Who Designed the Designer?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This is a longer, more detailed version of New Atheism’s Undead  Arguments  It is often casually assumed that the design argument fails because God would be more complex than anything he created. This critique of the design argument, developed by Hume and popularised by Dawkins, depends on several flawed presuppositions.  The objection charges that any designer invoked to explain the complexity of the universe will be an extremely complex entity in its own right. Indeed, it is alleged that such a designer must be more complex than the universe itself, or anything in the universe. Roughly, his is because a designer use some mental “blueprint” before creating the universe, and any mind which could contain such a plan must be massively complex. The character Philo voices an argument in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

We are still obliged to mount higher in order to find the cause of this cause which you had assigned as satisfactory and conclusive. … a mental world or universe of ideas requires a cause as much as does a material world or universe of objects; and if similar in its arrangement must require a similar cause…Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle? But if we stop, and go no farther; why go so far? Why not stop at the material world? How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum.

Philo’s argument is that a designer’s mind would contain so many ideas that it must be more complex than the universe it is supposed to explain. This leads the objector to ask, ‘Who designed God’s mind?’ This argument remains influential. Colin McGinn offers this description of his problem with the design argument:

The divine creator must himself exhibit design; he is the complex being par excellence. He certainly cannot have arisen by chance. But then, since design requires a designer, we need a being who can create God! Very well, let us postulate such a being, a super-God. But wait, this super-God himself exhibits design, and hence requires a super-super-God to create him. And so it goes on, ad infinitum. The hypothesis of God simply pushes the question back, either because he himself has complex design or because he is himself a conscious being. The proposed explanation simply presupposes what it was intended to explain.[i]

In his comprehensive survey of the arguments for and against God’s existence Graham Oppy also argues that the design argument fails

…for the reasons that Hume gave…it isn’t clear that the appearance of function and suitability of constitution to function in the natural world is well explained if we and the world are the product of intelligent design. Given that there is bound to be function and suitability of constitution in the designer, it seems that this cannot be a satisfying route to a complete explanation of the appearance of function and suitability of constitution of function in the natural world. If we must postulate (just as much?) unexplained function and suitability of constitution to function in the designer, then there is no explanatory progress – and hence, arguably, there is no good explanation at all.[ii]

Richard Dawkins has popularised this argument through many of his books. His version argument will be outlined and assessed as it shares some of its weaknesses with the Humean version. (Specifically, it is not clear that one must offer an explanation for every explananda; and it is not clear that an inference could not be made to a creator who is more complex than the universe). Attention will then return to the classical Humean argument for God’s complexity.

1) Dawkin’s Statement

2) Objections to Dawkins
a) Evolution is Improbable
b) But  Highly Complex God Might Not Be Improbable
c) Evidence Changes Our Assessment of Probabilities
d) We Don’t Need to Explain God for God to Explain the Evidence
e) God Isn’t Complex

3) The Simplicity and Power of Theism
4) The Failure of Humean Hypotheses


Dawkins’ Statement of the Objection

Dawkins version of the “who designed the designer” objection is framed around the concept of “organised complexity”. Roughly, an entity has organised complexity if it is composed of a variety of parts arranged in a highly specific manner so that it is able to function. For example, cells exemplify organised complexity because they have numerous parts that must be arranged in a precise manner for the cell to function. Dawkins argues that organised complexity always demands an explanation because it is a “quality specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone.”[iii] Statistically, it is extremely improbable that a cell would arise merely by chance, so the organised complexity of the cell demands an explanation. But Dawkins insists that God’s mind must also be organised and complex[iv]. Now, if the organised complexity of the cell stands in need of explanation because it is statistically improbable, how much more improbable is the organised complexity of God’s mind? So Dawkins argues in “Climbing Mount Improbable”:

If we postulate [a] cosmic designer we are left in exactly the same position as when we started. Any designer capable of constructing the dazzling array of living things would have to be intelligent and complicated beyond all imagining. And complicated is just another word for improbable – and therefore demanding of an explanation. A theologian who ripostes that his God is sublimely simple has (not very) neatly evaded the issue, for a sufficiently simple God, whatever other virtues he might have, would be too simple to be capable of designing a universe…You cannot have it both ways. Either your god is capable of designing worlds and doing all the other godlike things, in which case he needs an explanation in his own right. Or he is not, in which case he cannot provide an explanation. [v]

So, as Roger Montague points out, Dawkins critique of theism “commits him to the idea that any conceivable designer is, and must be, more complex than the thing designed.”[vi] Dawkins then goes on to argue that Darwinism enables atheists to go further than Hume. Hume could merely point to problems with the hypothesis of divine design; Darwin gives the atheist an alternative hypothesis to design. Evolution by natural selection, in contrast to design hypotheses, shows how organised complexity can develop from simpler things. The evolution of the eye, for example, did not occur all at once. It happened gradually, over thousands of generations. The accumulation of naturally selected mutations builds up more and more organised complexity over time.[vii] So Dawkins’ objection to design arguments are easily summarised: God cannot explain the universe because he must exemplify more organised complexity than the universe. To be more exact, theism is a poor explanation for apparent design because, if God must exemplify more organised complexity than the universe, then he is more improbable that the universe[viii]. Finally, the theory of evolution by natural selection demonstrates that organised complexity can develop from simpler states. Therefore, the atheist has a satisfactory explanation for the organised complexity of our universe and the theist does not.

