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Is the Universe the Product of an Intelligent Designer?

A Critical Review of the Argument from Design, From Hume to Hawking

The Argument from Design has a long and noble history stretching from the teleological final cause of Aristotle through the various interpretations of Aquinas, Newton, and Liebniz to its modern incarnation in the Anthropic Principle. The treatment presented by Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion1 provides an engaging and linguistically rich introduction to the Design Argument and its difficulties as seen by a leading thinker of the Enlightenment. In this essay we shall firstly examine the argument as presented by Cleanthes in Hume’s dialogue and then proceed to offer criticisms of its validity from both an eighteenth century and contemporary perspective.

Before describing the argument as presented by Hume, we should note the flavour imparted to many of the metaphors employed by both Cleanthes and his opponent Philo by the prevailing scientific world view: the mechanistic model of Galileo, Copernicus and Newton. Indeed Cleanthes obligingly plays the part of Newton in Hume’s dialogue, although the caricature is rather more sympathetic than that of Leibniz in Voltaire’s Candide. Similar ‘paradigm-colouring’ occurs repeatedly throughout the history of science, and indeed in art and popular culture. For example, the nineteenth century treatment of thermodynamics made frequent reference to the new steam engine while contemporary popular science makes heavy use of a computational metaphor: the ‘computer model’ of the brain or the digital interpretation of the genetic code for example.

The argument as advanced by Cleanthes’ starts with the immediately questionable assumption that the world has a cause outside itself that must be explained. The main argument then proceeds a posteriori according to the syllogism:-

(1) The world exhibits ordered complexity and purpose implying design (2) Design is the product of conscious intelligence, and that therefore:- (3) The world must be the product of an intelligent, purposeful designer – a.k.a. God.

Is there smoke without fire, asks Cleanthes, is there design without mind? This argument, although logically consistent, asks us first to accept its premise and separately its conclusion by application of a leap of induction which can be shown to be at least highly dubious (ignoring the ‘problem of induction’ in itself). Even if we grant his conclusion, then Cleanthes’ use of an anthropomorphic analogy introduces many contingent problems for the theist.

Regardless of the premise of Cleanthes’ argument, there is surely a fatal circularity in his starting assumption. He argues that nature can be explained through the application of mind by some external transcendental being. But surely this is what must be proved by the force of the teleological argument and cannot be assumed as a given? It could be argued therefore (as did Kant3) that the Design Argument can only proceed if the conclusion of the Cosmological Argument is first accepted.

That the world exhibits clear evidence of design can be challenged on a number of points. Clearly complexity, order and structure in nature cannot be denied; examples abound from crystals, snowflakes, spider webs, plant and animal bodies (famously the human eye) through to the perfection in the orbits of the planets. The impression of design lasts only as long as our ignorance. The Efficient Cause within matter is not enough for the admission of design however and we must adopt the intentional stance; assuming a purpose towards which structure provides the means. But is not the vast bulk of creation without apparent purpose? Rocks and seas do not appear to be for anything, nor to be adjusted in exquisite harmony with their environment. Cleanthes mentions some comparative examples of structure adapted to ends: legs and staircases for instance. But can we infer from isolated examples, nuggets of design in a desert of purposelessness, that the whole is the product of conscious design?

Cleanthes appeals to a transcendent mind, an ‘eternal watchmaker’, who is designer of the purposeful structure in nature; a mind which by analogy is similar in kind although immensely greater in magnitude than that of man. But does nature actually give a convincing demonstration of intelligent design at all? While the adjustment of means to ends can in specific instances ‘ravish [all men] into admiration’, there are many counter examples in the natural world: the water cycle can cause floods, the winds hurricanes, even the very earth can quake. If the mind of God is like the human, and ‘the liker the better’ as Philo mischievously suggests, then is it not full of error, doubt, inconsistency and fear? Thus the architect of nature must be like Philo’s shipwright: a ‘stupid mechanic’ and a ‘botcher in the art of world-making’ – hardly an impressive résumé for a prospective deity. Only by donning Panglossian spectacles can we hope to escape this difficulty.

