The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
The existence of God, Part 3: The natural law argument


The existence of God, Part 4: The design argument
Last modified on Sun Dec 3 16:38:06 2017


This is the latest post in a series about Bertrand Russell's essay Why I am not a Christian, in which I run through his various arguments and show that for the most part (there are a few exceptions) they either don't apply to classical theism, or are just completely invalid in the first place. Russell's essay is split into several topics, the first of which (after his introduction) is to discuss some philosophical arguments often used in favour of the existence of God. He intends to dismiss these arguments to help justify his claim that there is no valid evidence for the existence of God. So far, I have discussed the cosmological and what Russell calls the natural law argument. Now it is time for the argument from design. This is one of the few places where I personally think that Russell has a point; just not one which advances his overall case.

The modern argument from design is a relatively recent addition to the stable of arguments for God (recall that I have a somewhat unusual understanding of the word recent; I mean later than the medieval period). There were, of course, precursors in older thought, and some arguments (such as the teleological argument, or argument from final causality) which today are often confused with the argument from design even though in practice they are built on wholly different premises, and thus need to be considered separately. I'll briefly mention the teleological argument later on in this post.

The argument from natural law, discussed in the last post, states that the form of physical law in some way reflects what we would expect it to be given the nature and character of God (and has properties we either need not or could not expect if it has some other explanation), thus backing up the idea that God is the author of such law, and thus that God exists. Some modern arguments, for example contemporary debates over the anthropic principle, are examples of the natural law argument, since they are related to the nature of physical law (in this case, the values of various parameters used within it). The argument from design, on the other hand, looks at material beings, and in particular complex material objects with numerous inter-dependent parts. The argument (in its best form) then runs as follows:

  1. Object X could not emerge from the normal workings of the laws of physics (and, through them, the laws of chemistry and biology, if relevant).
  2. Object X is observed to exist.
  3. If it did not emerge from physics, then something else had to lead it to come into being. This something else must be able to intervene in the universe in a way that is beyond physics, and itself not be bound by physics. Since physics is applicable to all material beings, this being must be immaterial. The emergence of the object is an act towards some end, and the form of the object must in some way exist in the being that created it.
  4. The only immaterial substance capable of both acting towards some end and of understanding abstract concepts such as forms is a mind.
  5. Therefore there exists an immaterial mind capable of intervening in the universe.
  6. This immaterial mind is God.

In premise one, I mean some statement of the sort If a bacterial flagellum existed, then it could not have emerged from the natural course of physical law. It is entirely theoretical. Premise two looks to see whether such things do exist; it is entirely empirical. I distinguish between the opening two premises in this way.

Some people might question the fourth premise, but I treat this as a matter of definition. I define a mind (yes, including our own) as an immaterial substance or part of a substance capable of acting towards an end, and understanding abstract concepts such as form and structure. With this definition, the fourth premise follows immediately. Of course, as we progress through the argumentation to God, we have to remember that we have used this definition, and not substitute it for some other definition of mind later.

The last And this is God also might prove problematic. If, like I, do, we define God in effect as the terminus of the cosmological argument, then we have more work to do to show that the end of this argument is that same God. (Alternatively, we can define God as the end-point of this argument, and then need to show that the cosmological argument ends in the same place; and we also need to show that the God of the Bible, or Koran, or whatever text we favour, is also the being we have uncovered at the end of this argument.) One would have to show the simplicity, unity, eternity, and so on, of the immaterial mind that is the end-point of this argument. This requires work, and I am not fully convinced that it has been done; the end point of the argument from design clearly has some similarities with the end point of the cosmological argument, but its not immediately clear that it needs to be a being of pure actuality, eternal, unchanging and so on. But I will leave this issue to one side for this post; it would be too much of a digression to address it.

The rest of the argument itself is, I think, sound (or can be expressed in a way that is sound), if one can justify the first premise (and give a successful argument for the last point). The second point is a matter of observation which all will agree or disagree on once X has been specified, and the third, fourth and fifth follow from the previous steps and the definitions. Thus most of the discussion concerning this argument concentrates on the first premise. And that is where the fun begins. To complete the argument, we need to identify just one object where the first premise is satisfied.

