The Argument from Design: Weaknesses and New Paths

The Argument from Design: Persons Beholding the Stars and Thinking About the Argument from Design
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Many thinkers consider today –  and have thought in the past – that the so-called argument from design, as part of the traditional ontological argument, is a solid argument for the existence of God. Isaac Newton, for example, wrote in an appendix to the second edition of his Principia: ‘This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being’ [Newton, I., quoted in Huyssteen, JWV. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, Macmillan, 2003, p. 621.]. In a philosophical debate with Daniel Dennett,  Richard Swinburne takes up this argument again [].

One of the premises that Swinburne supports – along with a venerable tradition to which, as we saw previously, Newton too belonged – is that regularity and law in nature are signs of a superior power, of the omnipotent God that has created them. It is true that regularity and law, by themselves, cannot be explained: we can indeed explain why the Moon gravitates around the Earth through the force of gravity, but not this force as such. Forces that contribute to the appearance of phenomena are a sort of ultimate element in the Universe. They are irreducible facts that science takes as given, measuring them and observing how they act. In the same way, the speed of light is a constant that is taken as given, without any attempt to ground it. We are surrounded by such forces that act regularly and continuously.

However, by themselves, they are not answers to the question of whether there is a God. There is nothing behind such ultimate facts to be seen, or touched or heard. In order for them to mean something, they must be put in a certain framework. Thus the human mind cannot deduce anything starting exclusively from them, and least of all the existence of God.

The Fallacy of the Argument from Design

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In order to deduce something, the human mind must take something for granted. Every syllogism contains premises from which a conclusion is deduced. A true conclusion cannot result from uncertain premises. The core of the ontological argument concerning the existence of God, known as the argument from design, reads as follows: 1. Because, when we see an artificial thing, an artifact, having beautiful and regular features, we infer that there was someone who created it (for example, we see a painting, and we immediately conclude that there was a painter who had painted it) and 2. because the whole of nature manifests such beauty and perfection (thus nature is considered in this second premise being that artificial thing from the first premise), allowing us to consider it a sort of artifact, we are empowered to draw 3. the conclusion that there is Someone who created all of nature.

However, this type of syllogism is a fallacy, because it assimilates the whole of nature to an artifact, presuming thus what it concludes. (Because in the second premise, the concept of a beautiful and regular nature assimilates already nature with an artifact. Then it is very easy to assume that there is a creator, since in the first premise we already agreed that a beautiful artifact must necessarily have a creator.) However, we can only metaphorically speak about the ‘beauty’ of nature and its ‘harmonious regularity.’ In itself, nature is neither beautiful nor ugly, neither good nor bad; it just is.

‘Human, All Too Human’ Needs That Found the Argument

Talking about the beauty of nature we already project upon it qualities belonging to human experience, we integrate it into human interests, desires, expectations. Undoubtedly, nature impresses us. But we must remain aware that this is only an involuntary behavior that we project upon outer nature, after having acquired it within the framework of our social experience. By metaphorically humanizing nature, we already project upon it all the features of our human world, of our experience, of our way of understanding ourselves. Within this experience, everything that is made must have a creator.

On the contrary, if we are aware that we acquire this sort of behavior unconsciously, we can no longer think of nature in these terms. Since Kant, philosophers have always been aware of this fallacy that slips into this type of ontological argument. This is also the reason why Kant, who detected this faulty procedure for the first time, was considered the ‘Zermalmer‘ (destroyer) of metaphysics. Even Hegel, who claimed to give back to metaphysics its ancient glory, did not pretend to do this by ignoring Kant’s philosophy. On the contrary, his ontology was a historical and social generalization of Kant’s philosophy.

Ruins of a Church
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Metaphysics Ending up as Relativism

We cannot develop here the reasons why Kant destroyed metaphysics. It is enough to say that science played a quintessential role in his endeavor: he wanted to know how scientific predictions are possible, why are we able to say with complete precision that a certain event (for example a solar eclipse) will take place at a well-determined moment of time, and what allows us to penetrate so deeply into the future, that we can predict events that will happen in one hundred years or even more. Kant was completely puzzled by this possibility, one that, perhaps, we take too easily for granted, without pondering very much about it. The sole answer that he could give was that ‘nature’ cannot be completely objective, because then scientific sentences would have only an empirical necessity and not an absolute one as science claims.

Thus, after Kant, philosophers had a difficult time to consider nature as purely objective, as pre-Kantian philosophy had done. Simultaneously with the development of the social sciences and humanities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the categories of human thought were increasingly conceived as dependent upon the social and historical context, making thus the human being almost completely conditioned by his environment. It is no wonder that today moral relativism is so widespread, considering that we live in an age of epistemological relativism.

Is There an End of Relativism?

According to this type of relativism, there exists no permanent state of facts, no immutable laws and regularities. These laws exist only temporarily – even though this temporary character surpasses almost infinitely the transient character of human life. The most striking example is the Darwinian theory, according to which, what traditionally was considered as a species created once and for all time by God is only a set of temporary varieties, forms of life existing for a short time that will change dramatically in the future. If we acknowledge the Darwinian theory, organic nature, at least, is devoid of Order and perpetual character. The same is true for all the existing regularities and laws in the universe: all are relative, i.e., they exist for some time, being replaced at other times by other regularities and laws. Of course, no individual can witness such changes in the law of nature, because their lives are too short.

