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The Argument From Design

Matthew Yglesias makes the same sort of reply to the argument from design that I made to the cosmological argument in the previous post -- simply proving that God did something in the distant past tells you nothing of much relevance to life today. Commenter Dan Duffy disagrees, claiming that the argument from design is at least able to refute nihilism:

While I can easily conceive of a universe without a Creator, my first argument is that such a universe would be nothing more than a meaningless (if fortuitous) accident. Accidents by definition have no meaning or purpose. Only a universe fashioned by a Creator with a particular purpose in mind has meaning. This is grand nihilism of an absurd universe that occurs unavoidably if there were no God. And yes, a Creator is necessary to give the universe meaning since a "meaningful accident" is an oxymoron.

I'll leave aside for the moment whether it's possible to have meaning in the absence of God. I don't think Duffy's reasoning for the presence of meaning in the presence of God works. It draws on a common fallacy that the meaning of something is determined by the intent of creating it. On the one hand, we see this in the claim that authorial intent is the arbiter of what a poem or story "really" means, and that anything else one might get out of it is somehow false or illusory. On the other hand, we see it in conservative arguments that modern marriage is bound by the purposes for which our ancestors originally created the institution.

(Note that Duffy's argument would not apply to the cosmological argument -- the argument from design is a subset of the cosmological argument that posits a specifically conscious and intentional first cause.)

I think one of the most wonderful things about our world is the way that existing objects and systems can be repurposed -- either blindly, as in the case of a leg evolving into a wing, or purposefully through the application of creativity. Indeed, I find the idea of a God who wants to see what free-willed beings make of his creation to be a much more appealing one than a God who demands strict adherence to his own vision.

One possible response is that "meaning" is some sort of objective fact that God created in the same way that he created matter and the physical constants. That would explain how we can be bound by God's intentions in creating the world. But the argument from design offers no support for the existence of objective meaning. It's perfectly consistent with the idea of a designer who subjectively attributes meaning in the way that humans do.


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