Apologetics,  Atheism,  Natural Theology,  naturalism


At school I was taught to anneal copper. This process entailed heating the copper to an exact temperature before working on it. There were no temperature gauges involved – one could tell what temperature the copper had reached by its color – cherry red. The color of the copper changed as the temperature changed. I remember thinking that God was both an artist and an engineer. He designed copper to include its own temperature gauge and made it beautiful at the same time.

To a Christian, or any theist for that matter, the world appears to be designed by someone. It is not usually the whole world that appears designed, all at once, so to speak. Rather, it is usually some striking feature of the world that appears designed. A beautiful flower bursting with color, a hummingbird hovering, seemingly motionless in midair, or the detail of an eye with all its complexity, all appear to be designed. Even those who do not believe in a divine designer remark at the world’s apparent design.

Christians have often used this as a topic with which to begin a conversation about God with their non-Chrisitan friends. “Look!” they might say. “How can such an amazing sun set be an accident? It is both beautiful and ingenious. Its light is sufficient for photosynthesis, which is needed for plants, food, and life. Surely, only God could do such a thing – a designer who loves beauty and is an amazing engineer.”

Christians are often puzzled by the non-plussed response they receive. Indeed, arguments from the apparent design of the world to God are often the subject of ridicule. As a character in a T.C Boyle story puts it:

I knew Paley’s argument from design, knew about the watch and the watchmaker, and I knew now that these people—these Jesus freaks—were trundling out the same old argument dressed in new clothes. Intricacy requires design, that was what they said. And design requires a designer. That was as far as they could see, that was it, case closed: God exists. And the earth is ten thousand years old, just like the Bible says.1

The character, Dave, mentions an argument given by William Paley in the eighteenth century. It is, perhaps, the most well known of design arguments: 

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 laid there for ever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be enquired 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 yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as four the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz., that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (What we could not discover in the stone ) that it’s several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g., that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order then that in which they are placed, either no emotion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.… this mechanism being observed, the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch had a maker: that there must have existed at some time, and some place or other, and artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer: Who comprehended its construction and designed its use… every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; With the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.2

What exactly is Paley’s argument? Alvin Plantinga gives a few interpretations. It could be construed as an argument from analogy. The natural world resembles man-made artifacts (like watches). Since man-made artifacts are designed, probably the world is also designed. It might also be construed as an inductive argument. All things that adapt to aim at a goal are things that are designed. So far anything that appears to adapt to aim at a goal has turned out to be something that has been designed. The natural world contains things that appear to adapt to aim at a goal. Therefore, the world is probably designed. 
Another way to take the argument is as an inference to the best explanation. On this interpretation, the best explanation for something that is mechanically ordered is that it was designed by an intelligent designer. The world contains natural systems that are mechanically ordered (an eye, for example). Therefore, the best explanation for a natural system that is mechanically ordered is that has been designed by an intelligent designer (Paul Draper).

Any construal of Paley’s watchmaker argument have been subject to strong criticism and even out of hand dismissal. Richard Dawkins even wrote a book entitled, The Blind Watchmaker, in which he argues that evolutionary theory supplies all we need to explain the apparent design features of the world: If we have evolution, what need of we of God? If we ask what is the most fundamental reality in the universe–who or what is the watchmaker–Dawkins replies that “The only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics.”

Plantinga points out that we don’t often reason to design as these arguments suggest. Instead, we usually just see design. If so, then perceiving design features in nature is more like perception in general – things just appear that way to us. I don’t have an argument for my belief that there is a computer screen in front of me and I don’t have any argument for my belief that said screen is the result of an intelligent activity of design – it just appears that way to me. It turns out that many of our beliefs are like that – memories and belief in other minds, for example.

Take the latter example–that there are other minds. Plantinga asks us to consider what makes us think there are such things. One way would be to reason by analogy, or by inference to the best explanation, or by inductive reasoning. We might think that there are other minds because what we see other people do are things we do and we think we  have minds. Ergo, those other people have minds. We might reason that persons having minds is the best explanation for the behavior of bodies. However, Plantinga claims, we don’t in fact need to find an argument for the existence of other minds. We just find ourselves with the belief in other minds when we find ourselves in certain circumstances – in a conversation with another person, for example.

Plantinga suggests that the same goes for design beliefs. They are like beliefs in other minds – basic beliefs.

If so, then dismissal of arguments to design are not refuted by challenging a premise or two. Rather, if design beliefs are basic, then one can only defeat those beliefs either by showing a contradiction with another belief or by showing that some other belief makes it less likely that my design beliefs are warranted.

An atheist may say that though the impulse to believe that the world is designed is strong it should be resisted since evolutionary theory rules it out. If evolution, they say, then no God.

