Arguments for Atheism - Living without religion, with a clear conscience


The Argument | The Refutation

The Argument Back to Top

The “Intelligent Design” movement, spearheaded by people like Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer and William Dembski and other creationists under the umbrella of the politically conservative think-tank known as the Discovery Institute, developed in the 1980s as a modern form of the traditional Teleological Argument or Argument from Design. It has become one of the most popular arguments for theism.

Essentially, it argues that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. It picks up some of the concepts of Creationism and the Argument from Design while abandoning others, and also adds some additional ideas such as “irreducible complexity” (that certain biological systems are just too complex to have evolved from simpler predecessors, and that all their parts would have needed to be in place before any of them could be advantageous to the organism) and “specified complexity” (that when something is both complex and specified simultaneously, one can infer that it was produced by an intelligent cause), attempting to cast its version of the Teleological Argument as scientific and rational rather than speculative or religious.

A central premise in Intelligent Design is the idea of a “fine-tuned universe”, that the conditions that allow life in the universe can only occur when certain universal physical constants lie within a very narrow range, so that, if any of several fundamental constants were only slightly different, the universe would be unlikely to be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity or life as it is presently understood. This is cited as evidence for the existence of God or some form of intelligence capable of manipulating or designing the basic physics that governs the universe.

Sometimes a different scientific spin is put on the argument by suggesting that the Second Law of Thermodynamics (that entropy or chaos always increases and never decreases) is defied by the observations on Earth where we see things becoming more organized, with the inevitable conclusion that God must be responsible.

The Refutation Back to Top

The contemporary Intelligent Design (ID) movement abandons the literal reading of the Bible (which had dogged the older, largely discredited “Scientific Creationism” movement) and downplays some of the more mystical and fanciful elements of Christianity like miracles, hell and the Holy Spirit in an attempt to appear more scientific and rational.
To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.
- Isaac Asimov (1983)

However, in accepting some scientific concepts like the Big Bang and the Cambrian Explosion, they have settled on a kind of progressive divine creation which just happens to precisely mimic evolution by natural selection, and are apparently willing to accept that the creation of the universe was elaborately rigged by God to look like a Big Bang. To see natural selection as just “God’s way of achieving creation” is to postulate a lazy, under-achieving and superfluous deity, who might just as well not bother to exist at all.

Although ID arguments are usually formulated in secular terms and intentionally avoid identifying the intelligent agent as God, the leading proponents have made statements to their supporters that they believe the designer to be the Christian God, to the exclusion of all other religions. Michael Behe’s own Biology faculty at Lehigh University has emphatically distanced itself from his views, stressing that “intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific”. Courts have also categorically ruled that ID should not be taught in public school science classes.

To make matters worse, some of the “science” that high profile ID proponents like Hugh Ross and Lee Strobel use in their arguments is at best suspect and at worst deliberately misleading and incorrect. Just a few examples out of many include the claims that all the billions of stars in the universe are somehow necessary to sustain our one life-supporting planet (in fact, our own sun is the only star truly essential to our life on Earth), that if the Earth were just half a percent closer to or further away from the sun there would be no liquid water and life would be impossible (in fact, the position of Earth routinely varies by much more than that throughout the year and from one year to the next), and that the position and mass of the other planets in the Solar System is critical to the existence of life on Earth and that Venus and Jupiter shield us from life-threatening space debris (in fact, the other planets have next to no effect on the Earth and are only able to intercept a tiny percentage of space debris).

Scientists do not claim that the human eye or the wings of an eagle (both commonly quoted examples of irreducible complexity and design) suddenly appeared fully-formed in their current form - that would indeed be improbable - but rather that they developed over many millennia through a process of natural selection. Contrary to common ID claims, there are many examples of less perfectly developed eye systems, for example, from the rudimentary eye of flatworms (which can only detect light or shade), through the “pin-hole camera” eye of the nautilus (which yields a blurred and dim image compared to ours), to our own, which are in turn only an eighth as effective as the eyes of a hawk.

