Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reflections on the Argument from Design

A number of readers of my book have asked me why I’m as dismissive of the argument from design as I seem to be. My best friend is among them. He finds considerable power in several formulations of the argument, including Indian versions which, based on his descriptions of them, I think I probably need to study.

I am open to being convinced. But there are several reasons why I’m hesitant to give the argument from design too much evidentiary weight in my thinking about theism. First of all, in many if not most of it formulations, the argument’s soundness depends on the scientific facts. Since I am not a scientist, I don’t feel sufficiently qualified to weigh in on the scientific disagreements over which these versions of the argument turn.

Secondly, “God” names something transcendent, that is, a being that exists beyond the empirical world that science studies. As I’ve said before, science simply cannot discern whether there is more to reality than science can discern. Now many defenders of the argument from design in effect deny this, at least in one sense. They proclaim that there are empirical facts about the physical world, facts which have been or can be uncovered and described by science, that are like sign posts pointing to some cause beyond the physical world. Their view is that science can discern that there must be something more to reality than what science studies, even if it can’t actually study this “something more.”

But what this thinking ignores, on my view, is how the scientific method works. Science is methodologically naturalistic. That is, it confronts every empirical phenomenon by looking for a naturalistic explanation of it. This means that scientists, in their role as scientists, will always treat phenomena that haven’t been explained in naturalistic terms, not as signposts pointing towards the supernatural, but as research projects. The majority of scientists will therefore view those who explain these phenomena by appealing to the transcendent as jumping ship from the scientific project.

To propose supernatural explanations before science has finished pursuing naturalistic ones strikes many scientists as not giving science a chance to do its work. And since science can in principle always keep looking for naturalistic explanations, there never comes a point at which it becomes appropriate to say that “science has shown” that a supernatural explanation is best. Instead, from a scientific standpoint the only conclusion to reach is that science hasn’t explained this phenomenon…yet.

Now I don't think that any of this means one can’t or shouldn’t embrace supernatural explanations. What it means is that when you do so, you’re no longer pursuing the scientific project.

For those who doubt the ability of scientists to explain the newest mystery in naturalistic terms, scientists can point to past mysteries, once invoked as reasons to believe in God but since explained in naturalistic terms. They might say, “Give us time. We’ll eventually pull the rug out from under you again.”

The result is an image of theologians in constant retreat, staking their claim on a shrinking island of mysteries and defending the mysteries that remain against the forces of scientific progress. Their God becomes the “God of the gaps” that theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer warned against—the God that we introduce as a quasi-scientific hypothesis to explain the mysteries that the ordinary work of science has so far failed to solve. And as the “gaps” get smaller, it begins to seem to many observers as if scientists are explaining God out of existence.

This image is not wholly unwarranted if one's case for God's existence depends on the existence of such mysteries. And if, furthermore, your religious faith hinges upon some phenomenon remaining inexplicable in scientific terms, you will fight tooth and nail to keep the phenomenon scientifically inexplicable. In other words, you will fight against the efforts of scientists to do what scientists do. You will thus become an enemy of science. And in your efforts to keep science from de-mystifying the ground on which you make your religious stand, you may be led to intellectual dishonesty, or towards bizarre maneuvers to explain away the empirical facts, or even (in the last gasps of resistance) to rejecting the scientific enterprise altogether. When the case for theism is made on this turf, science and religion become enemies in a way that benefits neither.

But the “God of the gaps” defended in this particular turf war is not the God in which I believe. My God is not first and foremost an “empirical phenomenon-explainer” (certainly not in anything like the sense in which the theoretic entities invoked in science are “empirical-phenomenon explainers”).

My God is invoked to explain my religious experience. But when I invoke God in these terms, it's as an alternative to something else I might do with my religious experience—namely, explain it away. By “religious experience,” I mean an essentially non-empirical experience, a deep sense that there is something fundamental lurking behind the ordinary appearances of things, something that is truer than the mechanistic and chance-governed universe uncovered by science, something that transcends my conceptual grasp but feels enormous and inexpressibly good. To borrow Rudolf Otto’s term, it is the feeling of the numinous.

