Intelligent Design is a Flawed Argument

Philosophy 3 min read

Intelligent design, ironically, is flawed in its design.

The typical intelligent design argument runs like:

  • The universe has conditions very well suited to life
  • If physical constants were even very slightly different, life would not be possible
  • This is extraordinarily unlikely
  • Therefore, God probably exists

If the constants were different?

The argument fails in another way too. It pulls out the possibility of the constants being different as if this is an obvious possibility. Yet our language for counterfactuals comes from the world we inhabit. It makes sense to say 'what if I wore a red jumper today?', but it is not clear what it means to ask if the Universe's structure was different in a fundamental way. Perhaps these laws are inevitably so.

If a child asked 'what if 2=3?', and was then astounded that the universe functioned because 2 could equal so many numbers, you wouldn't become a deist. This is because it makes no sense to ask about the probability of 2 equalling other numbers. The argument for intelligent design makes a similar mistake. It assumes that things could be different in a meaningful way. This is unclear - our limited understanding of what physical laws even are does not currently allow such statements to have meaning.

What even is a probability?

The main structural flaw with the argument actually lies elsewhere, in its misunderstanding of what a probability is.

For something to be unlikely, there has to be a 'sample space' of possible events you can assign probabilities to.

For instance, I say rolling a six on a dice 100 times in a row is unlikely because the sample space of possible events is well defined, 6^100. [technical side note: 6^100 ordered events, for unordered events the overlap will reduce this]

This argument doesn't define what the sample space should be. If, for instance, I had a distribution of which 'universal constants' were more likely, then I could construct an argument, as there would be some meaning to saying the event was unlikely.

Probability of God?

In fact, the argument implicitly says that we can assign a probability to God's existence.

This is because for the comparison to make sense, there needs to be a probability for the alternative event. For instance, if I know that the only way of winning the lottery is by pure chance, then an argument as follows makes no sense

  • I won the lottery
  • This was very unlikely
  • Ergo, I am chosen by God

It doesn't make sense because, if it can only be chosen by chance, then it being unlikely is irrelevant. If however, I know that there is a 1% chance of me being chosen by God to win the lottery, then if I buy 100,000,000 tickets over the course of many years, I will win about 1,000,000 because God chose me, and only about 2 (in the British lottery) because of chance. In this case you would reasonably conclude God exists and had chosen you to win the lottery.Yet you have to have some way of assigning a probability to God choosing you first. Now switch around lottery with the constants in physics and you see the problem with intelligent design.

Intelligent death

Until we have a better idea of what consciousness is we have no idea whether it could form in other circumstances. The way consciousness arises in our universe might not arise in another universe with 'different' laws, yet it could arise in another way. Or perhaps something different to consciousness but necessarily 'worse' would arise. The special nature accorded to our experience is not justified - nor could it be! What framework or analysis could we apply to whatever might exist in a different way to us?

A suspicion...

...that rigour is often sidelined when questions of personal importance are at stake.