ID pioneer Michael Behe's favourite argument for ID involves the flagella that some bacteria use to "row" themselves along, and which Behe claimed were machine-like parts whose elements were not functional outside of the whole mechanism (i.e. irreducibly complex) and so could not have developed gradually through evolution. However, evolutionary biologists have long known that biological parts often evolve by natural selection by virtue of one function and then gradually adapt to other functions as the larger system evolves, making the ID claim of irreducible complexity redundant as a scientific argument. Thus, something which is at first merely advantageous can later become necessary as other components change.

Furthermore, evolution often proceeds by altering pre-existing parts or by removing them from a system, rather than by adding them, in the same way as scaffolding is used to support an “irreducibly complex” building until it is complete and able to stand on its own. An example might be a free-standing arch which would collapse if any one stone is removed, but which can be constructed by simple, naturalistic techniques, without the need for any divine intervention.

In the high profile 2005 court case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, parents of school children in the Dover area of Pennsylvania sought to challenge the local school board's rule that intelligent design must be taught as a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution. The case was proven, and it was ruled that ID (including Behe's theory about bacterial flagella) was not rigorous science, and indeed not scientific at all but religious in nature, and should therefore not be taught in school.
There is no 'God of the gaps' to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking.
- Charles Coulson (1955)

The ID argument is another example of the “god of the gaps” argument (which is explored further in the section on the Argument from Ignorance), as proponents attempt to latch onto something which is not yet fully explained by science and then just assume, without justification, that their alternative theory of intelligent design applies instead. In the same way, any gap in the fossil record of an evolutionary transition series is automatically filled by God in the minds of creationists and, if a new fossil discovery later bisects such a gap, then they now see just twice as many gaps!

What ID really amounts to, then, is an individual creationist being unable to think of an explanation for a particular biological or physical phenomenon and then, rather than seeing it as a legitimate target for increased scientific research, merely labelling it as “irreducibly complex” and attributing its cause to ID - hardly a scientific approach. If ID had been the prevailing credo throughout history, there would have been no scientific progress at all and we would still be living in the squalor of the Dark Ages.

Some ID proponents claim the existence of apparent self-organization and recurring patterns in nature (such as the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, double spirals, fractals, etc) as “proof” of design. However, such patterns can be shown to result from simple physics (the minimization of potential energy, spontaneous symmetry breaking, cellular automata, etc). The algorithm generating a fractal pattern is actually quite simple and so it is no big surprise that we see complex fractal patterns appear in nature. Indeed, it is what we would expect to appear in a system governed by a bottom up, evolutionary design process, and evolution itself is a similar kind of recursive method of complexity enhancement. If anything, the discovery that much of nature is based on math should be seen as evidence against a supernatural metaphysical entity, and it is a strange leap in logic to link the two.

Even if some of ID’s claims were true, though, they still do not address the question of who or what this intelligent designer is, and who designed the designer. Neither do they prove that a Creator designed and arranged the Solar System and the universe thus for the benefit of humanity. To use an analogy, a stone can be used to break a window, but it was clearly not designed for that purpose. Intelligent Design uses backward logic to argue that, rather than life on earth developing to fit the environment in which it found itself, the entire cosmos was personally tailored in advance by an intelligent designer God to precisely match human specifications and requirements.

This makes the presumptuous and audacious assumption that the whole universe effectively exists in order to allow mankind to flourish (an idea known as the Anthropic Principle), and conveniently ignores in the process all the millions of species (an estimated 98% of all species that have ever appeared on Earth) which have lapsed into extinction over the eons due to “mismatches” with their environment. But the universe was not “fine-tuned” to support human life, as ID proponents assume, but rather human life (and life in general) was fine-tuned to the universe through natural selection.

In the same way, there is no pre-ordained and pre-determined reason why the universe had to be as it is, and mankind’s appearance in it was not inevitable. Thus, atheists can also use the Anthropic Principle in their favour, to provide a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. However, it does not in itself “prove” how that came about, but merely describes how our planet happens to be one of those relatively rare planets in the universe on which the spark of life ignited, and where eukaryotic cells, DNA and eventually conscious beings developed. The proof is that we are here to discuss it! What ID really amounts to, then, is the tautologous claim that life is able to exist because the universe is able to support life.

