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Friday, April 15, 2011

The Argument from Poor Design

The Argument from Poor Design, also known as the Dysteleological Argument, or the Argument from Unintelligent Design, is an argument against the existence of God, and is a counter-argument to the Argument from Design. The Argument from Design claims that the order and structure of nature, and the universe, could not have come about randomly. There must have been some intelligence behind it. The Argument from Poor Design claims that there are many instances in nature of what seems to be poor are suboptimal design. If there was an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevalent being behind the design of, for example, the human body, then the human body would likely have a very different design, such as greater resistance to disease, etc.

The argument is similar to the Evidential Problem of Evil because it claims to show conflict between the alleged attributes of God and what we observe in the world. Consequently, many answers to the Evidential Problem of Evil may also be applied here.

The argument typically goes somewhat like:
1. An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator God would create organisms that have optimal design.
2. Organisms have features that are suboptimal.
3. Therefore, God either did not create these organisms or is not omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.
The conclusion here seems especially problematic for a Christian, Biblical God because it attacks the idea in two ways. It seems to be that he either did not actually create all things, which the Bible claims, or he is not omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevalent, which are attributes that the Bible, to varying degrees, claims he has. Either way, the Biblical God seems false.

Designed for What?

This argument makes an assumption regarding the end to which all things were created. Many instances cited as examples of poor design on the part of a Creator are so cited because they involve pain, suffering, or just unnecessary inconvenience. This makes the assumption that the human concept of “optimal design” is shared by God or, at very least, we understand what God had in mind when he created us.

While scripture does give us some indication of what God had in mind during the Creation, at no point does it indicate that pain and suffering would not be a part of it. In fact, the opposite is true. The hardships of this life are described as a necessity for our growth and development during mortality. Through trials and hardships, we allegedly learn patience, obedience to higher principles, persistence, hope, and how to be better people in general.

God uses pain and suffering, in some cases, to teach us to improve in the same way a father uses discipline in raising a child. Hebrew 12:6-8 describes this:
“6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.
7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?
8 But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.”

In general, children who are appropriately disciplined by parents turn out to be well-balanced and more tolerable individuals, whereas children who are never punished, but are given everything they want, turn out spoiled and, perhaps ironically, seem generally unhappy and dissatisfied with life.

If this is the case, then instances of suffering and hardship are not mistakes in the design, but rather, they are an essential part of it.

So if pain and suffering are an important part of our spiritual growth, then what about instances where no human growth is involved? For example, have you ever seen a Panda's thumb? It is quite possibly the poorest thumb in the animal kingdom. How do humans grow spiritually from a Panda's poorly designed thumb?

A Panda's Thumb?

Other examples in nature, which do not generally cause suffering or pain, but are nevertheless examples of poor design on the part of a Creator include the human appendix, the coccyx, wisdom teeth, unnecessary wings in flightless birds, and many others.

The idea being attacked by this part of the argument is the idea that animals, as they currently exist, exhibit poor design choices if they were created by some intelligence. However, this makes the assumption that God created said animals as they currently exist.

This idea, that animals appear today in the same form as when God created them is a part of what many refer to as Young-Earth Creationism. There are several variations of this ideology, but, in general, they promote the idea that the Earth, and perhaps the entire universe, is only six thousand years old, the Genesis account of Creation took place in six literal, 24-hour periods, and there is no such thing as evolution, at least when it comes to the origin of life.

The opposite of this idea is known as Old-Earth Creationism, which, in general, holds that God created the universe and Earth over a period of billions of years, references to each “day” in Genesis referred to eras or aeons rather than 24-hour periods, and that evolution was, plausibly, the mechanism used by God to create life.

The Argument from Poor Design assumes Young-Earth Creationism, so it automatically fails as an argument against Christianity in general, since it does not attack Christianity in general at all, but only a certain group within it. In other words, it is an argument against a Christian God that many Christians would actually agree with.

It fails against Old-Earth Creationism because if God does indeed use evolution as a tool than it would not only be entirely consistent, but even expected, to see wisdom teeth and inefficient thumbs in His creations. Evolution is a slow and gradual process, and so it would obviously be the case that we would see animals changing and adapting to a changing world in a way that produces vestigial members on their way to being obsolete and half-formed members being newly developed.

Insufficient Human Knowledge

Some things seem like they have no purpose because
the purpose they have is so specialized.

However, in many cases, though not all, it even fails as an argument against Young-Earth Creationism because it assumes that body parts, etc, that we deem vestigial or useless truly are. In some cases, this has also been shown to be false. For example, for many years it was believed that the human appendix served no purpose whatsoever, yet it has recently been discovered that it serves an important role in the development of fetuses and infants. Endocrine cells appear in the appendix of the human fetus at around the 11th week of development, which produce various biogenic amines and peptide hormones, compounds that assist with various biological control (homeostatic) mechanisms. In young adults, the appendix has some immune functions. Also, it was once thought that tonsils were useless, but in fact they have minor disease-preventing properties. In other words, insufficient human knowledge may make things that actually are useful seem useless.


This argument does not work because of the assumptions it makes. It assumes that pain and suffering were not a part of the original plan to begin with. It attacks only a part of Christianity and so it fails against it as a whole. It assumes that human knowledge of nature, biology and medicine is perfect. While it may show that certain doctrines, such as Young-Earth Creationism, are improbable, it also, ironically, lends strength to the idea that other doctrines, such as Old-Earth Creationism, are entirely consistant with what we observe in the world.


Anonymous said...

Nicely phrased and supported, I quite enjoyed the use of the bicycle to make your point.


Cristofer Urlaub said...

Thank you very much. =)

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