Objections to Dawkins

There are at least five problems with Dawkins’version of the “who designed the designer” objection. Each of these five objections will be examined by turn in the subsequent sections. First, it is not obvious that evolution by natural selection demonstrates that organised complexity can emerge from a simple process, because evolution by natural selection depends on a specific and improbable arrangement of physical laws and constants. Second, even if God did exemplify organised complexity it is not clear that this would render his existence improbable. The third and fourth points are closely related: even if God were more improbable than the universe we could still have very good evidence that God exists; furthermore, we do not need to explain the existence of a complex God to use him in an explanation. These four objections meet Dawkins’ “who designed the designer” argument even if God exemplifies more organised complexity than anything in the universe. But fifthly, and crucially, there are significant problems with the idea that God would exemplify organised complexity. Dawkins does not provide any compelling argument that demonstrate God exemplifies organised complexity; and, furthermore, it would seem that if theism is true God could not be composed of a careful arrangement of parts.

Evolution By Natural Selection is Improbable

First, we can question whether it is reasonable to describe evolution by natural selection as simple. Evolution depends on the existence of replicators: structures which cause copies of themselves to be made; each acts as its own template for copying.[ix] The copying system must allow for a little variation in each new generation; this allows a population of variants to come into existence. Yet the copying process must also be very reliable – otherwise beneficial variations would not be preserved. Furthermore, natural selection requires more than variation and very reliable replication. The replicators must exist in an environment in which they compete for resources. Finally, to explain the taxonomic diversity and organised complexity of our world, these replicators must be able to combine to form vehicles  – that is, structures ( for example, organisms) which work to propagate their replicators.[x]It is remarkable that such a replication process is even possible. Evolution can only take place because the laws of physics and chemistry allow inorganic molecules to combine to form organic molecules which can become replicators of the correct kind. So evolution by natural selection depends upon specific laws of physics and chemistry, and extraordinarily precise cosmological constants. The point here is that natural selection is not a simple process; it depends on an extremely complex and improbable states of affairs. So Graham Oppy argues that:

…the claim that Darwin and his successors did utterly demolish the argument for biological design is not obviously correct. If we suppose that the world is deterministic – or, at least that, given a complete set of data for a single time and a complete set of data for infinity at all subsequent time, the laws determine the data at all subsequent times – there is still the improbability of the initial data and conditions which permit the later development of apparent evidence for biological design to be accounted for…. [xi]

Oppy agrees that evolution by natural selection makes the organised complexity of the living world more probable; however, given the laws and constants that might have described our universe, the process of evolution by natural selection is itself very improbable. So evolution by natural selection fails to explain organised complexity away.

Suppose that the current state of the world is improbable. Suppose further that there is a procedure that renders the current state of the world very highly probable given some range of past states of the world. Suppose that the procedure in question is instantiated. Then, the relevant range of past states of the world must be highly improbable – for if not, the present state of the world would be highly probable, contrary to our initial assumption. [xii]

A Highly Complex God Need Not Be Improbable

Second, it is not at all clear that God is highly improbable if God exemplifies organised complexity. For Dawkins, organised complexity is a statistically improbable state of affairs because it is highly improbable that it would come about by chance. To illustrate the improbability of an organised, complex object forming by chance he uses the example of a whirlwind striking a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747 by whirling pieces of junk metal about.

Hitting upon the lucky number that opens the bank’s safe is the equivalent…of hurling scrap metal around at random and happening to assemble a Boeing747…of all the millions of unique and, with hindsight, equally improbable, arrangement of a heap of junk, only one (or very few) will fly. The uniqueness of the arrangement that flies, or that opens the safe, is nothing to do with hindsight. It is specified in advance [xiii]

It is extremely unlikely that an organised complex object like a plane could be assembled by chance. “Thus, a spontaneously-formed God who is at least as complex as the physical universe itself is very improbable.”[xiv] However, it is simply part of the hypothesis of theism that God does not have an external cause and that God did not begin to exist. If God has no beginning then we do not need to concern ourselves over the improbability of God assembling by chance. Gregory Ganssle[xv]also points out that many theists take God to be a necessary being; furthermore God is omniscient and omnipotent by necessity. In other words, if God exists then God could not fail to exist and could not fail to be all-powerful and all knowing. Therefore, if God’s power and knowledge entail that God is internally complex, this is explained by the necessity of God’s nature. As Erik Wielenberg explains:

