Daniel Dennet in his book, Intuition pumps makes a very insightful statement about arguments and opposing worldviews. He says it is easy to find arguments for any worldview that can be reduced to straw men arguments and then easily demolished. However this defeats the whole purpose of philosophy which is to uncover knowledge and wisdom. If we are going to argue against an opposing world view we should do our homework and go for the top tier arguments. It is easy to find a weak argument to demolish, however this leads no closer to learning something. I was listening to Neil Degrasse and his take on Intelligent Design, or rather the Design argument for God. Surprisingly I found that I actually agree with what he said-now this was not necessarily a good thing.

Neil’s argument is basically that the Design argument infers God’s existence from knowledge gaps about how things work. We don’t know how this works therefore God did it, we don’t know how lightning works therefore God did it, we don’t know how the universe came into being therefore God did it. This is called a God of the gaps – where God is a place holder for scientific ignorance.

He cites an example from Isaac Newton’s writing where he couldn’t explain the motion or stability of planets – and instead of providing a scientific explanation or rather admitting he doesn’t know, Newton says God must intervene to keep them stable.

He says Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance. It is you get to something you don’t understand, and then you stop. You say, ‘God did it,’ and you no longer progress beyond that point.” I agree with Neil, if this is what the Design Argument for God is built on – it really is a philosophy of ignorance. Newton was absolutely wrong- invoking God to explain what we don’t know is simply unnecessary and is a poor argument. However that is where my disappointment with Neil comes in, this version of the design argument is really a straw man, and no serious theist defends this argument. My disappointment is that Neil has based his opposition to theism on a faulty argument and this also seems to be the prevailing objection against Design.

The design argument does not infer God’s existence from what we cannot explain or understand. But rather from what we do know about the universe and nature. The design argument infers the existence of an intelligent mind from observable, rationally ordered patterns and highly specified complexity. Intelligence precedes intelligibility. One does not come across a dictionary and assume it is the random result of an explosion at a printing press. One immediately infers it has been designed and therefore the product of an intelligent mind.

Let me use an illustration to show my point. Suppose we have a refinery that produces petrol. We have a chemical engineer (lets call him Scientism) who was born and raised in the refinery and has never known anything outside of it. Scientism knows every scientific and engineering fact about how the refinery operates, and even has a model that can describe and predict the behaviour of every atom at any given place in the refinery.

Imagine standing there and admiring the beauty of how a distillation column works, separating the light from the heavy components and I remark that the design engineer for this refinery was brilliant. At this point Scientism asks me what do I mean design engineer. How could I show Scientism using scientific and engineering principles that the refinery was designed by an intelligent engineer? Could I appeal to any scientific principle such as combustion, thermodynamics or laws of motion to show there was an intelligent design engineer who designed the plant? When is it reasonable to infer design? What criteria is used to infer design? How could Scientism then explain the rational order, laws and the specified complexity of the refinery? Scientism would know every scientific and engineering principle so he could not say in time he will discover it. Scientism can either say it is due to chance that the refinery is rationally ordered – which if you notice is a philosophical and not a scientific claim. Or Scientism could say the refinery must be like this necessarily- also not scientific but rather philosophical.

Would then Scientism be justified in concluding that because the laws of science and engineering do not prove the existence of an intelligent design engineer the refinery was not designed by an intelligent design engineer?

No he would not because we know refineries are designed by intelligent design engineers!

So the first error by Scientism is the presupposition that only science can prove the truth or validity of a statement. Science was never intended to answer all questions. It is a tool devised to discover the fundamental laws that govern the behaviour of material objects. In other words science assumes there is a law to be discovered- and goes about through experiments and using mathematical language to uncover that law. However science cannot answer why the fundamental law exists or even why material objects exist – that is simply beyond its scope.

Let’s take physics most prized and elusive theory, the holy grail of physics, the Theory of Everything (ToE). Which isn’t a theory of everything but rather a theory that will unify the current four fundamental forces of nature (gravity, electromagnetism, weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force) into one fundamental force. Similar to how electricity, light and magnetism were unified into one force (electromagnetism). The ToE is highly speculative at this point- the equations haven’t even been worked out . The leading candidate for a ToE is M-Theory, or super string theory. It posits that the basic fabric of matter is not quarks but vibrating 1 dimensional strings with the universe consisting of 11 dimensions. The ToE even if achieved and shown to be true does not begin to answer the question of why there is a ToE to begin with or why the basic fabric of matter is vibrating strings in 11 dimensions. So there is a real limit to what questions science can answer- it seems popular secular scientists have no interest in philosophy of science which aptly points this out.

Back to the refinery, so what arguments could I use to show Scientism that the refinery was indeed designed after he has realised that the question is philosophical and not scientific, and that scientific data can be used to draw philosophical conclusions? Scientism has 3 possible explanation to choose from to explain the existence of rational order, patterns and specified complexity in the refinery. (1) Intelligent design engineer; (2) chance; (3) physical necessity. What we are seeking is an inference to the best explanation about what is the cause of the order, rationality and specified complexity observed in the refinery. Keep in mind -It is not an argument from ignorance because we have all the scientific and engineering data about the refinery.

The cause of rational order, regularity, specified complexity of the refinery is best explained by a rational mind as opposed to random natural chance or physical necessity. The existence of a highly specified, complex, and rationally ordered refinery is more probable if there exists an intelligent design engineer as opposed to it arising out of the random collision of molecules. I think this would be sufficient to show Scientism that indeed refineries require intelligent design engineers.

  • My question is then what argument would you present to Scientism to persuade him that the refinery was indeed designed by an intelligent design engineer?
  • Secondly, why would that argument not apply to the universe to show that the rational order, specified complexity and fine-tuning observed in the universe infers design and therefore an intelligent designer?