The Design Argument

The fifth of Kreeft & Tacelli’s 20 arguments for the existence of God is the Design Argument. This is perhaps the most important argument in the whole collection. It’s the one that seems the most obviously valid to most theists and the most obviously invalid to most atheists, who consider it to have been definitively debunked by Darwin.


Summary of the argument

  1. The universe shows a remarkable amount of intelligible order.
  2. Either this order came about by chance, or it was designed by something intelligent.
  3. Chance is not a credible explanation because “we can understand chance only against a background of order.” Darwin’s theory of the nonrandom survival of random variation also assumes the prior existence of intelligible order (“The survival of the fittest presupposes the arrival of the fit”) and can therefore not explain it.
  4. Therefore, the universe was designed by something intelligent.
  5. In order to have designed the entire universe, the designers must exist outside the universe and be non-physical in nature. It is therefore natural to identify them — or, rather, “him” — with God.

The intelligent design (ID) hypothesis is usually presented as a stripped-down version of creationism, an alternative to Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. However, while K & T appear to be evolution skeptics themselves (they cite Michael Denton and Phillip E. Johnson with approval), they maintain that the Design Argument would still be just as valid and convincing if the Darwinian hypothesis were true. In my critical comments below, I will therefore assume biological orthodoxy: that all organisms arose from a common ancestor via descent with modification driven primarily by natural selection.


Chance and design do not exhaust the possibilities.

Why does my reflection look like my face? Should we ascribe the correspondence to chance or design? (Note that I am not asking about the origin of the reflective surface, which could just as well be a naturally occurring puddle as an intelligently designed mirror, but about the reflection itself.) We unhesitatingly ascribe the resemblance between Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 and Anna Whistler to design, and my reflection resembles my face far more exactly than any portrait resembles its subject — so should we infer that there is some unseen intelligent agent busily designing all the reflections we see? After all, the only other option — that the incredibly detailed, point-by-point correspondence between my face and my reflection is just a coincidence — is even more absurd.

Clearly this is a false dichotomy, and the true explanation for the correspondence is what we might call blind regularity. (Another term which suggests itself, necessity, carries too much philosophical baggage to be suitable here.)

A detailed discussion of chance, regularity, and design is beyond the scope of this post (as I realized after typing out a very long tangent on the subject, which I decided not to include). The point I want to make is just that “chance,” as it is used in this argument, doesn’t really mean chance; it covers anything that isn’t intelligent design, including mindless adherence to the laws of physics. The dichotomy K & T are advocating would force us to say either that the sun always rises in the east and never in the west just “by chance” — an absurdly improbable coincidence — or else that it is guided in its path by an intelligent agent — Phoebus in his chariot, essentially. The parody theory of “Intelligent Falling” comes to mind.

So, wherever K & T write “chance,” read “unintelligent forces” — not necessarily chance as that word is ordinarily understood.


What Darwinism presupposes — and what it doesn’t

“The survival of the fittest presupposes the arrival of the fit” sounds right at first but is actually a misrepresentation of Darwin’s theory. K & T write:

If the Darwinian theory has shown anything, it has shown, in a general way, how species may have descended from others through random mutation; and how survival of these species can be accounted for by natural selection—by the fitness of some species to survive in their environment.

This makes it sound as if natural selection plays no role in the actual origin of new species but serves only to explain why some species, after having come into existence by pure chance, continue to survive. This is obviously not what Darwin had in mind when he wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Although it is true that natural selection is a wholly negative process, weeding out some of what comes into being by random mutation, it nevertheless plays a creative role. Without natural selection, new “fit” species would never come into existence in the first place because every random change for the better would be canceled out by thousands of random changes for the worse. Natural selection functions as a ratchet, preserving only the good changes and allowing them to accumulate in a way which would never otherwise be possible. Or, to vary the metaphor, random mutation would never serve up anything other than a structureless hunk of marble were it not for natural selection chipping away everything that doesn’t look like David.

So Darwinism does not presuppose the arrival of the fit; it is a true theory of the origin — not just the survival — of species. It explains a great deal of the apparent design in nature. However, it does presuppose the existence of DNA or something like it — bodies capable of creating copies of themselves with not-quite-perfect fidelity. That alone implies a pretty impressive level of intelligible order, perhaps enough to motivate the ID hypothesis even without the help of eyes and hearts and brains and all the other things for which natural selection is an adequate explanation.


Everything, including design, presupposes order.

Obviously the Darwinian theory itself cannot explain the origin of all the intelligible order in the universe, since it presupposes the existence of self-replicating structures.

Even more obviously, intelligent design cannot explain the origin of all the intelligible order in the universe, since it presupposes the existence of intelligent designers.

