You’re probably familiar with William Paley’s teleological argument for the existence of God. If you haven’t used it yourself then you’ll have been subjected to it by proselytising believers. A couple of days ago I had someone treat me to an updated version of the argument.
I was on the phone with a sales-person, talking about his company’s product, when he decided it would be a good time to dust off the old idea, give it a make-over and use it to convince me of God’s existence.
He started by asking me if I would agree that a computer must have an intelligent designer; I agreed this was so (though I have my reservations.) He responded with ‘how much more then must the universe and life on Earth – being so much more complex than a computer – also have an intelligent designer.’ He said this was ‘something to think about,’ and I agreed it was, though maybe this wasn’t the best answer I could’ve given.
Having ‘demonstrated’ that everything must be intelligently designed, my new friend announced that this was therefore irrefutable proof that Allah must have made everything.
Oops. I’m sure this isn’t what the Reverend Paley had in mind when he devised his watch analogy two centuries ago. His proof, however, is every bit as much a demonstration of Allah’s existence and creativeness as it is Yahweh’s. Or Vishnu’s or Marduk’s or any other of the multitude of deities credited with intelligently creating the universe and life in this insignificant part of it. Any one of them could’ve done it according to the teleological argument. Take your pick and sign up for the set of beliefs that corresponds with your choice.
But wait – complex machines like watches and computers bear no relation to anything in nature. A watch found on a heath, as Paley conjectures, or computers in hedgerows, can only have got there because a human being put them there (fly-tipping again). They would not be there because they’d arisen, like the rocks, grass and other plants that surround them, through the processes involved when nature creates something. Moreover, we know that machines have intelligent creators, because we are they. What doesn’t follow is that because man-made objects are demonstrably the product of intelligence that natural ones, which, remember, bear no relation to computers, watches, cars and CAT scanners, are as well.
We are gaining more understanding of how the universe came to be. Significantly, it doesn’t require that there is intelligence behind it. If it did, we would then need to explain how that intelligence arose, who created it and by what process. To say, as religious believers are wont to do, that this supreme intelligence has always existed is no explanation at all. If we’re to have something that has always existed then it is far more likely to be that which we know really does exist, rather than something we don’t. Conceding the longevity of the components of the universe, which we know to exist, is a far better bet than inventing deities to account for it. A God no more explains life, the universe and everything than do fairies the intricacies of my computer (gremlins maybe, but not fairies.)
For all that, life on Earth does have a creator. The genealogy of the universe tells us that physics begat chemistry begat biology. (‘But if life emerged from physical and chemical processes, then how come there’s still physics and chemistry?’) All life on Earth, including ourselves, is the product of these processes, ‘the blind watchmaker‘ that Richard Dawkins speaks of. They are not intelligent, do not have names like Yahweh or Allah and do not, on their own, create the machines that only humans can design.