Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek and the Design Argument

(Alternate title: Permission to Believe in God V)

(continued from these posts: I, II, III, IV)

I. Star Trek and the Design Argument

I’d like to engage in a thought experiment about how a possible Star Trek scenario might impact one of the main arguments for God’s existence. Star Trek, as you probably know, was a science fiction television show in the late 1960’s that became a phenomenon with numerous movies, spin-off shows, books, merchandise, conventions, etc. The main premise is that the ship and its crew search for new civilizations throughout the universe. I’d like to address how such a scenario, with a significant change, can affect the Design Argument for God’s existence.

II. Watchmaker

While there are many versions of the Design Argument, also called the Teleological Argument, they generally fall into three types that emerged chronologically. The first can be called the Watchmaker Argument. Looking at individual organisms, we can marvel at how their functions precisely meet their needs; eyes, ears, muscles, bones, etc. are all marvelously suited for their purposes. Every animal seems to be perfectly constructed for its situation and environment. When we find a well-constructed object, such as a watch, we rightly assume that it didn’t come into being by chance but was made by a watchmaker. Similarly, we can deduce from analogy that people – and all animals, and even the world and the universe – were made by a Creator.

This argument was most famously proposed by William Paley but it actually preceded him. In fact, the forceful rebuttal by David Hume – with which we will deal shortly – had already been published when Paley published his book on the subject. This is also the approach taken by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen in chapter four of his book, Permission to Believe.

However, evolution effectively pulled the rug from under this argument. If, as the theory claims, animals are well-suited to their environment because of a natural process of “survival of the fittest,” there is no room for an argument from design to the existence of God. This is not to say that evolution and God are incompatible, just this argument for God’s existence. Rabbi Kelemen attempts to salvage this approach by arguing that evolution is incorrect.

III. Fine-Tuning

However, the argument was revised and revived to entirely avoid evolution. Rather than focusing on biology and how animals fit their environments, it concentrates on the fact that animals exist altogether. Proponents of this version of the Design Argument note that there are certain physical constants that, if changed even slightly, would not allow for the existence of life (Stephen T. Davis, God, Reason and Theistic Proofs, pp. 107-111).

For example, if gravity had been stronger or weaker by 0.1%, then stars that sustain life like the sun could not exist. Similar statements can be made about other constants, such as the strong and weak nuclear forces and the electromagnetic force. Those who are more scientifically aware than I can state this argument in a very compelling way.

The upshot is that the physical laws in our universe are precisely right for the existence of life. Had they been even slightly different, life would not be able to exist. This fact is better explained by a Creator than by happenstance. So the argument here is not a proof of God’s existence but an argument that His existence is by far the best explanation of the facts.

Another variation of this argument is to simply note that there are physical laws. How did this come to be? In a randomly created universe, why would there be consistent laws, many of which are related but some of which are not? It would seem that randomness would be the rule, and not orderly laws. The very order of the universe seems to imply design by a Creator (Antony Flew, There is a God, ch. 5).

IV. Counter-Arguments

Perhaps the most famous rebuttal of the Design Argument is in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which was so provocative that his friends convinced him not to publish it in his lifetime. Hume advanced five counter-arguments:

  1. 1)Even if you can deduce that a watch has a watchmaker, who made the watchmaker? Similarly, who created the Creator?
  2. Any event that continues consistently for a long period of time will appear to be designed.
  3. Even if you can deduce that there was a Creator, you cannot prove that He was good, perfect or anything else we expect from God.
  4. The imperfection of the universe (e.g. the existence of evil) seems to argue for either non-design, multiple designers or an imperfect designer.
  5. We sometimes see order come naturally and not from design, as in the case of an animal that is born and grows. Maybe the universe is more like an animal than a watch.
These are strong points but not irrefutable. Some have responded as follows (cf. Davis, pp. 100-106):
  1. Who cares who, if anyone, made the Creator? All we are discussing here is that the universe was created. The origin of that Creator is irrelevant. Perhaps that Creator is infinitely simple and does not show evidence of design.
  2. True, but this universe not only continues consistently but does so in a way that seems designed for the existence of human life. OK, this is pretty much an appeal to fine-tuning, so chronologically it is cheating a little.
  3. Yes and no. What we are trying to argue now is that the universe was designed by some intelligent being. Describing the nature of this Designer is a different discussion that requires other arguments. For example, we can argue that the Creator is not physical, since He created everything physical. And we can argue that He is unique and ultimately powerful, because that is a more simple conclusion than that there are multiple competing creators. Arguments such as these are not technically part of the Design Argument but they can be combined with it to reach a Creator with many of the attributes we associate with God. However, the success of the Design Argument is not dependent of the success of any of these individual arguments.
  4. Again, the issue here is whether the universe was designed or not; the issue is not the nature of the Designer. That can be left to other arguments, like in the previous response. Therefore, arguing from the imperfection of the universe to an imperfect designer is beside the point. The real issue is whether imperfection in the universe indicates that there is no design at all. While this is a strong point, it is not fatal to the argument (cf. Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds, p. 111). There is evidence for design and evidence for non-design. The theory of design has methods for dealing with elements that imply non-design (e.g. theodicy) and the theory of non-design has methods of dealing with elements that imply design (e.g. randomness). The issue is which theory best explains all of the evidence. Since the weight given to any piece of evidence is subjective, in the end we have a successful argument for God’s existence but only to those who agree that the pro-design evidence is more convincing. So it is a viable argument but not a very useful one in convincing non-believers (cf. John Hick, Arguments for the Existence of God, pp. 30-33).
  5. Any argument from analogy is subjective because no analogy is perfect. But pointing that out, or even suggesting an alternate analogy, is not necessarily a refutation of the argument. Everyone agrees that the universe is like a watch in some ways but not in other ways. The question is whether they are sufficiently similar for this analogy to be instructive and Hume has not disproved this (Davis, pp. 104-107).
Moving beyond Hume to critics of Fine-Tuning, a counter-argument that has been used is that the fact that we notice that the universe is well-designed for our existence should not be surprising. If it were not so, we would not be here to notice anything. However, it seems that design should still surprise us. Consider someone standing before a firing squad waiting to be executed. The shooters fire but every single bullet misses the prisoner. Should he say that there is no reason for him to be surprised at witnessing this outcome because, had there been any other outcome, he would not be alive to witness it? Surely, he has every right to be amazed (David Wolpe, Why Faith Matters, p. 102; cf. Swinburne, The Existence of God, p. 156). The same is true about the fine-tuning of the universe. Even though any other scenario would not have allowed for intelligent life, we can still marvel at the surprising outcome and question why it happened that way.

Others claim that the fine-tuning of the universe is not really true; different physical laws could have allowed for intelligent life. And others argue that there are multiple universes that have every possible variation of physical constants. Rather than this universe being an amazingly rare occurrence, it is inevitable within this realm of infinite universes. I lack the scientific expertise to evaluate these claims but I remain skeptical.

V. Intelligent Design

The most recently developed version of the Design Argument is currently highly controversial – Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design is a reworking of the classical Design Argument to avoid the issue of evolution. Meaning, that even if the animals we see today evolved over billions of years from a single organism, that still does not refute this argument. Intelligent Designs looks at phenomena that show evidence of design – of intentional construction – that even if they came to be through evolution, they could not have come about randomly but through guidance.

There are two main approaches within Intelligent Design. One is to look for Specified Complexity, a phenomenon that is highly improbable to occur (complex) and shows evidence of being a pattern (specified). For example, it is not improbable to find in nature three piles of rocks next to each other, one with two rocks, the next with three and the last with four. That is a pattern (specified) but it is not complex. But if you find piles containing consecutively every prime number from 1 to 100, that is both complex and specified. Since there are phenomena in nature that exhibit specified complexity, they seem to imply a Designer. This is the approach proposed by William Dembski in his book, The Design Inference.

The other approach is that pioneered by Dr. Michael Behe in his book, Darwin’s Black Box. He argues that there are phenomena that exhibit characteristics of Irreducible Complexity. This means that they could not have come about gradually because in their less complex forms, they are useless and would not have survived. If random evolution cannot explain their origin, then they must have been intentionally designed.

Both approaches have been hotly contested but also strongly defended. In this debate, it is difficult to separate the polemics from the persuasive arguments, so I personally refrain from reaching an evaluation of the Intelligent Design claims and counter-claims.

To sum up, there are three main versions of the Design Argument: the Watchmaker Argument, which marvels at the complexity of the world and claims that it could not have come about without a Creator; the Fine-Tuning Argument, which proposes that the best explanation for the universe being delicately balanced to be amenable to the development of life is in a Creator; and Intelligent Design, which points to specific complex phenomena and argues that they are inexplicable without, or best explained by, a Designer.

VI. The Star Trek Problem

The question, then, is as follows: Let’s say that the Star Trek mission becomes a reality. We send out spaceships to (boldly) seek out new life forms and new civilizations on other planets. R. Norman Lamm has discussed the theological implications of the explorers finding intelligent life, in his essay "The Religious Implications of Extraterrestrial Life" that was recently updated for the 2007 edition of Faith & Doubt. But what if the explorers find other inhabitable planets but, unlike in Star Trek, there are no aliens. There are inhabitable planets but none of them developed life. What does this do to the Design Argument?

We see a planet that seems to be designed for life but did not, in fact, produce any. Does that undermine the Design Argument? Evidently, the appearance of design would be mistaken. Does that imply that the appearance of design on our planet can also be mistaken?

When considering the Watchmaker Argument, it is possible that such a scenario would undermine it. However, the Fine-Tuning Argument remains unaffected because the universe is still remarkably designed to produce life, which it did, even if not on every possible planet. Intelligent Design is also unaffected because the issues of Specified Complexity and Irreducible Complexity are not touched by this scenario at all.

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