The anthropomorphic analogy binds Cleanthes’ God in other ways. The universe and its artefacts are finite and severely limited. Does this not imply a finite mind to God – a limit to His intellect and powers? There is also the problem of human evil and its putative source in the mind of God.

Cleanthes preoccupation with a mechanical analogy blinds him, given the scientific knowledge of the day, to the possibility that order arises spontaneously within matter itself. Human ideas order themselves in the mind to form a plan which gives rise to order in matter - as in the building of a house for example. By analogy, God must also be delivered of a plan for the universe prior to its construction. Thus some things, such as mind, are inherently ordered and why should this not apply to matter? Philo proposes that inanimate matter could also undergo endless reorganisation and that, from time to time over the aeons, fortuitous structures could arise by chance. Given the knowledge of the time Hume offers no underlying mechanism, although in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding2, he even showed some belief in a form of vitalism. It is here that Hume comes tantalisingly close to adopting a Darwinian explanation for the origin of complexity in the universe. He refers to the ‘multiple trials, mistakes and corrections through a long succession of ages’ and the ‘many fruitless trials’ which could have lead to a gradual improvement in the organisation of matter. Like Darwin he lacks a particulate theory of inheritance to provide an explanatory mechanism and does not pursue his logic to its conclusion.

If order requires a plan as its antecedent then Cleanthes must also answer the dangling question of who is the creator of the plan in God’s mind? The uncomfortable answer takes us back into the infinite regress of prior causes addressed (unsuccessfully) by the Cosmological Argument. If however we assert that God’s plan is causa sui and exists necessarily, then why not assert this of the world in itself and dispense with the need for a creator in the first place?

As Philo shows, a biological analogy is perhaps more applicable then the mechanical model, with the world likened to a great Aristotelian organism. The self-organisation and regeneration inherent in living things provides many examples of spontaneous creation, growth and design. Is the universe more watermelon than watch? At one point Hume even anticipates a version of the Gaia hypothesis in his assertion that the world ‘…bears a great resemblance to an animal.’ Although I suspect Hume’s tongue was nestled firmly in cheek with this series of observations (aimed chiefly at antagonising his opponents), this view has modern equivalents in the Tippler/Smolin style of popular physics (see below).

If we grant Cleanthes’ premise that there is indeed design in nature, albeit not perfect, then we must move to our main criticism - that his inductive assertion ‘like-effects have like-causes’, rests on dangerously weak foundations, both in principle and in its application.

Induction, in so much that it works at all, is safe only where the instances or effects in the first case sufficiently resemble the effects in the second case to infer a shared cause. There are many differences between the style, operation and execution of the mechanical designs of man and the perceived design of the natural world. By the nature of the dissimilar materials used, their efficient cause, their modes of operation and regeneration, we perceive manifest differences which seriously weaken Cleanthes’ analogy. Man fashions his artefacts from pre-existing materials while Cleanthes God creates matter from nothingness . Furthermore Cleanthes is arguing that from (in his view) similarity in operational form we can justly infer a similarity of origin. Similarly we could argue that tomatoes and telephone boxes are both man-made by virtue of their similar colour.

Induction can be applicable across cases only if we have accumulated a sufficiency of example instances drawn from all available sources of human experience. Cleanthes asks us to perform the unreasonable extrapolation from evidence of our local world to the entirety of the universe. If mind is the source of order in this world then how can it be assumed of the rest of reality without direct evidence?

To summarise Hume’s position: it is unsafe to accept Cleanthes’ argument both because the premise is unproven and is drawn from insufficient sources and because the anthropomorphic analogy is highly dubious, making the inductive inference unsound. Furthermore the conclusion of a God in the image of man raises troubling theological difficulties about His true nature. Cleanthes asks us to accept his argument because it is the best possible explanation and leaves the fewest unresolved questions. But, if something so complex and purposeful as the human brain could not arise from matter alone, then surely some greater intelligent being responsible for the whole must be vastly more improbable?

