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The design argument, particularly when it is based on an analogy between orderly objects that we know have been designed (like watches) to the design of the universe that also exhibits order, is subject to a fatal flaw. The familiar argument asserts that in cases where we find an artifact that has orderly parts, smaller parts and machines contributing to the function of larger machines, and other organizational features, we are thoroughly justified inferring that the object was designed with a purpose in mind and that it had a designer. The structure of a watch found on the beach makes it obvious that it had a watchmaker. The universe exhibits similar features, so we are justified in inferring that it had a designer.
The fatal flaw in this argument is that its advocates typically fail to see just how profoundly different the creation of a universe is from every other case of purposeful design we have ever encountered. We know of countless cases of watchmakers making watches, carpenters designing and building houses, and electrical engineers building computer chips. In every one of these cases, two things are true that are not true in the case of God’s creating the universe:
a) the laws of nature are in place and they make the act of creation possible for the carpenter or the watchmaker, and
b) matter exists and the human creator manipulates it into a new form.
The carpenter or the watchmaker creates within the context of natural law. It is the regular, predictable behavior of matter according to the laws of physics that makes it possible for the watchmaker to employ steel, or glass towards his ends. The natural properties of wood, steel, and concrete facilitate the carpenter’s choice of materials and the sort of design he conceives of and enacts. Were it not for the physics of nails, hammers, and wood, the carpenter would not be able to create anything. In fact, we have NO examples, NO experience, perhaps even no coherent conception of creation that is outside the laws of nature.
God’s alleged act of creation of the universe includes creating the laws of nature. He could have made it so that the speed of light was faster, or slower. He could have made it so there was no light. He could have made matter have more fundamental constituents, or fewer. He could have made no matter at all. An omnipotent being is not constrained by physical law; omnipotence includes the capacity to instantiate any set of physical laws that themselves are logically consistent. Here is the first element of the profound disanalogy in design arguments. God’s act of creation, if we can call that an act in any coherent sense, if it includes the choice, design, and creation of the laws of nature, is utterly unlike any act of design we have any experience of because all of our creations occur within the context of natural law and those natural laws makes those acts possible. An act of creation that instantiates a complete set of physical laws that govern matter from a state where there are no laws of nature is nothing like our manipulations of matter into different forms within the laws of nature.
It is difficult if not impossible to know what such an act would be like. One can’t use matter to create physical laws. God can’t employ a hammer and nails, or a watchmakers tools to bring it about that reality itself has order and structure.
Every act of creation that we have ever engaged in, and perhaps that we can even conceive, takes existing matter and changes its arrangement. Iron is smelted from ore and made into steel that is used to build a skyscraper. A tree is milled into lumber that is cut and fashioned into furniture. Chemical elements are combined into different combinations to make compounds. God’s act of creation of the universe is said to be ex nihilo, that is, from nothing. There was an empty state and God somehow brought it from that state into being occupied by matter through some mysterious exertion of his will. Again, we have no examples, no experience, no analogies, perhaps even no conception of how such a thing could be possible.
The design argument is only as strong as the analogy upon which it is based. It will only succeed if what the watchmaker does with the watch is analogous to what God did with the universe. The more features in the universe and in the alleged act of its creation that we can find that resemble those features of the ordinary, familiar cases of design and creation like the watchmaker’s, the stronger the analogy. If the argument is going to work, and its authors do not cheat with presumptions about God’s existence, it will move backwards from the object to a conclusion about the object’s origins. The intent of the argument is that without any presuppositions about the existence of God, or God’s intentions, or the act of creation, we can examine the object in question (the universe) closely, and infer that it must have had a designer from the presence of obvious, empirical features in it.
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