Design in nature: Millennia of arguments

Let’s begin with the atom. According to the ancient Greeks, everything is made up of atoms. When an object is continually split, there comes a point where no more splitting is possible, and that unsplittable unit is called an atom.

Democritus (460-370 B.C.) was fascinated with atoms. Among the most important doctrines Democritus left was: “That atoms and the vacuum were the beginning of the universe; and that everything else existed only in opinion.”1 By “opinion,” Democritus may have meant something more than merely a throwaway sentiment, but he still places the majority of what is experienced on a different epistemological level than the theoretical level. In other words, according to him, the theoretical atoms and vacuum are more real than the reality experienced through the senses.

One of Democritus’ followers, Epicurus, further formalized and expanded this line of thinking. Epicurus made such a thorough work of it that his atomism-derived philosophy is given its own name: Epicureanism. This philosophy caused agitation in ancient Greece because it denied body-soul dualism, seeming to deny the very order of the universe and even the existence of the gods. Epicurus was accused of atheism, a charge he vigorously denied. He claimed that to be holy and perfect requires gods to remain in perfect bliss, an impossibility for any being that interacts with the clearly imperfect material world.

By making the gods so perfect that they never interact with the material world, Epicurus rendered them irrelevant to material beings. If there is no immortal soul, there is no divine judgment to face after death, then for all practical purposes what is taken in through the senses is the only knowable reality. Ultimately, the philosophy of the atomists collapsed into the extreme reductionism and empiricism evident today in the sciences.

Atomism did not arise in a vacuum; it responded to the philosophy of Parmenides, who claimed that it is impossible for something to come from nothing. From this, he reasoned that change must merely be an illusion and thus that reality is a single unchanging whole. Atomists argued that genuine change is possible by rearrangement of unchanging atoms.

Plato, another student of Parmenides, followed a different line of reasoning. Instead of reducing all reality to atoms, Plato argued for the existence of the gods on the basis of design evident in nature. For example, in Laws X, Plato argued that the gods must exist because “the earth and the sun, and the stars and the universe, and the fair order of the seasons, and the division of them into years and months, furnish proofs of their existence.”2

Aristotle developed this design argument further. Instead of questioning the existence of atoms, Aristotle argued that atoms alone cannot achieve what the Epicureans claimed; atoms do not move by themselves, and thus ultimately require something to move them if they are going to arrange themselves in different ways to achieve change. Material movers must react to the motion they cause and thus God, the “Prime Mover,” must be an immaterial cause. This immaterial cause, Aristotle deduced, is “Logos.”

Epicureans were not convinced of the necessity of the Logos. About 55 B.C., the Roman poet and popularizer of Epicurean philosophy Titus Lucretius Carus eloquently outlined a story of evolution that excluded the action of gods:

“The atoms did not intend to intelligently place themselves in orderly arrangement, nor did they negotiate the motions they would have, but many atoms struck each other in numerous ways, carried along by their own momentum from infinitely long ago to the present. Moving and meeting in numerous ways, all combinations were tried which could be tried, and it was from this process over huge space and vast time that these combining and recombining atoms eventually produced great things, including the earth, sea, and sky, and the generation of living creatures.”3

To be sure that his readers understood that everything, including the living creatures, resulted from natural and not supernatural causes, Lucretius explicitly stated this several times in his De Rerum Natura: “Nature can be seen to be free of overlords. Everything she does is completely by herself, without help from gods.”4

Lucretius’ arguments against gods followed formulas commonly used today. For example, he argued that reality is imperfect and thus can’t have been designed: “The world was certainly not made for us by divine power: so great are the faults with which it stands endowed.”5 In more recent times, Stephen J. Gould put the argument this way: “Imperfection carries the day for evolution.”6

New Testament and design

Immersed in a society permeated with pagan design arguments, the Apostle John began his Gospel with, “In the beginning was the Word (Logos).” By invoking the Logos, John placed his thesis squarely within the domain of public design arguments and their theological implications. His approach, however, is quite different from the philosophers. Rather than attempting to argue from first principles or some preconceived idea of what the gods are like, John makes an extremely empirical argument. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, KJV). John insisted that his readers review the empirical evidence and decide for themselves whether or not his thesis, that the creator became part of the creation, was true; a truly scandalous proposition at the time.