The difficulty is that proving that it is impossible for some complex structure to emerge through the normal evolution of physical law is an immensely difficult thing to do; as indeed is proving that it can. The first problem is that we don't yet understand science perfectly. We have a good understanding of physics, though there are still gaps. We understand the electromagnetic interaction well, and the basic foundations of nuclear physics and chemistry, although it is often difficult to go from first principles to an exact calculation of complex substances.

There are thus two things which which need to consider, which are not identical; firstly applicable scientific law; and secondly our knowledge of applicable scientific law, and what we are able to calculate from it. The further we get from fundamental physics, the fuzzier our knowledge of scientific law becomes and the harder precise first-principles calculations get; the more likely is that our knowledge of the law (and more importantly our ability to compute the consequences of the law) is in error. However, our knowledge is what we have to work with. Thus the best that the proponent of the argument from design can do is to say that the emergence of being X is impossible if the model of scientific law we are using is correct. This is not the same as saying that it is impossible if the true scientific law is correct. One has to have the uncertainty of our knowledge under control: show that it is impossible for every understanding consistent with our experiments and the philosophical premises underlying quantum field theory. This is a very difficult task.

A formal proof of premise one of the argument from design thus requires a detailed expert knowledge of the science in question, and one also has to have a detailed expert knowledge to evaluate the argument. Most advocates of the argument from design don't know enough to do this. In some examples they put forward, nobody knows enough to do this. What we do know is that many examples which were previously used as possible candidates for X now can be explained solely in terms of natural law.

So instead, most advocates for the design argument rely on analogy. The flagellum of a bacteria resembles a modern motor, with numerous interlocking parts. Like a modern motor, if any one of the parts fails, the whole motor would be useless and offer no survival advantage. Indeed, an incomplete flagellum would be worse than no flagellum at all since it would take resources from the bacteria with no gain. It is inconceivable that a mechanical motor could come together without some designer; why should it be any different for a biological motor? These numerous parts are too big a step to come together in the various small mutations allowed for by evolution by unguided genetic mutation and natural selection, and so therefore they could not have arisen by this process. Since the various variants of the idea of evolution by genetic mutation and natural selection are the only known natural processes that could lead to the flagellum, it had to have arisen either through a divinely guided series of mutations or by direct divine intervention. Both options lead to the first premise of the argument for design. Just as the human constructed motor requires design, so does the biological motor.

But, of course (and as is well known), this argument as I have presented it contains a number of flaws. Firstly, the argument from analogy is flawed because the origin and construction of the two objects is one of the points where they differ rather than are similar. Secondly, it argues that the complex arrangements of physical parts could not have arisen in small steps; but the question whether the changes in the genetic code between the non-flagellum bacteria and the one with the flagellum are large. A small change in the genetic code can have a big effect on the final organism. For example, whole sections of DNA are activated or deactivated by a single letter. Change that letter, and you create a big difference in the resulting organism. Viruses can insert large sections of their own DNA into their hosts, again meaning that big changes are possible in a single step. Furthermore, it the flagellum motor does require intermediate steps, then these steps might nonetheless confer an advantage (albeit not as big an advantage as the full motor) to the organism. I have seen arguments that bacterial flagellum could arise through unguided mutation and natural selection, outlining the individual steps that lead to the final result. I am not a geneticist; I don't know enough to evaluate these arguments. But even if the currently suggested paths are untenable, that does not show that there is not a route to the flagellum that we don't yet know about. To formally show that there is no possible route to the flagellum seems to me to be an impossible task. And without this formal proof, you haven't shown the first premise to be true; and without the first premise the argument collapses. This just doesn't apply to bacterial flagella, but any biological example.

So let us go beyond biological organisms to DNA itself. DNA is sometimes called the book of life. And this analogy has some validity. The individual genomes are analogous to letters; letters which merge together to form words, and these words have a coherent meaning, interpreted through the various biological processes that lead to the construction of individual proteins. Now every human book needs an author. The author puts the letters together into words, and the words are arranged into meaning. We could not say that Hamlet was written by "random" chance, not without there being evidence for the numerous other plays containing nothing but gibberish that the random process would have to produce before it came to Hamlet. Thus we can conclude that the book of life needs an author. Hence God.

Do I even need to answer this? This is an argument from analogy, and thus not a proof. The analogy holds in that there are similarities in the way that DNA and a book convey information. But there are also differences, including in how the material is stored and how it is interpreted. Since these are more important when considering the origin of the material, it is foolhardy to say that a human book and DNA must have the a similar origin just because they are similar in certain (but not all) respects. Evolution by genetic mutation and natural selection is a sufficient process to explain how the DNA of current organisms arose from the first simple strand of DNA; how the information was created. It doesn't matter whether or not this form of evolution occurred in practice (and I am not going to reveal my thoughts on the matter because what I think is irrelevant to what is true; I am not a biologist and not an expert and my opinion on this subject, whatever it is, counts for considerably less than those who are experts, so on this topic read them instead of me); that it is plausible is enough to undermine premise one of the argument from design.

OK, so what about the origin of DNA and RNA themselves (or some other self-replicating information storing molecule)? And not only these, but the whole cellular infrastructure needed to mould proteins from the information stored in DNA, and to assist them in the reproduction process. To my knowledge (which isn't extensive, so I could be wrong), the best we have managed to do in the lab is to create a few measly amino acids, which decay relatively quickly, and are a long way from what we need.

But that we do not know of how DNA could have emerged from an unguided natural process does not mean that there isn't a way that it could have happened that we don't know about. We don't have a proof that it could have happened; neither do we have a proof that it couldn't. And a rigorous proof that it couldn't happen is what is needed to establish premise one of the argument of design.

The argument from design is (for the most part, there are, of course, exceptions) used by non-scientists to persuade other non-scientists. But most (again, not quite all) scientists find the argument unconvincing. Every scientist knows that humble and simple theories can inevitably lead to complex structures. These structures form quite naturally as a consequence of physical law. A mustard seed is simpler than a mustard tree; plant and water it, and natural processes will produce the tree from the seed. From the laws of electrodynamics, we see that hydrogen and oxygen will naturally combine to make water (a more complex substance); the bonds between water molecules, when frozen, will naturally lead to the even more complex snowflakes. There is no design here, just physics (although, of course, the laws of physics themselves are a description of the acts of an intelligent agent), and matter arranging itself to fall into a local minimum of potential energy. Is this snowflake argument also an argument from analogy, and thus invalid? No, it is an argument from counter-example against the proposition that simple laws cannot lead to complex results.

I hate it when I see Christians use the argument from design. All it does is set up a straw man which a knowledgeable atheist can easily knock down. There is nothing that convinces more of the truth of orthodox Christianity than when I read arguments which atheists or liberals claim to be convincing but which, when I examine them, are easily defeated. I imagine that when atheists read a weak argument for Christianity it has the same effect. There are much stronger arguments for the existence of God, and these should be used instead.

But wait a minute. Aren't I a self-described Thomist? And didn't Thomas Aquinas use the argument from design in his fifth way? No. The teleological argument (the argument from final causality, or that beings have tendencies towards ends) is quite different from the argument from Design. It does not depend on complex structures; it depends on the nature of physical law. Paley needed the watch to make his point; Aquinas just needs the stone. Paley needed an analogy, Aquinas argues from the nature of the rock itself.

Modern atheists say that modern physics implies that there is no purpose or meaning to the universe. Matter does not inherently decide to decay or evolve in particular ways; it just blindly happens. A Thomist would agree with the statement that one cannot get meaning or directionality from the material universe alone; yet the Thomist also observes that there are tendencies towards ends in nature; the universe does show directionality. Where do these come from? We agree with the atheist that it cannot be part of the material universe. But where the atheist just says "There is no such thing," denying observation, the Thomist looks around for a solution. We could just say "Physics" is behind these tendencies, but then that isn't an answer, just a more accurate description of the problem. What is Physics? If these tendencies don't arise from the material universe itself, which is what physics describes, and since they exist they must arise from something, then they have to come from something immaterial. By definition, this is an immaterial will. Since fundamental physics is indeterminate, an immaterial free will. Since it is directed towards various forms, the will must be accompanied by an intellect. It takes a little more work to get from here to God, but that can be done. (And if the reader doesn't find this summary of the argument convincing, please don't reject the argument out of hand, but go to the more in depth presentations of it, such as in the book I linked to.)

