In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched
my foot against a stone and were asked how the
stone came to be there, I might possibly answer
that for anything I knew to the contrary it had
lain there forever. ... But suppose I had found
a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired
how the watch happened to be in that place, I
should hardly think of the answer which I had
before given, that for anything I knew the watch
might have always been there.
These famous words were written in 1831 by the
Reverend William Paley (in Natural Theology: or,
Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the
Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature)
and constitute the best-known rendition of the
classical argument from design for the existence
of god. Essentially, Paley said that nobody would
necessarily invoke a supernatural designer in
order to account for the existence of simple rocks,
but complex and marvelously functional objects
such as eyes beg for an explanation that transcends
natural laws. If there is a watch, there was a
watchmaker; ergo, if there is an eye, there must
have been an intelligent designer of that eye.
Unfortunately for Paley, the famous skeptic philosopher
David Hume had already refuted his argument, more
than 50 years before Paleys formulation.
In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,
Hume left it to his legendary character, Philo,
to concisely explain what is wrong with the argument
The world plainly resembles more an animal
or a vegetable than it does a watch or knitting-loom.
Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles
the cause of the former. The cause of the former
is generation or vegetation.
It is interesting that the argument from design
is still the most popularly cited reason for why
people believe in god according to a survey by
Michael Shermer published in How We Believe (2000).
It is therefore important for us to examine more
closely the structure of Humes critique
and understand where exactly the intelligent design
argument falls flat. In the exposition below I
will add my commentary and examples to clarify
each point, given that Humes language is
at times obscure and obviously not up to date
on our current knowledge of the physical universe.
One can discern six objections to the argument
from intelligent design in a complete reading
of Humes Dialogue:
1. The analogy between the universe and human
artifacts is not convincing. In the quotation
above, Hume does not think that the universe resembles
a complex machine at all. While the regularity
of the laws of nature may superficially inspire
the analogy, human artifacts are always clearly
designed for a function. It often takes quite
a bit of imagination to see what the purpose of
some aspects of the universe really is. Biologist
J.B.S. Haldane once answered a reporter who asked
what his study of genetics told him about God:
He must have an inordinate fondness for
beetles, referring to the hundreds of thousands
of species of these insects existing for no apparent
purpose other than their own reproduction.
2. Intelligence is only one of the active causes
in the world. Many natural phenomena obviously
do not require intelligence to occur. Tides, for
example, would hardly make a good choice for Paley,
since their explanation in terms of simple gravitational
interactions does not require any intelligent
3. Even if intelligence is everywhere operative
now, it does not follow that we can ascribe to
it the origins of the universe. This is logically
true, and can be illustrated in modern terms if
we imagine that somebody one day demonstrates
that life on Earth was seeded by a race of extremely
intelligent extraterrestrials. This, of course,
would not make them gods, and would not provide
an explanation for the origin of the extraterrestrials,
nor for the universe as a whole. In fact, humans
may someday do something of the sort, without
because of this being elevated to divine status
(other than perhaps by the simple-minded results
of our own experiments).
4. The origin of the universe is a single unique
case and so analogies are pointless. This is a
subtle but very good point: while we have plenty
of natural objects, organisms and human artifacts,
we only have one universe. Science can derive
meaningful analogies by comparing populations
of objects or entities. While we may compare and
contrast the attributes of rocks, eyes, tides
and watches, to what shall we compare the universe?
Anything we might think of would be comparing
a part of the whole to the whole itself, and we
are unable to find another self-contained whole
for comparison. We may conceive of an omnipresent
god as an analogy for the universe, but unfortunately
the analogy offers no insights of scientific value.
It is also unlikely that the analogy would help
theology. Is god spherical or doughnut-shaped?
Will god expand forever from an explosive beginning,
or does god alternate through phases of expansion
5. The analogy between human and divine mind
is clearly anthropomorphic. Nature resembles a
mindless organism rather than a purposeful and
intelligent one. This is another way to put objection
#1, this time by highlighting the parochialism
of a theology that would pretend to understand
the mind of god simply as a version of the human
mind writ large.
6. The fruit of anthropomorphic thinking is a
finite God. Here Hume goes on the counter-attack
by showing that if the argument from design is
taken seriously, one has to conclude that the
god acting in the universe is very different from
the Christian variety. Since there is no independent
argument for the perfection of the designer, we
have to judge its ability and character from what
we see of the universe. And to paraphrase Bertrand
Russell, if I had millions of years of time and
infinite power and had come up with the universe
as we know it, I should be ashamed of myself.
Hume was a skeptic, but not a fool. He published
his Dialogues on religion posthumously, in 1779.
They are still one of the most lucid critiques
of the most commonly used argument in favor of
theism. And that, my friends, is true immortality.
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