Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Rational Acceptability of the Design Argument

The minimalist teleological argument I like to defend goes like this:

1. Whatever exhibits regularity is not the result of chance alone. (Premise)

2. The laws of nature exhibit regularity. (Premise)

3. Therefore, the laws of nature are not the result of chance alone. (From 1 and 2)

This is such a straightforward argument and its strength lies in its highly intuitively true premises.  The observation that there are laws of nature is proof enough that they are the result of someone's or something's providence.  Theists and pantheists alike call this someone or something, "God."  Of course, as a theist, I hold that the laws of nature are the result of someone's providence, e.g. design.

Let's ask ourselves: is this belief at least rationally acceptable?  In other words, is it positively irrational to believe that the laws of nature are the result of design?  It's difficult to see how such a belief could be irrational.  First, take the proposition, "it is necessarily the case that the laws of nature are not the result of design."  Is there any forthcoming argument in support of this?  If there's not, then it's at least possible for the laws of nature to have been designed.  If this is so, then we have a potential cosmo-teleological argument for God's existence.

4. Possibly, everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. (Premise; W-PSR)

5. If the laws of nature are designed, that designer must be timeless, changeless, immaterial, very powerful and very intelligent. (Premise)

6. Possibly, the laws of nature are designed. (Premise)

7. Possibly, a timeless, changeless, immaterial, very powerful and very intelligent designer exists. (From 5 and 6)

8. Necessarily, a possible designer will either exist by a necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. (Implied by 4)

9. Necessarily, a timeless and changeless designer cannot have an external cause. (Premise)

10. Therefore, a designer exists by a necessity of its own nature. (From 4, 7 and 9)

To be honest, I think this is a rationally compelling argument.  However, I'm willing to grant for the sake of argument that not each of the argument's premises is rationally compelling.  Hence, I'm arguing instead for the rational acceptability of the argument.  That is indeed one of the primary objectives of natural theology, and I think the argument is successful in showing that theism proper is, at the bare minimal, rationally acceptable.


  1. I think your first premise, "Whatever exhibits regularity is not the result of chance alone," (Premise)is demonstrably false, Doug.

    Consider chaos. Do you think chaos cannot be the result of chance alone?
    Now choas is either complete or incomplete. If chaos is complete, it most certainly "exhibits regularity". If chaos is not complete, then some parts of the chaos exhibit more regularity than others.
    So, there seems to be no possible way for something to exist which does not in one way or the other exhibit regularity.

    Regards Walter

  2. I think that's the most promising objection to the argument, Walter. I see two problems with it, though. First, the appearance of chaos in one instance does not invalidate the appearance of order in another.

    Secondly, chaos is intelligible, and since intelligibility presupposes order, it follows that there is an underlying order to chaos. It's not as if chaos can be known and then becomes suddenly unknowable, or that chaos violates the laws of logic.

    Also, I'm not sure what you mean by "complete." Do you mean "completely chaotic"? In any case, it seems to me that your conclusion implies that regularity is the result of necessity, as opposed to chance alone.

  3. Doug

    Yes, by "complete" I mean "completely chaotic".
    I must say I do not quite understand the first problem you seem to have with my objection.S ure, the apperance of chaos in one instance does not invalidate the appearence of order in another, but that look more like a problem for your argument than for mine.

    Your conclusion that regularity is at least to some extent the result of necessity is correct IMO, but I think that is because chaos does violate the laws of logic. To say that somethi,ng is completely chaotic means that there is no order anywhere, but if there is no order anywhere that in itself means reality is in fact highly structured. Let's take the analogy of a sheet of paper with little black dots on it. What do we mean when we say that the distribution of dots is maximally chaotic? If, e.g. the dots are all at different distances, the system seem to be intelligible to some extent and in fcat, the system exhibits some regularity. And if some of the dots are at equal distances, the sytem exhibits some regularity too. And obviously if the dots are all at equal distnces, there is regularity as well. So, chaos does seem to be logically contradictory. In one way, this is not by chance alone, but if we look at it differently, chance seems to entail some sort of necessity.