Thus my main objection to the argument of design is that it misses the point of the main issue. For example, evolution by genetic mutation and natural selection is, if the theist is right about what physics represents, just the means by which God achieved His goals. The "randomness" of the mutations (which should be interpreted as unpredictable nature of them) is simply the result of God's free choice. If theism is true and mechanism false, then the complex biological organisms are from both the natural processes of physics and the work of God (these would just be two different ways of saying the same thing). Whether God brought about the species by a direct act or through the process of evolution doesn't affect anything. On the other hand, if we suppose a mechanistic understanding of physics, where the laws of physics are independent of God, then the distinction between the direct act of a designer and a natural evolution is important; but since the most important difference between theists and atheists is over whether or not the laws of physics are an expression of Gods will, those who advocate for the argument from design might (if they are successful) win a battle or two, but they lost the war before they even started.

That's my view, at least. But this is meant to be a commentary on Russell's essay, so I ought to give at least a passing glance to what he himself wrote.

For example, it is argued that Rabbits had white tails in order to make them easier to shoot.

And to think that I moment ago, I was complaining about straw men erected by Christians. Compared to the atheists, Christian apologists are amateurs when it comes to straw men.

When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, will all the things in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omnipresence has been able to produce in millions of years. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku-Klux-Klan or the Fascists?

Here we have a more serious objection. If God designed the world, would He not create a better world than the one we live in? Russell made a couple of errors in this passage which I should point out first, because they are the sort of mistakes that people often make. The comment about God having millions of years to get it right is irrelevant; firstly it is billions of years, but more importantly, since God is timeless and doesn't perceive the succession of time, the length of time is unimportant. It makes no difference to God whether it takes fourteen billion years to reach His goal or one second; to God they are just the same.

Secondly, we must note that omnipotence means not that God can do anything, but that God can do anything logically possible and consistent with His nature. Omniscience means that God can know everything that it is logically possible for God to know given His nature. The precise definitions are important for the answer to the problem of evil.

Thirdly, yes, God did produce things better than the Ku-Klux-Klan and the Fascists: Mother Theresa, Francis of Assisi, even Bertrand Russell himself. The question is whether it is possible to have a species whose members can freely choose to devote their lives to good works if they can not also make the choice to devote their lives to fascism (which is an objective evil, even if the fascists -- or today's anti-fascists who have the same basic mindset as the historical fascists -- don't consider themselves as evil). [Though I must commend Russell on this: this essay dates from 1927, before many people were aware of the full dangers of Fascism and the other nationalistic branches of socialism inspired by it.]

Fourthly, Russell seems to assume that the best possible world is the one with the minimum of defects. This is not necessarily the case. It could be the case that it is the world with the maximum amount of goodness. A defect is an absence of goodness, not the negation of goodness. Thus a world with two three-quarters perfect beings contains more goodness and more defects than a world with one perfect being. Which world would God consider better? Russell would suggest the latter; I would suggest the former. The world with two perfect beings would be better still, but this might not be logically possible. (We should also consider that different types of being might have a different maximum value in this score sheet, just as the maximum marks for a dive in an Olympic competition depend on how well the dive was executed but are limited by how difficult the dive was. A imperfect being with free will might score 2.1 points of goodness when the maximum is 10; that's still better than the perfect being without free will which is given marks out of 2. This analogy is, of course, too simplistic, but it does, I hope, illustrate the point well enough. To defeat the argument from evil, we don't need to prove that this circumstance is the case, only that it is plausible that it might be the case.)

But now we must consider the word defect, and here Russell's argument really starts to unravel. A defect presupposes a norm, an objective ideal standard of goodness. Without that, it is impossible to say that the world is defective. We cannot say that the existence of fascists is an evil without having some objective standard of good and evil (i.e. not based on our own bias as opponents of Mussolini's way of governing) which the fact that fascists exist shows that the universe fails to meet that standard. G.E. Moore famously argued that the concept of goodness is undefinable (or, at least or there is no definition we can use which corresponds to an objective morality). We can define goodness as happiness (for example); or we can define goodness as that which we ought to pursue. If we take the first definition then that is not the same as saying that we ought to pursue happiness. If we take the second definition, then that doesn't tell us what it is that we ought to pursue. Moore's argument (which I discuss in detail here) was an attempt to show that there is no way to show that a definition of the first type is equivalent to the second type of definition.

