Show Us the Design, Creationists, and Stop Being So Negative

February 3, 2014

Last week I was offering some modest advice to creationists, and today I have another constructive proposal.

Persimmon tree - Futako Tamagawa, Jan. 4, 2014

This persimmon tree has lots of fruit but no leaves at all – Futako Tamagawa, Jan. 4, 2014 (Enlarge)

See, the problem for creationists is that they’re trying to prove a negative. The creationist argument boils down to the idea that no natural, mechanical or automatic phenomenon could possibly produce a particular structure, such as the bacterial flagellum, and that we must therefore conclude that the structure was designed by an intelligent agent. So they’re trying to prove a negative, right? They’re saying such a natural, mechanical phenomenon does not exist.

And philosophers sometimes claim that you can’t prove a negative. You can’t search the whole universe and personally demonstrate that such a thing does not exist. It’s just like atheists trying to prove God doesn’t exist – they can’t do it!

What creationists end up showing is simply that they don’t personally see any automatic mechanism. So they’re showing their own ignorance! No wonder people laugh at creationists.

So here’s my second modest proposal to help creationists win their case. Instead of trying to prove a negative, they should make a positive effort and look for the actual design.

After all, if something was designed, then there must be a design somewhere. It’s much easier to find something that exists rather than proving something does not exist.

Now, to guide the search I’d like to propose a few basic principles about design, and I don’t think these points are controversial:

  1. The design must be separate from the designed thing.
  2. The design must pre-exist the designed thing.
  3. A design is like a model or a plan, or some encoded building instructions, and as such it must be like a simpler or smaller version of the final product.

OK, are you creationists ready to take up my challenge? Maybe some creationists will tentatively accept this idea in principle, but then they might despair at the difficulties. After all, if God designed the universe, let’s say the design was in his mind, but how are we poor mortals supposed to see into God’s mind?

By the way, I think it is indeed possible in principle to see a design in a human being’s brain. Such a design is a neural construct, a set of neurons connected together to produce a particular output in response to particular inputs. With some super-advanced kind of MRI technology, we might someday be able to trace neural energy flows in a person’s mind at the neuronal level. And then we’d be able to see a design even if it wasn’t written down yet. We’d see the design just as a fleeting idea in someone’s brain.

But anyway, another problem for creationists seeking design is that the universe was designed and created a long time ago, so the design might no longer exist. Shucks. I admit that this is a difficult challenge.

Still, it’s interesting to talk about the actual design, because the very nature of a design has theological implications. Specifically, I can think of three implications:

  1. There’s a danger of infinite regression, because if God designed the world, he must have first made his design. Did he “design” his design? If so, he needed an earlier design for the design. So we have an infinite series of designs or plans or maps in God’s mind. Where was the original undesigned design?
  2. If the original “design” was somehow an undesigned design, then in what sense was that first design a design at all? And if the first design was not a design, then in what sense was the world designed? Apparently God’s design for the world is not grounded in anything. God is supposed to be cosmically simple, but in that case how could he design something?
  3. If God first designed the world before creating it, then time must have existed before the beginning of our world. This suggests God must live in his own higher-dimensional world with its own space and time, and this undermines various arguments that God is eternal and simple. If time existed for God before he created our world, then it’s fair to ask who created God.

By the way, let’s remember that there is an important difference between something having a design and our knowing the design. Certainly there can be things that are designed without us ever knowing they were designed. Let’s not mix up the design with the actual creation! Thanks.