What does the atheist have in mind when he attempts to alleviate you of that belief that the world is designed? An analogy might help:

On a recent vist to a zoo, my wife saw what she thought to be an escaped bear. We rushed to find the nearest employee of the zoo and he told us that we had seen a cat, a domestic cat mind, and that the cat was well known to the zoo. What we saw was the appearance of a bear and given that we were in a zoo and had just seen a bunch of huge fierce looking creatures, we might be forgiven for thinking that black animal in the forest was a bear.

You too have been conditioned in a similar way to conclude from the appearance of design that there really is design in the natural world. But it is a mere appearance. Once you know that there is in fact no design and that you have come to think there is because you were brought up in America among other theists, you will surrender your belief that the world was designed by God.

So, can the atheist provide such a defeater? Rather like the zookeeper, Richard Dawkins and alike think that they can provide reassurance that there is no designer. They understand that it might look that way to a person brought up by Christians, but once they hear about evolution–the friendly neighborhood cat–they will pretty quickly go on their way without fear of displeasing God since he (and the bear) doesn’t exist.

The first thing to say is that of course the situation is only this way because the atheist sets it up this way. We are made to feel that we are the ones visiting the zoo and the cleric of our age–the atheistic scientist–is the zoo keeper. But it is not that way at all. Instead, we are both looking at the same world and neither of us is the keeper of the zoo!

But the reason they think they are the zoo keepers is that they believe that what they know rules out God. But does it? Does evolution entail non-design? It is far from clear that it does. Dawkins keeps saying that the evidence of evolution reveals a world without design. But why accept it?

It turns out that Dawkins offers little in the way of an argument to the effect that evolution rules out God. The most he gets to is that evolution is a possible explanation for the appearance of design without their being a designer and it’s not clear he gets beyond merely claiming that it is not impossible that evolution happens without a designer. Small reward indeed.

Richard DeWitt supplies what, at first glance, appears to be an argument:

“the ‘natural’ part of natural selection is core. So it one adds a supernatural involvement into the account of evolution by natural selection, say by allowing God to meddle in the evolutionary process, then it is no longer natural selection. One is not taking natural science, and evolutionary theory, seriously. In short, taking natural science seriously means that an account of evolutionary development that is importantly influenced by a supernatural being is not an intellectually honest option” (DeWitt, Worldviews, p. 312-313). 

So, why can’t natural selection be meddled in? First, DeWitt seems to think that natural selection, by definition, means that there can be no supernatural meddling. If God guides the process, then it is not natural selection. But an argument from definition is a spurious argument. Ironically, when DeWitt attempts to define natural selection he appeals to an analogy:

“The idea behind this terminology [of natural selection] is straightforward. In a way analogous to how breeders artificially produce desirable traits in domesticated animals by selecting organisms with those traits and breeding them, so too nature ‘selects’ for certain traits, traits that are advantageous relative to others for survival and reproduction” (Worldviews, 297). 

Of course, it appears even natural selection requires an appeal to an intentional operation–the breeders–in order to be understood. And breeders and ‘nature’ do not an analogy make precisely because nature can no more select anything than a verb can lift weights.

Second, DeWitt seems to be claiming that natural science rules out theism. Furthermore, only natural science can ‘take evolution seriously.’ How so? Presumably, DeWitt thinks that natural science, as a methodology, rules out supernatural beings since natural science does not, and cannot, observe any supernatural entity or process. And since his version of evolution does not include divine meddling and is come to by way of natural science, we should not include God in it.

But nothing in what he says excludes divine meddling. It only tells us that when a natural scientist talks about evolution he cannot say anything about the supernatural. This would be to compromise the natural part of natural science and be intellectually dishonest. But a theist is not being dishonest if he accepts evolution and believes that God exists and is responsible for evolutionary processes.

If what DeWitt says sounds a bit askew that is because he is arguing that if one accepts the naturalistic scientific method, then one will accept that there is nothing that exists that is supernatural. But that is merely to argue in a circle. He has not argued that there is nothing supernatural, he has assumed there is nothing supernatural!

Whereas the zoo keeper knows something that supplies a the defeater to our belief that a bear had escaped its cage, the atheist has not. The most he has is some way of describing the design features of the world without mentioning God.

On the other hand, we don’t have an argument from design to God. The most we can say is that we aren’t crazy in continuing to have design beliefs about the world. There is no good reason to deny that the world is designed than there are reasons to suspend our beliefs in other minds, our memories, and perception in general. 

1 The sentiments of Dave, a character in “Bulletproof,” a story about an atheist going up against a Christian teenager in a debate over creationist curriculum in American schools. T.C. Boyle, “Bulletproof,” in Wild Child and Other Stories (New York: Penguin, 2010), 96.

2 William Paley, “The Analogical Teleological Argument,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, eds. Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach & Basinger (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 212–213.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.