Who designed the designer? (Part 1)

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, November 27, 2008)

Who designed the designer? (Part 1)

The question—Who designed the designer?—has been famously set out by Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion) as an objection to God’s existence.

According to Dawkins, explaining nature’s improbable complexity (that is, nature’s apparent design) by appealing to a designer is to appeal to something more improbable than nature, because the designer would have to be more complex than what it explains. Moreover, the designer would have to be explained by an even more complex and improbable explanation—i.e. the designer’s designer—and so on. Thus, Dawkins thinks, God’s existence is highly improbable.

Here is one reason (of several) for thinking that Dawkins’ objection fails: It’s irrelevant.

The issue of the complexity and origin of a designer simply has no bearing on the process of determining whether something is designed.

Consider the science known as SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). In SETI the intelligent design hypothesis is allowed to explain ET’s communications (if they were to occur). Moreover—and significantly—whether the alleged message is truly a message from ET depends not at all on our knowledge of ET’s complexity or origin, but solely on whether the message displays design.

How do we discern design? Think about some long words in a Scrabble game, or consider some sophisticated computer software. Or imagine, say, the discovery of strange complex machinery on Mars. Or recall the messages from outer space in the movie Contact.

The way to discern evidence of whether something is designed (or not) is to determine whether the thing satisfies two criteria: (1) that its existence is highly improbable via non-intelligent causes alone, given what we know from empirical experience of the capacities of non-intelligent causes; and (2) that it is strongly analogous to things we know (also) from empirical experience to be designed by intelligent causes. (So this is an argument based on what we know; this isn’t an argument from ignorance or gaps in our knowledge.)

Who designed the designer? Perhaps the designer just is (and always has been). Or not. Perhaps the designer is complex (more complex than what it has designed). Or not.

The point is this: We are not required to understand the nature of a designer (i.e., whether it is complex or not) or even the origin of a designer (whether it has a designer or not) to determine—rationally and empirically—that something has been designed. We just need evidence of design.

Therefore, as an alleged block to discerning a designer from its designed effects, Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer objection is beside the point. It’s a logical blunder.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, located in Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada.)

Leave a Reply