One of the most popular arguments in support of God’s existence is what’s called the watchmaker argument: the world is so complex and refined that there must be a designer. Without an intelligent designer, the existence of such an intricately beautiful world is impossible. This theological argument – that design implies designer – is attributed to Paley, and I’ve heard several versions of this improbability argument during religious discourses over the years. Daniel Dennett calls it one of the oldest ideas known:
[T]he idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call it the trickle-down theory of creationism. You’ll never see a spear making a spear maker. You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You’ll never see a pot making a potter.
Richard Dawkins refers to another metaphor (attributed to Hoyle) in his book The God Delusion:
[T]he probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. [...] The odds against assembling a fully functioning horse, beetle or ostrich by randomly shuffling its parts are up there in 747 territory.
This is indeed a strong argument. The biological complexity and diversity of life on Earth seem to, quite logically, require an intelligent designer; it all just can’t happen by chance alone.
However, when analyzed throughly, the argument can be shown to have a circular logic, and instead of proving the necessity (and hence, existence) of an intelligent designer, it works in the opposite direction. The self-refuting idea of ‘an intelligent designer responsible for design’ doesn’t solve the problem, it just passes the baton, and raises another question.
Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable [as a universe] would have to be even more improbable than [the universe itself]. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.
The improbability argument states that the universe is too complex, ergo there must be a God. But then God himself/herself/itself must be even more complex than the universe. Who created God? You can easily see how this can spiral out to an endless regress. The only way you can get out of it is by saying something like ‘No one created God.’ But then why not make the same argument for the universe itself?
What is the solution then, to this problem of improbability? Well, to understand the solution, the first roadblock that needs to be cleared off is the wrong assumption that chance is the only possible alternative to intelligent design.
A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean that it had to be designed, but they couldn’t imagine an alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. [...]
Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested.
Understanding Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection removes the necessity of an intelligent designer. And God suddenly finds himself left with fewer things to do than before. What shouldn’t be surprising here is that science has consistently done this over the years: shrinking God’s circle of influence. We have come long way from superstitious mythologies — draughts are caused by angry gods etc. – to the current understanding of the universe that leaves fewer things left for God. This, of course, is a continual process. One of the things that makes science awesome is its denial to admit that we’ve reached a final, ultimate, unchangeable truth. (All scientific truth is provisional.) However, this doesn’t stop the theists to proclaim that science does not have all the answers.
Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians [...] is that the gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide.
Jerry Coyne hits the nail on the head:
Why is God considered an explanation for anything? It’s not – it’s a failure to explain, a shrug of the shoulders, an ‘I dunno’ dressed up in spirituality and ritual. If someone credits something to God, generally what it means is that they don’t have a clue, they’re attributing it to an unreachable, unknowable sky-fairy. As for an explanation of where that bloke came from, and odds are you’ll get a vague, pseudo-philosophical reply about having always existed, or being outside nature. Which, of course, explains nothing.
On that note, here’s a hilarious comic by Jesus and Mo.
[The quotes are from Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion. Emphases are mine. Image courtesy: Wikipedia]