William Paley was also a staunch advocate12 of this argument with his ‘watchmaker’ analogy. But surely a watchmaker makes watches and watches alone. If Paley were to find his famous grassy heath strewn not just with watches but with airliners, radios, tin-openers and nuclear reactors then perhaps he would conclude a whole hierarchy of differently skilled creators. Furthermore his watch stands out against the sand because of its evident order and complex structure, i.e. it is very different from the randomness of nature. But the argument then asserts that nature is indeed structured just like the watch and must therefore share the same mode of creation – a self-contradiction.

Despite evident flaws however, the Design Argument provides a certain psychological satisfaction and indeed Hume is struck by it ‘with irresistible force’ at the conclusion of the Dialogues. Given the lack of a contemporary theory for an algorithmic origin of complexity this is not an unreasonable position. The subsequent arrival of ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’ however served to undermine a major part of the argument.

It is interesting now to examine the Argument from Design from a modern perspective and ask whether our current knowledge of the properties of matter and the origin of the universe alter the force of the argument.

Cleanthes’ main examples of apparent design are drawn largely from biology, as were those of Paley. Darwin’s theory of evolution (1859) and its later elaboration with a genetic basis provides to most people a convincing and largely complete explanation for the accumulation for adaptations through variation and natural selection. Until recently there were, even to committed neo-Dawinians, still problems with the very origin of the first replicating macromolecules in the proverbial soup. How did evolution get started in the first place? The chances against large complex structures such as DNA / RNA arising in a sea of randomly jostling chemicals seemed to pose an insurmountable problem. Recent research by workers such as Stuart Kauffman5 (Santa Fe Institute) have however shown the tendency of populations of simple agents (chemicals or boolean cells) to form spontaneous auto-catalytic networks wherein more complex assemblies of molecules can arise. In this way early inefficient replicators can arise and develop in complexity through variation and selection, giving rise to the highly efficient molecules of the modern genome. Like the absent scaffolding of an arch, these early molecules are long since deceased, leaving only the splendour of their descendants.

Although Darwinism explains the appearance of design in living forms, it still does not decisively refute the Design Argument – it would be perfectly reasonable for God to choose this mechanism as a tenet of his creation. We must still address the problem of the apparent guidedness in the laws of physics, the fortuitous choice of certain key physical constants and the vanishingly small probability of the formation of a life-supporting universe - the Fine Tuning Problem.

The modern interpretation of the Design Argument is provided in the various forms of the Anthropic Principle. The Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) attempts to explain away the apparent improbability of certain features of the universe by invoking a selection effect which inevitably gives rise to observers of these features. In short, the configuration of the universe could not be other than it is if it is to give rise to observers such as ourselves able to comment on the configuration. Obviously we could never find ourselves observing a universe radically unlike our own. This would appear to be self-evident and is not yet a restatement of the Design Argument. The weak form is developed by Carter6 into the Strong Anthropic Principle, which states that the configuration of the universe must be such as to allow the development of life at some time. This principle is, unlike evolution, explicitly teleological in nature, and has many implications for the age, origin and ultimate future of the universe. This modern re-statement of the Design Argument has even been developed by John Wheeler8 into the Participatory Anthropic Principle, which invokes the necessary presence of intelligent observers as active agents in the final development of the universe. Both the Strong and Participatory principles are anticipated somewhat by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason3, where he says the world is as ordered as we might expect in order to allow for the growth of knowledge and, in particular, of our own self-knowledge.

The exact combination of physical laws and invariant constants (such as G, e, h and c) forged in the singularity of the Big Bang allow stable evolution of the universe in timescales long enough for the development of stars, planets and, in second-generation systems seeded with heavy elements from earlier supernovae, life itself. However, almost any perturbation of these parameters will result in universes totally unsuited to the development of life. Given that, at best, the chances against this golden combination of parameters arising randomly are some 1055 to 1, then we would seem to be fortunate indeed! This is seen by some to be modern evidence for the guiding hand of a creator - at least during the inflationary phase of the Big Bang fireball. Thus does history repeat itself and we must look to a new Hume to slay the dragon of God as tinkering physicist.

