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Objections to the logic of design

E.K. from the U.S. wrote in, asking us to help him answer some challenges to the logic of the design argument:

Photo by Eric Erbe, wikipedia Escherichia coli

Low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Each individual bacterium is oblong shaped.

How do I respond to this?

“how can you differentiate between design and not-design when, in your view, everything is designed by Yahweh? How do you differentiate between Yahweh designed rocks and Yahweh designed bacteria?

“More importantly, by definition Yahweh is not limited to designing the way material life designs, so the leap from ‘This looks like something we might design, therefore Yahweh exists and designed it’ is a pretty big leap.”

CMI’s Keaton Halley responds:

Hi E.K.,

Glad you are interacting with these questions which presumably come from a critic. If they are meant to undermine the design argument, I will argue that they do not succeed.

Regarding the first question, the difference between a rock and a bacterium is that one of these exhibits features which cannot be accomplished by natural processes. The bacterium is characterized by a high degree of specified complexity, which enables us to infer design since natural processes alone cannot generate this feature de novo, while we see agents producing specified complexity all the time. See Is the design explanation legitimate?

Note, here I'm talking about how the structures of rocks and bacteria arose given a world with raw materials already in existence. If we were to consider the origin of the raw materials themselves starting from absolutely nothing, natural processes would not be able to produce the rock either. We've exposed many problems with the idea that stars and planets and rocks could be produced in the aftermath of the Big Bang. But let's just stipulate that the raw materials are in place and natural laws are governing the universe. At that point new rocks can form on their own from raw materials, but not so with bacteria.

Now, whoever posed this question is right to recognize that we believe God is responsible for the properties of the rock as well as the bacterium, because God set up the laws of nature which governed the formation of the rock. He works through natural processes as well as supernatural. But something more than natural processes was required to produce the bacterium—something we call design.

So I would not use the language of 'design' to describe the rock unless this particular rock was produced by something other than natural processes. That is, for our purposes, the definition of design includes producing something by means that are not purely natural (how the world regularly and consistently operates today). And, using that definition, we can make a case that rocks are not designed (or at least that we cannot infer design in their case) and that bacteria are, even though God stands behind both.

Regarding your second question, the challenger has oversimplified the argument and left out a number of steps, so it's no wonder the critic mischaracterizes it as “a pretty big leap.” First of all, our case does not depend on a particular method or mechanism God used to design, so whether God designs “the way” we do is a red herring.

Second, our argument is stronger than saying this merely “looks like something we might design.” We claim that, whenever we know the source, a high degree of specified complexity can always be traced to an agent and never arises due to natural processes alone. So it is most rational to attribute those cases where the source is unknown to agency as well—and this is the very premise behind much of archaeology, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, crime scene investigation, etc.

Third, there are many other considerations that come to bear on the identity of the Designer. For example, the Designer of life and the cosmos is a personal being (since that is what it means to be an agent). Given the genius and scope of the designed objects, the Designer must be vastly more intelligent than any human being, and must transcend the universe since the universe itself is designed. The critic wants to avoid the implication that God made these things, but how many other plausible candidates meet the criteria of being a personal, transcendent, highly intelligent being?

Also, the design argument need not be considered in isolation—there are many additional reasons to believe that God is the Designer. One independent source of knowledge, for instance, is the revelation which God has given us in the Bible. The Bible insists that God is the Creator, and we have many good reasons to think the Bible is genuinely God's Word. So it's not a big leap to recognize God as Creator; it's actually so obvious that people are culpable for their unbelief.

Romans 1:18–20
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Keaton Halley

Published: 13 June 2015

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