Dawkins has overlooked an important difference between God and natural complex phenomena: Natural phenomena are contingent things (they exist but could fail to exist) whereas God exists necessarily (He exists and it is impossible for Him not to exist)…If God is a necessary being, then He did not come into existence all at once entirely by chance because He did not come into existence at all. Thus… the fact that a given thing is complex and lacks an explanation external to itself does not imply that the existence of the thing in question is improbable.[xvi]

Of course, not every theist believes that God is broadly logically necessary. However, it is a “live” option in contemporary philosophy of religion and detailed and sophisticated cosmological[xvii] and ontological[xviii] arguments have been advanced for the existence of a necessary being. [xix] Dawkins has not provided a detailed refutation of these arguments, and does not even reference literature on the contemporary debate. So he simply ignores the possibility that a complex God could exist necessarily. So, as Douglas Groothius points out, arguably when we infer to a divine designer “there is no infinite regress such that nothing gets explained. There is, rather, a finite regress to an infinite being; that is, a self-existent being.”[xx] So if being with organised complexity was eternal, necessary or self-existent its organised complexity might not demand an explanation. Groothius points out that Dawkins misrepresents or misunderstands the design argument. The design argument does not assume that everythingwhich is complex requires an explanation. Rather, it points to examples of ordered complexity which seem to require an external cause, and infers a designer of those examples. That is to say, the design argument

… is not operating from the premise that everything that is complex requires an explanation outside itself. Rather, it attempts to explain certain finite and material states of affairs through the design inference. It does not operate on some general philosophical principle that anything  at all that is complex requires an explanation outside itself[xxi]

 God’s A Priori Probability Might Be Low and His A Posteriori Probability High

Third, it is essential to distinguish between the probability of a hypothesis before all the evidence has been taken into account and the probability of a hypothesis after the evidence has been considered.  David Glass has pointed out that even if God exemplifies more organised complexity than anything in the universe, and even if that makes God’s existence less probable than anything in the universe, we could still have evidence that renders God’s existence probable a posteriori[xxii]. In terms of Bayes theorem, p (h) can be incredibly low (for purposes of illustration, Glass suggests 1 in 100,000,000). However, if p (e|h) is sufficiently high, and if p (e|~h) is sufficiently low, we can discover that the posterior probability of the hypothesis – (h|e)  -is very high indeed.

…take just one example of the fine-tuning of a physical constant. If the value of the gravitational constant had been very slightly different, life as we know it would have been impossible. Based on this fact, there is at the very least a prima facie case for saying that such extreme precision would have been very unlikely to occur if there was no God (let’s say 1 in 1012 which arguably is not nearly improbable enough), while it is not all that improbable if there is a God (let’s say 1 in 100)… we find that the prior probability of God’s existence of just 1 in 100,000,000 gets updated to a posterior probability just above 0.99, so it becomes almost certain that God does exist. Now, of course, the precise numbers should not be taken too seriously, but they do illustrate the point.[xxiii]

Dawkins argues that “however statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.”[xxiv]But, at most, this establishes that God is more improbable than the most complex entity or event in a large group of examples of organised complexity .

Let’s suppose that the prior probability of God‟s existence is 1 in 1018 (compared to 1 in 1012 for the gravitational constant). The theist can now point to other examples of fine-tuning, however, such as the constant associated with the strong nuclear force. Let’s represent it by E2 and assign it the same probabilities as the gravitational constant so that P(E2| G) = 1012 and P(E2|G) = 0.01. If we assume that these two examples of fine-tuning provide independent evidence, then Bayes’ theorem for the posterior probability of the existence of God given both pieces of evidence is:

Putting in all the values gives a posterior probability for the existence of God, which again is greater than 0.99.

Glass’s point is that Dawkins does not consider that design arguments can appeal to many examples of organised complexity. (To take four examples: a designer can be appealed to as an explanation for the laws of nature, the origin of life, the first eukaryotic cell, and the evolution of human beings). God might exemplify more organised complexity, and therefore be more improbable, than any one member of this set. But that does not mean that God would be more improbable than the combined probability of all these occurring together. So if theism predicts all the evidence with more power than atheism, then theism’s low prior probability can be transformed into a large posterior probability.

When should we explain our explanations?

Fourth, it is not at all clear that the design argument fails because “the designer himself immediately raises the problem of his own origin”[xxv].  As we have already noted, Dawkins is led astray in his analysis of the design argument because he does not correctly identify the explandum (that which is to be explained). The design argument is not trying to explain the existence of every possible example of organised complexity at every time and place. It is offering an explanation for certain empirical facts; it is attempting to make sense of complex order in the natural realm. It makes no attempt to speculate about the causes of metaphysically complex states. As Alvin Plantinga explains:

The point is we aren’t trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity, and we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general; we are only trying to explain one particular manifestation of it … And (unless you are trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity) it is perfectly proper to explain one manifestation of organized complexity in terms of another. Similarly, in invoking God as the original creator of life, we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general, but only a particular kind of it, i.e., terrestrial life. So even if (contrary to fact, as I see it) God himself displays organized complexity, we would be perfectly sensible in explaining the existence of terrestrial life in terms of divine activity.[xxvi]

In any case, it is surprising that Dawkins should rule out any explanation which postulates more organised complexity than the explanandum.  In the scientific revolution itself, an Aristotleian world-picture, in which natural bodies acted for a purpose, was rejected for a “mechanical” philosophy in which conceived the world as a perfect machine, a “clock-work” universe governed by mathematically expressible laws. Whether or not the mechanical philosophy offered a simpler theory than the Aristotleian world-picture (it did not postulate four different kinds of cause, for example) the fact remains that the mechanical philosophy hypothesised vastly more organised complexity in the universe[xxvii]. Indeed, there are many good scientific explanations in which the explanans is more complex than the explanandum. Douglas Groothius points out that good scientific explanations have not always moved from the complex to the simple:

One can easily invoke something less than absolutely simple to explain something in nature. Ludwig Boltzmann’s kinetic theory of heat required the idea of unobserved particles (which we now call atoms and molecules) to explain heat, but those particles themselves were not explained as absolutely simple. But Boltzmann’s theory was superior to the old phenomenological approaches to heat. You cannot say that Boltzmann’s theory was unscientific for that reason[xxviii].

It is easy to enumerate examples. Paleontologists regularly infer large, extremely complex animals from a single fossilised bone or footprint. In the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence project scientists search for radio-signals which will provide evidence not only for alien life, but for sophisticated alien civilisations, far more complicated than the signals themselves. Patrick Richmond believes that these counter-examples will not discomfit Dawkins. While the radio-signal sent by the aliens cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution, the aliens can be. “The hypothesis of aliens therefore does not require the extreme improbability of inexplicable organised complexity, but Dawkins is arguing that the existence of God does.”[xxix]

However, as we have noted, evolution by natural selection is a highly complex, highly improbable state of affairs. It is itself an example of unexplained complexity. Dawkins would not, and does not, reject evolution by natural selection as an explanation because that process depends upon many improbable states of affairs (specific physical laws) and improbable events (the origin of the first cells) which are left unexplained in Darwinian theory. It is not consistent, then, for Dawkins to insist on an explanation for a designer’s nature and existence before design can be used as an explanation. Swinburne argues that we give an adequate explanation of a piece of evidence when we cite a cause and a reason which together necessitate (or make probable) the occurrence of the evidence. To suppose otherwise is to commit “the completist fallacy”

We can give a perfectly good explanation of how it came about that Jones lost his fortune in terms of the way the Monte Carlo wheel spun as it did, while judging that there was no explanation of how the roulette wheel spun, this being something utterly beyond accounting for. [xxx]

But, doesn’t an infinite regress of explanation loom if we infer the existence of a God who exemplifies organised complexity? This does not seem to be the case. Swinburne agrees that it is good to push our explorations as far as possible. So, Kepler’s laws explained planetary motions, it was good for Newton to explain Kepler’s laws. However, there is no need to postulate more causes and reasons when these causes and reasons have no more explanatory power or prior probability than the explananda (or having more of one only if they have correspondingly less of the other).[xxxi]  Our explanations are complete when..

…any attempt to go beyond the factors we have would result in no net gain of explanatory power or prior probability. You reach a theory such that, if you attempt to explain the existence and operation of the factors involved in it, you always reach a theory that explains nothing further and has no greater prior probability (in particular, is no simpler) than the theory that you already have; or, if it does have more of one of those factors, it has less than the other.[xxxii]

Unlike the complex order that the design argument attempts to explain, God is not directly observed. If Dawkins is correct that God does exemplify organised complexity, then God will exemplify the maximal amount of organised complexity. Any theory which attempted to explain God would bring no gain in explanatory power or prior probability. So the intentional actions of God would be the ideal terminus for explanations of complex order[xxxiii].

Why Think God Must Exemplify Organised Complexity?