As echoed by Hume in the Dialogues (‘an infinity of worlds…’), there are several modern ‘ensemble’ cosmologies which envisage multiple universes; some sequentially created (such as the cyclic Bang-Crunch oscillation postulated by Wheeler) but mostly concurrent. These theories usually include the perturbation of the physical laws and constants at the creation of each member of the ensemble ‘multiverse’ such that all possible universes exist at some time . Again this has equivalent notions in modern theology, such as Richard Swinburne’s11 many worlds response to the problem of evil. Note that these cosmologies are significantly different from the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics (Everett9).

Left simply as stated then we would expect a small proportion of universes in the ensemble to be life-supporting given random fluctuation in parameters – especially in the light of Roger Penrose’s derived value of the improbability of ‘life-as-we-know-it’ . This exactly parallels the incredulity of opponents of Darwinian evolution if one calculates the probability of evolving, say, a human eye by successive multiplications of blind chance mutations. Both sources of incredulity are of course allayed if one introduces some principle of variation and selection in the presence of inheritable characteristics.

Just such a solution has been presented in the work of Steven Hawking and latterly Lee Smolin10, who proposes black holes as the birth places of alternative universes. Matter passing into the singularity of the black hole expands into another (causally disjoint) partition of spacetime (which exists totally within the black hole) where physical laws are slightly modified. If we view our ensemble of dynamically spawning universes as equivalent to a gene pool then we see that those universes best able to propagate child universes will in ‘time’ come to dominate the pool. This is exactly analogous to the advantageous growth in variant populations of chemical replicators with higher fecundity and copying fidelity. The important point is that the degree of random variation between the generations must be very small, as in mutations of the genome, for constructive evolution to occur.

We now require a positive selection pressure to induce differential degrees of ‘evolutionary success’ in our mutating baby universes. Calculations show that the parameters necessary to maximise the frequency of stable black holes are just those necessary for life-supporting universes such as our own. Thus such black-hole-rich universes will spawn a larger number of child universes which, on average, will share their characteristics. Over time our ensemble will become dominated by such hospitable universes at the expense of their less friendly cousins who are less fertile for black-holes. Once again, we have again dispatched the unwelcome appearance of astronomical improbability with the sword of evolutionary cosmology.

Science, and particularly 20th century science, is a monument to the power of reductionism, both of the benign and greedy sorts. The snark-hunting particle physicist pursues hypothetical force-carrying particles through higher and higher energies, while biology collapses into quantum chemistry and information theory. Science searches for its first cause in the coils of 10-dimensional superstrings and the collapsing geometries of quantum gravity. There is no reason however to believe that there is in truth any ultimate reality; only different views of reality seen through different paradigms – from mathematics to the elusive qualia.

The above cosmological discussion must reinforce the impression that no variant of the Argument from Design can persist for long in the light of increasing knowledge about the physical universe. But perhaps what remains is the continuing mystery not of the physical world of matter and energy within spacetime but of our own consciousness and our ability to understand the world – at least in a form subject to mathematical description. From time to time, as physics embraces new challenges and improbabilities, then new incarnations of the Design Argument will appeal to some first cause to resolve the problem of our ignorance. If we are permitted to clutch at inductive straws, history has shown that such appeals are likely to be resolved through advances in our knowledge. The ultimate question therefore remains whether our minds are capable of evolution to a state of perfect self-knowledge and hence to experience whatever first cause might exist.


1. D Hume, 1779, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
2. D Hume, 1748, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
3. I.Kant, 1781, Critique of Pure Reason
4. D Dennett, 1995, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
5. SA Kauffman, 1993, The Origins of Order
6. B. Carter, 1994, in Confrontation of Cosmological Theories, ed. MS Longair
7. JD Barrow and FJ Tippler, 1986, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.
8. JA Wheeler, 1977, Foundation Problems in the Special Sciences
9. H Everett, 1957, Review of Modern Physics
10. L.Smolin, 1997, The Life of the Cosmos
11. R.Swinburne, 1979, The Existence of God
12. W.Paley, 1802, Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity.