Intelligent design and special pleading


All too often I hear from people that there is proof of god everywhere.  The trees and the birds, our hands and our feet, the flesh-eating bacteria and the natural disasters that destroy cities.  OK, those lasts two are not generally used to argue in favor of a loving god, but they are pretty complex, aren’t they?

And that’s the key here: complexity.  How could all of these things with their complex parts, elaborate interactions with the rest of nature, and our intricate brains that can think about it all just get here by chance? They could not have done it on their own, right? So there must have been some intelligence, some designer, to give the world it’s complexity.

It is unfortunate that there is such a deficiency of understanding of science and of critical thinking in our culture.  Science education may be partially to blame, but we must be willing to take the responsibility for ourselves as well.  And as a result of this there is a severe lack of understanding of the theory of natural selection (as well as the other evolutionary pressures) and thus a misunderstanding of the fact of evolution as they intersect with these questions of complexity.

There are great resources for learning about these things online, and so any person can go and find out what scientists say about evolution.  The key here is to understand that the process does not claim chaos or complete randomness.  The question about evolution is not a false dichotomy between an intelligent designer or random chance.  There are many believers in various gods that accept the fact of evolution (Ken Miller and Francis Collins being two prominent examples).  Natural selection is a definite process, is not random, and is well supported by physical evidence.

The major component of randomness in evolution is the mutation of genes.  But most of these mutations have no effect at all, and only sometimes do they have a harmful or helpful effect.  It takes environmental factors, lots of time, and other factors to make a mutation effect the population at large.  And it is the process of natural selection that does the actual work, not the random mutation.

But my point here is not to explain natural selection or to spell out the evidence for evolution.  That is the responsibility of each person to do on their own in conjunction with schools and museums.  Start with the link above, a trip to the museum, or even a recent biology textbook (and not one produced by the Discovery Institute such as Of Pandas and People, as they have been shown to be untrustworthy during the Kitzmiller case).

And so what about this claim that complexity requires intelligent design?  Well, even if we didn’t have a good scientific answer to the claim (which we do), there is another problem with it that can be shown without knowing anything about evolution.

Here is the argument as I have seen it:

  • The world (universe) is full of complex things
  • complex things need designers
  • therefore, a designer of the world (universe) exists.

Ray Comfort is known for arguing that if you see a painting we know there is a painter,  if their is a building there is a builder, etc.  It is certainly true that things we create have designers, and they certainly are intelligent.  But the analogy does not carry through to all things because not all things are constructed in a factory.  Other things reproduce biologically and are put together by very complex natural processes that we, admittedly, don’t fully understand.  And as far as universes go, I’ve never seen one made, so while I can go to the car factory, I can’t go to the universe factory.

But more importantly is the assumption that all things need intelligent designers to exist simply because they are complex.  We know that simple things can become complex through natural selection, but even if we don’t know this we can ask if all things that are complex need a designer, then wouldn’t the designer itself, being a complex thing, need its own designer?

In short, what created god?

Now, the common reply is to state that god is eternal and has always existed.  This is special pleading.  What that means is that the point is making a special exception of the rules for illegitimate reasons.  The question here is whether a god exists, and so in deciding this issue one cannot take as given a special exception for the thing that is in question.  One cannot simply define god into existence by saying that it is not subject to the rule that all complex things need a creator.  If one did, the results would be somewhat silly.

intelligent-design-posterThe bottom line for intelligent design, and whatever people are trying to disguise creationism as these days, is that there is no evidence to support it.  Despite Michael Behe’s best attempts, there is no irreducibly complex thing that cannot be explained without the need of an intelligent designer. Natural selection is sufficient to explain complexity in our biological world.

And further, even if it could be shown that an intelligent designer would be necessary, this would still be a far cry from associating this intelligence with any particular god.  An intelligent designer would not imply that it had anything to do with any theology or mythology (as if there were a difference) of any religion.  A Christian does not win any points for his beliefs even if intelligent design were true.  Because if it were true, the Moslem, Jew, Hindu, etc would step up and claim that it is their god that is the intelligent designer.

Luckily for us, that is not an issue because the proposal of an intelligent designer does not stand up to scrutiny.  The irony, perhaps, is that intelligent design needs people of lesser intelligence, or at least understanding, to propose it.

If complexity needs a creator, so does the complex creator.  God is nothing but a pseudo-answer to a non-problem when it comes to the complexities of the world and how to explain them.

Related: Counter to the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  A favorite of William Lane Craig, Christian apologist.


12 thoughts on “Intelligent design and special pleading

  1. Hey – this is unrelated to the post, but I thought I’d stop by and say hi after seeing your post on my article at Friendly Atheist. I look forward to reading through your blog now that I know about it, and I was hoping you’d email me if you’re interested in a fellow atheist-polyamorous penpal with Quaker leanings 🙂

    My email address is

  2. Richard Dawkins himself claims that how the first cell got here in order for natural selection to occur, hence possibly intelligently created and placed on earth or “sprawling from the backs of crystals,” is an open debate. Now, what seems more likely? That the first cell came from uncountable mutations taken on by “crystals(rocks),” or that the first replicating cell was intelligently designed. Intelligently designed by a being so much more intelligent than you or I, that we could not possibly attempt to comprehend “Its” origin or state in the universe.

