“Intelligent Design” — Another View

You’re walking in a forest and find a watch on the ground. Seems obviously the intentional creation of an intelligent designer. Applying this analogy to all creation has always been a central argument for creationism or “intelligent design.” Originally introduced by William Paley’s famous 1802 book Natural Theology. Many religious believers do look at nature’s intricate clockwork and cannot see how it could have arisen without an intelligent designer. Just like Paley’s watch.

The fallacy here is that the watch is purpose-built, unlike anything in nature, which never aimed to produce exactly what we see today. Instead it’s an undirected process that could have produced an infinitude of alternative possibilities. All existence is just whatever happened to fall out of that process — very unlike a watch made according to plan by a watchmaker.

Recently I encountered an 1813 essay by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (“A Refutation of Deism“) with a different but compelling answer to Paley’s watch analogy. One assumes the watch was designed “because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind . . . but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had actually found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted.”

Shelley goes on, “The analogy, which you attempt to establish between the contrivances of human art and the various existences of the Universe, is inadmissible. We attribute these effects to human intelligence, because we know before hand that human intelligence is capable of producing them. Take away this knowledge,” and the whole idea collapses.

Finding a watch in a forest might again seemingly suggest some non-natural origin. But suppose you find not a watch, but a mouse. You’d have no doubt of its naturalness. Yet if you think about it, the mouse is actually a far more intricate little “contrivance” than a watch. Most people accept that the mouse resulted from a billion year process of natural evolution. As Shelley said, if we knew nothing of watchmakers, we’d assume the watch must have somehow arisen that way too.

Creationists rhapsodize about how perfectly organisms seem fitted for purpose. Shelley refutes this too, with the observation that “if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest,” humans could not exist. Every living thing must of necessity be fitted to its habitat. No fitness, no animal.* So it’s far from miraculous. Shelley realized this even without the benefit of Darwin’s later elucidation of evolution (the real explanation for it all).

Creationists mistakenly characterize the idea of evolution as a random chance process, which of course could not produce anything like a watch or a butterfly. But evolution is in fact the opposite of random. A ruthless process of eliminating what doesn’t work. Actually, evolution operates by serial kludges of modification to what came before, often resulting in very imperfect matches of form to function.* Wouldn’t a really intelligent design for humans include a third eye in the back?

Shelley was, again, not a scientist but a poet. And wrote this when just 21 years old! I was blown away by his essay’s trenchancy, how beautifully he made his points, in plain clean language, not the convoluted prose so typical then. And so iconoclastically outside the mainstream of the time too. (He was expelled from Oxford for his atheist writings.) What an amazing testament to the power of the human mind. One might almost call it a miracle.

* Richard Dawkins has observed that predator animals are well fitted to catch prey; prey animals fitted to escape. So whose side is God on?!

** https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/unintelligent-design-–-why-evolution-explains-the-human-body-and-“intelligent-design”-does-not/


8 Responses to ““Intelligent Design” — Another View”

  1. Colin B Says:

    My difficulty with the evolution story is that I really don’t think that there has been enough time for the creation (because both major stories need some form of creation) to actually happen. I can take the adaptation, but something is missing from the evolution story to make it happen, just as much as the so called creation story. Either way, we just don’t have enough knowledge yet to actually say this is the fact.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks for your comment. I’d recommend reading Dawkins, particularly “The Selfish Gene,” to address exactly what you’re questioning. But here’s our best understanding, in a nutshell: seas at Earth’s beginnings would have had a mess of molecules growing increasingly complex, catalyzed by heat, lightning, etc. Over hundreds of millions of years. At some point that process produced a molecule with the characteristic of replicating itself. However unlikely you might think that is, realize it need only have happened once! Because each replica molecule would replicate too, and pretty soon they’d be all over. Effectively they’d be in competition with each other; the ones better at maintaining their existence and replicating would come to outnumber less successful varieties. The more successful ones were, in effect, the first living cells. That’s how it started; it’s really pretty simple. Then of course we’ve had 4 billion more years for development. Actually not much interesting happened in the first 3 billion. Then MULTI-celled organisms emerged, and it was off to the races.

  3. Colin B Says:

    The problem with the nutshell is that it leaves all the same questions. Where does the stuff come from. What are the steps that lead to the competition. You know, science. At the end of the day, the story is the story in both explanations, as intricate and fascinating as they are. Having been in science for years, I get the attempt to get there, but there is so much that we don’t actually know but we say we do know. That is my point. And nothing I have heard relieves that anxiety, and I don’t believe deep down that anyone is really satisfied. Which is good because it drives us forward, but we cannot really rely on unrelenting surety of a position, That is not science as I have received it. Historically, emphatic surety (in almost every area of human behaviour) is a prelude to a new discovery or development. Almost like the time in a Survivor episode, when a contestant is shown being absolutely sure of their position/team knowledge, which we all know is a signal that they are going to be voted out at the next tribal council.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    There’s a fundamental mischaracterization of science here. There is never “unrelenting surety of a position.” Indeed, that exactly characterizes religion-based pseudo-science like creationism. In science, in contrast, knowledge and understanding are always provisional, always subject to correction as more knowledge is gained (once more unlike religion).
    “Where does the stuff come from?” Well, there was, like, a whole PLANET of it. Which in turn was an agglomeration of dust & stuff which came together by force of gravity to create the planet. That at least is certainly well understood. The planet from the start had plenty (zillions, literally) of molecules of different kinds of matter to “work with.” Nothing in this story is a stretch, it’s all a matter of well understood processes and principles.

  5. Colin B Says:

    And yet even in your comments and article you state that surety. And while some processes are understood others are not. In fact by stating that, then that indicates surety

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    What I am pretty darn sure of is that the “intelligent design” hypothesis is refuted by a vast edifice of logic and known facts. It is an impossibility. As Sherlock Holmes said, once you eliminate what’s impossible, what remains must be true. It then becomes a matter of understanding that truth. Our understanding is not perfect or complete, but it’s very strong and persuasive.

  7. d Says:

    Zillions, figuratively. Occam’s Razor tells us the universe emerged in a chance burst of spacetime from the quantum substrate–thence gas, stars, galaxies & their quidditarian contents. It will regress to quantum soup in 100 trillion years; N universes seem ‘givenesses of ineluctability’, as Jimmy Durante put it. The kosmos, by contrast, is an entity w/o origin or end. There never was Nothing; there has always been Something: the infamous ontological conundrum. We live & die w/o exogenous meaning. Watadu? Surcease pre-compost requires transcendance of ego in sacrifice for family, community & H. semper unsapiens entire, worthy or not. Rebut at hazard.

  8. Robyn Blumner Says:

    Wonderful Shelley essay. Thank you for pointing me to it!

    Robyn E. Blumner *President and CEO*, Center for Inquiry *Executive Director,* Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science 1012 14th St. NW, Suite 205 Washington, D.C. 20005 RBlumner@centerforinquiry.org

    The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Our vision is a world where people value evidence and critical thinking, where superstition and prejudice subside, and where science and compassion guide public policy.

    On Sun, Nov 14, 2021 at 5:52 PM The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > rationaloptimist posted: ” You’re walking in a forest and find a watch on > the ground. Seems obviously the intentional creation of an intelligent > designer. Applying this analogy to all creation has always been a central > argument for creationism or “intelligent design.” Originally” >

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