Why does Dawkins believe that God would exemplify organised complexity? Unfortunately, he only offers brief arguments for this conclusion, and does not develop his thoughts in detail:

God may not have a brain made of neurones, or a CPU made of silicon, but if he has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and non-randomly constructed than the largest brain or the largest computer we know.[xxxiv] …any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself. [xxxv]

Here Dawkins might be offering a simple inductive generalisation—all observed As have been B: therefore all As are B. So, if every intelligent being that we observe is correlated with a complex substratum like a brain then an intelligent being like God would also have a complex substratum like a brain. However, an argument of this form is only warranted when we can suppose that the sample of observed A’s is not biased. But, at most, our sample of observed designers only allows us to make inferences about designers who exist in the physical universe (or to be more accurate, those who live on Earth).The argument from design, however, presupposes that we seriously consider the possibility that this sample might be biased – the argument attempts to reason to a designer who transcends the physical universe. And it is reasonable to assume that such a designer would be rather unlike anything that we have directly experienced in the space-time universe.

However, Dawkins might be offering a stronger argument from conceivability – what might be called an “argument from computational power”. Indeed, it seems that Dawkins ought to offer an argument from conceivability, for as we noted above, he is committed to the idea that any conceivable designer is, and must be, more complex than the thing designed. So perhaps Dawkins’ argument is that everything capable of thought is capable of computation; and that everything capable of computation must depend upon a computational or information processing system composed of numerous interacting parts. However, it is quite conceivable that a mind could exist without such a system: indeed, arguably a computational or information processing system is not even necessary or sufficient for rational thought.  Keeping in mind that Dawkins argument depends on what is conceivable, we should note that John Searle[xxxvi] and Ned Block have offered arguments to show that minds are not computational or information processing systems.

For example, Searle’s famous “Chinese Room” thought experiment is used to argue that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no conscious understanding of meaning or semantics. Such understanding is, of course, essential for rationality and creativity. So, conceivably, being or possessing a computational or information processing system is not sufficient for rational thought. Nor is it clear that being or possessing an information processing system is necessary for conscious thought.

Suppose the brain is merely an informational processing system[xxxvii]. In philosophy of mind, many scholars have noted that if we describe every physical fact about an organism (including information about its behaviour and how its nervous system is functioning) we still leave facts about its conscious states. Some philosophers conclude that mental properties are not identical to physical properties[xxxviii]. So, at most, consciousness would merely supervene upon the brain and its functions. Given arguments that mind and body are not identical, even many materialists have conceded that disembodied existence is both “logically possible” and a “perfectly intelligible position”[xxxix]. If conscious thoughts and minds are not identical to the body, it is conceivable for a mind to exist independently of the body. It does seem to follow that if a mind is not identical to a computational or information processing system, it is conceivable that a mind could exist independently of that system. (Such a mind might know truths directly or innately, and not depend on computation). So, if Dawkins is offering an argument about what is conceivable, it is not successful: one can conceive of a mind which is not identical to, or depend upon, a computational or informational processing system.

How Complex Would An Omniscient Mind Be?

In fact, there are good reasons to believe that it would not be possible for God to have organised complexity. By hypothesis God cannot be an arrangement of parts. If God were made of parts then those parts would be more fundamental than God, and God would not be the ultimate creator. A being could not be God if something else explains its existence. Furthermore, William E. Mann has pointed out that if God is a perfect being, God must be perfectly non-complex, “having no components or parts, because if God had parts then God would be dependent on those parts.”[xl]So perhaps Dawkins arguments to God’s organised complexity are flawed. But Hume, McGinn and Oppy’s arguments for the complexity of the designer have yet to be considered. But what is the argument from the physical complexity of the universe to the metaphysical complexity of the designer? After all, God could not be composed of ideas. As Keith Ward points out:

The ideas in God’s mind are not separately existing ideas that are added together to form the mind of God. They only exist as part of the mind of God, which is one consciousness. It is not possible to take some separate ideas and build them up into a mind that contains them. The mind comes first, and its ideas are parts that are inseparable from that mind. The ideas cannot be taken out and made parts of another mind. It is the unity that comes first, and the ‘parts’ only exist as part of that unity.[xli]

And William Lane Craig and JP Moreland argue that [xlii] The complexity of a mind is not analogous to the complexity of the universe… a mind is a remarkably simple thing, being an immaterial entity not composed of pieces or separable parts. Moreover, properties like intelligence, consciousness and volition are not contingent properties which a mind might lack but are essential to its nature.[xliii] Craig and Moreland’s point is that a simple thinking thing (a mind) can create numerous ideas and thoughts. In fact, an everlasting mind with perfect knowledge of the laws of mathematics and logic could potentially generate an infinite number of ideas from a comparatively few simple rules[xliv]. We should also note that a mind’s ideas would only have a complexity analogous to a physical objects if beliefs and ideas are separable objects contained and arranged in mental space. Swinburne argues that this imagery of objects arranged in a space in the mind is misleading:

