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Against the argument from design


To: Glyn H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Against the argument from design
Date: 9 April 2005 15:08

Dear Glyn,

Thank you for your letter of 26 March, with your essay for the Associate Award, 'Against the Argument from Design'.

Looking at your essay from a historical perspective, there appears to be a strong undercurrent of sympathy with David Hume in his 'Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion' (which surely deserves to be included in your references). I am pleased that you actually refer to Hume at one point (4.5).

One exercise you might try is work out what Kant's response would have been to each of the points which you raise.

Hume was in fact making a subtly different point to the claim which you make in 4.5. Hume says, 'You can't rule out the hypothesis of a rejected prototype.' Whereas you say, 'As a matter of common observation, designers always make prototypes.'

So whereas Hume accuses the proponent of the design argument of a non-sequitur (it doesn't follow from the fact that the universe is designed, that it's designer is an infallible god), your accusation is that if the universe where analogous to an object which had been designed, then it would be the product of a process involving prototype testing.

In response to Hume, the defender of the design argument is required to come up with grounds, derived from observation and experience, which rule out the possibility that the universe is a prototype, destined in time to be rejected in favour of a better design. In response to Hughes, the defender of the design argument has (or appears to have) the additional option of redefining what is intended by the term 'design'.

Here then is a revamped version of the design argument which does not employ the concept of 'design', but merely talks of purposes or 'ends' (hence the alternative name 'teleological' argument).

1. The universe, as we observe it, exhibits the kind of order and regularity which implies a purpose or end.

2. As a matter of logic, there cannot be any purpose or end in the absence of a being whose purpose or end it is.

3. Therefore, the order and regularity of the universe as we observe it is explained by its being created by a being for an end.

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is a famous counter-argument to this. Darwin shows how 'ends' or teleology can arise through a purely mechanical sorting process. In response to Darwin, more recent defenders of the teleological argument have argued that the evolution of complex organisms depends upon the fundamental laws being just as they are, or varying only between very narrow limits, and that this observation is best explained as the result of an intention of a creator. (In response to this, I have heard it said, 'Our existence may be a fluke so far as different possible sets of laws of physics goes, but if the laws had been different we wouldn't be asking the question, would we?')

If asked, 'Did God design the universe or not?' a proponent of the teleological argument who knew something about design ought to say, flatly, 'No'.

The general worry I have with this essay is that there is in fact very little engagement with the kinds of issues raised by the teleological argument. I realize that you are claiming to have devised a new objection which has not been considered before. However, notwithstanding the potential effectiveness of the objection in bamboozling doorstep Jehovah's Witnesses - which is no doubt very considerable - it does not strike me as being that strong from a philosophical viewpoint. What effectiveness it does possess owes more than a little to Hume's strategy, which, as I observed, is intended simply to demonstrate a non-sequitur.

I do have the tiniest suspicion (at the risk of causing insult) that this is a bit of a leg-pull. The idea of making your essay conform to BS 0 would strike an examiner as quirky, to say the least!

On the other hand, there does seem to be a far more substantial essay struggling to emerge, which has nothing whatsoever to do with arguments for the existence of God but is rather based on something along the lines of the 'philosophical significance the idea of the artefact'.

It is essential, not accidental, to human life that humans make things. What light does an understanding of the process of design throw on this important observation? Might things have been different, or how might they have been different? And so on. This is the kind of theme that has been of far greater interest to continental than analytic philosophers. But you could be the first to reverse the trend.

All the best,