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The Design Inference

May 14, 2013

I love going to the Chicago Art Institute. It is one of the greatest art museums in the world, with a collection ranging from Rubens to Picasso. It contains several famous pieces, including Nighthawks, American Gothic, and Un Dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte. One of my favorite pieces, however, is Joan Mitchell’s City Landscape.

     Now, suppose I was with a friend, let’s call him Bob, and we were looking at this painting. Bob thinks that City Landscape is a bunch of colors pointlessly sloshed on a canvas, like a Jackson Pollock piece. In Bob’s mind, it’s not a painting. It’s not anything. It is just a production of random chaos, without any meaning or order.

    I disagree. “Look, Bob,” I say, “This painting may seem like it was just painted by randomly slapping the brush across the canvas, but there is evidence of design. It’s supposed to be the city. The colors in the middle of the painting are all the people. And the grey things are skyscrapers. Or something.” But Bob is still not convinced. It looks like total chaos to him.

     But suppose then I had a piece of evidence from outside the painting that proved that this painting, was, in fact, designed. Maybe there was a plaque next to the painting that said something like “Joan Mitchell painstakingly planned out this picture, despite the fact that it looks random.” Or perhaps I had read some of the writings of Joan Mitchell, where she talked about how she designed City Landscape. Better yet, maybe I had actually talked to Mitchell, and she had told me that she designed this piece with a purpose in mind. That would be more convincing than trying to intuit the painting’s design from the painting itself.

     A common Christian apologetic strategy is the argument from design. Though the argument has many manifestations, from Paley’s rather silly story about the watch, to the far more scientifically nuanced design inferences of scientists like Michael Behe and William Dembski, the basic argument is simple. It is very unlikely that some facet of the natural world arose out out of random chance/any of the natural processes we know about. Therefore, it is best to assume that they were designed by some outside force.

     There’s a problem with this argument–the term “design.” How are we supposed to decide if something appears “designed?” Design is a very subjective thing. Let me give another example. Suppose I try to show my grandmother some progressive metal. Her reaction would be to say that it is not music, that it is just noise, that it is chaotic screaming and hollering without any design. My reaction to that would be to sulk in my room for days, disappointed that no one else understands the exquisite beauty of Between the Buried and Me. These two different reactions show that inferring design rests upon prior presuppositions held by the person observing whatever is in question. If I believe in God, I am more likely to believe that an object could be “designed” by God than not. If I am an atheist, then I will reject the idea of design by God, because I reject God.

Between the Buried and Me: By chance or by design?

     The argument for design is unhelpful because there isn’t (to my knowledge) a clear scientific way to quantify what “design” actually looks like. Any of our definitions of design or inferences of design are going to be informed by prior presuppositions. At best we could offer an argument-for-design, showing how design fits the brute facts better than purposelessness (I am grateful to Vern Poythress for this idea). But design arguments tend to be worse than useless in apologetics. They deal with things relatively insignificant to the common person (is the RNA world hypothesis really going to change the way I live my life?), they require a great deal of scientific knowledge to fully understand, and they take the focus away from the Gospel. Jesus wasn’t born in a manger holding a copy of The Signature of the Cell.

     So is the “design inference” warranted? I don’t know. It would take people with more scientific knowledge than me to definitively say whether a design inference works or not. Is the “design inference” necessary? No. Whether or not you could “prove” the evidence of design does almost nothing for the faith. Christians put their trust in the cross, not the double helix.

Now that I have disproven irreducible complexity in the skin cells of the tail of the duckbill platypus, the very foundations of religion will be shaken! Muahahahahahahahaha!

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