(This is the second post in my “65 Questions Every Christian Parent Needs to Learn to Answer” series. Sign up to receive posts via email to make sure you learn to answer each one!)
Today, I’m continuing to answer question #1: What key arguments are there for God’s existence? My last post described the creation (“cosmological”) argument. Today I’ll describe the design argument.
But first a quick note. If all this is new to you and it looks overwhelming, I want to say two things. 1) It’s actually not overwhelming – I’m writing these posts with a person brand new to these concepts in mind. Give it a try. 2) In the last hour, I’ve wiped stinky bottoms, cleaned snot off faces and issued two time-outs. I’m a normal parent entrenched in daily duties, just like you. If I can learn these things, so can you!
So here we go.
What is the Design Argument?
Quite simply, the design argument states that a designer (e.g., God) must exist since the universe and living things show evidence of design by an intelligent source.
The most famous explanation of this is the “Watchmaker Analogy” given by William Paley in 1802. Paley stated that if you found a watch in an empty field, you would of course conclude that it was designed and not just the result of random formation. Similarly, when we look at the universe and life, it is natural to conclude that there is a designer since we see how precisely formed they are.
The Key Question: Are We Looking at the Appearance of Design or Actual Design by a Designer?
Almost all scientists – atheists and theists alike – acknowledge that many aspects of the universe and life have at least the appearance of design rather than the appearance of unguided, chance formation. Even famous atheist Richard Dawkins implicitly acknowledged this when he said, “Biology is the study of complex things that appear to have been designed for a purpose.”
The question is whether the universe and life simply have the appearance of design (but actually are the result of a purposeless, unguided process) or if they demonstrate actual design by a designer (e.g., God).
This isn’t a straightforward question. Where do you draw the line objectively? What are the right criteria for determining that something came about by chance versus design?
It’s important to understand that making scientific judgments about nature is not a simple matter of common sense. Our perceptions of nature often don’t match reality. For example, the sun appears to circle the earth, but we know from science that the earth actually circles the sun.
For this reason, the design argument is scientifically specific today. It’s not just a claim that the world in general looks pretty amazing, so it must have been designed. Design (or lack thereof) is discussed specifically in the context of 1) certain areas of biology and 2) the “fine-tuning” of the universe.
The scientists who promote their findings in these areas as evidence of design are part of what is called the Intelligent Design movement. These scientists don’t specify who or what the intelligent agent is, but state that some features of the universe and of living things are better explained by an intelligent cause than by an undirected natural process. This is compatible with a Christian view, but is based entirely on scientific evidence rather than scripture. Intelligent Design refers to a scientific theory, not theology.
Let’s look at one specific case of design proposed by the Intelligent Design movement so you can get a feel for what I mean by “scientifically specific.” This one is frequently discussed and is detailed in Stephen C. Meyer’s book, “Signature in the Cell.”
Biological Design: Too Much Information in DNA to Arise from Chance?
When Charles Darwin (the father of evolution) wrote “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, he didn’t try to explain the origin of the very first life. His work sought to explain how new life forms developed from simpler preexisting ones; this is what we know as “evolution.” Evolution assumes rather than explains the origin of the first living thing. (It’s very important to understand this distinction.)
In other words, it’s like saying that Darwin developed a theory about how a single snowflake can roll and roll into various types of snowballs over time…but he wasn’t addressing where that very first snowflake came from.
In the case of biology, that first “snowflake” is the first living cell. Researchers assume that the first living cell evolved out of non-living materials already in existence, so we’re not talking about a general, “how did everything get here?” question. We’re talking specifically about how a first living cell could have developed from non-living materials assumed to be in existence. This is called “abiogenesis” and is very different than the study of evolutionary development after that cell has emerged.
I’ve made a little diagram below to help you visualize this. The red star (abiogenesis) represents the point where scientists make a case for Intelligent Design.
Cells contain DNA, which contains the information your body needs to function. There are four letters in the DNA alphabet (A, C, G and T), and the sequence of those letters holds the information code your body uses – just like the specific sequence of letters on this page forms meaningful words.
It’s been estimated that a single cell’s DNA contains about 4,000 books of 500 pages each of information.
That’s an awful lot of information to arise simply by chance from non-living matter. Should we infer that the best explanation for this kind of complex and meaningful information is an intelligent mind or thoughtless matter? Scientists who advocate Intelligent Design make a case that the best inference is that it came from an intelligent mind.
The technical term for this argument is “specified complexity.” The case goes much deeper scientifically to support the claim that this is the best inference. See my recommendations at the bottom for further reading if you’re interested.
Other Major Design Arguments: Irreducible Complexity and Fine-Tuning of the Universe
Since this post is only meant to introduce you to the concept of design arguments, I’m not going to detail the other major cases. But, very briefly, let me define two others you should at least be aware of:
- Irreducible Complexity: This argument says that some biological systems are too complex to have evolved from simpler, “less complete” predecessors. Michael Behe is the key advocate of this argument.
- Fine-Tuning of the Universe: Fine-tuning refers to the surprising precision of nature’s physical constants. To explain the present state of the universe, scientific theories require that constants like the strength of gravity have extremely precise values. If they varied in the slightest, the universe could not even host life. Again, even most atheists agree that the universe at least appears “finely tuned” for life. (Check out this page for a list of 34 kinds of finely-tuned values and what would happen if they varied slightly.)
Recommendations for Further Reading/Viewing
The Intelligent Design DVD Collection: This is a 3-DVD collection about Intelligent Design that is geared at viewers with no scientific background. They are fantastic and perfect for viewing with kids. I highly recommend! It’s only $18 on Amazon and they’ll give you a great foundational understanding of key Intelligent Design arguments.
Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer: Meyer is one of the leading proponents of Intelligent Design. This book details (and I mean DETAILS) the case for specified complexity that I gave an overview of in this post. If you’re interested in a deeper scientific understanding of the argument, this is the master work. It can be a bit of a tough read at times, but it’s very rewarding.
Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen C. Meyer: This is Meyer’s most recent book (released last year). This is a detailed look at the sudden emergence of new life forms in the fossil record, called the “Cambrian Explosion.” It’s a fascinating book. The Cambrian Explosion is the subject of one of the DVDs in the Intelligent Design Collection I listed here.
Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe: This is the major book that details the irreducible complexity argument. Behe is the most prominent author on the irreducible complexity argument.
The Discovery Institute: The website for this key Intelligent Design think tank has a vast number of resources to explore further.
Any questions? Let me know below!