I have an acquaintance who regularly makes comments along the lines of “My, it’s astounding how this building just evolved. I would sure like to have been there when the stone and mortar assembled itself years ago.” I’m willing to excuse the sarcasm (something about glass houses and stones comes to mind), but not the logical inconsistency of the argument he is implying. The thought that the observed complexity of the universe proves that it must have been specially designed is pure nonsense. I expect that most atheists already believe this implicitly (it just “sounds wrong” ) , but may be unaware of exactly how the position is self-defeating.

Let’s start by looking at the basic argument. At its simplest level, the contention is that since we can see and observe countless complex devices and processes that are demonstrably artificial (the computer you read this on is a good example), we can infer that the universe, which is far more complex, must have been designed as well, and by a far more competent designer. The structure of the argument is one of a comparison: A is similar to B, so we may expect A and B to have similar causes. While far from a proof, this sort of reasoning [I]is[/I] scientifically valid. (let’s set aside, for the moment, unproductive epistemological debates about the validity of inductive reasoning). There are additional conditions that must be met, however, for the structure to hold. When we say that A is “similar” to B, what are we really saying? Clearly there are differences between A and B (or they would be the same thing), so what does “similarity” mean? It means that these differences are relatively small, of course. There is an implicit comparison, not only between A and B, but between [I]the relation[/I] between A and B and the relations between these objects and others. To say that A and B are “similar” is to say that the differences between A and B are small or insignificant compared to the differences between A and C, A and D, or A and E, for example. The notion of “similarity” involves a comparison of the relations between objects; that is, it is a comparison of the results of various comparisons.

Still with me? With the above in mind, let’s examine the “creation implies a creator” argument in detail. There are, of course, two possibilities regarding the truth of this statement: either a creator does not exist, or one does.

The result of the first possibility is obvious: creation does not exist as such, let alone imply a creator. If there is no creator, then the argument that is the subject of this post is certainly false. Regardless of any similarity between “natural” and “artificial”, the natural is still just that.

If, however, the creator does exist, things change in some ways. The entirety of the “natural” world would in fact be just as artificial as the structure you sit in now or the computer I use to type this. This at first seems to lend credence to the theist’s argument. Unfortunately, while its conclusion is now true (in our hypothetical situation, of course), the argument loses all meaning. It rests on a comparison between “natural” and “created” things, and asserts the similarity of the universe to the latter. If all the universe is created, then there is nothing “natural” or “not created” with which to compare created objects! This marks the theist’s argument as nonsense right away; its logic is false even if its conclusion happens to be true.

Let’s take this just one step further, while we’re at it. Returning from our hypothetical universe to the real one, in which the existence of a creator is currently in question, we should again examine the theist’s argument. Is his comparison sound to begin with, regardless of the eventual truth? In fact, it is not. To say that things are similar, again, is to say that their differences are small compared to some other set of differences. Artificial objects as a category cannot be held to be similar to natural ones without at least one other category to compare the difference to. It is utterly meaningless to say that these two categories are similar; there is only one set of differences to compare. As an analogy, consider a universe in which two objects exist: an orange and an apple (and set aside the fact that the characteristics of these objects would not be understood in the same way they are in our universe). We cannot say that the apple is “similar” to the orange at this point; there is nothing against which we can compare the difference between the apple and the orange. Introduce a third object (a tangerine, for example) and comparison becomes possible. We can now say (for certain characteristics, such as color) that the orange and the tangerine are “similar”, because they are closer to each other than they are to the other object or objects (in this case, the apple). The theist, in dividing as he must the universe into the categories of “created” and “natural” prevents himself from logically declaring these categories to be “similar” to each other. That which is known to be artificial cannot be said to be similar to the natural (to say nothing of the fact that the assumed existence of the “natural” to begin with contradicts the theist’s conclusion). The argument, then, is incoherent from the start.

We can see, then, that in making the argument that the universe’s existence and complexity implies a creator, we encounter no fewer than two logical contradictions: Not only does the difference between “natural” and “artificial” that is assumed from the start deny the theist’s conclusion, but the very idea of declaring similarity between two categories that between them include the entire universe is totally absurd.

3 Responses to “Must a Complex Universe Have a Designer?”

  1. ocmpoma Says:

    Incisive. “Designed compared to what?”
    I’ll remember that.

  2. CycloneRanger Says:

    Thanks. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, though a little web surfing has shown that I’m not the first to come up with it. I decided to finally write a full description because I can never seem to meaningfully articulate it in a face-to-face discussion. I suppose it’s too complicated.

  3. schemanista Says:

    Me three. A nice refutation of a truly annoying metaphysical stance.

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