Upon examining the strange object, you find it full of carefully placed wheels. Even though you have never known such a thing, you are likely to conclude that it was an intentional creation by an intelligent mind. It seems quite unlikely that such a thing would have just appeared randomly in the world.

Likewise, the world itself has order and complexity. This suggests a world maker with an intelligent mind analogous to that of humans. If you believe that the watch has an intelligent designer, Paley argues, you should believe that the universe has an intelligent designer for the same reasons. Therefore, the teleological argument is an argument by analogy. By finding similarities in the effects of a cause - order in both human-made machines and the universe - we are led to conjecture that the cause of each effect resembles each other in certain ways, one of which is intelligence.

Therefore, for the intelligent design argument to succeed, it must show that everything in nature, like everything created by humans, is ordered. However, this should not be conceded immediately. 20th-century German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein asserted that as humans, we will always find a reason or order to explain how things are, even if they are not logical. For example, imagine you take a container of sprinkles and drop them on a table. If you examine them for a few moments, you will certainly be able to find words, faces, and various shapes that seem to appear in the sprinkles. Perhaps you even notice that most of the pink sprinkles fell on the left side of the table, and most of the green sprinkles are on the right. However, the sprinkles fell randomly. Any order you see present in the sprinkles was put there by your mind. We do the same thing when we find shapes in the clouds or stars. Likewise, the particular order of our universe cannot be used as evidence for an external and infinite orderer, as we are the orderers ourselves, finding a system by which to describe any world in which we exist.

So What?

Arguments for God’s existence are important because throughout history, wars have been fought and friendships broken in the name of religion. God is central to many people’s moral and political values, yet the existence or nonexistence of God is often taken as an assumption rather than needing evidence itself. The intelligent design argument is unique in that it not only assumes God is the creator of the world, but that he purposefully made the world in the way that it is. Therefore, all the evil and chaos that exists was designed by God. The existence of evil poses a serious problem for theists, as it questions God’s omnibenevolence, or completely goodness.

If you find the argument from intelligent design convincing, consider how you might respond to Wittgenstein’s objection. Why is this particular ordering of the world special? Furthermore, how is evil a part of God’s design?

If you find the argument from intelligent design unconvincing, this does not mean you are committed to atheism. Several other arguments attempt to prove God’s existence, including Thomas Aquinas’ argument for God (the cosmological argument) and the ontological argument. Keep in mind that when someone uses faulty reasoning as evidence for their view, this does not mean their conclusion must be false. The proof may not be compelling, but there may be a sound argument that leads to the same conclusion. You may find that even if you reject the reasoning of the argument from intelligent design, you can be convinced of God’s existence in another way.

Think Further

  1. How might this ordering of the world be uniquely purposeful?
  2. How can the theory of evolution detract from or add to the argument from intelligent design?
  3. Do you think that everything in nature was created with a purpose?

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Learn More

  1. Crashcourse. “Intelligent Design: Crash Course Philosophy #11.” Youtube, 25 April 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7e9v_fsZB6A&t=311s.
  2. Hume, David. “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part II.” Hume Texts Online, 1779, davidhume.org.
  3. Philosophy Vibe. “The Teleological Argument (Argument for the Existence of God).” Youtube, 5 November 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s06w4pXvUyk.
  4. Ratzsch, Del and Koperski, Jeffrey. “Teleological Arguments for God’s Existence.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2020, plato.stanford.edu.
  5. Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. Clarendon Press, 2004.