5X5 Episode 76

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5X5 Episode 76
The Argument from Design
18th August 2009

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5X5 75 5X5 77
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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The Argument from Design[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5x5 and tonight we're talking about the argument from design. This also known in philosophy as teleological or teleology, which is the notion of the final or ultimate cause. Why does something exist? it exists because of the purpose that it serves. However, this is also a logical fallacy if you use it as an explanation. For example, if you look at any structure and you say that that structure serves a specific purpose or can be used for a purpose, therefore it was designed for that specific purpose and that's why it exists, you're reversing the arrow of cause and effect. Essentially, it's a fallacy whenever you, in making a causal argument, you have to draw a cause and effect arrow from the future into the past. Something exists because it serves the purpose for which it is ultimately being used, that is a teleological argument and it is not a legitimate scientific kind of argument.

E: Steve, you mentioned the arrow, and one of the most famous early examples of making an argument from design dates back to the mid-13th century. St. Thomas Aquinas was a Catholic priest and he was one of the period's most influential philosophers and theologians and in his book, the Summary of Theology, Aquinas came up with five different ways he believed in proving the existence of God and the fifth one, the last one of that, is the teleological argument or the argument from design. And here's what he had to say about it: "Whatever lacks knowledge cannot move toward an end unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their natural end, and this being we call God."

B: A key assumption of teleology or the argument from design, then, is that complexity implies a designer. Look at the complex objects created by all human cultures. One look at them and there's really no question that an intelligence had a hand in their creation. But is intelligence, then, the only path to complexity? If science has shown us anything, it's that even the most daunting complexities found in nature are eventually understandable as a result of simpler natural processes acting over time. None of these processes have ever required a designer, regardless of the complexity of the final project. There's much complexity in nature that still confounds our attempts to understand it. Perhaps there's even some that can never be understood by the mind of a Homo sapiens. Even in that case, there seems to be no level of complexity in nature that requires an even greater intelligence to create it.

S: So the answer to Thomas Aquinas is that "stuff happens" and the answer to the complexity argument is "complex stuff happens". Either way, you don't need to have a designer with a purpose to make it happen.

J: A good example of that is the watchmaker analogy, which means that something like a timepiece, which is very complex—was definitely built by man and something as complex as the universe, therefore, needs a "watchmaker", so to speak, which you could relate to as God. So God would be the watchmaker or the creator of the universe. That argument was popularized by the theologian William Paley, who mentioned it in a book he wrote in 1802 called Natural Theology.

R: Another off shoot of the argument from design is the anthropic principle; the idea that the universe has been fine-tuned to support human life. And therefore, a God created it just for us. But that's kind of like saying a... for instance, a lottery winner—those numbers were chosen for just that lottery winner. When in fact, there are millions and millions of other tickets that just didn't win and so we forget about them and we focus on the winner. It fails to take into account the actual odds of something existing and since we do exist, the odds are actually 1. We exist.

J: And because we only live in one universe and can't run other universes as experiments, we really can never know what those odds truly are.

S: All we know is that it happened once. Right? But of course, if there wasn't a universe—if the universe didn't have the properties necessary for life there would be no one around to ask the question or to ponder what the laws of the universe should be.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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