I believe that if one accepts his premises, Moore's argument is irrefutable. Of course, like most Aristotelians, I don't accept his premises. Goodness is defined (informally) as being fit for purpose, or (more formally) with the capability as an individual to able to (and, for intelligent species, desire to) fulfil the natural tendencies of that type of being. For example, a living organism is defined (in part) as something that has the natural tendency to reproduce; that is if you put your various naughty bits together in the right way, and if you are healthy and it's not the wrong time of the month then the result will be a new life form of your species (even if that new life dies a few weeks later in the womb). Some individuals, however, don't have the ability to reproduce; damage to their reproductive organs makes it impossible for them to conceive. Thus the tendency is blocked, and this is what is meant by a defect. Since the natural tendencies define the type of being you are (form follows finality), to desire to avoid your tendencies is to desire to be something other than what you are, which is incoherent. Thus the natural tendencies (or final causes) of a being both lead to the sense of goodness as that which we ought to be and provide an outline of what that means in practice for a particular being. Moore's argument depended on the premise that There is no final or formal causality. Reject this premise, as an Aristotelian would, and the argument collapses.

So before we can even say that the world is objectively defective (and Russell's argument requires that the defect is objective), then we have to find some way of overcoming Moore's naturalistic "fallacy". We can choose to overcome this by appealing to formal and final causality, but as Aquinas showed, to accept formal and final causality directly implies the existence of God. So this option isn't open to the

It is plausible that an agent capable of making free moral choices is better than one which lacks that capability, regardless of the choices that that being makes. Thus a world where people can choose to become fascist would be better than a world where that choice is not possible. It is inevitable that if it is possible for there to be fascists, then, given enough time (Russell's millions of years) then there would be fascists. Of course, God might choose to minimise the time where such evil occurs by stepping in, ending that period of the world's history, and recreate it anew populated by those resurrected people who freely desired in their first life to be made and preserved as good by God. An eternity of that world would outweigh any evil that came from the fleeting existence of fascists, even if the coming of fascists was a necessary step to get to the final point. This stepping in, and active involvement of God in the new creation, would avoid the ultimate thermodynamic demise of the universe; that is not another defect in the universe because it won't happen, an assurance not given by the predictions of physics (which say the opposite) but by the promises of God, if Christianity is true (and God is the source of physics and can set up the recreated universe as He needs to). But that thought leads us to Christianity, so let's not go there right now.

Another way of averting the argument from causality is to say that goodness is to be fit for purpose, and that purpose is defined by the will of God. In that case, to say that the design is defective is incoherent; the design is that against which defects are measured, and the design therefore cannot be defective; the defect is in our subjective conception of what is and isn't objectively defective. In this viewpoint, the fascists are part of the best possible world because they display and allow some good to be appreciated which wouldn't otherwise be evident. God turns the fascist's localised evil, and uses it as a necessary part of the means to reach His global state of the maximum goodness possible to achieve in practice.

Given that Kantian ethics failed, those are the only two ways I know of to avoid Moore's conclusions. Neither are acceptable to the atheist. Therefore the atheist cannot say there is an objective standard of goodness. Therefore he cannot point out aspects of the universe and call them defects.

That doesn't mean that atheists can't be good people (or at least better people than some theists); it merely means that there is an unconscious contradiction between the moral code they live by and their atheistic beliefs. So Russell's argument is thus self-contradictory, and thus invalid. Of course, showing precisely where the contradiction lies is a harder task; numerous theists have provided responses to the problem of evil. My own is in here.

So, though I don't agree with his particular arguments, I agree with Russell that the argument from design is weak. I do not believe that a Christian should use it; if they do, they must have a rigorous proof that leads to what I have called premise one. There are, however, far stronger arguments for God's existence (including the teleological argument). That this argument is invalid doesn't mean that we shouldn't be a Christian.



The existence of God, Part 5: The moral arguments


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