    Take a computer for instance. Man has “intelligently designed” computers and computer software. Much like our own DNA, software encodes information. As fascinating as a computer is, it cannot function on its own and is; therefore, much less intelligent than you or I. Because of this gap in intelligence, it can be inferred that a computer has no awareness of its user or creator. A computer could not possibly comprehend what a human being is.

    Applying this to all things man creates, no matter how hard we may try, our creations will never understand or be aware of their creators. Now applying this to intelligent design. If we were intelligently designed there will NEVER be suitable scientific evidence to support this fact, because we simply are much less intelligent than our creator, much like computers will never understand the existence of man.

    And if you think intelligent design is creationism you are just over-zealous in maintaining your own religion of evolution and science. Common sense points toward intelligent design, which is a point Stephen Hawking himself claims in his book “A Brief History of Time.” Maybe you should read it sometime. I trust the smartest living scientist alive over Richard Dawkins’ and evolutionists’ failing attempts to explain THE ORIGIN OF LIFE.

    Never stop questioning the establishment and always use common sense. Almost all of those talked about, cutting edge issues are open for debate and inquiry always leads to knowledge.

  3. Stop deluding yourself Nathan. ID is the new creationism. Even the most outspoken ID advocates don’t hide this anymore.

  4. HA! glad to see there’s some contrast for actual intelligence out there 🙂
    not saying this page made me smile, but it did make me laugh 😉
    here’s to hoping truth will find the blind man

    and here’s to hoping interpretation isn’t so skewed that this is too be…well misinterpreted

  5. ID is another word for creationism, i mean they have the same definition. My issue is why not allow it to be taught in schools as another theory for how earth was created with all its living species. Darwins THEORY is just that, a theory, one that has yet to be proven false while at the same time yet to be proven true. ID is another form of understanding this world. Why do people get so bent out of shape whenever ID comes into question in our schools?

  6. @just me

    I don’t think you understand what the word “theory” means in science, rather than its pedestrian use. A theory is the graduation point for a hypothesis in science, not just an idea. That is, the theory of natural selection has been hypothesized and the evidence OVERWHELMINGLY supports the hypothesis, and thus it became a theory. Scientific hypotheses are not proven (that term is reserved for logical or mathematical proofs, when being technical).

    Evolution by natural selection (as well as the other evolutionary pressures) is a theory in the same way that general relativity is the theory for gravity. ID/creationism is not a theory; it is just an idea. It is an idea which is not supported by evidence, does not stand up to scrutiny, and thus is not on par or equal to the theory of natural selection in any way. It is just an idea to understand the world, one which has no intellectual or empirical justification, when it is scrutinized.

    ID/Creationism is not science, and thus it should not be taught in science classrooms. If the curriculum of schools want to teach comparative religion or some other class that can address creation stories of different belief systems, then by all means throw in conversations about ID. And once that’s allowed, let the religions argue over which version will be taught. But since they don’t have evidential support, they are not equal to evolution.

    Finally, Darwin’s theory has nothing to do with how the earth was created. We get bent out of shape because ignorant people think that evolution and creation are just two competing ideas. Tehre is no competition.

  7. how much you want to bet this person is a democrat/ athiest? god, what the hell is with all the stereotyping? i know i just did it but the fact that we have two political parties in our country just divides us into two prejudiced groups. it’s really getting ridiculous. if we would stop focusing on what the other person is doing wrong, maybe this country would get it’s fucking act together. can we really say that our founding fathers would be proud to see what this country has done in the past few years? all of the debt that’s been piling up? wars with other countries that weren’t always our war in the first place? and what about all of the crime in every state? god knows the education system is fucked. maybe if everyone worked together instead of throwing around insults we wouldn’t have to keep lowering the bar.

    i just realized that this only had to do with the venn diagram, so i am aware that this comment really has nothing to do with intelligent design. sorry.

  8. I’m actually not a Democrat. I’m also not a Republican. There are other parties out there, you know.

    The Venn diagram is just funny because of the center, and I found it appropriate. I think that instead of “republicans” that part should say (perhaps) “Theocrats” or something.

  9. I am aware that there are other parties out there, I was simply using it as part of point since I was trying to explain how much tension and predjudice there is between everyone these days. It was always there but it just seems like people are spending too much time insulting people that have different beliefs than them instead of trying to help the country. I am just annoyed at the fact that people can’t just accept others and move on. I do apologize for being over-dramatic, I was not trying to be rude in any way but I feel I was.

  10. The evidence (or lack there of) speaks for itself:

    It takes faith to believe in evolution just like it takes faith to believe in intelligent design, the only difference is the evidence. It’s unfortunate that science (at least in the U.S.) is now governed by politics, true science is without bias, by definition science is the pursuit of truth. I think if you really look at the evidence at hand you will find it’s very different from what’s being taught in our schools.

  11. Please do a little research from both perspectives before you post such drastically unproven claims, especially from an obviously non-peer review source. Science is, indeed, the pursuit of truth, so i recommend you read up yourself and be a little less willing to support an argument based on your (seemingly) already solidified beliefs. If you had, you’d realize that there’s no evidence differentiating these “polonium haloes” from any other potential radionuclides, some of which have MUCH longer half-lives. You might also find out that polonium haloes are found only in rocks which contain myrmekite, a replacement mineral intergrowth – a clear indication that the rock is not “primordial”, and that it was probably unwise for a physicist to rely so heavily on geological knowledge he didn’t have.

    When will people understand that “faith” is literally an excuse for belief in entirely nebulous ideologies?

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