Let's assume that someone is an educated and intelligent person from the 17th or 18th century. They've been though the enlightenment, they know of the scientific method and have a scientific world view, they believe in logic and reason as the ultimate sources of truth, etc...but they still haven't discovered the theory of evolution and don't know about Darwin's strange inversion.

  • Wouldn't such a person be forced to accept the argument from design, based on the empirical fact (from the 18th century perspective) that complex objects require a intelligent/intentional designer to acquire their complex structure?

  • Would the intricate complexity of the biosphere be a legitimate reason to believe in a first cause or creator?

  • How would someone argue against the argument from design without the theory of evolution?

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    17th or 18th century Western. The design theory never was raised in the Eastern religions. In fact, Patanjali (B.C.) put forth a theory of evolution in his Yoga Aphorisms. The design theory was dismissed in arguments ages ago in the East as being illogical. – Swami Vishwananda Feb 22 '16 at 4:19
  • Hegels theory seems both compatible with evolution and some notion of god. – Mozibur Ullah Feb 22 '16 at 5:29
  • @MoziburUllah , I'm fine with that. My question is more specific: The counter argument to the argument from design in most "lay" discussions is "We don't need a designer because evolution shows how there can be design without a designer". I want to know if somehow if the theory of evolution is the only possible counter argument to the argument from design? – Alexander S King Feb 22 '16 at 5:39
  • @alexander s king: ok, I hadn't fully gathered the import of your question. – Mozibur Ullah Feb 22 '16 at 5:42
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    In the first few pages of "The Blind Watchmaker", Dawkins says that while design may not be a positive argument for the existence of God, without the theory of evolution there is no satisfactory alternative explanation, so an atheist could not really be satisfied with his position. – Bumble Feb 22 '16 at 14:26

Arguably, the historical importance of the argument from design has been distorted by its centrality in the writings of biologist and anti-theologian Richard Dawkins, who has been vocal about his belief that it is unanswerable outside of the Theory of Evolution. It's far from clear that either the religious or the scientific establishment of the time gave it the importance that Dawkins sees in it.

With that said, the choice to see the hand of God in any particular phenomenon is essentially a matter of faith. If you were an atheist of the time, and wanted to reject the argument from design, you could have simply stated that you did not know where the complexity in the world came from, but that you were committed, in principle, to the idea it must have naturalistic causes.

  • "anti-theologian Richard Dawkins, who has been vocal about his belief that it is unanswerable outside of the Theory of Evolution. " I wonder if Dawkins realizes the implications of this position: If it is indeed unanswerable outside of evolution, than for the vast majority of human history theism was the most rational position to adopt and therefore, it can't be trivialized the way he and sam harris do all the time. – Alexander S King Feb 22 '16 at 17:28
  • The following is a direct quote from Dawkins: "Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." That seems to support your point. BTW, I happened on the following link while hunting down that quote, you might find it interesting. No endorsement of the site or the contents by me is intended: talkorigins.org/indexcc/CA/CA602_1.html – Chris Sunami supports Monica Feb 22 '16 at 18:11

Swami Vivekananda (late 19th century) commenting on the Design Theory (Complete Works, V6, pp 97-98; available here under the heading Notes of Class Talks and Lectures, subheading The Design Theory - http://cwsv.belurmath.org/volume_6/vol_6_frame.htm):

The idea that nature in all her orderly arrangements shows design on the part of the Creator of the universe is good as a kindergarten teaching to show the beauty, power, and glory of God, in order to lead children in religion up to a philosophical conception of God; but apart from that, it is not good, and perfectly illogical. As a philosophical idea, it is entirely without foundation, if God is taken to be omnipotent.

If nature shows the power of God in creating the universe, (then) to have a design in so doing also shows His weakness. If God is omnipotent, He needs no design, no scheme, to do anything. He has but to will it, and it is done. No question, no scheme, no plan, of God in nature.

The material universe is the result of the limited consciousness of man. When man becomes conscious of his divinity, all matter, all nature, as we know it, will cease to exist.

The material world, as such, has no place in the consciousness of the All-Presence as a necessity of any end. If it had, God would be limited by the universe. To say that nature exists by His permission is not to say that it exists as a necessity for Him to make man perfect, or for any other reason.

It is a creation for man's necessity, not God's. There, is no scheme of God in the plan of the universe. How could there be any if He is omnipotent? Why should He have need of a plan, or a scheme, or a reason to do anything? To say that He has is to limit Him and to rob Him of His character of omnipotence.

For instance, if you came to a very wide river, so wide that you could not get across it except by building a bridge, the very fact that you would have to build the bridge to get across the river would show your limitation, would show your weakness, even if the ability to build the bridge did show your strength. If you were not limited but could just fly or jump across, you would not be under the necessity of building the bridge; and to build the bridge just to exhibit your power to do so would show your weakness again by showing your vanity, more than it would show anything else.

