The natural order is replete with things that couldn’t have just popped into being purely by chance, things like stars and planets and the myriad creatures on Earth. We know that the artifacts we create are made possible by our intelligence, since we design them to work as they do. Doesn’t this mean, by analogy, that everything in the universe was designed to work as they do by some divine intelligence?
This teleological or design argument for God’s existence was criticized especially well by the philosopher David Hume who pointed out that the analogy isn’t as strong as it may first appear. For example, machines such as computers or automobiles are typically designed and engineered by teams, so the analogy would imply polytheism rather than the more fashionable monotheism.
The Broader View of Nature
However, there’s a more glaring problem with the design argument, which is that the analogy assumers a static, parochial view of the universe. If you look up at the night sky, you see myriad twinkling stars and you might wonder how they came to be so bright that their light could reach us from so far away.
The mystery of how things came to be is magnified, of course, if we confine our observations to snapshots that provide us with only miniscule information. This is like the Hindu parable about blind people who try to explain what an elephant is when each person grasps a different part of the animal and has only a skewed inkling of the whole. From our comparatively brief vantage point, what we call the natural order appears fixed: stars proceed along their orbits, the seasons come and go, and everything is regular and reliable — just like how our artifacts generally function. There’s the odd hiccup or malfunction, but because we live for only eighty years on average, whereas a star lasts for billions, a star as we see it in our paltry lifespan looks all the more like a finished product.
We know now from scientific models that the universe wasn’t always as we currently perceive it. For example, the Hubble telescope presented us with images of nebulas or “stellar nurseries” in which you could see how stars are formed. Similarly, whereas organisms might once have looked like finished products, paleontologists discovered fossils that show how one species gradually evolved into another.
To say, then, that the universe is like a watch, as William Paley put it in his classic formulation of the teleological argument is to oversimplify based on grossly-insufficient data. If the universe is a product of intelligent design, it’s a product that appears to have formed itself over billions of years with no supernatural help from God. This would be an “artifact” that seems to have popped into existence from timeless, mindless, chaotic quantum fluctuations and evolved more and more complex forms naturally over billions of years.
Soon after the Big Bang, as the universe cooled, quarks and gluons combined to form the first protons and neutrons. Much later, slightly denser parts of the nearly uniform material plane grew even denser as gravity took over and formed gas clouds, stars, and galaxies. Dust grains orbiting around cooling stars accreted over long periods and formed planets. Under certain conditions, proto-organic chemicals combined to form the first organisms which likewise evolved into more and more complex kinds over long periods.
Scientists can fill in many of the blanks, though admittedly not all of them. For example, we don’t know how the cosmological constants came to be and it’s hard to see how scientific methods of explanation could ever provide a final and complete account of the universe, since they always explain one thing by positing something else that likewise needs explaining. This is the downside of scientific objectification.
Still, given that the universe evolved or created itself to at least a large extent, the appeal to a divine intelligence as the source of nature’s current “design” is no longer as urgent or intuitive as it once was, before science’s humbling overview became predominant. Human designers design things with limited functions in mind, so our products tend to maintain their intended form. For example, car companies produce cars that keep their designed shape and capabilities over the years, not cars that turn into robots that turn into trees that turn into winter boots. Planned obsolescence is an exception that proves the rule.
By contrast, the very early universe consisted of much simpler stuff that bears no resemblance to any of our handiworks. Thanks in part to gravity and the distribution of dark matter, that uniform, starless stuff shaped itself into nebulas, which then formed stars which then formed planets, at least one of which then formed very simple organisms (proto-organelles and single-celled life), which over hundreds of millions of years evolved into more and more complex species, including ours.
Artifact of Intelligence or Unintelligent Self-Organizer?
The critical point, then, isn’t just that the analogy between the universe and an airplane, say, is flawed. The problem is that the comparison is based on a woefully pedestrian vantage point. When we stretch our mind to encompass the earlier stages nature’s evolution, we’re met with a self-developing “artifact” at best, which of course is no artifact at all.
This is precisely why parents don’t regard their child as an artifact they designed or created, even though technically the act of sexual reproduction brings the child into being. The child isn’t an artifact or a product of intelligent design because the parents don’t choose the intricacies of their DNA and because the child grows and matures so that its adult form is very different from its earliest phases of development.
If anything, the offspring designs itself by exercising some rational self-control in choosing throughout its life what type of person it will be. True, the parents shape that development, too, especially in the child’s formative years. Yet this doesn’t make the offspring an artifact, because a person doesn’t conform to any static blueprint, but has some freedom to decide how it should act. (Again, the Gattaca scenario that features genetic engineering is the exception that proves the rule.)
Similarly, according to science fictional speculations, artificial intelligence isn’t put in the same category even as computers that only follow their programming, let alone being lumped in with more robotic creations such as hammers, bricks, or hats, because an AI would take over its development and begin to program itself so that its mature behaviour couldn’t be predicted on the basis of its initial programming.