However, evolution and design do show us broadly what kinds of explanations of intelligible order are possible.

Watches, and the watchmakers who make them, show us that it is possible in principle for intelligible order to be the creation of an intelligent designer. Of course it’s not possible that life and the universe were designed by, say, George-Emile Eberhard — but perhaps by something like Eberhard, by some as-yet unknown intelligent agent.

Likewise, living organisms, and the Darwinian mechanism that makes them, show us that it is possible in principle for intelligible order to arise from a combination of random chance and blind regularity. Of course it’s not possible that life and the universe were created by natural selection as we know it — but perhaps by something like that, by some as-yet unknown unintelligent process.


Unfortunately, neither evolution nor design can offer a real answer to the ultimate question of why there is order rather than no-order. This is probably just as unanswerable as Leibniz’s “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Any conceivable answer to Leibniz’s question would itself be a “something” in need of explanation — and in the same way, any conceivable explanation of the origin or order would imply a mechanism of cause-and-effect, and thus some underlying order.


Design is an empirical question, not a philosophical deduction.

None of this means that there is anything illegitimate about the design hypothesis. Obviously, intelligent design is the correct explanation for the existence of a great many things — watches and computers and motorcycles and so on — and there’s no a priori reason why it couldn’t be the correct explanation for the existence of life or even of the entire known universe. Evolutionists who dismiss ID as unacceptable even in principle because it presupposes a creator and thus explains “exactly nothing” (Dawkins) are going much too far. Evolution may be more elegant and philosophically satisfying than ID because it explains more complex things in terms of simpler ones rather than vice versa, but none of that changes the fact that ID undeniably is the correct explanation for many things, and therefore cannot legitimately be ruled “meaningless” or “unscientific” or otherwise intellectually non-kosher.

However, creationists who assume that ID is the only possible explanation for complexity or intelligible order are also going too far. Design is a legitimate hypothesis — but that’s all it is. Like any other hypothesis, it must stand or fall on empirical grounds. “Order, therefore design” is not good enough because (1) design cannot logically be the source of all order, since it presupposes order; and (2) we have in Darwinian evolution an actual example of order arising without design, showing that this is possible in practice as well as in theory.

Proponents of ID often try to use Sherlock Holmes’ maxim from “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” — that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth — in an invalid manner. The argument goes something like this:

  1. X must have come into being either through intelligent design or through unintelligent processes (“chance”).
  2. No known unintelligent process can adequately explain X.
  3. Therefore, even in the absence of any positive evidence of design, we can conclude that X was designed.

This is invalid because there are actually four possibilities. X could be the work of (1) a known intelligent agent, such as Eberhard or some other human being; (2) an unknown intelligent agent, such as the “designer(s)” postulated by ID proponents; (3) a known unintelligent process, such as Darwinian evolution; or (4) an unknown unintelligent process. Of course no one takes the first possibility seriously where life or the universe is concerned; however, it’s hard to see why the fourth should be excluded from consideration. A more logically valid form of the above argument would be

  1. X must have come into being either through intelligent design or through unintelligent processes.
  2. No known agent or process — intelligent or unintelligent — can adequately explain X.
  3. Therefore, the cause of X is unknown and could be either intelligent or unintelligent in nature.


Filed under Evolution, God, Philosophy

2 responses to “The Design Argument

  1. i apologize for having taken so long to get around to commenting on this missive, as i feel that i have an obligation to do ( ? ) ( ! )

    But i knew that i would be required to think very hard while reading it, and it has been so blisteringly hot over here, and humid, and stuffy in my tiny unventilated cage That The Lab Technicians keep me in, with only The tepid drink from my water bottle that hangs on The Wall beside The wire door, to keep my fur from sloughing off in gobs, that i have procrastinating this chore.

    Not exactly a Chore.
    Something not quite like a chore.

    The Most egregious ‘difficulty’ that i have with this proposition is that while It Ostensibly argues for a Unbiased Position of Design or No-Design, You have clearly presupposed that No-Design is The Correct Interpretation.

    This is coloring, or flavoring, your logic.

    The most interesting insight or ‘New’ Idea that i may allow myself to immediately jump towards is :

    The Functionality of An Unknown ( you say known ) UnIntelligent Creation Process.
    While this Unknown UnIntelligent Agent is summarily dismissed,
    It is The Real Solution that you’ve failed to consider.

    This sounds very interesting.

    Diamonds, Crystals & my own favorite; QuasiCrystals, Along with Simple Gravity, ElectroMagnetic Polarizing Forces, And whatever forces may be yet Undiscovered; Such as Quintessence, The Color Force or The Higgs Force;
    Seem to Demonstrate The Idea of Wu Wei with unerring discipline.
    These forces seemingly create a universe with high order – –


    i was also just thinking today that if Whatever forces are in play to create self-replicating molecules, DNA & The Ontogeny of Complex Life Forms,
    Then might it be reasonable to suppose that this ‘Structure’ of Orderliness should follow The prescribed pattern of A Spectral Continuum ?

