Friday, October 8, 2010

Inferring Design

Modern design arguments hark back to early proponents of design such as William Derham (1657-1735) and William Paley (1743-1805). Derham wrote Physico-theology, subtitled A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from His Works of Creation. William Paley presented an even more famous exposition of the teleological (design) proposal for God’s existence in Natural Theology. Even Charles Darwin, in his early years, professed to be convinced by Paley’s argument from design.

There have always been spirited objections to arguments for God’s existence and actions based on identification of apparent design. Some objections are thoughtful and reasoned while others are rooted in antagonism toward theism. Historically, it is instructive to look back at William Paley’s argument from design, illustrated by the Watchmaker argument, and study the sort of objections offered in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Philosopher/skeptic David Hume expressed doubt that causes could be inferred from effects. With the limited scientific knowledge of that day, analogical arguments did not resonate with him. This related to his commitment to empiricism, his doubt about the reality of miracles, and many other positions rooted in his skepticism. His beliefs flourished in the intellectual freedom of The Enlightenment.

The modern intelligent design movement has been with us formally for only about twenty years. But in reality, similar arguments in one form or another have been prevalent for centuries. Some believers in the principle that design points to a designer are pre-suppositionalists who hold “properly basic beliefs” (true intrinsic beliefs which demand no evidence). For such people, belief comes easy. The existence of apparent design is all they need to establish their faith in the reality of God.

Modern skeptics embrace many of the same arguments against design posed by David Hume and others during The Enlightenment. One could wonder how effective Hume’s anti-design arguments really are today. Empirical evidence is beyond plentiful and scientific skills of drawing inferences have been refined. Knowledge of the precision of the physical constants and the fine-tuning of the cosmos has increased a thousand-fold. Likewise, modern knowledge of the structure and function of bio-chemically complex life systems stretches our imagination.

We caution readers not to rely solely on scientific evidence to affirm the reality of God’s existence and acts, regardless of how strong such evidence appears to be. The truth of historical events, the credibility of special revelation, reason and philosophy, and yes, even the affirming quality of properly basic beliefs, all contribute to our belief system and affirm our worldview. We must make a diligent effort to be sure that our beliefs are true. Only then can we be sure we have acquired knowledge.