If we confine our attention to a fully-grown person who has consciousness, reason, autonomy, and a personality, we might be mystified as to how such a purposive thing could have popped into existence from nothing. But we’d have to ignore our knowledge of how the human body is actually formed from simpler stages, from the sperm cell and the ovum to the zygote to the blastocyst to the fetus to the newborn infant to the baby to the toddler and so on up to the adult. Asking how a zygote could have come into being with no divine plan is much less mystifying than asking how a fully-grown person could have done so.
Again, there are still gaps in our knowledge and science may never explain everything. But the more we understand how the universe shaped itself, the more the universe resembles an unintelligent self-organizer rather than the mere artifact of an intelligent designer. If any divine creativity is apparent from the natural order, that creativity belongs to nature itself.
In short, comprehensive, non-anthropocentric observations of nature will support pantheism long before they prove monotheism.
The Emptiness of Theistic Explanations
One other problem with the design argument is that even if the natural order did appear fine-tuned or intended to be as it is, there would be no benefit in appealing to an intelligent designer unless that designer’s intelligence were itself a natural and reducible attribute. There’s explanatory value in explaining the production of our artifacts by positing human intelligence, because we know our intelligence evolved. We can see different levels of intelligence in animal species, from the most primitive in single-celled organisms and insects, to the social behaviour of fish, birds, and the proto-human responses of chimps, dolphins, and octopuses.
Suppose, on the contrary, an alien contraption popped into existence inexplicably and had no decipherable internal parts or purpose. The object just appears in midair and it’s impregnable or immune to any attempt to pry into its origin or possible function. The object just hangs there but it does one other thing: it zaps out recognizable artifacts such as shoes, windows, and calculators. Call that strange object “Blort.”
We could guess, then, that Blort is some sort of intelligent designer or perhaps a copier of our devices. But however regular its production of tools and machines, we couldn’t even say that Blort is the cause of those artifacts. A causal relation holds between two kinds of things. To posit a kind or a type is to speak generally based on a mental model that simplifies the patterns associated with the instances of those types.
We say X causes Y when we know what we’re talking about when we talk about X and Y, and when the two types are probably related. But if the nature of X is baffling, the claim that X causes Y is empty and pseudo-rational. We can explain the existence of our artifacts by saying they’re produced by human intelligence, because we understand that intelligence as having naturally arisen as opposed to its being miraculous.
But God’s intelligence would be at least as opaque and mystifying as Blort, as an entity that pops into being and starts zapping out phenomena that seem designed. God’s intelligence wouldn’t have evolved from simpler forms, and if it did, this wouldn’t be the theist’s idea of a deity. So even if the universe exhibits strange regularity that seems to have been orchestrated to be capable of generating life, we’re grasping at straws when we posit God as the “cause.” We might as well posit a floating Blort that pops into being and starts zapping away.
Indeed, God’s necessary mysteriousness makes the appeal to such a “creator” compatible with atheism. The more we imagine God is like us, the more we postulate recognizable psychological features such as freewill, intelligence, and emotional states, the more we naturalize God and render his identity incoherent and preposterous. This is because personal qualities make sense only if they evolve from simpler forms and only if they’re limited and fallible.
God’s version of such qualities would be absurd since they’d conflict with his super-duperness, with his metaphysical status as the absolute, perfect essence of reality. This is why it feels grossly archaic to speak of God in masculine terms. Masculinity could have no part whatsoever in the monotheist’s God. That way of speaking of God as a father figure could only be a patriarchal hangover, but it’s no less vainly self-serving to say the unnatural source of the natural order has some other natural property such as a human-like mentality.
Once we disregard the seriousness of those folk theistic metaphors, we’re left with that unknowable, mystical entity that hangs there in some other dimension, say, and zaps orderly things into being for no reason. Nothing theistic remains in guessing that the universe derives from an unknowable X that zaps the universe into existence (or that “creates” it by a “miracle”), just as an atheist needn’t be so outraged by the strangeness of Blort. Sure, assuming the atheist trusts in science, she’d be offended by Blort’s impenetrable mystery, but she wouldn’t have to waste time demonstrating the frivolousness of religions that might have sprung up around Blort, because Blort’s unknowability would make that entity practically impersonal and thus useless for religious purposes.
Blort wouldn’t be a person, as far as anyone would know, and the same would be true of a “deity” whose intelligence is eternal, unchanging, and simple rather than evolving from lesser versions. We’d be guessing about God’s identity, composition, and functionality just as we’d be guessing about Blort’s.
But if God, the supernatural source of nature isn’t literally a person, the theist has lost everything: only if God were a person could we count on God for justice, meaning, and love; only then would it not be ludicrous to say God cares about our world, reveals his plan by inspiring prophets to write poetic scripture, and intervenes in nature to save us.
To admit that the design argument that posits an analogy between God/Blort and a human designer is vacuous, that the causal relation between anything supernatural (inherently mysterious and unknowable) and nature is pseudo-rational and amounts to an arbitrary guess is to concede that the argument in question is consistent with atheism. The more mystical and unknowable the source of nature, the more God is like Blort, the less the atheist has a rival in the first place.