Atheism vs Theism – Design argument for God – The Watchmaker Metaphor

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 Subject and Object,, 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.

Subject – Object duality

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 chemistry you learn Crystals can form in solution, but where is the designer that makes the crystals?

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 us to draw erroneous conclusions.

It points towards behaviour in animals like ourselves the more instinctive and intuitive. Behaviour that’s not planned but emerges.

Think of the dam of beavers, the nests, of birds, are these designed, and where is the will, the agency that does this?

In complex behaviours lie the swarming on insects of a school of fish; there is no agency in charge of the swarm, no fish in charge of the other fish. Swarm behaviour arises from the interconnections between the members.

Spontaneity is not Design

Theists mistake design and creativity for the same thing. Design, by implication, is made with agency, but creativity can be without agency. A eureka moment when inspiration hits you, the automatic flow states and instincts of people with well-trained skills.

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.

What it seems is theists are mixing up words like:

Creation (what exists, what arises) with Creativity (the making of something by someone) and Design (the deliberate shaping of a creation). 

When thought and action become synonymous then there is no thinker and there is no thought.

A tree creation, is not the result of a creative act of a designing agent. A spontaneous act needs no design. Speaking extemporaneously, walking.

Another example is speech; we don’t usually prescript what we say, yet our words are not random gibberish. Speech is then a spontaneously, subconsciously, effortlessly unfolding existence of natural selection.

Creativity is a place where no one goes because there’s non self that exists in the place. There is no you and no there for you to go to.

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. Fighting, walking, playing golf, conversation, and more none of this behaviour is designed; it unfolds moment by moment, adapting to circumstances.

‘The best way to stop someone in their tracks is to get them to think.’

It’s the trained reflexes of sportsmen and women; the action moves so fast that thinking, planning, and designing, would allow them down.

These immersive states are where the separate self falls away. We loose a sense of time and who we are because we are so captivated by the work.

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 what we do is guided by our subconscious.

The illusory self returns after this state are left behind; the non-self existence is seemingly forgotten.

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?

Babies don’t read a manual on how to walk, so how do they learn?

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. We forget the failures and only counts the successes, the failed attempts lost to history. When we talk or walk, it’s not a plan that’s unfolding; it’s how existence works, we do it so effortlessly that we don’t notice it. The course that was walked or spoken is only complete at its end.

When we look back, we think the path was pre-scripted. But that’s a myopic understanding, a false impression that what did transpire was inevitable; we forget the path, not takes the choices unseen and missed. It’s Survivor Bias, it gives a false impression that what has transpired was inevitable.

It gives a false picture of what transpires was designed. But truthfully, you’re making it up as you go along.

We create failed objects, are these not designed, so it can be argued this cosmos is a failure.

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.

We forget the misses and count the successes- Trial and Error

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.

For many objects, it s a collaborative effort. Many people help create that pot for smart phone hundreds, even thousands.

Design can’t be there if agency is 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.

Iteration, and unfolding complexity is natural.

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’ arguments seem to be based on the idea that matter is inert and needs an agency to shape it into bigger forms. Like some cosmic playdough or lego set.

But the matter is not inert. Matter has properties that affect other matter in the cosmos. For example, a positive polarity near a negative polarity will result in a magnetic field of attraction. Other forces include the Strong Nuclear Force, the Weak Nuclear force and Gravity. The magnetic field created is not an agency, but it is a connection.

These links interconnect matter, energy, and the cosmos into a web of interdependent connections.

The swarming behaviour of a school of fish cannot be found in one fish. But fish together are all interconnected. The schooling behaviour arises due to the relationships between the fish and its surroundings. From that network, 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 an effortless and 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.

Is serendipity design?

Seemingly random events, cross our path. Success can be traced to that random stranger we accidentally met on the street.

That turns our lives in another direction. It’ this sort of random even, serendipity, a part of a design process?

Life unfolds in moments like these, yet we fail to see them coming and don’t plan for them.

A good example of this kind of event is the accidental discovery of Penicillin.

Serendipity is not design, as Sports and games unfold as the progress.

Simplicity points to design more than complexity

Simple objects had to be have been created by us because we are the ones who simplify the world to make things easier to understand.

Abstraction requires a mind, just as painting requires an artist to simplify what they see and put it onto a canvas.

Abstraction requires a mind to decide what is left out and what’s left in. Such editing seems more akin to a sense at work than the complex, nuanced diversity we see. in the world.

Objects and art are good examples; artists have to simplify what they draw to make it easier to remove.

Can logic infer a designer?

Even if we can offer a designer with reason and evidence, it still doesn’t flow there as a supernatural, Metaphysical designer.

To claim our logic proves the existence of something here in this natural realm is practised a lot.