    BTW I do think your argument is rationally acceptable, but it's not rationally compelling to me. E.g. I reject both premise 5 and premise 6.
    In premise 5 "changeless" does not follow and in fact leads to contradictions. And as for premise 6, it is epistemically possible, athough IMO highly unlikely that the LoN are designed. So, the only real conclusion you have in 10 is "If there is e designer, he exists by the necessity of his own nature."


  4. I have to admit I'm perplexed to hear you say that "complete chaos" violates the laws of logic. At that point, I would simply say that complete chaos is impossible, since the laws of logic cannot be falsified. It sounds like you agree that complete chaos is impossible, based on your later comments. Did I misread you?

    More importantly, I think you've misunderstood what I mean by "regularity." That's my fault, though. By "regularity," I'm referring to the same results over and over again. Things that are somewhat chaotic (but still somewhat ordered), like the example of the dots on paper that you gave, don't fit that criterion.

    We've discussed at length the coherence or incoherence of something's being changeless, so there's no need to get into that again. However, if there is a designer, it would have to transcend the laws of nature. Since the laws of nature are exhibited through all of space and time, it follows that the designer would have to be changeless. As for premise (6), its truth doesn't even have to be likely in order to be possible, nevermind no criteria was given for what constitutes likelihood.

  5. By the way, Walter, it seems to me that you actually agree with the minimalist teleological argument. In stating that regularity is due to necessity, you're inadvertently agreeing with the claim that the laws of nature are due to something's (but not someone's) providence. Am I correct?

  6. Yes, I agree that regularity is partly due to some sort of necessity, but calling it 'povidence' is more than a bridge too far for me.
    So claiming that I agree with the minimalist teleological argument is a bit of a stretch, unless by minimal you mean that there is hardly any teleology left.
    That the designer would have to transcend the laws of nature does not entail that he must be changeless, at least not withoput further arguemnt.
    And finally, I am not rationally compelled to accept premise 6. As I said, I accept the epistemic possibility of a designer, but I am wrll within my rights to reject its actual possibility.

  7. As for the latter argument, I'm only suggesting that it's rationally acceptable. I'm making fairly modest claims with both arguments.

    You don't have to call it "providence." Choose whatever term you like. I had in mind not an overly theological definition, but something like "a manifestation of direction." The term, "teleological," comes from the Greek telos, which means "end, goal or purpose." These are terms which I admit often do have design implications. Perhaps you would prefer "argument from order."

  8. As I said, I have no problem calling your argument rationally acceptable, as long as you keep in mind that the opposite view is also rationally acceptable.

    And I do think that "order" is to some extent necessary, but even a "manifestation of direction" reeks too much of teleology to me.
    I really do not see "order" as such an exceptional situation as to require some transcendent cause.

    But I'll leave it at that.

    BTW. My best wishes for 2013.


  9. Best wishes to you as well. I'll pray for you, and you can think for me. ;)

  10. Wait, what laws of logic are we talking about here? And how are we defining chaos? I’d ask for an actual example of “absolute chaos.” But before that, let’s imagine some gas molecules in a high pressure container. Sure, they initially seem chaotic, bouncing all over the place, but I don’t see how it is actually chaotic, for each individual molecule acts in a regular manner, and interacts with its surroundings in a regular manner. If a molecule comes into contact with the wall of the container, it will bounce off at a certain angle, if it comes into contact with another molecule, the two will collide in a manner describable by classical mechanics, if two molecules zoom past one another, their paths may be altered slightly due to the gravitational forces between them, etc. However, if the molecules stopped exhibiting Newtonian regularities individually, then I would call that absolutely chaotic. For example, if the molecules did not behave according to the law of conservation of momentum, they collide with each other, sometimes ending up with more net momentum than before and sometimes less. Or if they did not conform to inertial motion, molecules would randomly change their state of motion, or experience a change in velocity without the involvement of outside forces. The scenario might not be physically possible in our universe, but I would like to see where the example violates the law of logic.

  11. Zia, the laws of logic I have in mind are the laws of non-contradiction, excluded middle, identity, and the transitive axiom. I don't think absolute chaos is possible, given their subordination to the laws of logic, in addition to the intelligibility of "chaos." Of course, it's logically possible for the laws of nature to behave irregularly, which is why I suggest that their evident regularity is the result of what I call "providence."