The Watchmaker Argument

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]


5 responses to “The Watchmaker Argument

  1. great post, man.. after a long time, got something interesting and thought-provoking to read.. you just cleared one of the eternal doubts i had.. i was dangling somewhere between deism and atheism, and this post of yours is making me tilt towards the latter.. though, i’m not entirely convinced.. or maybe i don’t get everything that’s explained above.. this theory, seems to me, is mostly based on negation.. it reduces the probability of existence of god or any similar entity, but it’s not filling up that position completely (or is it?) i mean, science is finding all the answers, albeit slowly, but will the questions ever end?? what if the human mind is just not equipped enough to understand and grasp the complete nature of universe or for that matter, god?? i’m no pessimist, but its like trying to fly, when all you have is a cycle. sorry, i couldn’t come up with a better example..

    • >> [I]t reduces the probability of existence of god or any similar entity, but it’s not filling up that position completely.

      You’re absolutely correct. Being atheist doesn’t necessarily mean that we believe that the existence of God (or a similar entity) is 100% impossible. To hold such belief with cocksure conviction, to actually know that God doesn’t exist, one would need “god-like” powers. (A theist would argue that such utmost conviction requires faith.)

      Rather, a de facto atheist (as defined by Dawkins) is someone who considers the probability of God’s existence to be very low, but short of zero. ‘I can not know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’

      ‘Improbable’, not ‘impossible’ is the keyword here.

      Let me use Bertrand Russel’s example of a flying teapot to provide more clarification. (He actually used this parable of celestial teapot to demonstrate that the burden of proof should be on the theists – for their extravagant claims – not on atheists who refuse to believe in them.)

      If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china pot revolving about the Sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by the most powerful telescopes.

      If we are subjected to such claim, any reasonable person would obviously deny the existence of such ludicrous teapot. But have we checked each square feet of space between the Earth and Mars to know for sure that such thing really does not exist? But based on our knowledge about about how the universe works (physics, gravity etc.) and teapots, we do know that the probability of such thing is ALMOST zero; so we should be able to make a statement like this: ‘Well, I can’t disprove your assertion completely, but based on reason/logic, science (knowledge) and evidence (or lack thereof), I conclude that the existence of such teapot is improbable. Hence, I refuse to believe in it.’

      In short, “[w]hat really matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable.”

      • well, now when you explain all this in terms of probability, things do clear up a lot.. but we are still a long way from grasping the true and complete nature of the universe.. don’t know if such a thing would be possible ever.. till then, we have all these interesting arguments 🙂
        thanks for sharing all this knowledge!!


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