But where is the evidence to show reason can be used to prove a supernatural existence?

We can use logic to prove a horse has passed this way, but where are the logic and reason to say a unicorn has?

Think of it like two hands, one washing the other; one hand is Reason, the other Evidence.

In the empirical realm, we use both; logic gets us to look for evidence and from evidence, we use logic to draw conclusions – Theory and evidence wash each other.

But how does this work in the supernatural realm? Without empirical evidence, only reason is left?

To put forward, reason can prove the supernatural is a claim of its own, requiring support.

Because we can’t use evidence to test our reason and logic what’s left is logic proving logic.

Tidiness is not creative

The human propensity to desire order and tidiness means we don’t see the messiness of life. Or we discount it as having little or no value. Yet creativity is born from messiness and contradiction.

Creativity can’t be forced; we can’t make ideas happen. We can try to get the conditions right and then wait. However, many of these conditions are not created by us either. Force of Will doesn’t make things by itself.

Orderliness doesn’t make for creativity; it’s often more about serendipity, mistakes, iterative steps, eureka moments, that I describe above.

It’s our insecure ego, that wants easy answers, that needs creativity and success to be this simple straight line. So we cling to the myth that orderliness and efficiency are where creation arises.

Further Implications

Free Will?

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 

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.

It all calls into question our understanding of the word design. We think it’s about choices, reason, and agency, yet looking closer, life is more haphazard, chaotic, random, and mystery involved than we want to admit.

We also make bad designs, things that didn’t work, than work badly, yet we still call them designed. foes this mean the cosmos is designed?

God as Essence

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.

Language of Creation and creator

Design is predicated on the subject object distinction. A Duality where the subject is separate from the object. Yet reality is not separated out.

What all the above points towards is there is no design, only the illusion of design. That items that look designed are but an illusion.

The pot is the same as the tree; both are made by the same self-organising process the cosmos operate.
It is just that in our myopic understanding; we claim there is a soul, a self, that makes the pot but not the tree.

It’s the same stuff and the same process.

Something needs to be said about the language. From creation, there has to be a creator, but this an illusion of speech; the ideas there has to be a separate self, a creator so there can be creation.

Saying a pot needs a potter, or ‘I made this Painting’ implies a separation of things that Buddhists recognise as an illusion. For Buddhism, there are no separate things; the language is misleading us. The Self is an illusion, Anatman.

Ego and control

The other issue with the design is the ego. When things go our way, we’re willing to claim it was down to us. But when circumstances go wrong, see how quickly we absolve ourselves of responsibility. It shows how much our sense of agency is tied to our self-esteem.

To accept we made a mistake would damage our ego too much. When things take a nosedive, we blame others or random chance, claim no design, and reject our agency’s role in the result.

We like to feel as if we’re in control. It makes us think we’re more in charge of our lives; we feel better for believing this.

Yet the truth shows we don’t have as much control as we think, but the narrative we are is what makes us feel better.

Closing thoughts

We learn on the way by walking the way.

Design, Free Will, Causality it all seem obvious when you don’t look too closely.

What’s going on here is advocates are ignoring examples where there is no design. As to the examples they cling to, a deeper examination shows the creative process is more haphazard, intuitive, collaborative, confusing and ambiguous than they care to admit. Full of trial and error, eureka moments, happy accidents, and unexpected outcomes.

Apologists vastly overplay agency in creativity because they fail to look deeper and keep to a myopic understanding of the creative process.

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.

Speaking extemporaneously, walking down the street doesn’t involve thought or agency: un-designed process of activity.. You speak effortlessly, spontaneously. Reacting to circumstances as they arise.

To argue for a designed cosmos and a designer God is to misunderstand ourselves. Projecting the false belief, there’s a separate self that designs and different things that get designed.

The thing is, there are no separate things; such separation is illusory. When we create, there comes a moment when the separateness between subject and object disappears. However, we don’t notice because we are in that egoless state, interconnected state.

We can be holding a conversation with our conscious mind, but we can suddenly put in a layer of clothing. Our subconscious is taking care of us. We don’t notice the cold, but our subconscious -the autonomic nervous system- monitors and initiates a behaviour.

In Daoism, there is mention of Wu Wei or Effortless Action. In a Flow state, time and self fall away. So immersed we are in the moment, spontaneous action and reaction is what going on. This is no design by a designer because there is so object and subject.

To think is to place obstacles in the way of such activity. Thought interferes with such activity and performance decreases.

There’s even language on this, ‘We speak of the cuff’, it’s ‘Second Nature’ we ‘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.

The reality of creativity is different than the stories we tell to ourselves about it.

The design argument doesn’t work because it is based on a 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 creativity requires will and control. 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 the myths we cling to.