The Argument from Imperfection suggests that, if the universe were designed to be fine-tuned for life, it should be the best one possible, but the evidence suggests that it is not. In fact, the vast majority of the universe is highly hostile to any life and, even on Earth, almost three-quarters of the planet is water and much of the rest of it desert, tundra, swamp and mountains, none of which provide ideal living conditions for humans and other life. In the same way, the very existence of apparent flaws in biological organs betrays their evolutionary history and argues eloquently against design.

The idea that a supreme intelligence is needed to fine-tune the very fundamental constants of the universe itself has become increasingly popular in recent decades. The astrophysicist Martin Rees, for example, has identified six such fundamental constants which are believed to hold all around the universe, and has argued that they too are in a small Goldilocks band leaving very little room for error. However, as before, any god capable of “twiddling the knobs” and tuning the important constants and variables of the universe as a whole would have to be at least as improbable as the finely-tuned combination of numbers itself. Equally improbable is the proposition that an all-powerful creator-god would choose to regulate the workings of the universe in such an abstruse and complex manner.
You can change alpha or the gravitational constant by a factor of 100 and stars still form.
- Fred Adams (2008)

Furthermore, as science progresses, it is becoming increasingly apparent that many of the fine-tuned variables and constants may be interconnected and perhaps interdependent, and recent research suggests that even quite large variations in key parameters such as the masses of electrons and neutrons and the strengths of the electromagnetic and strong interactions still do not rule out the development of stars, planets and the possibility of life as we know it. It should also be recognized that life as we know it might not exist if things were different, but a different sort of life might well exist in its place (sometimes called the Argument by Lack of Imagination).

Also, if we accept the idea proposed by some scientists and philosopher that our universe is but one material universe in a "multiverse" in which all possible material universes are ultimately realized, then there is nothing particularly suspicious or unlikely about the fact that at least one of them is a fine-tuned universe. Another possibility is that our universe is just one in a potentially endless series of serial (rather than parallel) universes, each beginning with a Big Bang and ending in a Big Crunch, only to begin all over again. Yet another variation is Lee Smolin’s idea of the birth of daughter universes (again potentially infinite in number) within black holes in existing universes, each with slightly mutated fundamental constants developing in a kind of cosmic natural selection process. The truth is, we just do not know, at least not yet.

The theologian Richard Swinburne takes ID to the extreme by claiming that God personally oversees and sustains every single fundamental particle and force in the universe in every single microsecond in order to maintain the order we see around us, as well as simultaneously concerning himself with the actions and prayers of every human (and presumably each little sparrow that falls). Swinburne claims that this is a simple and logical hypothesis, but it actually has the appearance of being the most complex and unlikely of all explanations.

Regarding the specific ID argument that entropy is seen to be decreasing on Earth and order increasing, the Second Law of Thermodynamics specifically applies to a “closed system”, and the Earth is not a closed system, nor are most of our everyday experiences. Living things, for example, are not closed systems because they have external energy sources (e.g. food, oxygen, sunlight) whose production requires an offsetting net increase in entropy. The entire universe, however, is a closed system (so far as we know), and as a whole it is in fact expanding and increasingly entropic.

As for how an increasingly entropic universe can be consistent with the growth and development of galaxies, clusters, etc, it should be borne in mind that, as the universe continues to expand, so does its maximum possible entropy. The actual entropy in the universe is also increasing with time, but not to the same extent as its maximal entropy, leaving a “gap” or room for the formation of some increasing order (in the form of coalescing star systems, galaxies, etc). These pockets of order, however, are insignificant in the overall scheme of things, scattered randomly throughout the reaches of deep space, which on the whole exhibits very little structure and no sign of design. Even more tellingly, the visible universe represents only about 4% of the total mass of the universe, the balance being composed of “dark matter” and “dark energy”, about which we still know next to nothing.

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