Atheism vs Theism – Design argument for God

Design arguments are among the more popular non-scriptural arguments put forward by Theists.

The argument goes something like this: The cosmos appears designed and, therefore, must have a designer, a God. A watch has a watchmaker; a pot has a potter is the claim.

One simple counterargument is that the cosmos is better designed for rocks or bacteria than people. Most 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 believe in Dysteleology; existence has no telos, no end from purposeful design.

Subject – Object duality

Subject Vs Object?

The image of a potter making a pot suggests a separation: between Subject and Object. It’s why theists say God is separate, outside space and time (that makes no sense in itself).

This image has a number of problems; firstly, separate objects are impervious to outside influence and therefore change. Such objects can’t causally affect any other thing either. So if God is separate from his creation, he cannot affect the cosmos.

But the metaphor doesn’t imply this; the potter and the pot are not separate things. There’s a connection a relationship here; so invested in making the pot, the potter becomes fully immersed in creating to the point where the object-subject distinction disappears. This is no design by a designer because there is so object and subject.

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.

Further still, the pot also affects the potter, so there’s a feedback loop here; the creator is changed by the created.

With this metaphor, God cannot be imagined as separate or unchanging; it doesn’t follow the imagery.

Trees Don’t Need Makers

Do Beavers design their dams? Do birds design their Nests? In chemistry, you learn Crystals can form in solution, but where is the designer that makes the crystals?

To go on, trees don’t need tree makers, and ‘blades of grass’ don’t need ‘blade of grass makers’. Same with stars, galaxies, bacteria, fish, and the vast majority of the cosmos, we can find no agency.

To claim it all has to be designed based upon the tiniest amount of objects that appear so (the artificial artefacts around us) is to stretch the argument’s credibility to the breaking point.

The cosmos is a web of interconnected causes and conditions: a complex system. In such a system, the activity requires no mind or agency to make it happen—it results in the interactions of all the parts in that system.

In complex behaviours like the swarming of 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. Think of a ‘eureka moment’ when inspiration hits you.

There are also ‘Flow’ states where time and self fall away (see Subject vs Object above). To act spontaneously in ‘flow’ is when thought and action become synonymous; there is no thinker, that has thoughts. We act upon instinct and trained skills or ‘muscle memory’.

In Daoism it’s called Wu Wei or Effortless Action. In a Flow state, so immersed we are in the moment, spontaneous action and reaction is what going on.

Much of our behaviour needs no plan. Walking down a crowded street, we don’t draw up a route, then follow it. We navigate that street spontaneously, effortlessly, without thought, and instinctually. Our motion is neither designed nor random. A spontaneous act needs no design.

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).

Another example is speech; we don’t usually prescript what we say, yet our words are not random gibberish. Speech is a spontaneous, effortless unfolding of creativity, but not design.

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.

Creativity is not a place where anyone goes; there is no place and no you. Here, I point towards the Buddhist notion that the self is illusory. These immersive states are where the separate self falls away. We lose a sense of time and who we are because we are so captivated by the work.

In Japanese, it’s called Mushin, ‘no mind’, or no conscious mind. The mastery of a skill is to let go of thoughts and plans; they’re hindrances. Behaviour is not designed but unfolds moment by moment, adapting to circumstances.

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.

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

The best way to stop someone in this state is to get them to think; the Centipedes Dilemma. Thought impairs reflexive action and impairs performance.

We seemingly forget that what we do is guided by our subconscious and learned instincts; instead, we focus far too much on the conscious mind and what it appears to be doing.

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 looked 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 walking, so how do they learn to walk?

Supposing you forgot all the failed attempts and only remembered the successful ones. It would appear as though you knew where your keys were all along.

Here I point out a bias; we tend to forget the failures and only count the successes, the failed attempts lost to history. When we look back, we think the path was pre-scripted. But that’s Survivor Bias: A false impression that what did transpire was inevitable, planned, and designed. We focus on the path taken, not the choices unseen and missed, the routes avoided. Truthfully, you’re making it up as you go along.

For all our success, there are hundreds of failures, forgotten and unvoiced. Eric Schumpeter called it Creative Destruction. For some restaurants to succeed, a lot more must fail.

Tying, failing, correcting mistakes, is that design? Testing ideas out, discarding the ones that don’t work and keeping the ones that do, that’s not design but natural selection.

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

Multiple causes are not design

All events occur because of multiple causes and conditions at the same place and time, ‘Events collide to form other events’. That’s the Buddhist understanding of interdependent co-arising or dependent origination.

We’re not in control of all these events, even barely aware of them; to say it’s a planned outcome is to ignore chance encounters and unknown influences.

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

Design can’t be their agency is only a tiny part of the causes involved in the cosmos. Natural processes unfold by themselves; that part of creation requires no design or create a design.

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 but 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 the unknown is always operating behind the scenes like everything else.

