Subject: argument by design redux? John Polkinghorne, a British physicist turned priest, i
From: Jeffrey Shallit
Subject: argument by design redux?
John Polkinghorne, a British physicist turned priest, is visiting
our university, giving a series of lectures on science and
religion. It is part of the "Pascal lecture series", a privately-
financed group that seeks to promote "search for truth through
the Christian faith" (wording approximate).
I went to the first talk, "Taking Science Seriously", last
night. I'm sorry to say that I found nothing new in his
remarks -- it was a rehash of many of the old tired arguments
used by creationists.
For example, he gave much attention to the supposed
'untweakability' of various physical constants, saying that
if this force or that force were changed just the slightest,
we would not have a dynamic universe in which stellar
evolution, and therefore life, was possible. Since there
are many such constants, he concluded this was evidence of
a highly unlikely event suggesting the existence of god.
I find this argument singularly unconvincing, for several
reasons. One is that it smacks of "if a bird were a fish,
it wouldn't be able to fly". Another is that we have no
idea how universes could be 'designed' (for lack of a better
word), and therefore no idea how the constants are 'linked'
together. If we *were* able to change one ("if pi were e"),
perhaps many of them would change. Third, there seems
to me no rational basis by which one could estimate the
probability, for example, that the exponent in ``our'' law of
gravitational attraction would have turned out to
be 2.001 rather than 2. Finally, it seems like a posteriori
reasoning. If one calculates the probability that I would
exist to write this posting, based on the amazing
coincidence of my father and mother meeting, their
grandparents meeting, etc., one must (!) conclude that
it is very close to 0, and hence this message is divinely
I would like to hear any discussions of this "new"
argument from design. Pointers to discussions in books
or articles would be particularly helpful.
I have been informed that my first version of this post was more than a
little vague. Since I really can't believe the problem lies on the part
of David Hume, let me clarify what I thought I was saying...
The Paleyesque argument via design runs something as follows. If I found
a watch sitting in an empty field, I would immediately recognize that it has
been created because it exhibits all the signs of design. I look at the
Universe and it appears to be designed, therefore it must have been created.
This is an argument by analogy in which one claims that since the design
exhibited by a watch means there must have been a watchmaker, the design
exhibited by the universe must mean that there was a Creator.
As Hume correctly pointed out (and which I didn't muff too terribly the
first go round), argument via analogy only holds if the arguments are
analogous. Okay, now to clear up the confusion I am sure I inflicted...
If I were to hand an object to Bob Bales, for example, in the overwhelming
majority of cases he would be able to correctly identify it as either
a manmade artifact or a natural artifact. This amazing ability of every
human to separate out manmade from natural artifacts is only possible because
we have been able to repeatedly examine both types of objects, and we are
familiar with the characteristics of both natural and human artifacts.
Now on the other hand, you have the Universe which contains everything you
can see/touch/taste/smell/hear. You have no point of reference to compare the
Universe to (and we are starting out under the assumption that we are not
sure whether the Universe was created or not). If the Universe is the
handiwork of a Creator, you can only experience what a Universe designed by a
Creator is like. If it is not designed by a Creator you can only experience
what a Universe that is not designed by a Creator is like.
In the case of the watch or any item I may hand you, you have two clearly
distinct designations, manmade or natural. For the Universe you only have
one designation (and you are not sure which designation, Created or Noncreated).
Therefore, the primary attributes of the object and the Universe that is the
subject of the analogy is known, a priori, NOT to be analogous (even if we are
not sure exactly what the state of the Universe is with regard to the
It is for this reason that a Paleyesque version of the watchmaker argument
is fallacious. It might hearten some Creationists to know, however, that the
same fallacy will also destroy any evolutionists attempts to reverse the
argument. (Of course, I've never seen an evolutionist try to argue this in
reverse, but I'm sure it could happen.)
This concludes episode #2 of "Matt Brinkman Quotes Arguments from Wizard-
Class Philosophers". I hope this helps to clear up the confusion I inflicted
on the gentle readers of talk.origins in episode #1.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank