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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

The Argument from Design
Answering Objections, Part IV

Continuing my series responding to the objections set forth to the Argument from Design.

A false alternative which is normally presented by the theist is that if the universe has not been created by a master designer, then it must be controlled by "chance." But what is this thing called "chance" that is being referred to? I'm not really sure - there are different conceptions of chance, and I don't think that theists who are using this term are actually using it properly. Genuine "random chance" - which might be defined as an unpredicable [sic] outcome not determined by the workings of natural law - is exceptionally difficult to achieve: even a good shuffling of a deck of cards does not achieve true randomness, although repeated shuffles can manage a decent imitation. In metaphysical terms, "random chance" does not appear to exist in the universe, at least above the quantum level - after all, what in the universe is not affected by natural law? Things do not happen inexplicably and without causes - we simply attribute events to "chance" when we do not know enough of the details to assign a specific cause. Causal conditions are always in effect. Thus, it may be invalid to assert that if a god is not responsible for the universe, then "random chance" is. A third option exists: that we simply don't know what might have caused it. Austin Cline, About.com: Argument from Design
Have you ever run into a statement that, at first blush, seems to say something worthwhile or profound only to have it seem quite silly later? "You can never know anything absolutely," is an example of this kind of statement. At first blush, it makes sense because there really is very little in this world that you can come to know with any assurance, and it is easy to thereafter extend this uncertainty to everything. Of course, as any student of rationality should immediately recognize, the statement fails its own test. It is a statement which is itself a statement of "absolutes" in that it suggests an absolute truth, i.e., that you can never know anything absolutely.

I got the same feeling reviewing Mr. Cline's next objection. When a person speaks of "design v. chance," are we making unwarranted assumptions regarding chance? In order to see whether this is truly a profound observation of merely a rhetorical slight of hand will require a closer review of what Mr. Cline says.

First, is there an ambiguity in the meaning of "chance" in the Design Argument? I don't think so. As a general rule, when the meaning of a term is in question, it is best to begin with the use of the definition generally, and its use in the specific field to see whether there is any reason to give a specialized definition beyond its general understanding. "Chance", according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, has several definitions, of which definitions 1 and 4 seem most probably applicable.

1 a : something that happens unpredictably without discernible human intention or observable cause b : the assumed impersonal purposeless determiner of unaccountable happenings : LUCK c : the fortuitous or incalculable element in existence : CONTINGENCY

4 a : the possibility of a particular outcome in an uncertain situation; also : the degree of likelihood of such an outcome (a small chance of success) b plural : the more likely indications (chances are he's already gone) Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary.
I suggest beginning with definition 1 which, at first blush, appears to adequately define the meaning of the term "chance" (except that I would refine sub-definition 1a to say that chance is "something that happens unpredictably without discernible intelligent intervention or observable cause"--the sub-definition as written presumes that the only intelligence that can act on something is "human" intelligence). Does this fit or do we need to find a more specialized definition?

The Design Argument, as stated in part I, is quite simple. It can be broken down into the following steps:

Premise 1: If something is designed, it requires a designer.
Premise 2: The universe appears designed.
Premise 3: The universe appears designed because it is designed.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe requires a designer.

The argument about "chance" is actually an attack on Premise 3. It reasons that Premise 3 is actually the result of an unstated dilemma that would read like this:

Subpremise 2: The universe appears designed.
Subpremise 2A: Things that appear designed are either actually designed or arise by chance.
Subpremise 2B: The universe could not have arisen by chance.
Conclusion (which = Premise 3): The universe appears designed because it is designed.

Now, let's substitute the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition into the equation to see if it works.

Premise 1: If something is designed, it requires a designer.
Premise 2: The universe appears designed.
Subpremise 2A: Things that appear designed are either actually designed or arise unpredictably without discernible intelligent intervention or observable cause.
Subpremise 2B: The universe could not have arisen unpredictably without discernible intelligent intervention or observable cause.
Premise 3: The universe appears designed because it is designed.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe requires a designer.

Unless I am missing something that Mr. Cline intends, I don't see where there is any real confusion about the term "chance." The general definition fills in the equation nicely. Mr. Cline gives his own effort to fill in the definition of "chance": "Genuine 'random chance' - which might be defined as an unpredicable [sic] outcome not determined by the workings of natural law . . . ." It should be noted that his definition is not markedly different from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition, but it should also be noted that Mr. Cline's definition leaves out "discernible intelligent intervention." So, with this one omission (which is important, but not for purposes of this part of the discussion), Mr. Cline's own definition actually confirms that the term "chance" is generally understood.

Mr. Cline then points out that the shuffling of cards does not result in true randomness but only a good imitation thereof. He then states: "In metaphysical terms, 'random chance' does not appear to exist in the universe, at least above the quantum level - after all, what in the universe is not affected by natural law?" With all due respect, this is metaphysical double-talk. If I flip a coin ten times, isn't it true that each flip will result in a random outcome? The entire science of Chaos is based on the belief that there is a certain amount of randomness built into the universe. Maybe it isn't a "true randomness" (not that I think that such a statement is necessarily true), but it is close enough to be considered "random" for all practical purposes. Additionally, the Design Argument is, at least in part, a discussion about the creation of the universe. Exactly what natural law existed prior to the creation of the universe that would have effected the randomness by which the universe would have had to spring into existence out of nothing. If the universe actually did come into existence out of nothing (which is the basis of the big bang), then there were no natural laws acting on the nothing which could have caused it because there was no nature there to give rise to any natural laws.

Mr. Cline then makes a stunning admission: "Things do not happen inexplicably and without causes - we simply attribute events to 'chance' when we do not know enough of the details to assign a specific cause. Causal conditions are always in effect." I have debated on too many discussion boards where skeptics have refused to concede this simple truth. I thank Mr. Cline for his openness and honesty on this simple point that is so obvious that it is even stated in a song from The Sound of Music: "Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could."

In his last sentence, Mr. Cline attacks Subpremise 2A, questioning whether it may be a false dilemma. He says: "Thus, it may be invalid to assert that if a god is not responsible for the universe, then 'random chance' is. A third option exists: that we simply don't know what might have caused it." I certainly concede there may be yet other, unknown causes for the universe to spring into existence. I acknowledge that the dilemma is not a perfect dilemma because a perfect dilemma would say "chance or not chance" with design being the only possible candidate for "not chance." But here is the problem: It appears less and less likely that the universe arose by chance (and Mr. Cline all but admits it). So, if chance is ruled out then we must turn to "not chance." What are the possibilities here? The answers are (a) a designer the identity of which is not certain but which some people claim to be able to identify, or (b) a yet-unidentified natural cause that we have no clue what it is but we trust will someday be discovered.

Can you say "naturalism of the gaps"?

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