    That is;
    If we examine Nature; We see rocks and clouds and mountains and oceans and crystals and quasicrystals and ( nothing ) and then Life.

    There seems to be a Big ( Read: Very Big ) gap between The Wondrous Patterns of QuasiCrystals & The Mechanics of The Simplest Self Replicating Molecules.

    So might This ‘Unknown UnIntelligent’ Process bridge this gap ?
    This UnIntelligent Process is required to infer a process other than The ‘Other’ Forces, such as Gravity, et. al.

    The Structured ‘Intelligence’ ( Really; UnIntelligent ) of A Computer first comes to mind. Might there be an ‘Intelligence’ that is really; UnIntelligent, that acts like its Intelligent ?

    That is; On one count; Darwinian Evolution.
    But i would like to believe that This UnIntelligent Mechanism that you’ve lightly suggested is Actually The Force ‘Behind’ Darwinian Evolution.
    This Other Force; This UnIntelligent Force, has ridden on The Back of Darwinian Evolution for such a long time, that it has remained unnoticed.
    Plus; There doesn’t seem to be any other demonstrations of it.

    i’m not sure where i’m going with this;
    But it sounds like something i wish someone would develop for me ( ! )

    – –
    The real problem i have with The UnDesigner Universe;
    Is that it so Flagrantly Disregards one of The Principle Attributes of The Scientific ( Epistemological ) Method – –
    And that is;
    Any Supposed Theory, Hypothesis, Postulate, Assumption, Contention or Ideology; Must have a Counter-Thesis. Any Conjectured Speculation Must by Necessity ( for Logical Discourse ) be somehow Disprovable.

    And Darwinian Evolution forbids this.

    No matter how Amazingly, Astonishingly, Staggeringly, Stupefyingly or Flabbergastingly Improbable some Evolutionary Feature or Bottle-Neck of Biological Functionality that happens to come to An Examiners Attention;
    Darwinian Evolution Absolutely Forbids any Counter Theory to offer an Explanation of how it Came About; Other than Darwinian Evolution.

    That is Not Science. Darwinian Evolution is Religion.

    Your Darwinian Savior is A Jealous Gawd that Smites down all Those that presume to Stand on Level Ground.

    – – –
    While The Reasonably Intelligent Designer Hypothesis says nothing about The Nature or Identity of The Reasonably Intelligent Designer,
    In order to mildly refute Dawkins assertion that The RIDH ‘Explains Exactly Nothing’;
    It does allows that this RID is introduced to account for ( Essentially ) DNA and nothing more.
    Where The RID came from or just how able bodied s’he/it is; Is Inconsequential.
    It may seem very important;
    But this ‘Necessity of Explanation’ perhaps presumes that If The Universe is Pretty Much as we Perceive it to be; Then this RID must have come into being by a Process Equivalent to How We Did; Thus ‘Requiring’ an Infinite Regression of RIDs.
    This is Mistaken.
    The RIDH allows that The RID may have come about by some other, much longer, less complicated process, that does not include DNA and The Undergrid of Organelles that Manipulate it.
    We have only DNA as a Life Template to Examine at this Time,
    Which ignores that There may be Other Far Simpler Approaches to Self Replicating ‘Life’ Processes. ( ? )

    And if we further allow that ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is ( also ) Wrong,
    Then there suddenly opens up a much longer period for Alternative Life Screenplays to have Wet their Beaks on.

    It is very presumptuous to suppose that after only 100 years of technological & ‘Scientific’ examination of ‘The World’; That we now know everything.
    There is ( Bases on Historical Examples ) a far greater probability that The Orthodoxy of Today is Wrong about many things.
    And this situation may persist for quite a very long time ( ? )

  2. Robin

    I’m not sure we can call “Chance or Design” a false dichotomy. The way I see it, “blind regularity” can’t come to be without the influence of order. In the case of your reflection, an ordered result is produced when a component of our universe is exposed to another, ordered component*, all while being governed by an orderly set of unchanging laws. The “blind regularity” of your reflection owes its orderly appearance to the pre-existing order of your face. So, blind regularity isn’t really an explanation. It is a result of order already caused to be (either by chance or design).

    Again, this is just a thought. Whether or not it is sound, I can only be so sure. Maybe this will shed some light on the topic though.

    *Perhaps all components of our universe display order, just to varying degrees. After all, everything behaves according to a set of unchanging laws. After a quick search, I discovered that order is defined as “the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method,” so I suppose it holds true.

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