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Atheism, philosophy, Religion, science

Intelligent Design: A Different Way to Beat a Dead Horse

Christians will often say, “The universe cannot possibly have been created in exactly this way without intelligent design.”  The most common way to refute this is to trot out the anthropic principle, which essentially points out that our existence only proves that 1) our existence is possible, and 2) the possibility of our existence has been realized.  Any assertion beyond this demands more evidence.   For whatever reason, this refutation, though perfectly sound logically, seems to come up short on emotional impact.

I want to look at this in a little bit more detail to give the reader a little bit more ammunition should the first round of refutation fail to convince sceptics (irony intended).  To begin with, let’s look at the theist’s claim a little more closely:
Without God, this particular incarnation of the universe is impossible.

This can be rewritten slightly to express the same idea with words that will be easier for us to work with:

Besides God, there are no other possible explanations for this particular incarnation of the universe.

Theists are not going to like it when you reword it this way — at least not if they’re smart.   In fact, maybe even you, gentle atheist reader, are bristling a little bit.  A brief perusal of the science aisle at Borders will tell you that there are most certainly other possible explanations for the universe besides God.  Is it really that simple to completely discard the argument?

In a word, yes.  It really is that astoundingly wrong.  However, let’s keep looking at it to make sure we’re not missing something really important.  First, let’s make an important observation about the word possible.  I’ve been talking a lot about epistemological rights recently, and I want to begin with saying that I have absolutely no justification for making pronouncements about any of the current cosmological models.  That is the stuff of very highly advanced theoretical physics, and I always had problems figuring out those stupid problems with ramps and boxes and pulleys.  Physics is not my thing.  However, my inability to discuss physics has absolutely nothing to do with my ability to address this particular argument.

Notice that the theist argument relies completely on possibility, not accuracy.  The assertion is that there is no other possibility at all that could explain the universe existing as it does.  This is so astoundingly easy to refute that one has to wonder why anyone would bother, but for the sake of being thorough, I will do so:

Assertion:  It is possible that there is a multiverse, and that black holes are singularities, each spawning their own unique universe, each with random or at least highly variable universal constants.  If this is the case, we should expect that universes such as ours where black holes naturally form would be more common than universes in which black holes do not naturally form.  It is possible that time, whatever it might be, is infinite.  If that is the case, then we should be surprised if a universe such as ours did not come to exist, as it is within the set of possible universal constants.

(This is a very bad rendition of a real theory, by the way.)

I have no idea whether or not this is the way reality is.  I have no idea whether this is probable or staggeringly improbable.  This is not the point.  The point is, unless there’s somebody out there with some startling empirical observations of the nature of reality, this theory is at least possible, even if the possibility is only one in trillions of trillions.

That’s how incredibly weak the theist argument is!  It is disproven by just imagining anything at all that might have “created” the universe.  Of course, savvy theists will balk at this line of thinking.  They can’t really argue the logic, but they can certainly argue the spirit of the argument.  “Possible” doesn’t really mean possible in the absolute sense, they will say.  What they mean is that nothing else makes any good sense.  Sure, you can imagine that multidimensional ferrets shit singularities, and it’s pretty much impossible to disprove, but how much stock should we put into that hypothesis?  No, the theist will aver, God is the only one with any reasonable possibility of being true.

At this point, a clever debater will insist that theists give up the charade of asserting that God is the only possible cause for the universe, and refuse to discuss the matter further until a new proposition has been put forward.  The theist proposition has been defeated.  Either they must now propose that an intelligent creator is the most probable cause of the universe (and Bayes Theorem might just disagree with that assertion!) or they must find some entirely new tactic.  Once they’ve asserted most probable as opposed to only possible, they’re in scientific and epistemological territory, and they’re going to lose their shirts.  Ask them for the mathematical proof of this probability.  Probability is, after all, deductive.  That is, if the data is correct, a particular probability is 100% certain to be the correct probability.  If no Creation Scientists (sic!) can come up with a suitable proof that passes peer review, the argument dies.  To my knowledge, no such proof has ever been offered.  The only attempts at such demonstrations that I’ve seen have relied on fudged (or entirely made up) numbers, “approximated” probabilities, and naked assertions.

In any case, let’s return to the original argument:  God is the only possible cause for the universe.  Having been forced to abandon this claim, a theist has now conceded that virtually anything could be the cause of the universe.  This is actually the death blow for the argument, though most theists don’t realize why.  To illustrate the point, let’s assume the theists are correct in fact.  (An intelligent creator is, after all, possible in theory.)   We’ll concede for the sake of argument that there is an intelligent being who created the universe.  Imagine now a conversation between a theist and an atheist where the tables are turned.  Science has proven that the universe is most likely to have been intelligently designed, and it is now the atheist who is irrationally holding to the notion that everything began mindlessly, despite evidence to the contrary.

Would a theist, given the preponderance of evidence in his favor, continue to argue that God is the only  possible explanation for the universe?  Of course not!  He wouldn’t have to, and any first year college student could point out the error in that position, so why would he?  He would happily admit that the atheist was clinging to a possibility, but that there was no rational reason to hold onto that possibility given the preponderance of evidence for intelligent design.

When we look at it from the other side of the fence, we realize that this is just so much emotional pandering.  There is literally no logical content worth considering, and when the tables are turned, we see just how ludicrous it is.  Once again, theism wants to play tennis with the net down and force atheism to play with the net up.   This isn’t an example of careless wording.  It’s an example of outright emotional propaganda.  It’s the lie that gets repeated so often that it becomes fact.  If enough preachers say it loudly enough from enough pulpits, it will “feel” real to the believer.  No apologist worth a damn will ever argue that God is the only possibility and hope to win the day logically.  If you ever hear an educated theist use these words, you must immediately call him out for being dishonest and for spreading emotional claptrap.



3 thoughts on “Intelligent Design: A Different Way to Beat a Dead Horse

  1. Interesting tactic. It seems appropriate given recent discussions on double-standards being employed for Biblical history that normal historians don’t seem to utilize. I’ll have to keep this in mind in future discussions. I like examining the methodology, but I don’t think I’ve ever done as you have, and demonstrated using a thought experiment what the theists methodology would entail, if we had evidence for a god.

    Posted by MKandefer | February 8, 2009, 9:13 pm
  2. Every single statement in favor of intelligent design boils down to an argument from ignorance. There does not exist a hypothesis to ‘test’ the design process or to indicate a designer.

    I.D. is not a scientific theory, merely it another way of stating “we don’t know, its too complicated… god did it”.

    Posted by BGH | February 9, 2009, 8:58 pm
  3. Exactly, BGH. It’s an emotional appeal, not a logical construct. Nevermind the fact that “irreducible complexity” is an ultimately unprovable concept. Hell, we don’t know for certain that quantum physicists won’t discover an entirely new level of simplicity underneath the currently understood subatomic particles. At each point along a line of reduction, there is always the possibility of something we haven’t noticed yet as a foundation of what appears to be the simplest element.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 9, 2009, 9:35 pm

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