Monday, April 7, 2014

How The Argument from Design gives Humanity a God Complex

An argument that Christians like to throw around these days traces its roots back to Thomas Aquinas. It’s called The Argument from Design. Basically, this argument suggests that, because everything looks designed, it must therefore be designed, which in turn means there must be what Father Daniel O’Reilly of Columbia Catholic Ministry referred to as, a “benevolent designer."
One potential confirmation bias present in this argument comes from the problem we have of making order among ideas.  As Jacques Barzun explained in The House of Intellect, we may then come to believe, quite mistakenly, that the order has been discovered ready made in the facts.[i] Assuming we have not succumbed to the mistake Barzun warns of, like the other arguments, the problems with this reasoning should be readily apparent.
First, if we look at a random generated pattern long enough, it may well begin to look as if it were designed, because our brains naturally try to discern patterns and define meaning. That’s just how our brains work. In fact, it’s probably how all brains work, no matter the life form. This is not because God wants to save us all from the hell he threatens to throw us into, but because it’s a necessary means of survival.  
 Second, as Father O’Reilly argues, the design being talked about in this argument is one where “it appears the universe was created specifically for human life.” This is called the “anthropic principle.” This reasoning, of course, is simply a confirmation bias that presumes the universe was created “specifically” for humans, and not for, say, cats, dogs, aardvarks, plankton, worms, rats, cockroaches, jelly fish, sparrows, space aliens, and all the rest.   Any one of these life forms could just as easily conclude the universe had been made specifically for their benefit. In fact, if the universe was made to produce a particular form of life, it was most likely made for the tardigrades.
Tardigrades, which are also known as waterbears or moss piglets, are water-dwelling, segmented micro-animals with eight legs. They are classified as “extremophiles” because they can “thrive in a physically or geochemically extreme condition that would be detrimental to most life on Earth.”[ii] They can withstand temperatures from just above absolute zero (which equates to −459.67° on the Fahrenheit scale) to well above the boiling point of water, pressures about six times stronger than pressures found in the deepest ocean trenches, ionizing radiation at doses hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for a person, and the vacuum of outer space. They can go without food or water for more than 10 years, drying out to the point where they are 3% or less water, only to rehydrate, forage, and reproduce.[iii]
            Tardigrades have been around for over 530 million years while our own species, Homo sapiens, arrived only 200,000 years ago. In other words, humans have been around for a mere 0.004% of the Earth’s history.[iv]   Considering this, and comparing the tardigrade to the fact that Alexander the Great may have died of alcoholic liver disease, seems to suggest that it’s likely the universe was created more for them than for us. 
Putting aside the tardigrades, consider the case for bacteria. Bacteria colonized Earth 2 billion years before humanity ever showed up, so perhaps our planet was intended to be nothing more than God's little Petri dish.
Third, even if the universe was designed, why must we assume it was designed by a designer and not a host of designers?
Fourth, this argument assumes the designer “designed” the universe “specifically for human life,” but maybe it was not designed with any life in mind at all, or maybe the whole thing was just an accident. 
Fifth, Father O’Reilly claims the designer must be “benevolent,” but why? There is just as much death and decay in the universe as there is life and rebirth, “for all that lives must die.”  If the birthright of every living thing is a death sentence, and to stay alive requires killing something else, why does Father O’Reilly conclude the designer of this murderous cycle of death must therefore be “benevolent”?

This argument is interesting also because it reveals a major paradox of Christianity and religion. That paradox comes from how this argument instills the believer with humility toward God but an extreme hubris toward everything else, and especially toward unbelievers.  The humility comes from believing that we are created by, and entirely subject to, the most powerful being imaginable.  We should therefore be "humbled" by the prospect of being alive at all. The hubris, on the other hand, comes from believing that everything was created specifically for us, as it says in the book of Genesis, and that we can therefore do with it all as we please. Such hubris not only contributes to why many Christians deny things like climate change, for example, it also forms the underlying reason for “speciesism,” which is the belief that the human species is the only really important species on the planet, or even in the universe.   
            Ultimately, by looking at this argument from outside the assumptions it relies on, it becomes clear that the real designer shaping Father O’Reilly’s beliefs is not God or this argument, but his own confirmation bias that interprets everything in the universe as proof of Father O’Reilly’s beliefs.  To assume that everything was created “specifically for humans, however, is to elevate humans to the level of the gods over the rest of all creation. Such a belief only preaches humility in an attempt to mitigate the God complex it inevitably creates. Of the two, the latter has always proven itself to be far stronger than the former.

[i] Barzun, Jacques, 1959. House of Intellect, Harper & Brothers, New York and Evanston p. 155
[iii] Guidetti, R. & Jönsson, K.I. (2002). "Long-term anhydrobiotic survival in semi-terrestrial micrometazoans". Journal of Zoology 257 (2): 181–187.

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