This is a feeling that comes at me from a variety of directions—sometimes all by itself, and sometimes in conjunction with other powerful experiences. I’m talking about those occasions of wonder when I witness love or beauty or tenderness and think, “This is good.” And this sense of goodness transcends the empirical facts in front of me, seeming to reach into a deeper well of reality than what my eyes can see. I can’t reduce this sense of goodness to any empirical property of the world, at least not without, in the same gesture, stripping it of its significance.

I could, of course, appeal to the side-effects of evolutionary forces on the development of the human brain to explain this experience away, rather than invoke some transcendent good in order to explain it. Why do the latter rather than the former?

I do it out of hope. I do it because it confers a special meaning on the world encountered in experience, the world that science seeks to describe. I do it because it also helps make sense of certain other non-empirical experiences without explaining them away (such as my intimate experience of myself as a conscious agent, and my experience of beauty, and my sense of the intrinsic value of persons as persons). I do it because the complex world of living things, which could be nothing but the product of chance and natural selection, thereby acquires a deeper significance: it becomes something intended by love.

I don’t choose this interpretation because the science demands it, but because my moral nature seems to demand it of me. This moral voice inside me calls me to live in hope: the hope that the universe on some fundamental level is not “pitilessly indifferent to the good” as Dawkins maintains; the hope that the universe is better than it would be if the objects of scientific study exhausted what was real. When I encounter rival worldviews which all meet a basic standard of rationality—internally coherent as well as consistent with the entire field of human experience, including the facts discerned by science—my moral voice urges me to favor that worldview which invests greater moral meaning into those same experiences and facts.

In short, my God is not ultimately an “empirical phenomenon explainer” but, rather, a “hope-fulfiller” and a “meaning-bestower.” Belief in this God does involve reading design into an empirical world which allows for such a reading even if it does not demand it. But belief in this God does not in any way hinge upon the existence of empirical phenomena that simply cannot be explained in naturalistic terms.

Belief in a transcendent benevolence, something that would fulfill our hope that the universe is on the side of goodness, does not depend upon science being finally and permanently “stumped” in its efforts to provide naturalistic explanations. Theistic religion in this sense therefore doesn’t see scientific progress as a threat. Because it’s not.

And while I think there are ways to formulate and develop the argument from design which don’t put such reasoning on a collision course with scientific progress, the history of this argument, in terms of its tendency to foment conflict along these lines, makes me wary of it.


  1. Hi Eric,

    I generally agree with your entry and don’t have any major disagreements, but I want to offer a few thoughts on the following:

    >> Science is methodologically naturalistic. That is, it confronts every empirical phenomenon by looking for a naturalistic explanation of it. This means that scientists, in their role as scientists, will always treat phenomena that haven’t been explained in naturalistic terms, not as signposts pointing towards the supernatural, but as research projects. <<

    For one, science is derived from a term simply meaning “knowledge”, although it now generally refers to knowledge gained through the scientific method (e.g. observation of phenomenon, then hypothesis of given phenomenon, and then experiments to test validity of the hypothesis, etc.)

    I think we need to define “supernatural” and “naturalistic”, but there are phenomena that do seem to defy naturalistic explanations in principle (unless we radically expand our understanding of “naturalistic”).

    For example, psi phenomena, apart from being taboo in academic circles, seem to be very well documented scientifically. I’m talking about phenomena like telepathy, subtle psychokinesis, etc. Rather than giving a long summary, I recommend watching these lectures when time permits:

    Dean Radin’s google talk:

    Rupert Sheldrake’s discussion:

    And also Sheldrake’s lengthy expose on the unfair treatment by dogmatic skeptics of parapsychology: (scroll down to “Spotlight on Skeptics Day... How Skeptics Work”)

    I know these things are initially hard to accept because of the culture, but if you’re willing to listen to the evidence, I think it will be obvious that there is a very strong case.

    One example I want to bring up is the faraday experiments. In these experiments, two people are placed in two separate faraday chambers (which are impervious to EMF). In some cases, EEGs are measured on both persons. Person A is exposed to flashes of light in order to invoke certain EEG changes, while person B is not exposed to any light flashes. However, the interesting thing is that the brain waves of person B show the same pattern as person A when A is exposed to light! This implies a transfer or sharing of information. In other cases, electrodermal activity is measured in a similar way, with similar results.

