The design arguments are among the more popular non-scriptural arguments put forward by Theists. The cosmos had to have been designed by a designer, a god, to exist at all. A watch has a watchmaker, a pot has a potter is the claim.
One counterargument is the cosmos is better designed for rocks or bacteria than people. The vast majority of the universe is a vacuum that doesn’t lend itself to life.
Another counter is the flaws in human design and the fact that other animals have better design parts than we do. Cuttlefish have far better eyes, for example.
But I want to go more with the philosophical side of the counterargument because I’m of the view of Dysteleology, existence has no telos, no end from purposeful design.
Theists misunderstand or don’t examine this metaphor close enough. Their use of imagery is selective, not impartial. The metaphor also assumes too much, or they take unjustified leaps because of the imagery.
Is God outside space-time?
The image of a potter and a pot suggests a separation: between Object and Subject, which is why theists say God is separate, outside space and time (that makes no sense in itself). But this image has a number of problems.
Firstly causality, separate objects are impervious to influence and therefore change. By that same token, such objects can’t causally affect any other thing either. So if God is separate then he has no ability to affect the cosmos.
But the metaphor doesn’t imply this; the potter and the pot are not separate things. The potter is in contact, sees the pot and reacts to its shape.
There’s a relationship; so invested in making the pot, the potter becomes fully immersed in the act of creating it to the point where the object-subject distinction disappears. The pot also affects the potter, so there’s a feedback loop here.
With this metaphor, God cannot be imagined as separate.
The metaphor doesn’t imply a separate unchanging objects—both the pot and the potter change.
Trees Don’t Need Makers
Do Beavers design their dams? Do birds design their Nests? There are no tree makers.
In Buddhism, the cosmos are a web of interconnected causes and conditions as a complex system. In such a system, some behaviours result from behaviour that requires no mind or agency—the movement of a school of fish, for example.
Our limited analytical minds can’t do justice to the creative processes of a complex system.
It will always seem mysterious and unexplainable.
Our myopic understanding can lead to erroneous conclusions.
It points towards behaviour in animals like ourselves the more instinctive and intuitive. Behaviour that’s not panned but emerges.
Instinct is not Design
Much of our behaviour is not pre-planned. Walking down crowded streets, we don’t draw up a route then follow it. We navigate that street spontaneously, effortlessly, without thought, instinctually. Our motion is not prescribed or random.
Another example is speech; we don’t usually prescript what we say, yet our words are not random gibberish.
So much of what we do is spontaneously acting at the moment. Our subconscious does all of the hard work but never gets the credit.
In Japanese, it’s called Mushin, ‘no mind’, or no conscious mind, a psychological ‘flow’ state. The mastery of a skill is to let go of thought, and plans, they are hindrances. We don’t plan how to walk, or talk
These immersive states are where the separate self falls away.
I go more into this with the Fetish of Consciousness, but we have this image of God based upon what we find in our conscious mind.
In such a state, the art or pot is not designed but instead unfolds and arises through instinct and intuition.
The image of God is closer to how we think of ourselves, but only the conscious side, with our feeling of separation, intentions, desires, wants plans, and actions. We seemingly forget a lot of wat we doe is guide by our subconscious.
The illusory self returns after this state are left behind; the non-self existence is seemingly forgotten.
Another thing is we often create things that are chaotic, also we create failed objects, what about those.
Trial and error is not design
Thomas Edison said once. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
You’ve lost your car keys again, an idea arises, it’s in the coat pocket, you look, it’s not there. So another idea popped into your head, you look there, and another idea, no luck.
Then another idea pops up and you find the keys. Is that behaviour designed? Or is it more trial and error, natural selection?
Supposing you forgot all about the failed attempts and only remembered the successful on. It would seem as though you knew where your keys were all along. It’s Survivor Bias, it gives a false impression that what has transpired was inevitable. We forget the failures and only counts the successes, the failed attempts lost to history. S so we don’t consider them in drawing conclusions, as such they are prone to error.
In medicine, there are meta-analyses, studies that gather all the evidence, not just the successful experiments.
Tying, failing, correcting mistakes, is that design? Testing ideas out, the ones that don’t work are discarded, the ones that do are kept and used. That’s not design; that’s natural selection.
Multiple causes are not design
All events occur because multiple causes and conditions happen together at the same pace and time. Events collide to form other events.
Given that we are not in control of all these events, often even barely aware of the causes, then to say it’s a designed, planned outcome is to ignore chance encounters and unknown influences.
Particular facts of our lives are there; past events can’t be changed, where and when we are born. These determine who I am now, what I work on, and who I’m with.
Events happen because of multiple causes and conditions. That’s the Buddhist understanding of interdependent co-arising or dependent origination. Most of them we don’t know or can even imagine.
Design can’t be there if we’re only a tiny part of the forces involved in the cosmos.
Eureka moments are not design
Part of the process of creativity is those flashes of inspiration.
A sudden and unexpected moment of sight where the solution or next step appears in mind.
We don’t control our thoughts or feelings, yet we act upon them.
How can it be designed if a seemingly unscheduled, unexpected thought is part of the process?
It’s what makes the act of creativity mysterious; it’s why we invoke other explanations, such as ‘my muse is talking to me.‘
It shows that there is always the unknown operating behind the scenes like everything else.
Iteration is not design
Even objects like buildings and planes came about through trial and error. We think of as designed didn’t involve choices but filtering out what doesn’t work.
We do this in our own lives. When we lose our car keys, we keep looking, coming up with ideas and discarding the false ones until we find them; that’s natural selection.
With each building, smartphone, watch, there’s a history of iterations, serendipitous events, market forces, flashes in inspiration, discarded ideas.
It means our behaviour is naturally selected for our ideas, institutions, systems of governance, and companies. Eric Schumpeter called it Creative Destruction. For some restaurants to succeed, a lot more must fail.
Trial and error are to learn by mistakes and develop an idea. What we think of design is mistakenly has a history of failures and changes and something we seem to forget.
The Design argument follows the idea God does his work the same way we humans do, the anthropomorphism of a deity.
Complex things we make are made bit by bit, an iterative process. So there must be previous universes if God created the universe.
Design go through iterations. Is throwing stuff at the wall and going with what sticks design? Neckwear that’s how the process works. At some point you follow caprice, a whim, not a design.
Internal causality is not design
Theists seem to think the matter is just this inert stuff. It has no function other than to exist and have no relation to other stuff.
It’s as if theists think some agency is needed to push the stuff off the cosmos together to form larger, more complex forms as if it is some cosmic play dough set.
But matter does affect other matter; it’s not neutral or inert. Differing polarities attract; the same polarities repel one example. The magnetic field created is not an agency, but it is a connection.
The swarming behaviour of a school of fish cannot be found in one fish.
The behaviour arises due to the relationships between the fish and its surroundings. From that network, the schooling behaviour occurs as an emergent property.
Such properties are more than the sum of their parts, but they still require parts; they’re not separate.
The mistake arises because believers think like old school scientists. Reductionism is the practice of taking things apart to see how they work. But it has its limits; taking things apart destroys relationships, so any conclusions drawn with be based upon a limited understanding of the system. You can’t gain all knowledge just by examining the parts separately.
Reductionism and essentialism is the mistake here.
It goes back to speech. It’s usually not random but not prescribed. Instead, it’s a spontaneous organisation of the concepts and the sounds we make.
There is an internal web of causal influences and relations in complex systems. There is no need for an ‘external agency’. The stuff clumps together and organises itself.
Without a separate existence, this also calls into question Free Will, for what has the Free will? Without an independent presence, where is the person or essence that has this will?
In the flow state of deep connection, there is no separate self with a will or agency. Choices are not made; impulses and instincts are followed.
There is often no purpose in creating art; it’s there to enjoy the creativity. Like enjoying music or dancing, there doesn’t have to be a purpose. It’s Autotelic; the purpose is the dance, the art.
Instead of work, think of it as play; like children, we don’t need a reason or purpose to play.
The metaphor also implies another type of separation that of cause and effect. A simple linear progression, A, leads to B. ‘This leads to that’ – God to cosmos.
However, this implies a simple linear progression. Buddhist see all events as having multiple causes and conditions.
In Buddhism, the cosmos is the result of many causes and conditions. So there is no ‘first cause.’, no preceding intelligence.
The meaning of design
All this bring into question what do we mean by design? How do we recognise design? When we say something is designed, what do we mean? What features must something have for it to be designed?
The mistake here is in thinking we can recognise design when we see it without prior knowledge or belief of a designer.
Another is the meaning of the word. The dictionary definition describes its common usage.
Designed: Adjective, made or done intentionally; intended; planned. – Source Dictionary.com
It’s loaded language; the meaning of design is importing a designer without demonstrating one.
The design argument (also the Free Will and Fine tuning arguments) rests upon a false assumption that we impartially observe the universe, see the design and conclude a designer must be.
Apologists believe in a designer first then argue for design — That’s confirmation bias, seeking evidence or arguments to support what you already believe.
We believe in design because we think it’s the result of intent. But how do you prove intent?
It’s not clear a caveman would see as watch as designed. A better question might be: How good are we at recognising design?
We also mistake complexity for design. But what of the alternatives, that something can be complex and not designed? Like a Self organising system, an organism.
What all this boils down to are the ideas we have about essences and if they exist or not. The metaphor is a symptom of a desire to find a fixed essence to our existence, a bedrock to stand upon.
A pot is made of clay; a watch is made of parts, a pot needs a potter. It’s all supposed to imply and essence to existence.
- personal essences, i.e. a soul
- the essence of objects like pots
- a cosmic essence, a god
But what of a tree, a cloud, a wave, a conversation? Are these designed, caused, will into existence? By whom?
We have trees, but where is the tree maker?
To claim a tree must be designed like a watch or a pot is to ignore the noticeable differences. The tree is self-organising; the Pot or watch is not.
Other imagery can include Flocks of birds, schools of fish. Both self-organised systems that form part of a more extensive system.
It points towards a misunderstanding of how the cosmos works and how we work as people.
What we have here is a myopic understanding of how things work. Superficially it seems a separate Potter creates separate pots. But delve deeper into how creativity works, psychology, and we discover Flow states, intuition, and the image becomes more complex.
Investigate a pot further, and it’s made from many different causes and conditions, so where is the fixed essence of the Pot? Nowhere to be found.
We learn on the way by walking the way.
Design, Free Will, Causality it all seem obvious when you don’t look too closely. But apologists ignore prominent examples where things are not designed, like trees, clouds, waves, and conversation.
When we walk down a busy street, do we plan our route? We have eureka moments, use trial and error, we make plans, then throw them out, to make new plans. We iterate, adapt, follow instincts and intuitions. We become immersed in activity, loosing our self.
There’s even language on this, ‘We speak of the cuff’, ‘Fly be the seat of our pants’, speak extemporaneously’ and more.
A cause is to change what already exists, creativity is the same. The artist creates the art from existing materials. It’s not instantly popping into existence from nothing.
It’s a myopic understanding of how humans work. It’s turning consciousness into a fetish; its contents of intentions, plans, and analysis are projected onto an image of God. We know we act spontaneously without plan or intent, yet theists seem to ignore that side of existence.
It is a bias, even a need towards intentions, agency and feeling in control. That’s to say, consciousness. We make plans and set a goal only for circumstances to make them unworkable or impossible.
We’re making it up as we go along. We use imperfect heuristics because they work well enough, most of the time.
We have this myth that creating is to have control and know what you are doing. Our attitude towards design is merely part of the narrative we tell ourselves, so we think we have a good bead on what’s going on. Yet if we trip over and fall flat on our faces. Is that state of affairs designed?
Creativity is far more haphazard, spontaneous, and even random than our myths.