Nature appears to be designed and its constituent parts appear to have a purpose. There is little disagreement among scientists on this point. Famous evolutionists from Charles Darwin to Richard Dawkins accept that nature appears to be designed.1 They even acknowledge that the biological components that make up the myriad organisms have a telos—a purpose. The real point of contention is whether purpose in nature points to a designer or is simply an artifact of a naturalistic process such as evolution by natural selection.
What, Exactly, Is the Design Debate About?
We can break down the argument for a designer from the appearance of design into two fundamental parts: the argument to complexity and the argument from complexity to design. These two arguments seek to address several questions.
Argument to Complexity: Does the world have a level of complexity that seems to demand a special kind of explanation?2 This first part of the argument assesses whether or not nature is complex enough to warrant a special explanation of some kind (not necessarily a designer), which is why it is called the argument “to” complexity.
Argument from Complexity to Design: Does the level of complexity in the world demand explanation in terms of a deity?3 Must the world be the work of a deity or is organized complexity artifactual?4
Even Darwin and Dawkins accept the argument to complexity, but they reject the argument from complexity to design. Philosopher of science Michael Ruse says that “Darwin endorsed the argument to complexity; but he changed the argument to design forever.”5 Darwin believed that natural selection provided a mechanism for evolution and made the appeal to a deity/designer unnecessary to explain biological complexity.
And in spite of rejecting a mind behind the complexity in nature, evolutionary biologists have not abandoned teleological language. The idea of design is used as a metaphor. As Ruse notes, “The metaphor of design, with the organism as the artifact, is at the heart of Darwinian evolutionary biology.”6 In other words, adaptation via natural selection results in organisms that appear designed for a purpose, so teleological language is appropriate even though no mind/designer is posited.
A Brief History of the Design Argument
The argument from design to a designer dates back to Plato and Aristotle, though it has been intuited in many times and cultures. Plato argued that a divine craftsman was responsible for creating the universe using rational principles, and Aristotle further developed Plato’s argument. Medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas, who leaned heavily on Aristotle, repurposed this line of reasoning to argue for an intelligent creator via natural theology. Then, during the Scientific Revolution (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), key figures such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, argued that the orderliness of the universe suggests an intelligent designer as the source of order. And in 1802, William Paley, in his book Natural Theology, made his famous watchmaker argument. He posited that just as when we find a watch lying in the field we know that it was produced by an intelligence, so also the complexity and order of the universe points to an intelligent creator.
Some of the earliest challenges to the argument from design came from the Epicurean school of philosophy, a Greek movement in the 300s BC. The Epicureans argued that chance and atomic collisions, rather than design, best accounted for the complexity we see in the world. And the idea that humans evolved from a single primordial substance came even earlier, proposed in the 500s BC by the Greek philosopher Anaximander. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), philosopher David Hume echoed the Epicurean line of argument, pointing to imperfections and disorder in nature to argue against an all-wise designer.
But the real challenge came with Darwin, who provided a mechanism for naturalistic evolution. He sought to explain biology using fundamental principles like the laws of motion. Philosopher Philip Kitcher writes that “Darwin knew full well that the best kind of science is that which has a cause at its heart, one which ties all together in a unified whole. With causes, he might become the Newton of biology.”8 Darwin thought he had achieved his aim after repeatedly observing the process of natural selection in nature, which both provided a mechanism for evolution and made the appeal to a deity/designer unnecessary to explain biological complexity.
The Danger of an Argument from Ignorance
In 45 BC, the Roman philosopher Cicero argued that natural phenomena such as storms demand a divine explanation. Epicurean poet Lucretius responded by pointing out that it is odd for the gods to spend so much effort hurling lightning bolts into uninhabited regions and, what’s worse, sometimes damaging their own temples. Cicero’s argument that thunderstorms, which the ancient Romans did not understand, must be explained by the work of gods is an example of an argument from ignorance.
Christian cell biologist Kenneth Miller provides another example of an argument from ignorance by telling the story of a Catholic priest from his youth who tried to impress the kids in the church with the fact that no scientist at the time could explain how a plant makes flowers. The priest used this gap in scientific understanding as evidence that God exists and is involved in nature. Years later Miller attended a lecture where Elliot M. Meyerowitz, a plant scientist at Caltech, explained how four genes, called floral induction genes, are turned on or off to determine if a plant will produce a leaf or a flower.9
Both examples illustrate the danger of arguing for God’s existence based upon a current lack of scientific understanding. Arguments from ignorance are prone to being falsified as science advances. But even if humans evolved by naturalistic processes, the God of the Bible is not ruled out.
Miller also shares the story of a student who challenged a Christian professor who held and taught an evolutionary perspective on biology after a lecture by saying that evolution and God are incompatible. The professor responded, “If you deny evolution, then the sort of God you have in mind is a bit like a pool player who can sink fifteen balls in a row, but only by taking fifteen separate shots. My God plays the game a little differently. He walks up to the table, takes just one shot, and sinks all the balls.”10
The Danger of “Seeing Through” Everything
Over the past half century, biological complexity has been replaced by the anthropic principle as the best evidence pointing toward a designer. The anthropic principle states, in the words of fifteenth Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, “The possibility of life as we know it evolving in the Universe depends on the values of a few basic physical constants, and is in some respects remarkably sensitive to their numerical values. . . . Nature does exhibit remarkable coincidences and these do warrant some explanation.”11
Secular explanations for the anthropic principle include the appeal to chance/luck, the existence of multiple universes, and the belief that fundamental physics will one day offer an explanation for the values of these constants that makes the appeal to a designer unnecessary.12 And while it is crucial to avoid making yet another argument from ignorance, we also must avoid “seeing through” every piece of evidence for a designer.
In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis argues that when humanity denies the existence of an overarching moral law by “seeing through” it (via evolutionary moral psychology, for example), we end up as slaves of our animal impulses (or to the animal impulses of others).13 The reductionistic attempt to explain away objective morality by positing an evolutionary history for the development of morality ultimately dehumanizes us. Our attempt to be free in fact makes us slaves.
Likewise, when we “see through” the appearance of design in nature only natural processes, we risk becoming blind to our own knowledge of God. The apostle Paul says that God’s eternal power and divine nature are evident in nature (Romans 1:20) and the Psalmist that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). To ignore the clear signals from our own intuitive sense of awe when we gawk under a night sky, or consider the biological complexity of life and the fine-tuned constants of the anthropic principle is just as much of an epistemological error as the argument from ignorance is a rational error.
The appearance of design in nature does point to a designer. So much so, in fact, that it required a major revolution in our understanding of biology to rationally argue otherwise. To dismiss design as an illusion due to an increase in scientific knowledge is to “see through” the evidence rather than to see it more clearly.
- Michael Ruse, Darwin and Design (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 7–8.
- Ruse, Darwin and Design, 34.
- Ruse, 34.
- Ruse, 265.
- Ruse, 128.
- Ruse, 266.
- Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), 54.
- Kitcher, Abusing Science, 97.
- Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 283–284.
- Miller, Finding Darwin’s God, 260–262.
- Bernard J. Carr and Martin J. Rees, “The Anthropic Principle and the Structure of the Physical World,” Nature 278 (April 12, 1979): 605–612, doi:10.1038/278605a0.
- Simon Friederich, “Fine-Tuning,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2022 edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed., https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fine-tuning/#IntrNatu.
- C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 69.