The Theism-Atheism Debate: The Problem of Bad Design

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Critics of theism arguing from what one might call the “problem of bad design” contend that features in both the universe and human body are badly or incompetently designed and therefore suggest the unlikeness of there being an all-powerful God or Designer who created these features. Critics will point to the processes of evolution and the evolution of organs such as the brain. Atheist writer John Loftus argues as follows,

“We see this best in the human brain. David J. Linden, professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins School of Medicine, tells us that the human brain “is, in many respects, a true design nightmare… built like an ice cream cone with new scoops piled on at each stage of our lineage.” The human brain “is essentially a Rube Goldberg contraption.” Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University, describes our brain as kluge. A kluge “is a clumsy or inelegant—yet surprisingly effective—solution to a problem.” Just picture a house constructed in several stages by different contractors at each age and you can get the picture. Without starting all over with a completely new floor plan, we get kluge” (1).

Loftus maintains that this is how evolution works, which has resulted in humans having “three brains built on top of one another”: the reptilian (hind) brain, the limbic system (midbrain), and the neocortex (forebrain). These three brains affect how humans think and are why our memories are adversely affected, as are our beliefs, choices, language, and pleasure. Loftus believes that if humanity was the product of some intelligent designer, our thoughts would be rational, our logic impeccable, our memory robust, and our recollections reliable.

Yet in light of how the human brain evolved, this is not what one finds. Loftus points to other evidence of bad design, such as the esophagus for swallowing, the relatively short rib cage that does not protect most internal organs, our eyes being wired backward, and the male prostate gland that at some point, in every one of two males, blocks the flow of urine. There are also vestigial organs that are the debris of evolution and that perform no useful function for which they evolved; for example, there are the appendix, coccyx, tiny muscles attached to hair follicles causing our hairs to stand up.

Loftus further points to what some might call natural evils: volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, tornados, droughts, fires, famines, monsoons, blizzards, hurricanes, and heatwaves. There is also poisonous wildlife, such as the black widow spider, cobra, scorpions, and many parasites, some of which are lethal and will kill a human quickly. Loftus further points to dangerous plants and chronic diseases like cancer, etc., and there have been various major diseases, like the Black Plague and the Spanish Flu, that have decimated humanity. Loftus concludes that “There is much more I could add, but thinking people get the point. There isn’t an intelligent designer” (2).

Theistic Response

Christian philosopher and theologian Randal Rauser finds Loftus’ position “provincial” and states that he makes too much from what he could not sufficiently know,

“He [Loftus] is confident that his microsecond viewing of the film has equipped him to judge the competence of the director. He assumes that no competent creator would design a less than optimal world. This is like assuming that no intelligent driver traveling from San Francisco to Lose Angeles would ever take coastal Route 1 since the interstate is so much quicker. But sometimes the journey is as important as the destination. How could the less than optimal design of our planet’s creatures be formative for the journey? It is tough to say, but John’s microsecond viewing has not equipped him to judge the Creator’s competence” (3).

Regarding Loftus’ claim that because the human brain does not appear to be designed optimally that we ought to conclude that it is not designed at all, Rauser retorts,

“That’s like looking at the interior of an old Alfa Romeo Spyder, find the gear shifter placed where the air conditioning controls should be (Alfas are notorious for bad ergonomics) and concluding that the car had no designer. Less than optimal design, like a winding coastal highway, can exist for multiple purposes without warranting doubt of the designer’s competence, let alone his existence” (4).

On this same point, it seems that Loftus’ analogy of the human brain’s evolution being akin to multiple contractors building on a house’s foundation works against his claim. Even if the house is a “kluge” it would not suggest it was not a product of design. After all, a house that had multiple contractors completing it is still sufficient to be called a house (it works and functions as a house) and therefore is appropriate to be lived in (which is its purpose). Moreover, few knowledgable theists would claim that objects like houses or organs like the brain were created perfectly by a designer; rather, they simply believe that it was designed.

There are additional ways critics of Loftus’ argument have formulated some of Rauser’s response. For example, to claim that something has been designed incompetently, like the eye (being wired backwards), suggests that one must have a full knowledge of an optimally designed eye. But is it possible for humans to have this knowledge? Unlikely. Equally, however, the skeptic might argue that even if we don’t have this full knowledge we are still intelligent enough to observe that something (like the eye or the brain) could have been designed better than it is in the condition we observe it.

What about human suffering and the many examples of natural evil that Loftus presents? Rauser charges that Loftus is again going beyond what he could possibly know. “The problem with the objection,” states Rauser, “is that the objector simply lacks the broader perspective necessary to make it. He is simply too limited in time and space to say with any conviction that God really ought to have done things differently” (5). This is not, Rauser claims, to trivialize the matter of evil and suffering in the world, but rather to put the skeptic’s argument into perspective. Philosopher William Lane Craig has argued similarly and says that the skeptic is simply too limited in space, time, intelligence, and insight to argue that an all-powerful and all-loving God could not possibly allow evil and suffering to exist in the world (6). God, however, sees every detail of history from beginning to end, and therefore has a greater perspective. This greater insight might well have God realize the need for there to be evil and suffering in the world for some purpose he desires to achieve, such as bringing the maximal number of persons into his kingdom. We will look at this argument in more detail in a follow-up post.

