Design

One more little thing from The Believing Brain — about the Argument from Design, which came up in our discussion of A Universe from Nothing (still waiting to be read).

Shermer discusses the results of a survey he did in which he asked people why they believe in God.  The top two reasons that people gave for why they believed in God were “the good design of the universe” and “the experience of God in everyday life.”

If we believe Shermer, of course, the belief in God came first, and the explanation for the belief came along later.  But it is interesting that the Argument from Design (as applied to the universe) is the first thing people tend to come up with.  I bet that, two hundred years ago, people would also have applied the Argument from Design to us, but evolution has made that much less plausible to people who aren’t prepared to dismiss science altogether; now religion has to accommodate itself to evolution.  But until recently, science had nothing to say about the origin of the universe, and that left religion free to claim it for a Designer.

David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion has the character Philo make some powerful arguments against the Argument from Design.  But even Philo wobbles towards the end — I imagine because, when Hume was writing in 1776, even a thoroughgoing skeptic couldn’t quite get past the miracle that is man. And it was impossible to completely dismiss the wonder of the creation.

Look round the world: contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great-machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy, which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human design, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since therefore the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man; though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed. By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence.

Over time, if the new theories work out, I imagine more and more believers will leave behind “the good design of the universe” and center their belief on “the experience of God.”  But then, of course, you have the neuroscientists hard at work on that one….

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