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Arguing About Gods 4: Teleological Arguments


I like Oppy’s treatment of Paley. A big point is the importance of background knowledge in assessing design. Watches are known to be created by humans, they are composed of patterns and materials that are unknown to exist or be able to arise elsewhere in nature.

Rocks and living beings on the other hand don’t have this background knowledge to suggest design. Instead, given evolution, this background knowledge rules in favor of not design.

Oppy offers some useful reasons to believe that the prior probability of the universe being a product of intelligent design is low paraphrased from p. 208:

  1. As far as we know, all intelligent designers are embodied agents.
  2. All these designers use pre-existing physical materials.
  3. There is no explanation of how a disembodied designer can work.
  4. There is a great deal of evidence that consciousness and intelligence is reducible to neurological functioning.

So, even if we accept the general Bayesian argument to intelligent design, these will only raise the probability that intelligent design has occurred. With a low enough prior probability, it will still be well under 50%, perhaps even negligible.Another great section is 4.4, where Oppy defends Hume from criticisms from Dawkins and Mackie. Dawkins makes the argument that Darwin was much more important, even philosophically, in convincing people that God does not exist, because he offered a plausible alternative to God as an explanation for design. Oppy counters by saying that even if biology is explained correctly, there are always design arguments that remain (fine-tuning is a clear case in point.) Moreover, Oppy claims that Hume suggested in his writings possible alternatives that were much higher in plausibility than a designer.

I find this useful. I never saw evolution as either an obstacle to my theism, or as a contributor to my atheism. I suppose it falsifies one type of design argument, but better to falsify the whole family with logic than to falsify a single member with empirical claims, leaving many other members around.

Oppy does acknowledge that biological design may have had a strong sociological impact in convincing people of God. It was a clear and easily seeable argument, one which required little to no special education. Evolution deprived theists of a valuable tool.

Kindle Notes:

Paley notes, parenthetically, that there may be some role for background knowledge in the discernment of the function of the watch and its parts, and of the suitability of the materials from which the parts are constructed for the functions that they serve. But it is clear that there are other roles that background knowledge could play in the inference to ‘design’ (4348).

And the suggestion that considerations concerning ‘function’ and ‘suitability of materials to function’ are sufficient to underwrite the ‘inference’ is clearly question-begging (4367).

it is not the presence of function and suitability of constitution to function that makes the inference inevitable. Rather, as my previous discussion suggests, it is background knowledge about origins – origins of the materials used in manufacture, origins of the arrangement of the parts, and so forth – that makes the inference inevitable in those cases in which is it inevitable. Paley’s argument fails because he fails to recognise the real explanation of why it is that we shall inevitably infer that things like watches are products of intelligent design (4458).

Given that we have no reason to suppose that any value of a physical parameter is more likely than any other value of that parameter within the range of possible values that can be taken by that parameter, do we thereby have reason to suppose that each possible value of the parameter in question is equally likely? (4924).

I do not see any reason to suppose that it is somehow ‘contrary to reason’ to assign a very small prior probability to the hypothesis that our universe is the product of intelligent design.[22] There is nothing in our experience that weighs against the claim that all intelligent designers are physically embodied agents who work with pre-existing physical materials; moreover, there are no details that we can supply to explain how there could be intelligent designers that are not physically embodied agents who work with pre-existing physical materials. Furthermore, we have plenty of evidence that consciousness and intelligence in our universe are reducible to neurological functioning. While these – and other similar – considerations are plausibly taken to be defeasible, it seems to me to be very hard to deny that non-theists can mount a serious defence of the claim that the prior probability that our universe is the product of intelligent design is very low indeed (4985).

What should we say in the face of the apparent evidence for “fine-tuning”, if we suppose that there is something here that requires explanation? Well, it seems to me that we are pretty much in the same position as Hume was in when he confronted the apparent evidence for biological design. Moreover, we seem to have roughly the same range of options: we can appeal to an infinite regress, of one kind or another; we can appeal to an ensemble of universes; we can appeal to chance; or we can insist that the apparent fine-tuning is a brute fact, and hence not in need of explanation (5697).

If Hume could provide no decent alternative explanations for the appearance of biological design, and if it was not sufficient for Hume to point to weaknesses in the inference to design on the basis of the alleged biological evidence, then what is someone like Dawkins to say in the face of the contemporary arguments for design on the basis of alleged cosmic fine-tuning? (5706).

I have argued for the following conclusions: (i) that Paley’s argument for design is typically misinterpreted, but when it is properly interpreted, it is clear that it is entirely unpersuasive; (ii) that Behe’s argument for design is not very different from Paley’s argument, and fails to improve upon that argument in any way; (iii) that there are good reasons not to be persuaded by current formulations of ‘cosmic fine-tuning’ arguments for design; (iv) that it is not yet absolutely clear that an inference from ‘the fine-tuning data’ to many universes is worse than an inference to intelligent design from that data; and (v) that it is a mistake to suppose that the various arguments for intelligent design can be defeated simply by appeal to relevant well-supported scientific theories, without any recourse to philosophical considerations of one kind or another (5724).

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