Who Designed the Designer?

Last year, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary Douglas Groothius wrote an essay in the philosophy journal, Think: Philosophy for Everyone, challenging some of Dawkins’ claims in the The God Delusion about the argument from design. It was one of the journal’s most popular essays of the year and if you haven’t read it, the article is available as a free sample on the Cambridge University Press website. Think seeks to expose contemporary philosophy to the widest possible readership and here Groothius has presented his arguments in the form of fictional conversation at a book discussion group. Anthony is the atheist; Agnes, the agnostic; and Theo, the theist:

Anthony: … There is one argument against theism that Dawkins returns to repeatedly. It isn’t new, but he uses it powerfully. And it can be stated simply, I think.

Theo: I think I know what is coming.

Anthony: Dawkins says that believers in God use God as a kind of philosophical trump card to explain certain aspects of nature. When they cannot explain something scientifically, they simply invoke God to end the argument. So, if we cannot explain something very complex and seemingly designed, like the rotary motor attached the back of the bacterium in the cell, God is invoked. I’m talking about the bacterial flagellum, the poster child for the Intelligent Design (or ID) movement. These people say, ‘It was designed by an intelligence, not brought about by nature alone’.

Theo: That’s right. ID thinkers call it ‘the design inference.’ It appeals to empirically observable facts – from biology and cosmology – and infers from these facts that the best explanation is design, rather than some combination of chance and necessity, which are unintelligent, nondirective causes.

Agnes: It sounds like these ID people are at least trying to give a scientific argument, aren’t they?

Anthony: Agnes, it’s a ruse, a charade really. Think of the Wizard of Oz. He seems to be a supernatural wizard, when in fact he is a mere human with special effects. As Dawkins says, ID is ‘creationism in a cheap tuxedo.’

Theo: That smells like a false analogy, but go on. And watch out for ad hominem fallacies as well.

Anthony: I am happy to do so. I’m just getting warmed up. At an intuitive level, it seems that a designer is the most commonsensical explanation for some things in nature. If you see Mount Rushmore or ‘John Loves Mary’ written in the sands of a beach, you infer a designer. Fair enough.

Theo: That’s right! You seem to get the design inference at a basic level, although it can be put more technically. You have a complex phenomenon that fits a specifiable pattern: either the faces of presidents (Mount Rushmore) or a known and meaningful sentence (‘John loves Mary’). Design is, therefore, a warranted inference.

Anthony: Don’t get your hopes up, Theo. We have to look for the man behind the curtain and there is no one there – only nature! You see, as Dawkins points out, any supposed designer would be a case of specified complex itself (or herself or himself). Therefore, that designer’s existence would need to be explained by a previous designer. And that designer, being complex, would have to be explained by another designer, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. There is a vicious and infinite regress in which nothing at all gets explained. It goes on forever and that is philosophically nauseating.

Agnes: I see. It would be like jumping out of a bottomless pit!

Anthony: That’s it exactly, Agnes. You see, the appeal to a designer does not really explain anything. It just seems to, since we explain things like sculptures and sentences on the basis of intelligent agents who design them. But the sculptors and sentence-writers are not the last word. Their own existence needs explanation. So, the ID examples are misleading. Atheism is superior, since it explains everything according to what is simple: particles and natural laws banged into existence about 14 billion years ago.

Theo: It’s about time I slowed down this atheistic train and made some distinctions, Anthony. You are asserting that ID thinkers assume this principle: any complex entity that is specified in its pattern requires a designer outside of itself as a sufficient explanation.

Anthony: I suppose I am, and so does Dawkins. What’s wrong with that?

Theo: Everything is wrong with that. It’s a straw man fallacy. ID attempts to explain certain features of nature that indicate intelligence. These artifacts or systems are finite and material in nature. That is the explanandum if you will.

Anthony: Stop showing off, Theo. What does explanandum mean?

Theo: It simply means: the thing explained. The explacans is what does the explaining.

Anthony: OK. Very impressive. But I don’t discern an argument as yet.

Theo: Be patient. The point is this: ID is not operating from the premise that everything that is complex requires an explanation outside itself. Rather, it attempts to explain certain finite and material states of affairs through the design inference. It does not operate on some general philosophical principle that anything at all that is complex requires an explanation outside itself.1

Agnes: Dawkins never mentioned this. Did he misrepresent the ID argument?

Theo: In spades, he did! Dawkins is not the most sympathetic interlocutor. Moreover, a bona fide explanation can be given even if the thing that explains something else is not itself explained. For example, if I explain that Sam slipped because he stepped on a banana peel that is a genuine explanation. I do not have to explain how the banana peel got there!

Anthony: I suppose so. But what if the designer is a finite, material thing with specified complexity? Then it, too, requires an explanation.

Theo: Yes, but ID only tries to explain finite, material, complex states that are empirically observable. It leaves certain aspects of the designer or designers unspecified.

Anthony: Hah! So what kind of natural theology is that?! You don’t even know who the designer is.

Agnes: Right. So even if I accept the design inference, I can still remain agnostic about the existence of the full-strength monotheistic God: personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, totally good, and so on.

You can find the whole article here or download it as PDF file.

(HT: The Constructive Curmudgeon)

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  1. […] in 2009 from their journal Think: Philosophy for Everyone (which includes Groothius’ article, as previously posted).  The journal has contributions from leading philosophers, with articles by Alvin Plantinga, Paul […]

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