The Apostle Paul took a different approach. For him, the presence of design in nature is self-evident. Thus in Romans 1:20 he appears to make a direct appeal to design: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”(KJV). When addressing Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens, Paul begins his argument with an appeal to creation by addressing the question of causes and proposing the “unknown god” as the ultimate cause. This was a form of argument familiar to his audience, but when he proposed that God became flesh, he immediately lost them, as this claim was beyond what their ideas of the divine could accommodate (see Acts 17:18-34).

The ultimate power of the Apostles’ arguments rested not on philosophy but on their testimony as witnesses to the divinity, death, and resurrection of the Designer Himself. The gospel rested on a broad foundation of direct experience with Jesus Christ. This empirical approach appears to have had broad appeal compared to the complex and subtle arguments either for or against the presence of design in nature.

But Christianity could not indefinitely depend on the firsthand testimony of witnesses to the life of Christ. The witnesses ultimately died, some leaving written accounts of their experiences. More written accounts were produced by those who did not have firsthand experience, diluting and sometimes corrupting the eyewitness evidence. Proliferation of Gnostic gospels confused the issue, weakening the impact of arguments based on direct observation. Some progress was made when Irenæus encouraged use of the four canonical Gospels around 185 A.D.

As the medieval Western church moved away from direct dependence on the biblical cannon, and Christians sought to interact with pagans, they faced a problem. The Bible could not be expected to have authority in the minds of pagans, and missionaries lacked firsthand knowledge of the life of Christ. Philosophical arguments used by the pagans substituted for direct testimony and became the common language by which Christians hoped to reach pagan minds.

Aquinas’ argument for design

Platonism, with its inherent design arguments, became the philosophy of the church. It was not until Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century that Aristotle was popularized in the Western church. Given the move away from the Scriptures during medieval times and the popularity of pagan philosophers, it is hardly surprising that Aquinas would embrace Aristotle’s philosophical arguments for gods and turn them into arguments for God.

In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas proposed five arguments for the existence of God.7 The first is Aristotle’s argument for a Prime Mover. The second involves efficient causes. It states that nothing can be the cause of itself, thus nature cannot be the cause of itself and requires a Designer-God to create it. Third is the necessary cause argument. Because there are a finite number of things and things have a finite existence, Aquinas argued, in infinite time there must occur a point where nothing exists. But because things require a cause, the existence of things makes a cause necessary, and that necessary cause is God. The fourth argument assumes the great chain of being in which different beings are distributed from the lowest to the highest along various scales of goodness, truth, and so on. Aquinas argued that because all gradations ultimately emanate from the ultimate state of being, like fire being the ultimate state of heat causing all grades of warmth, an Ultimate Being – God – must exist to account for the various grades of being we see.

Aquinas’ fifth argument for God’s existence is clearly teleological and the most subject to empirical examination. It can be seen as both harking back to Plato’s claim that the order of the heavens proves the existence of God and pointing forward to modern design arguments. In essence the argument posits that even inanimate things exist for a purpose and purpose is the product of intelligence, thus the purpose fits with the design of an intelligent being and that intelligent designer is God.

Hume’s arguments against design

Aquinas’ arguments were widely accepted until the Enlightenment, when skeptical philosophers like David Hume (1711-1776) directly attacked Aquinas’ Aristotle-inspired proofs of God. Hume’s thinking was founded on a different view of causation, “We have no other notion of cause and effect, but that of certain objects, which have been always conjoined together, and which in all past instances have been found inseparable. We cannot penetrate into the reason of the conjunction.”8 By reworking thinking about causes, Hume changed the field of intellectual battle from the one that Aristotle had constructed based on his four causes. Moving on under conditions more favorable to his own position, Hume directed his skepticism at the design argument.