Iteration is not design

Even manufactured objects like buildings and planes came about through trial and error. With each new version, new iteration the object changes.

Iteration, and unfolding complexity is natural.

What we think of design is mistakenly a history of failures and changes and something we seem to forget. Complex things we are made bit by bit, an process of growth and development, change.

Design goes through stages, its not so much designed as evolved.

Internal causality is not design

Theists’ arguments are based on the idea that matter is inert and needs an outside agency to shape or change a form, like some cosmic playdough or Lego set.

But matter is not inert; matter has properties that affect other cosmic matter. The internal workings of an organism make its existence continue.

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 internal 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 limits; taking things apart destroys relationships, so any conclusions drawn are limited understanding of the system. You can only gain some knowledge by examining the parts separately.

There is an internal web of causal influences and relations in complex systems. There is no need for an ‘external agency’. Matter, or the ‘stuff’ of the cosmos, 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’s this sort of random event, or serendipity, a part of a design process?

If your making parallels of gods nature with our own as theists do, then god is subject to these events too. Life unfolds in such moments, yet we fail to see them coming and don’t plan for them.

An excellent example of this kind of event in science is the accidental discovery of Penicillin.

Creativity is born from messiness and contradiction, a confluence of ideas colliding in ways we can’t plan or predict. Theists need to see just how random chance can influence what happens. Orderliness doesn’t make for creativity; it’s often more about serendipity, mistakes, iterative steps, and eureka moments that I described above.

Serendipity is not design, as just as sports and games unfold, they can often turn on events that were never foreseen or predicted.

Simplicity points to design more than complexity

Simple objects point more towards design because we are the ones who simplify the world to make things easier to understand.

Objects and art are good examples; artists must simplify what they draw to make creating it easier. Abstraction requires a mind, just as painting requires an artist to simplify what they see and put it onto a canvas.

Our objects are more straightforward than what nature creates, so simple ideas and objects imply design, not the complex, changing existence of the world.

Further Implications

All the above has further implications for other arguments for a God-like agency. If design is less about agency, then what of Free 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 mean behaviours unfold.

In some cases of creativity, there is no purpose or end result to arrive at—merely the joy of creating for its own sake. Like enjoying music or dancing, there doesn’t have to be a goal; the music, the dance is the goal. It’s Autotelic, self-goal.

We don’t need a reason or purpose to play or create like children.

The meaning of design

All this brings into question what 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 without a designer’s prior knowledge or belief.

Another query is the meaning of the word. The dictionary definition describes its common usage.

Designed: Adjective, made or done intentionally; intended; planned. 


It’s loaded language; design means 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.

We know Potter exists, so we infer design in the Pot, not drawing a conclusion from the evidence that leads to a belief in a designer then than claiming design. The god’s claim that must be proved is assumed at the start.

We believe in design because it’s the result of intent. But how do you prove intent? 

It’s not clear a caveman would see a watch as designed. A better question might be: How good are we at recognising design? What about a conversation? Are those designed? A cloud, a tree, a wave? 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.

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 poor designs that don’t work, yet we still call them designed. Does this mean the cosmos is poorly designed?

Closing thoughts

The design argument (also fine-tuning) is based upon a myopic understanding of how things work. Superficially, a separate Potter creates a separate pot.

We have this myth that creativity requires will and control if we trip over and fall flat on our faces. Is that state of affairs designed?

Speaking extemporaneously, walking down the street doesn’t involve thought or agency: they’re un-designed processes of activity. Speaking and walking effortlessly, without a plan. Design advocates ignore such examples where there is no design.

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, evolution of form, spontaneous behaviour, and unexpected outcomes.

We’re making it up as we go along. We use imperfect heuristics because they work well enough, most of the time.

It’s turning consciousness into a fetish especially thought; its contents of intentions, plans, and analysis are projected to create an image of God. We know we act spontaneously without plan or intent, yet theists ignore that side of existence. Does God have a subconscious?

What all the above points towards is there is no design, only the illusion of design. The pot is the same as the tree; both are made by the same self-organising process that is the cosmos operating.

Our mistake is to get caught in the illusion of a separate self, with a will or agency, a separate object, like the pot. Looking closer, we see we’re not as separate as we believe. It upends the dualism of Subject vs object to a mere useful fiction. Design is also a leading term; it assumes there is a designer before proving one. Remember, the map is not the territory, our ideas are not reality.

Theists need to understand or examine their metaphor more closely, it assumes too much, or they take unjustified leaps towards their conclusion.

Creativity can’t be forced; we can’t make ideas happen; to say what’s result sis design is to forget the nature of creativity. When we walk down a busy street, do we plan our route? Do we script everything we say?

It comes down to ego and insecurity. 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 and blame others. It shows how much our sense of agency is tied to our self-esteem.

We have a vastly overinflated sense of agency in our lives. Design is part of the narrative we tell ourselves to feel more in control, so we can think we have a good bead on what’s going on, that we are masters of fate.