Monism and dualism are essentially the same. The difference consists in the expression. As the dualists hold the Father and Son to be two, the monists hold them to be really one. Dualism is in nature, in manifestation, and monism is pure spirituality in the essence.

The idea of renunciation and sacrifice is in all religions as a means to reach God.

From our human perspective, monistic traditions have no need for a design theory. It is only in dualistic monotheistic traditions that the concept arises. As Vivekananda points out, the material universe is the result of the limited consciousness of man. In monistic traditions there is no universe, no awareness by the Godhead of the universe. All this is only an apparent manifestation.

The appearance of design is only from our limited consciousness, in a small segment of what is perceived, by us, as time. From what may be conceived as the larger scheme of the universe, infinite space and time, what we may perceive as design is only a series of haphazard events when seen through the lens of infinity.

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    Thanks. Awesome quote. What does Swami Vivekananda say about the problem of evil? It seems that the quote you mention would destroy most western theodicies as well. – Alexander S King Feb 22 '16 at 5:43
  • That there is no plan or design is spoken of in the West in Plotinus' Sixth Ennead, 7th Tractate. He also gives a good perspective on evil in the Six Enneads. Vivekananda spoke in several instances that the 'problem of evil' only arises in monotheistic traditions. There is no problem of evil in monistic traditions as there is no evil. Evil is perception only. There is no absolute evil, no devil. – Swami Vishwananda Feb 22 '16 at 8:51

Just because we evolve, does not mean the evolution is happening due to random chance. There could be force of divine mind behind the evolution. I for one am not convinced that anything in the universe is truly random unless it was specifically designed to be so ( to make it more interesting ) Remember randomness is just a perspective - in other words it makes available more information that was not available previously. So from the point of view of divine (that is omniscient) nothing is random.

  • I am not asking whether evolution and theism are compatible. I am asking a very specific question about the argument from design, please re-read. – Alexander S King Feb 22 '16 at 17:30
  • The non-intelligent hypothesis always put random chance into the mix. Due to probability, everything just happened to turn out the way it did. I don't think ecessarily prove it, just state it. The argument from design is also just stated (or experienced) but not proven. If you make the universe itself intrinsically intelligent, you remove the need for a creator as the creator may be part (or a superset) of the universe. We are going back to the very essence of what we are, not sure you are actually going to get a proof. Just an understanding from observation and experience. – kns98 Feb 22 '16 at 17:41

It seems rather simple to answer the first to questions.

To answer the first question, although an individual would likely accept a divine creator of the biosphere, they could merely accept that things were as they were and had always been (a common idea that was present in cosmology before Fr. Lemaître introduced the Big Bang theory into the mix). However, as it serves as a logical bridge, a divine creator seems to be the only answer. Granted, this could be an affect of my own relativism through which my logic influences my conclusion in a way that supports my desired answer, rather than the actual answer. Similarly could an individual believe if they were a pre-Darwin vehement atheist draw a logical conclusion that supports their desired conclusion that no God/first mover exists.

The second question is also one where our answer may be determined by our desired conclusion rather than using true logic to determine the actual conclusion. One might say, "yes because intricate designs cannot occur due to randomness, therefore a divine creator must exist." As well as one might say, "by the laws of mere biology (without any intercession from any higher power), things came to be by a series of creatures were reached and a few survived." The latter assumes a post-Darwin person. Furthermore, someone else might argue that a first mover may not even be responsible for the complexity of the biosphere, whose existence can be proven by the mere existence of anything at all and has no effect of the current state of the universe. So is it a possibility to argue/believe biological complexity for a notion of a divine creator? Yes because it can be argued. Can someone believe in a first creator without looking at the biosphere? Simply, yes. Therefore, it's overall legitimacy is determined by the individual who makes the argument, which can be influenced by other arguments brought forth to the individual. This is not to say that the existence of a first mover is determined by individuals and is not universal, but that an individual can use the biosphere as legitimate or not in their argument.

Lastly, I went over this a little above, but yes, someone can. It's an idea that permeated cosmology for a while when a stagnant universe was assumed. This assumed that the universe just kind of had existed and would continue on into infinity. So the base argument would be that everything had already existed and would continue to exist, if nothing acted upon anything else (e.g. Extinctions could still occur). While there is a clear logical flaw with this argument (cue St. Thomas Aquinas), it was accepted at one point in another field anyway, meaning that as long as it is generally accepted amongst a community of people, the argument can seem to have little to no logical flaws without question from the individuals who actually believe this argument (e.g. Donald Trump and his voters).