Hume’s five classic arguments against design, listed below, are still among the most commonly expressed objections to design arguments.9

1. Because nature is observed producing ordered things like crystals without an obvious intelligent agent to cause them, it is illogical to claim that all ordered things or objects with apparent purpose imply an intelligent agent like God.

2. Because we have only one universe to study, we can’t compare a designed one to an undesigned one; it is a false analogy to say that because we can recognize designed versus undesigned phenomena within the universe we can also recognize that the universe itself is designed.

3. Even if the universe does appear to be designed, this does not logically lead to theism. Says Hume: “Were an effect presented, which was entirely singular, and could not be comprehended under any known species, I do not see, that we could form any conjecture or inference at all concerning its cause.”10

4. If the universe requires design, then the mind that designed it must require at least as much design and thus also requires a designer who must be designed and so on ad infinitum. Alternatively, if the designer, God, can be self-ordered, then why not the universe?

5. Frequently, apparent design for a purpose may be just as well explained by a filtering process rather than a teleological one.

Hume’s fifth argument can be fairly interpreted as foreshadowing Charles Darwin’s natural selection acting as a filter on natural variation to produce apparently designed organisms. During the period between Hume and Darwin, philosophers like Immanuel Kant vigorously reacted to Hume’s arguments. Ironically, Hume’s skepticism is commonly referred to as empiricism, but his anti-design arguments are philosophical rather than empirical and probably best categorized as rationalism.

Kant: The reconciliation of empiricism and rationalism

This brings up Kant’s effort to reconcile empiricism and rationalism. If any trend is evident in the development of design and anti-design arguments, it is that design arguments tend to be more empirical while anti-design arguments, like those made by Hume, tend toward rationalism. Obviously there are many exceptions to this, with Lucretius arguing for bad design based on observation of nature and Aquinas using clearly rational arguments, but the trend is still clear. For example, Plato appeals to the order in the heavens while Epicurus defines the gods into irrelevance. Kant argued that empirical sciences have greater epistemological strength than rational arguments.11

While Hume’s philosophical arguments against design were met with counter-philosophical arguments, they were also met by more direct appeals to evidence. Possibly the most famous of these is found in William Paley’s (1743-1805) Natural Theology. Paley argued from the analogy that a “watch must have had a maker,”12 that machine-like things in nature also require a Maker. He tested his analogy using different human-built devices, for example a telescope, with related phenomena observed in nature, in this case an eye.13

Darwin and the design argument

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) was a keen student of Paley’ books, which were used as texts at Cambridge University, and claims to have been “delighted” and “charmed” by his works.14 However, Darwin’s best-known work, On the Origin of Species, was a direct response to Paley’s arguments. By invoking natural selection as a filter of naturally occurring variation within organisms, Darwin sought to show that while organisms are built as if purposefully designed, “the purpose is only an apparent one.”15

At this point in the development of design arguments, a fragmentation between arguments from nature to design and from design to God becomes clear. Darwin’s approach was clearly against arguing from nature to an intelligent cause for life. The irony is that his position ultimately relies on certain theological premises and not on the copious data he brings to bear on the question. Darwin’s argument attempts to address the theological problem of evil, particularly evil in nature. As Cornelius Hunter put it, “The whole point of Darwin’s theory was to separate God from the world in order to explain its inefficiencies and quandaries. He couldn’t then smuggle God back into the theory to explain complexity. Rather than saying that evolution is antireligious, it would be more accurate to say that evolution is religious. It very much hinges on a particular type of God – one who would only create a world suited to our tastes.”16

Darwin’s theory of evolution had profound theological implications and thus attracted immediate theological rejoinders, but opposition to his theory also arose for scientific reasons. For example, the adequacy of natural selection to account for what we see in organisms was called into question almost immediately by Thomas Henry Huxley, a major supporter of Darwin, who argued that “the logical foundation of the theory of natural selection is incomplete.”17 Darwin himself noted that reasonable scientific objections to his theory were evident, making specific reference to the fossil record: “Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain [of intermediate varieties]; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory.”18

Rise of intelligent design

Within the milieu of theological, philosophical, and scientific arguments raised against Darwinism, design arguments did not immediately differ from those used by Paley: the very arguments that Darwin claimed to have debunked. Recently, however, a resurgence of design arguments has occurred in the form of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. Three players in this movement – Phillip Johnson, William Dembski and Michael Behe – exemplify three major components of modern design arguments.