But what conclusion can we draw from this relativism amidst which we think, live and – why not – thrive? Is this relativism like the maze of Andre Gide? His maze was a sort of material paradise populated with everything that humans need and much more, in order to make them forget about their true calling, which of course was a spiritual calling.

Sun Light Passing Through Green Leafed Tree
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The oddest conclusion is that religion can no longer be founded on a sort of rational revelation, in which the human being would only need to contemplate nature (and maybe history too) in order to find the handprint of his Creator. It can be founded only on human creativity, i. e. on the continuous and strenuous effort of man to overcome himself, by overcoming an existing way of knowing and understanding himself and the world. This means that he has to accept his condition according to which he must permanently be ready to detach himself from existing values, from existing truths and existing theories or morals. Man must learn to walk as if ‘on doves’ feet ” [Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, II, 44.], to be ready to take his flight whenever an existing environment becomes inappropriate for his knowledge and ideals. Man must learn to metamorphose himself continually, and, what is more, to learn to decipher God in this self-metamorphosis, because already for almost two centuries man has learned that gods were in a great measure his own creations, his own enlightening of transcendence.

This might sound like a rhetorical speech. However, if we take into account how rapidly today’s life changes, how often you must replace one job with another, being forced in this way to give up previous knowledge in order to assimilate new ways of thinking and behaving, the increased speed of transformation of the human condition is no longer only a metaphor: it becomes an immediate reality.

In the first instance this transformation covers only practical things: you learn new computer programs to cope with your tasks at work or to get the chance to advance in your career. Or, you learn new models of thinking about business activity. These changes influence only the surface of your life, however much stress they involve. At a deeper level, a sort of discontent rules, which man tries to forget through all kind of distractions.

Pascal has pointed out the difficulty that modern man has when staying alone in a chamber, without any distractions. And because people cannot harmonize science (and their rational education based on scientific results) with traditional religious concepts, a general religious skepticism is spreading out in society. Indeed, this is not yet pessimism and far less nihilism. But it is the first step towards the latter.

Beholding the ‘Uncanniest of All Guests’

The one who tried to anticipate nihilism and a possibility to overcome this ‘uncanniest of all guests’ [Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Book I, 1] – the nihilism that is indeed paralyzing both for mind and activity – was Friedrich Nietzsche. He tried not to stay oblivious of this loss of the highest values. On the contrary, he submerged himself in it as much as he could, in order to find at its bottom something capable of restoring the joy of life, the pure joy of being alive, which Western man has lost for such a long time. Therefore it is not by chance that he gained such fame. Even people who understand him only superficially still feel that in his works a new type of thinking and a new ‘truth’ might be hidden.

The Argument from Design: Green Leafed Plant
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His idea of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same did not try as much to convey a sort of intellectual interpretation of reality as a new stance concerning life in general, the universe and the individual’s own life. By knowing that this life will recur in the future an infinite number of times, you suddenly get an unexpected intimacy with the whole of existence: you feel this existence as something very close to you, but infinitely larger than you. You might feel thus the presence of something very powerful that you could name ‘God,’ the God that is both terrifying and fascinating (tremendum et fascinans) and was venerated in the past as the Sacred.

Modern man has lost his sense organ for the sacred, and this organ cannot be easily reawakened through rational speculation, especially if this speculation stands on feet of clay, due to the disorientation brought about by science. The role of speculation might be to open a way for religious intuition, for that complex that encompasses vision, feeling and thought in an organic unity.

However, it is not the contemplation of order that can bring us today to such an intuition, because the order that we see around us is no longer thought of and felt as the order that God embedded in His creation. In the past, this order, being an immutable and eternal order of the world, was thought of as a mirror and a promise of the eternal nature of God. But as long as we can no longer believe in and conceive of the eternal order of the world, we have great difficulties in contemplating the power of God and through it God himself.

Nietzsche’s speculation about the eternal recurrence of the same reminds us about the mystique experience of embracing the whole world: through this speculation, you reach the same identification with the world as in this type of mystique experience. The difference is that Nietzsche aimed at creating a continuous state of mind, whereas those who had that mystical experience cannot stay within it for a long time, they soon return to their ordinary life trying to adapt to the new spiritual content by helping themselves with the traditional philosophical and theological categories.

Certainly, it is not necessary to adopt Nietzsche’s philosophy. But this philosophy can teach us the honesty of thinking, of the attempt to live, reflect and comprehend reality and own’s life in unity with the present dominant form of knowledge. And what is more, it can teach us that true religion can not only appear through a passive state of mind, through a revelation determined from outside.  It can also appear through a continuous honest effort of creating a unity within yourself backed by the unity between you and the world in which you live, the world that you know and understand through the concepts that the present stage of knowledge offers to you. Ultimately, through creation.

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