…to have a certain belief…is not, I suggest, possessing an object within oneself. I suggest that having a belief that p is an intrinsic property and one too primitive to be defined. But we can show what we are talking about when we talk about S’s belief that p by saying that it is the sort of thing S would acquire in a certain way (e.g. by S seeing that p, or by someone telling S that p) and which makes a certain kind of difference to S’s behaviour. [xlv]

In fact, arguably omniscience entails that God’s knowledge is perfectly non-complex. Richard Swinburne[xlvi], Brian Davies[xlvii] and William Mann[xlviii] all develop accounts of God’s omniscience which God has maximal knowledge through one act of self-awareness.[xlix]Swinburne argues that:

Beliefs need not be put into words; children have beliefs before they can put them into words, and when they acquire language they report that they had those beliefs. So I think that the best analogy for God’s beliefs are the beliefs we acquire when we look at a scene before our eyes. Merely by looking we acquire innumerable beliefs about what objects there are, where they are, and what they look like. We are aware of these beliefs, but not as linguistic entities, and not as the brain states which causally sustain the beliefs in us. The beliefs are there in a fused pre-linguistic state out of which we can – if we choose – separate individual beliefs and put them into words (e.g. that ‘there is a tree outside the window’.) When see things and acquire beliefs about them both as they are now, and (when we look at the stars) as they were thousands of years ago. Seeing involves categorizing: in seeing a tree I do not merely have a visual impression caused by a tree, but I see an object outside the window as a tree. And seeing an object thus categorized inevitably involves seeing its powers – the tree has the power to grow, to resist pressure and so on. God’s beliefs are in this way just like the beliefs of which we are aware, but they concern the whole of the universe and the insides of things us well as their outsides. He sees things as they are and as they were. While our beliefs may come to us by different causal routes, it is simpler to suppose (as the traditional picture supposes) that God’s beliefs come to him only by one route, directly. So too God’s wider fused pre-linguistic state of belief is one integrated state of himself. It does not consist of separate items within himself, but it is a property of himself.[l]

On this account omniscience follows from God’s intentionality and omnipotence[li]. “Since God is omnipotent, everything else that comes to exist comes to exist because he causes it or allows it to exist; furthermore he can make things happen anywhere and learn about things anywhere without depending on intermediate causes.”[lii] So if God is omnipotent and God is self-aware, God would know what he is capable of doing, and this ‘know how’ would include his ability to create anything that can be sensibly described. Furthermore, everything which exists that isn’t God has been created by God. God would know everything about this universe because he created it and sustains everything in it. He would not know anything by discursive reasoning or by perceiving the world: “You and I understand that 2+2=4; perhaps you, but certainly not I, understand that 789 + 987 = 1776. In contrast, reason is a discursive practice, passing from premises to conclusion by the canons of either deductive logic, inductive logic or decision theory. Because God’s intuitive understanding of all things is maximal, God has no need of [discursive] reason.” Note that this means that God would have no need of computation.[liii]Mann reminds us that because God creates and sustains everything which exists,

…[k]nowledge of the world is part of God’s self-awareness…We are consumers of knowledge about the world, standing as recipients on many causal chains and ending with states in our minds. God, in contrast, is a producer of knowledge. The ordinary causal flow from thing known to knower is reversed in God’s case. [liv]

Once we remember that God is maximally powerful, we can see that God would know everything that is true, all at once, just by knowing himself, what he has created and what he has chosen to sustain.    

Divine Attributes and the Design Argument

Erik Wielenberg has recently proposed that if we think of the universe as a highly complex four-dimensional structure that exists necessarily then atheism has a plausible answer to the design argument. He also argues that the hypothesis that there exists a simple, supernatural intelligence that created the universe is at best obscure and at worst incoherent. However, while Wielenberg takes aim at the Thomistic doctrine of divine simplicity, Swinburne’s account of the simplicity of God’s knowledge seems cogent and clear. This means that theism has at least one significant theoretical advantage over Wielenberg’s preferred hypothesis – that of simplicity. Here are a few other advantages enjoyed by theism. It is “we not merely that we observe natural complex phenomena being created and destroyed all the time which indicates that their existence is contingent.” It is that the universe is composed of such particles and it is easy to conceive of it having a few more or a few less. It is also easy to conceive of this universe having different laws and constants. This leads us to conclude that this universe is not necessary.

Furthermore, Wielenberg’s hypothesis (which he borrows from Cleanthes) does not answer why this necessarily existent, complex universe just happens to have the correct laws and constants to produce galaxies, planets, animals and humans. This seems fortuitous. God’s simplicity also gives theism a significant advantage over another atheistic explanation for the apparent design observed in this universe. If the universe is infinitely large, or if it has existed for an infinite amount of time, apparent design could be explained through the chance arrangements of matter in an infinite universe [lv]. However, this explanation entails that every complex state which is physically possible will be realised an infinite number of times. Again, theism seems to provide a simpler explanation.[lvi]

Here is another problem for the infinite universe hypothesis: it does not explain our observations. If the hypothesis was true, then all order is assembled by chance, and this would include us. Therefore, every human would be a member of the class “observer assembled by chance in an infinite universe”. There is no a priori reason to expect that we should belong to some more privileged subset of that class: so we should expect to observe roughly what the typical “observer assembled by chance in an infinite universe” would observe. But what would a typical “observer assembled by chance in an infinite universe” observe? Not very much, and not for very long. A little order is “easier” to achieve by chance than a lot of order. There will be many more little islands of order in an infinite universe than there will be solar system sized regions of order; and many more solar system sized regions of order than galaxy sized regions and so forth. Small regions of order existing for small periods of time are all that are required for the existence of observers, and these will be much more plentiful being much easier to achieve by chance.

So the typical “observer will in an infinite universe” would expect to observe a region of order just large enough to account for his own existence. But we observe a much larger region of order than that! Which makes it highly improbable that we are “observers assembled by chance in an infinite universe.” To counter the idea that the design argument must appeal to a maximally complex, or maximally improbable, mind it has been helpful to appeal to divine attributes. The doctrines of divine omnipotence and divine simplicity have been used to counter the idea that God’s mind is complex. And, even if God’s mind is complex, the doctrine of divine necessity has been used to counter the objection that God is improbable. Recently, Lloyd Strickland has objected to these moves on the part of the theist.

There is, however, reason to question whether the proponent of the design argument is entitled to invoke the attributes of the God of classical theism to answer objections to the design argument in this way. Arguably, it would be legitimate to do this only if one has grounds to identify the designer alluded to by the design argument with the God of classical theism. But while many have made such an identification, attempts to justify it are rare. …one can read [Hume’s] Dialogues as a sustained attempt to clip the wings of those natural theologians who incautiously infer the existence of the God of classical theism from the evidence of design in the universe, when a more sober inference would be more appropriate, e.g. to a designer (or designers) whose attributes and motives are unknown.[lvii]

But, arguably, natural theologians are within their rights to argue that if classical theism has explanatory virtues which make it better suited to meet objections to the design argument than its competitors, then this strength of classical theism might lead us to conclude that the God of classical theism is the designer. If other purported designers lack God’s simplicity or omnipotence, so much the worse for them. It’s difficult to see why the problems facing other design hypotheses should bother the theist.


 Darwinian evolution does not provide an ultimate explanation of the remarkable complexity and diversity of the biological world. Evolution by natural selection is itself a highly improbable process, depending on specific laws and finely-tuned constants. It also leave unexplained the origin of the first cell and the first eukaryotic cell – thereby leaving a great deal of complexity unexplained. Theism offers a simple explanation for the design of the universe, positing one God with one property – limitless, intentional power. God’s knowledge should not be thought of as a complex arrangement of objects in the space of God’s mind – a misleading image. Rather, it has been argued God’s omniscience would be a simple consequence of his omnipotence and his self-awareness. The conclusion here, then, is that theism is a simple hypothesis with at least some explanatory power. God is at least a good candidate explanation for the apparent design observed in this universe.