Phillip Johnson, professor emeritus of law at University of California Berkley and an expert logician, is sometimes referred to as the father of the ID movement. His devastating philosophical attack on the logical underpinnings of Darwinism and exposure of its underlying materialistic presuppositions, first published in Darwin on Trial,19 exposed the vulnerability of Darwin’s thesis.

The philosopher and mathematician William Dembski has directly addressed Hume’s claim that order produced by intelligent design cannot be distinguished from order produced by nature acting alone. Dembski has proposed that objects exhibiting both complexities unlikely to be produced by nature acting alone and specification, fitting within tight tolerances required for their function, can be reasonably interpreted as products of intelligent design rather than some natural product. Dembski argues that, while allowing for some unguided variation, the complex specified information encoded within DNA is most reasonably inferred to be the product of an intelligent design rather than a natural cause.

Michael Behe, a biochemist, has chosen to challenge Darwin directly, addressing Darwin’s claim that: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”20 Behe argues that molecular machines exist within cells that are “irreducibly complex,” meaning that they require a set of indispensable parts to function altogether and thus could not be reasonably expected to come into existence by “slight modifications.”

A huge amount of change has occurred over the more than two millennia since the time of Democritus. Design arguments that he and his intellectual offspring eschewed have gone through many iterations, experiencing periods of great success and times of decline, but have never been dealt a deathblow. In fact, they continue to thrive. The recent resurgence of design arguments, coupled with an explosive accumulation of knowledge about the molecular complexity of life and elegance in the universe life inhabits, suggest that the design inference faces a robust future.

Timothy G. Standish (Ph.D., George Mason University) is a scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute, Loma Linda, California, U.S.A. E-mail:

Notes and references

  1. See Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Book IX: “Life of Democritus.” Translated by C. D. Yonge (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853).
  2. Plato. Laws, Book X 360 BC Translated by Benjamin Jowett.
  3. Titus Lucretius Carus, De Rerum Natura, Book 5, lines 416-31. Circa 55 BC. My translation.
  4. Ibid., Book 2, lines 1090-1092. My translation. Stephen J. Gould, The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections on Natural History (New York, W. W. Norton, 1980), p. 37.
  5. “Nequaquam nobis divinitus esse paratam Naturam rerum: tanta stat praedita culpa” Titus Lucretius Carus. circa 55 B.C. De Rerum Natura. Book 5 lines 198-99 Translated by W. H. D. Rouse, revised by Martin F. Smith in Lucretius: On the Nature of Things. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992). See also Book 2, lines 180-1.
  6. Gould, p. 37.
  7. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Second and Revised Edition, 1920. Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province.
  8. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Sect. VI.
  9. See Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
  10. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section XI. Of a particular providence and of a future state, p. 115.
  11. See Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason. Introduction.
  12. W. Paley, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, 12th Edition (London: J. Faulder, 1809), p. 3.
  13. See Ibid., chapter III, Application of the argument.
  14. Charles R. Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958), p. 59.
  15. See J. S. Huxley, Evolution in Action (Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1953, 1963), p. 16.
  16. C. G. Hunter, Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2002), p. 165.
  17. T. H. Huxley, Collected Essays, Vol. II, 1893. Preface.
  18. Darwin, “On the Imperfection of the Geological Record,” chapter X in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (New York: Penguin Books, 1958), p. 287-312.
  19. P. E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1991).
  20. ——, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (New York: Penguin Books, 1958), p. 171.