The Design of the Universe

Rauser further appeals to the impressiveness of the universe as evidence that there is a creator who is certainly a competent designer: “This entire cosmos was brought into existence out of nothing approximately 13.7 billion years ago and is governed by surprisingly elegant natural laws finely tuned to a staggering degree of precision” (7). The immensity of the universe further purportedly evidences design: “The observable universe, which has been expanding ever since that moment of creation, is presently an incomprehensibly distant 46 billion light-years to the visible edge. It is composed of over 100 billion galaxies, each far larger than we can fathom. Our own home, the Milky Way, contains over 200 billion stars and is so large that it takes 100,000 light-years for light to cross it (light travels at 300,000 km per second)… the universe is unbelievably austere in its size and age and of awe-inspiring beauty and endless mystery, it is little surprise then that the contemplation of its majesty leaves people struggling for words… To sum up.. the universe transcends our wildest imaginations in every conceivable way including size, age, beauty, diversity, mystery, and complexity. And the creator is incompetent how exactly?” (8) As a Christian, Rauser points to his sacred text, the Bible, in particular Psalm 19:1 (“The heavens declared the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands”) as a biblical precedent of awe at the contemplation of the universe’s majestic nature.

Loftus does not accept Rauser’s view and argues that most of the universe and planet Earth is in fact hostile to life, including human life. Some areas are just too cold or too hot to allow human life to flourish and, as Loftus previously acknowledged regarding natural evils, there are all sorts of phenomena that can and do kill humans, such as tsunamis, tornados, famines, and so on. But as theists have retorted, the point is that some parts of the Earth are hospitable to life and that this ultimately needs to be explained.  The atheist’s appeal to inhospitable climates and locations on Earth does not explain why some parts of it are life-permitting.

References

1. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. God or Godless? Baker. p. 150.

2. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 151.

3. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 155

4. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 155

5. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 153

6. YouTube. 2017. Suffering and Evil: The Probability Version. Available.

7. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 152

8. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 152

3 comments

  1. Correction of final paragraphs

    The cosmos is a weird place to be sure, but if it was finely-tuned merely to achieve this, then what kind of an achiever is the designer exactly? The cosmos gives and it takes away. It takes away a lot if you study nature.

    God designed a system that squeezes the life out of the majority of living things starting early on. A couple 100 million sperm, many deformed, race toward whichever egg was dropping that month. Much goes wrong. 63% of zygotes perish before birth. Furthermore, even among those who are born, about half of all children died before age 8 prior to the advent of modern medicine.

  2. Obviously the cosmos was designed, it’s not like some godling was playing Sim Earth. Oh wait, look at the cosmos for a second, taking billions of years to come up with the elements, and even longer and rarer to come up with replicating molecules, and all of the death and extinctions along the way to the crown of God’s design, the current surviving species of upright hominid. And the cosmos is merely in equilibrium with life/death, evolution/extinction. Also check out the endless prayers uttered for God to make things better, to give relief, to heal. Things don’t seem to work that well.

    Or think of prayers to grant knowledge compared with the endless byways of trial and error it took humanity to gain even basic knowledge of simple machines, let alone develop languages, vocabularies, and the art of writing to preserve knowledge, and to build on it further. Languages are changing less since the development of writing and dictionaries, but, they are changing, compare old English to modern English. And stars keep pumping out new elements via fusing simple ones, and new stars themselves continuing to form, which is a miracle overlooked by biblical authors who said the sun, moon, and stars were all formed in a day.

  3. “Even if the house is a “kluge” it would not suggest it was not a product of design. After all, a house that had multiple contractors completing it is still sufficient to be called a house (it works and functions as a house) and therefore is appropriate to be lived in (which is its purpose). Moreover, few knowledgable theists would claim that objects like houses or organs like the brain were created perfectly by a designer; rather, they simply believe that it was designed.”

    so, we have you now arguing for an incompetent designer in your need to claim that there is a designer. Quite a step down from a perfect, omnipotent and omniscient god.

    “This greater insight might well have God realize the need for there to be evil and suffering in the world for some purpose he desires to achieve, such as bringing the maximal number of persons into his kingdom. We will look at this argument in more detail in a follow-up post.”

    And another depowering of this god to make it fit. If a perfect, omnipotent, omniscient being exists, then by definition it is not stuck with doing evil. If it is limited by evil actions as what it “must” do, then it isn’t as described by Christians.

    “But as theists have retorted, the point is that some parts of the Earth are hospitable to life and that this ultimately needs to be explained. The atheist’s appeal to inhospitable climates and locations on Earth does not explain why some parts of it are life-permitting.”

    No one has to explain why part of something is tolerable when we have a magical omnipotent being that can do *anything* by definition. Again, the theist has to limit their god when faced with reality.

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