[i] McGinn, C. (1999). The mysterious flame. New York: Basic Books, Quoted in Lloyd Strickland “The ‘who designed the designer’ objection to design arguments” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion (2014) 75:87–100
[ii] Oppy, p.183—184
[iii] Dawkins, R. (1986). The blind watchmaker. London: Penguin, 1988.
[iv] His argument for God’s organised complexity is never made explicit. Some attempt to reconstruct it will be made below.
[v] Climbing Mount Improbable p.77
[vi] Roger Montague “Dawkins’ Infinite Regress” Philosophy Vol. 83, No. 323 (Jan., 2008), pp. 114
[vii] Richmond p.101
[viii]  ‘The argument from improbability states that complex things could not have come about by chance’ Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 114.
[ix] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1989, pp.15-20.
[x] (Dawkins, 1989, p.254)
[xi] 237
[xii] Oppy p. 238
[xiii] Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker 1986, p. 8.
[xiv] Wielenberg p.117
[xv] Gregory Ganssle  (2009,
[xvi] Wielenberg, p.118
[xvii] Eg. Alexander Pruss “Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit: Arguments new and old for the Principle of Sufficient Reason”, in: J. Campbell, M. O’Rourke and H. Silverstein (eds.), Causation and Explanation, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) 2007
[xviii] Eg. Brian Leftow “The Ontological Argument”, in William Wainwright, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (NY: OUP, 2005), 80-115.
[xix] So the thesis of God’s necessary existence would not be an ad hoc move to counter the “who designed the designer” objection. It would follow either from natural theology or considerations of theistic metaphysics. Similar points can be made about God’s simplicity – it is not an ad hoc move on the part of theologians to rescue the design argument, but follow from God’s aseity.
[xxi] Douglas Groothuis “Who Designed the Designer”  Think  Volume 8: Issue 21 p.73
[xxii] David Glass “Design, Darwin and Dawkins’ Dilemma” Sophia 51 (1):31-57 (2012)
[xxiii] P.47
[xxiv] (Dawkins 2006, p. 114)
[xxv] The God Delusion p.120
[xxvi] “The Dawkins Confusion” Books and Culture http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2007/marapr/1.21.html (retrieved 07/04/15)
[xxvii] Hume also conveniently ignores the fact that the mechanical world-view of his beloved scientific revolution postulated a much more complex world than the world of the mediaeval. The mechanical world-view gained credence because of its vast explanatory power, not its simplicity.
[xxviii] Douglas Groothuis “Who Designed the Designer”  Think  Volume 8: Issue 21 p. 77
[xxix] Richmond, p107.
[xxx] The Existence of God, (Oxford University Press; Oxford) 2004  p. 76-77
[xxxi] Ibid p.81 [xxxii] Ibid p.89
 [xxxiii] It should also be noted that a) every worldview has an unexplained terminating point. For example, materialist explanations terminate at the existence of some form of matter governed by laws; and b) if God’s existence is necessary, and if God is the creator, he must be the terminating point for a complete explanation of our universe. See David Glass “Probability and the Presumption of Atheism” Yearbook of the Irish Philosophical Society (2010), pp. 66-68.
[xxxiv] Richard Dawkins The God Delusion p.184
[xxxv] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence Reveals a Universe Without Design New York, Norton, 1987 p.140
[xxxvi]  John. Searle “Minds, Brains, and Programs.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, 417-424; Ned Block “Troubles with functionalism”. Minnesota Studies in The Philosophy of Science 9: 261–325.
[xxxvii] For another view see John Searle, ‘Is the Brain’s Mind a Computer Program?’, Scientific American, 262(1): 26–31
  [xxxviii] For example, Richard Swinbune, Mind, Brain and Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  [xxxix] DM Armstrong’s A Materialist Theory of Mind (London:Routledge 1968) p.19, quoted by Charles Taliaferro in Evidence and Faith (Cambridge: Cambridge 2005) p 88-89. Taliaferro notes that “the apparent separability of mind and body is conceded by a range of materialists as a problem” (p.89) and cites Daniel Dennett, David Lewis, Thomas Nagel, Brian O’Shauhnessy and J.J.C. Smart as those who “grant some prima facie credibility to dualism” (p.108).  Taliaferro and Jil Evans also note that there has been “ a remarkable increase in extensive defences of dualism” and that “the entries for dualism in the prestigious reference philosophy works today are all quite positive” Image in Mind (Bloomsbury: New York 2013), p.102.
[xl] William E. Mann “Divine Sovereignty and Aseity” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (ed. William Wainwright) P.52  2005
[xli] Keith Ward “Why There Almost Certainly Is a God” (Lion:2008) p.48
[xlii] The idea of an immaterial agent is coherent and intuitively clear; it is controversial that humans are immaterial agents. But that does not mean that immaterial agents could not exist, and that one could not have evidence of their existence. In other words, the designer could be an immaterial agent.
[xliii] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP: Illinois) 2003 p. 490
[xliv] And “a simple hypothesis is no less simple for entailing complicated consequences.” Richard Swinburne “God as the Simplest Explanation of the Universe” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement,  Volume 68
[xlv]Richard Swinburne “God as the Simplest Explanation of the Universe” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement,  Volume 68 / July 2011, pp.18-19
[xlvi] Swinburne argues that God’s omniscience is not a power or a liability but a state necessary for omnipotence.
[xlvii] Brian Davies ‘An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion’ (Oxford:2004), 191–7.
[xlviii] William E. Mann “Divine Sovereignty and Aseity” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (ed. William Wainwright) P.52  2005
[xlix] This account does not depend on the controversial Thomist doctrine of divine simplicity. Swinburne argues that God is the “simplest kind of person there could be” because the three essential divine properties of omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect freedom follow from God’s having a very simple property of ‘pure, limitless intentional power’.
[l] Richard Swinburne “God as the Simplest Explanation of the Universe” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement,  Volume 68 / July 2011, p.19
  [li] Swinburne’s analogy
  [lii] Richard Swinburne “How the divine properties fit together: reply to Gwiazda” Religious Studies 45, 2009, p.496
[liii]  Divine Sovereignty and Aseity p.51
[liv] Ibid. p51
[lv] See the discussion in Peter Van Inwagen Metaphysics (Westview Press) 2008 pp. 179-209
 [lvii]The ‘who designed the designer’ objection to design arguments” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion (2014) 75 P.91

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.