Conclusions- 1- not necessarily. It depends on the person. 2- it, again, depends on the person 3- yes, but it would almost seem absurd…


Darwin got his idea presumably from mixing his prior education with observations of nature. At this time, many other people collected observations about nature, much more thoroughly than in previous centuries. The more observations on nature are made, the more likely repeated patterns are discovered.

So one way to answer this question is that every intelligent person, without knowing about the theory of evolution, will eventually come up with a theory of common descent of diverse biological life, if they continuously learn about observations from nature.

So what mankind before Darwin lacked was not a single genius with a brilliant idea, but just all the observations about the millions of plant and animal species on the planet, beyond just knowing a handful of farm animals (as many as would fit a boost in pairs), and a few plants.

And with any theory of common descent (no matter what species are involved), a curious person would investigate on the mechanics of common descent, and eventually discover hereditary trait rules, genetics and mutations (though it might take a few generations to develop the technology and run certain experiments).

If in the other hand an intelligent person was kept in the dark about the wealth of knowledge from observing nature, common descent theories would seem unlikely (e.g. a common ancestor of a duck and a cat does not seem possible to a person without biological knowledge), and without common descent, life form emerging from anything else than design would seem difficult to argue for.

It is not the theory of evolution that supports itself and refutes intelligent design, it is the wealth of knowledge about nature and biology that inevitably leads to the theory of evolution as sufficient and most reasonable explanation for life.

The key guide that leads to unguided design is common descent, which was already suggested before Darwin, see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_descent, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidence_of_common_descent, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_evolutionary_thought


What do you mean by "if it was not for the theory of evolution"?

If nobody had ever come up with the idea of evolution yet, that would obviously not make a difference. A theory is valid even if nobody thought of it yet. So the "intelligent design" theory wouldn't be justified. More people might believe in it, incorrectly, so more people would be mistaken, but it wouldn't be justified.

On the other hand, if the theory of evolution was actually wrong, disproven, then some over theory why life is the way it is would have to be right. If the theory of evolution was wrong, then some facts would have to be different than they are. With these facts different, evidence against intelligent design might not be valid. But that's like saying "if 2 + 2 wasn't 4, then it might be justified to say that 2 + 2 = 5". Sure. But 2 + 2 is 4.

And sorry, but "the intricate complexity of the biosphere" is much more easy to believe than some "first cause or creator". It's much more easy to believe that this intricate complexity has a reason that I don't yet understand, than to believe that there is a creator which would have to be somehow related as well.

  • It seems like you're using "justified" in a non-standard manner, you might want to clarify. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Feb 23 '16 at 17:01

Not at all. Look at Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion a full 30 years before Darwin and Wallace's Theory of Evolution. For example, he says:

Right, cries Philo: this is the topic on which I have all along insisted. I have still asserted, that we have no data to establish any system of cosmogony. Our experience, so imperfect in itself, and so limited both in extent and duration, can afford us no probable conjecture concerning the whole of things. But if we must needs fix on some hypothesis; by what rule, pray, ought we to determine our choice? Is there any other rule than the greater similarity of the objects compared? And does not a plant or an animal, which springs from vegetation or generation, bear a stronger resemblance to the world, than does any artificial machine, which arises from reason and design?

How can someone living in a universe where everything/nothing is "created" distinguish everything they have ever experienced to something else? We can distinguish between "man made" and "natural", because we have experiences of each. Any attempt at projecting similarity from parts to the whole can only draw from arbitrary properties.

If we see a house, Cleanthes, we conclude, with the greatest certainty, that it had an architect or builder; because this is precisely that species of effect which we have experienced to proceed from that species of cause. But surely you will not affirm, that the universe bears such a resemblance to a house that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy is here entire and perfect. The dissimilitude is so striking, that the utmost you can here pretend to is a guess, a conjecture, a presumption concerning a similar cause; and how that pretension will be received in the world, I leave you to consider.

This is one of many places which points out that analogy from a part to the whole can't be maintained across such a large gap. That obviously human made things imply a designer, can't be used as an analogy for the entire universe and for a supposedly infinitely intelligent being.

There are many other parts, but directed more toward the negative religious implications -- that argument from design doesn't necessarily imply a single designer or one which relates to the usual understanding of a deity. For example, he brings up the Hindu story of the Universe being created by a spider's web as being equally valid under this analogy.

  • Thanks. I always thought Hume was much earlier than Darwin. – Alexander S King Feb 22 '16 at 5:41
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    This is answer is confusing in at least one way -- the link doesn't at all seem to show that Hume "completely dismantles argument from design" nor does Hume's Dialogues concerning natural religion Perhaps a more nuanced wording would be in order? – virmaior Feb 22 '16 at 9:39
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    The link isn't to Hume's paper, it's to one person's summary of a Hume paper, and that summary doesn't make your point clear. You should cite the paragraph that you think proves your point. – James Kingsbery Feb 22 '16 at 21:45

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