The Argument from Design: Strengths & Weaknesses

Arguments for the creation of the universe by an all-powerful being can seem pretty ridiculous in the twenty-first century. Yet, the vast majority of people seem either unwilling, or incapable of entertaining the alternate explanation. Their incredulity would be amusing, if it weren’t also so dangerous. The impenetrability of theoretical physics to most ordinary people helps keep supernatural explanations on life support, and allows its proponents to linger. Will science ever be free of these chains? A glance at the history of the Argument from Design over the centuries may offer some perspective in this regard.

The case for the intelligent design of the universe by a supreme supernatural being was once considered plausible, but has since been soundly dismissed as obsolete. One of its earliest, and most elegant articulations was by Marcus Tullius Cicero in the first century BCE. Even today, more than two millennia later, Cicero’s passionate appeal has lost none of its persuasiveness. His Argument from Design continues to exert a powerful influence over the modern reader that’s difficult to resist, even today. Cicero’s argument for the existence of God is found in Book II of De Natura Deorum. Written as a dialogue between the advocates of three philosophical schools of thought, On the Nature of the Gods is a dynamic critique of both religious superstition, and academic scepticism. The Stoic character Lucilius Balbus advances the rationale for the existence of God in response to a withering critique of religious superstition by Gaius Cotta, who speaks for the academic sceptics.

Cicero’s courtroom is the entire edifice of the observable universe. His backdrop is the brilliant blue dome of the cloudless sky. His first exhibits are nothing less than the glaring sun, and the glowing moon. Directing his audience to the heavens, he singles out the planets: Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Neptune, and Saturn with their conspicuously colourful light. Thus, with his exhibits submitted into evidence, Cicero doesn’t dither. Juxtaposing the golden orb of the sun hanging high in the roof of the sky, he puts the reader on the spot, and demands an explanation for this celestial phenomenon.

“The first point…seems not even to require arguing. For when we gaze upward to the sky and contemplate the heavenly bodies, what can be so obvious and so manifest as that there must exist some power possessing transcendent intelligence by whom these things are ruled?…If a man doubts this, I really cannot see why he should not also be capable of doubting the existence of the sun.”(DND II.2)

If man didn’t create this heavenly body, who then? How did the sun come to be? And what of the moon, the planets, the constellations, the trees and the plants, the animals, human beings, and the rest of the entire natural world? The answer common to the ancients might have been that they were fashioned by Jupiter, or perhaps one of the other gods in the pantheon. Except that such an explanation had already been shown to be utterly unsatisfactory by Cotta in Book I. Writing as he was in the first century BCE, the sheer breadth of Cicero’s impartiality is extraordinary. His casual prodigality, and disarming candour are delightful, and engaging. He’s clearly not begging the question. “In an inquiry as to the nature of the gods”, he writes, “the first question that we ask is, do the gods exist or do they not?” Cicero is acutely aware of the risks undertaken by philosophers who dare to publicly disclose their secular theories.

Cicero recalls the names of persecuted philosophers, and relates the story of Protagoras of Abdera who was, “banished from the city and from the country, [and had] his books burnt in the market-place…for beginning a book with the words, ‘About the gods I am unable to affirm either how they exist or how they do not exist’”. Cicero’s tone is sympathetic. The example of Protagoras “has discouraged many people since from professing atheism, since the mere expression of doubt did not succeed in escaping punishment”. Here, Cicero’s thinly veiled contempt for the religious intolerance that was maligning the development of Roman science is transparent. Indeed, it seems only natural to infer that Cicero himself despised it.

In fact, there’s an unmistakable note of dissatisfaction with the alternate explanations available at the time as to the motion of the celestial bodies. It seems like Cicero is pleading for a satisfactory explanation to which he himself would subscribe if only it were compelling enough. Acknowledging the religious persecution of the secular pursuit of science he writes, “It is difficult to deny their existence…but in private conversation and in a company like the present it is perfectly easy”.

Cicero’s exasperation with the dearth of adequate explanations is palpable. There is urgency to his argument. It’s with an air of impatience with Roman philosophy to catch up with his intense zeal for certainty that Cicero finally proffers his own explanation. “Either therefore there is nothing that is ruled by a sentient nature, or we must admit that the world is so ruled”. Thus, Cicero lays down the gauntlet with which all future heirs of his argument would grapple.

“When you look at a sun-dial or a water-clock, you infer that it tells the time by art and not by chance…Suppose a traveller to carry into Scythia or Britain the orrery recently constructed by our friend Posidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon and the five planets that take place in the heavens every twenty-four hours, would any single native doubt that this orrery was the work of a rational being?”(DND II.34)

It’s the simplicity of Cicero’s argument from design that makes it so profound, and so daunting. How does one respond to this challenge? Truly, such sophisticated knowledge was quite advanced for its time. One wonders how an Empire capable of such penetrating insights could ever collapse? Indeed, the argument thus posed outlasted the Roman Empire, enduring for nearly 2000 years, until it garnered the attention of the descendents of that barbarous nation, namely, Isaac Newton, David Hume, and last and certainly not least, Charles Darwin.