    Skeptics may argue that we will someday (eventually) have a “naturalistic explanation” (although, again, the term “naturalistic” needs to be defined more carefully). But here’s the thing: The faraday chambers block out electromagnetic energy, so EMFs are not the medium by which the information is transferred or shared. This means that there is an aspect to the mind that cannot reduced to electromagnetic energy. If it is physical, then it is unlike any other “physical thing” that we know of (apart from quantum entanglement).

    Now combine the faraday chamber experiments with experiments on subtle psychokinesis (e.g. people can affect random event generators via intention and attention), precognition, etc.

    Well now we have a picture of the mind as “something” that cannot be reduced to EMF or any known physical system (unless we invoke quantum fields), but that nevertheless is able to affect matter at a distance *via intention*, perceive the future, and (to a degree) detect the intentions of other minds. Does that sound “naturalistic” to you? Sheldrake does indeed argue that telepathy is “natural”, but he has an expanded notion of “nature” that includes non-physical morphic fields.

    Parapsychology is just one example. One could also get into the cross-cultural similarities of spirit possession, but I don’t want to drag on.

    My point is that scientific research (using the scientific method) seems to suggest that “the fabric of reality” is much different from that conceived in more traditional versions of naturalism.

    pardon the long reply

  2. My views on this are similar to yours, Eric. However, I concede that a person could have that same sense of transcendence without a religious "terminology". After all, all these words/concepts in our minds, etc. are symbols with which to communicate about that which IS.

    Have you read about the "God Helmet"? I will have to research it, but I believe a scientist found a way induce a sense of transcendence in a laboratory setting. It works much of the time on most people. I read an unconfirmed report that Dawkins put on the helmet and didn't feel anything.

    Anyway, why do we treat religious experience differently than say, humor? If we found a way to manipulate what we find funny or induce laughter in a lab setting, would people say "Oh, I guess that explains humor. I can't believe we've found this stuff funny all these years. I guess it was just my brain."

    If there is a God, surely we would have a mental mechanism to experience transcendence. Just like we have eyes and ears and to discern when God speaks through other people.

    Also, I would put forth that we are a part of our universe, which seems as though it will inherently taint any observations about the universe. Science's noble attempts to be "3rd person" are not achievable in an ultimate sense. Of course quantum mechanics shows us this even now.

    And THAT said, I feel perfectly at home with my atheist friends. They use "mystery" or "love" or "good" I'm comfortable using "god". I'm not sure of the difference. If you look at God, I'm certain (from a theistic standpoint) he's not going to ignore you if you don't use the right name. And if you don't believe in God, well, you believe in Love right? and if you don't believe in a THEISTIC God, but rather love or "the source" or whatnot, well I can't say I really blame you. There's no evidence. Perhaps people are just predisposed different ways.

    I'm rambling. thanks for the excellent post.

  3. Patrick and Steven,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think some of Patrick's points about the study of psi phenomena need to be taken into account in reflecting on these issues. It may be, however, that the most significant influence that such research may have is on our definition of "naturalistic." Some who say that science is methodologically naturalistic mean that science tries to explain everything in terms of the physical universe of matter and energy, so that "naturalism" reduces to "materialism."

    Others, however, have a broader understanding of naturalism, and they tend to identify it with a focus on what is empirically observable. To say that science is methodologically naturalistic in this case is to say that it seeks to explain every empirically observable phenomenon in terms of empirically detectable or testable laws and theories.

    On this view of things, research into psi phenomena may expand our understanding of what the natural world contains. But it still wouldn't show that there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye.

    Here, I should stress that I define "empirical experience" as a species of human experience more broadly construed. Empirical experience is basically sense experience (although I'd need to qualify that a bit for a formal philosophical definition), and as such does not include aesthetic experience, mystical religious experience, self-consciousness, the feeling of having made a free choice undetermined by physical laws, the sense of acting on the basis of reasons, etc.

  4. Hi again Eric, hope things are well for you.

    If psi phenomena include the more impressive NDE and medium research (and I'd be happy to discuss objections by skeptics), and if psi phenomena "only" expand our understanding of nature, then it would mean that survival of the mind after brain death is itself natural - i.e. the "afterlife" is both real and naturalistic! I have no problem with people expanding their definition of "nature" in this way, but it should be noted that such an approach does not offer any support to the ideas of Dawkins, Harris, etc... quite the contrary.

    On these issues, I recommend checking out work by David Fontana, PMH Atwater, and Peter Fenwick (among others).

    take care

    - Pat