Why should we think living things were created by God?
An atheist insists that design is an illusion
Today’s feedback comes from a mother asking for help with her son who denies that nature points to a Designer.
Eileen M. from the U.S. wrote:
My atheistic son said to me something that I suppose it would work in an atheistic worldview. The idea is that creation assumes that there is a "should", that things are as they are for a reason. He says that actually, it doesn't matter whether something survives or not. There is just the appearance of meaningful survival and progression (his words) because of the way it works out. The fact that certain things survive or that conditions are just right to support the amazing array of life we see is no wonderful act of God. If conditions were otherwise, other things would survive instead or maybe not. No big deal. He says we should not assume that creation was made to be ideal to support life, it looks only ideal because the life that the randomness produced is suited to the random forces and conditions that produced it. Other conditions would produce other results and those would be just as valid. I have tried to study, but have never found an answer to this thought. Thanks.
CMI’s Keaton Halley responds:
Presumably you are a Christian. If so, it’s wonderful that you are dialoguing with your unbelieving son about such important issues and trying to improve your own understanding so you can respond to him, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Your son is correct that, if atheism were true, there would be no purposes in the world. All apparent purposes would be illusions, because all of nature would result from the combination of chance and necessity. Nobody would have intended the world (or anything in it) to be a certain way for any reason.
The problem is, we see solid evidence for purpose all over the place. This atheistic claim simply doesn’t do justice to the facts.
To explain, much of what we at CMI write about is the evidence for design, and design entails purpose. I encourage you to read Is the design explanation legitimate? to understand how we can detect design and rule out natural causes. It’s like a detective investigating a dead body and trying to determine whether there was foul play. If the death was caused by multiple stab wounds in the back, it should be obvious that the cause was an intelligent agent, not natural forces alone. And we see tell-tale signs of design in living things as well as other aspects of nature. See, for example, Earth is ‘too special’?
Your son seems to think that natural selection acting on random mutations (the neo-Darwinian mechanism) can produce the illusion of design in living things. It’s certainly true that this process can produce organisms that are adapted to their environments, but such changes are limited and they lead to the degradation of organisms.
There are many things the neo-Darwinian mechanism cannot do. It cannot build up the reams of genetic information found inside living things, for example, because it is going in the wrong direction for microbes-to-man evolution. See The 3 Rs of Evolution.
Also, the blind mutation/selection process cannot account for irreducibly complex structures in living things, because such machines cannot perform their functions without all of their parts in place, all at once. There would be no survival advantage to creatures with half of the blood clotting cascade, for example. And to build those structures would waste valuable resources, so their owners would be selected against.
Neither can natural selection explain the overdesign we see built into living things—abilities that make life better but far exceed the minimum requirements sufficient for passing on one’s genes. These are like luxury options on a car—unnecessary to get you from here to there, but they make sense if the car was designed for a purpose. In fact, over against evolutionists' claims that living things are put together in a kludgy manner, many creatures possess ingenious or even optimal features which are the envy of human engineers. See Design Q&A.
Finally, natural selection cannot even weed out the harmful mutations accumulating in various groups of organisms, so how could it create those organisms in the first place?
Beyond this, your son argued that we shouldn't be surprised about the apparent design features that we observe because, if nature had been randomly ordered differently, then we might marvel at that too, or we just wouldn’t be here. In other words, he’s thinking that the situation we do have is no more mysterious or surprising than any other possibility. But that’s incorrect. There are many ways to be dead, but only a comparatively few ways to be alive. So, in a randomly-ordered atheistic world, we should not expect any kind of life to exist.
To give an analogy, let’s say we packed the entire visible universe with trillions upon trillions of green tennis balls, except for a handful that were colored red. Then we asked a blindfolded man to select one ball at random. What is the likelihood he would pick one of the red balls? Basically nil. But the fact that life exists is like picking a red ball.
Your son is saying that any individual ball the man picked is just as improbable as any other. That’s correct but, still, he would be overwhelmingly more likely to choose a green ball than a red one. We shouldn't marvel that the man picked the specific ball that he did; but we should marvel if he picked any of the red ones—because this is far too improbable to happen by chance. Returning to the existence of life, then, we aren’t saying that the universe had to be this exact way. But given all the possible ways the universe might have been, a life-permitting universe is far too improbable to chalk up to chance. See Cheating with chance.
Atheists who understand this difficulty try to get out of it by appealing to the ad hoc concept of the multiverse—the idea that there exists an enormous (perhaps infinite) number of parallel universes which are randomly ordered in their properties. But this just shows how desperate atheists are to avoid God despite the compelling case for design. See The universe is finely tuned for life.
I hope that encourages you, Eileen. I recommend you first read all the articles I’ve linked to above to thoroughly grasp the problems with your son’s argument. But then you might share this response with him, because I don’t think he’s really appreciated the strength of the case for Divine Design. If you can get through to him on this, perhaps it will open him up to repenting of his sins and getting to know the Creator personally.