By no means did Cicero make it easy for them. The sheer array of supporting evidence that guard his conclusion is intimidating, to say the least. Structurally, Cicero’s case for a rational, supernatural being takes the form of an inductive argument and is backed up by observable, empirical evidence. The pool from which Cicero draws his representative sample is inclusive of the entire natural world, and encompasses a wide range of organic, and inorganic phenomena. If Cicero’s analyses were one-dimensional, and restricted only to a narrow cross-section of nature, it might’ve been easily invalidated. However, this is far from the case. Cicero pays equal attention to a wide spectrum of natural phenomena across the observable world, and his analysis could even be said to be systematic. Cicero’s conclusion might seem a radical departure given its supporting evidence, but this is one of its strengths. In the absence of an alternate explanation, the predictability of the sun, the moon, the planets, the constellations, and the natural world – all readily observable – cries out for explanation, and the cosmic hand of a ‘transcendent intelligence’ seems plausible, natural, and even common sense.

Cicero’s discussion of atoms, gravity, and the ‘fortuitous collision of particles’ in section thirty-two of Book II is simply dumbfounding in anticipating the insights of Darwin.

“If a countless number of copies of the one-and-twenty letters of the alphabet…were thrown together into some receptacle and then shaken out on to the ground, it would be possible that they should produce the Annals of Ennius, all ready for the reader. I doubt whether chance could possibly succeed in producing even a single verse!”(DND II.37)

It’s more than a little ironic that the assumption Cicero belittles so mercilessly would end up being the very explanation that would dethrone the argument from design.
Darwin, however, wouldn’t be the first to seriously undermine the argument from design. In Part Four of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion David Hume writes:

“How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of Nature…into which you trace the material? Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle? But if we stop, and go no further; why go so far?…How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum?”

The Dialogues is a critique aimed specifically at the argument from design’s obsession with causes. Hume’s most penetrating critique is reserved for a key flaw in its reasoning. If the effects of a cause are submitted as evidence of its existence, then what about the cause of the cause itself?

But, to think that Cicero was oblivious to the possibility of order emerging out of chaos would be incorrect. He quite understandably mocks not the possibility of that happening, but only its sheer improbability as so delightfully illustrated by the analogy of the letters of the alphabet.

So, why is Darwin credited with overturning the argument from design and not Isaac Newton, or David Hume, for that matter? Wasn’t it Newton who revolutionized modern physics? Richard Dawkins treats this question in The Blind Watchmaker. “Never forget”, writes Dawkins, “that, simple as the theory [of evolution] may seem, nobody thought of it until Darwin and Wallace in the mid nineteenth century, nearly 200 years after Newton’s Principia…”. “How could such a simple idea go so long undiscovered by thinkers of the calibre of Newton, Galileo, Descartes, Leibnitz, Hume and Aristotle?”, he asks. “Why did it have to wait for two Victorian naturalists? What was wrong with philosophers and mathematicians that they overlooked it?”

Indeed, armed with the insights of Newton, and Hume, Cicero’s once formidable argument suddenly looks vulnerable. The passion with which Cicero advances his case suddenly turns into a liability. Darwin’s sober, dispassionate explanation is superior in almost every way. Could this be why the theory of evolution remains unpalatable to so many, because understanding it requires one to entertain the likelihood that humanity may not be the result of a miracle, but rather of an accident.

“Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence…of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”(Dawkins, 14)

Why, then, has it taken so long for the theory of evolution to overturn the argument from design? After all, all its precursors were right there in Cicero’s ‘impossible’ alternate explanation of order out of chaos. “It took a very large leap of the imagination”, Dawkins explains, “for Darwin and Wallace to see that, contrary to all intuition, there is another way and, once you have understood it, a far more plausible way, for complex ‘design’ to arise out of primeval simplicity. A leap of the imagination so large that, to this day, many people seem still unwilling to make it”.

The Argument from Design, however, doesn’t require as great a leap. One of its enduring strengths is that it is understandable by a wide swath of humanity. The apparent order on Earth, and in the cosmos which is cited as evidence of an intelligent Creator can seem compelling and common sense to the uninformed. When Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 he was pilloried, caricatured, and vilified by his contemporaries. But in the 158 years since its publication the theory of evolution has become the predominant theory of how life, and in the form of human beings, intelligent life came to exist in the universe. If blind religious conviction is going to find a place in the future it will have to find a home other than logic and reason, because philosophy can no longer support its conclusions.

© Felix Inparajah, 2017. All rights reserved.


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