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A Painting Needs a Painter - Teleological Arguments for God
Yes I know it's been a while since I wrote anything here on hubpages and for that I apologize but I suppose I have to confess that I've been working on a different blog. I figured I would come back because there is a bite-size argument that has been going around for years on the internet, put forth usually by creationists, that I wanted to address in greater detail.
For those wondering what I've been up to I started a “Bible Study” blog that is more focused on the Bible, on being purposefully offensive by not pulling any punches on its status as an awful, morally bankrupt, and clearly mythological book. Check it out if you have time and share it around if you feel so inclined.
The argument I want to talk about in thus hub is the “Painting needs a painter” argument for design. It's one that I first heard touted by Creationist and renowned Banana lover Ray Comfort and I've seen street preachers and other Christians attempting to use it as well. I want to talk about why the argument doesn't work and compare it to the rest of the pantheon of “Fine-Tuning” arguments of which I consider this a part.
The Watch-Maker or the Painter?
Ray Comfort's argument seems to be similar to the argument of the Watch-Maker made by William Paley. But the version I see people using today lacks any of nuance and intelligence of Paley's formulation of the teleological argument. Rest assured that Paley's argument is a weak one in and of itself but the version I see many would-be apologists using today strips away the actual impact of the argument to turn it into a nonsensical soundbite. Simply stating that “A painting is proof of a painter” so a “Universe is proof of a God” makes no sense, it's rather like saying “A painting is proof of a painter” so therefore a “loose tooth is proof of a tooth-fairy”, its a complete non-sequitur apples-to-oranges comparison.
If they actually wanted to make the argument properly they would do what Payley did. Payley starts his example by saying that we are part of a tribe of people who don't have contact with the outside world when we come across a watch. Let's use the painting as an example though. Payley's argument is that we would recognize the complexity of the watch/painting and immediately know that an intelligent being had designed it for a purpose even if we weren't familiar with what a watch/painting actually were. The idea is that human beings coming across something complex and orderly are justified in reasonably assuming the thing to be designed.
Payley's argument is a good one for its time and would go a long way to establishing the reasonableness of deism if it were sound. Of course it applies far better to the watch than it does to the Universe as a whole, or certainly to the painting as paintings can vary in complexity wildly. Even as a person who knows paintings are designed I still look at some art and think “it looks like someone just threw paint at a canvas and sold it as art”.
God of the Gaps
But what about this main argument isn't sound? To put it simply the analogy doesn't hold up. At one time or another primitive peoples thought the whole world was designed, that trees, rocks and stars alike all had spiritual elements. They had different gods for volcanoes, oceans, thunder, and war and no part of their life was completely devoid of superstition or divine intervention. But most deists are arguing about things like celestial mechanics, not that everything is painstakingly designed but that the Universe is a machine set in motion. The deistic God was not one to perform miracles or intervene, he was an absent grand architect that, at best, granted some blessing of providence (ie the All Seeing Eye of Free Mason fame). When modern Christians invoke this argument they usually do so, as with so many other arguments, unaware that at BEST they are proving deism.
As we learn more and more about science the level at which God is necessary to be invoked recedes continuously. At one time the motions of planets and stars seemed so intricately precise that we needed to invoke the hand of God to get over our own mathematical limitations but scientists came along and solved that. We even know how stars and planets form. Our telescopes can peer into stellar nurseries and watch a new generation of stars being born. So natural processes can produce the complexity of stars and planetary systems.
Evolution, similarly, has given us the answers to how life has diversified. Reproduction of DNA causes changes in that DNA over the course of countless generations - evolution and the amazing diversity of life have replaced the magic words at the beginning of Genesis.
Let's make an analogy to explain why the painting argument doesn't make sense in the way Ray Comfort is using it (to prop up his Creationism). We'll make up a world where paintings can actually reproduce themselves. Anyone who knows about painting reproduction in the real world knows that small changes are inevitable. With a system like DNA, the building block of life on Earth, small changes occur every single time organisms reproduce with each other. What might happen if we let paintings sexually reproduce over the course of centuries? Thousands of years? MILLIONS? Now add to this analogy natural selection, perhaps the Mona Lisa's colors allow her species to camouflage while the more colorful and strange Picasos are all eaten... Now Mona can pass on her genes while Picaso is out of the gene pool. Selection pressures would explain why certain traits become ubiquitous or common as paintings evolve to fit their environment.
Now imagine these paintings become self-aware intelligent creatures through millions of years of pain-staking evolution. They might look at the world around them and wonder why it seems so adapted to them, when really, through natural selection and changes in their genome over time, it is they who have adapted to the world.
Demystifying the Universe
All of these arguments for design regarding complexity are known as Teleological Arguments and all of them invariably make the same mistake by inferring agency before sufficient evidence has been collected to support the idea. We have discovered, time and time again, that the Universe has both amazing complexity and order and plenty of chaos and destruction. And through science we have found mechanisms which explain how much of this order comes about. Science is slowly but surely demystifying all the things human beings once believed to be governed by spirits, gods and demons.
That isn't to say that reality itself is not mystifying but that, if anything, clinging to ancient superstitions cheapens the actual awe and beauty of the Cosmos. So when someone like Comfort uses his malformed version of the Teleological Argument to uphold the barbaric ramblings of the Bible or the absurd notion of taking Genesis literally it cheapens the actual argument by making it weaker than it is. In Comfort's view ignorance is bliss, because the less he and his followers actually know and accept about science the easier it is to uphold the bizarre Biblical literalism that so many Creationists adhere to.
Some of us, many believers included, would rather not go back to the dark ages and would certainly not want to celebrate and willfully crawl back to the ignorance that made people think mental illness was caused by demons and when the sky shakes with thunder if must mean God is angry.
The Blind Painter
As our understanding increases more and more we see that the goings on of the Universe are independent of any supernatural forces. Natural processes and natural laws (which are descriptive mind you) are what cause stars and planets to form, life to form, life to grow and evolve or even to be driven to extinction. When we assume agency by way of inference we must have good reason to do so and, though I sympathize with the believer's desire for there to be an answer to it all I do not see how this God helps other than by holding the place of a real answer.
To some the brushstrokes of the Universe appear so ordered that they could only be the creation of a God... but to me I see disharmony among the order and chaos and destruction amidst the complexity and beauty. When you look up at the moon what do you see? The pock marked surface of a celestial body undefended by an atmosphere that has been smashed by a barrage of asteroids for billions of years. And most planets and moons in our solar system bear marks where gravity, as amazing and mysterious as it may seem, has led celestial bodies to collide. Our own moon may have formed by such a collision, when molten Earth was struck by another planetoid trying to find stable orbit around our newborn sun.
When taken as a whole I see no cause to posit a God into the gaps of our understanding and indeed I see it as a bit primitive and regressive to tuck into that pocket of ignorance a typically male, typically Western, understanding of a typically ancient idea. I know that many more enlightened believers would like to divorce themselves from those who still cling to God as an old man in the clouds with a beard but divorcing God from those ancient characteristics often ripped straight from mythology or religious art requires more than just saying “God is not those things”.
Placing God before the Universe is the easy part, it is appealing to our human minds to have an answer to such a big question, where did the Universe come from and why are its constants and laws organized in such a way that we are even able to be here and be alive? But once you begin attempting to define God, outside of the place holder explanation, you immediately run into trouble. For such a being can only exist by special-pleading, by asking us to break every rule of what it means for a thing to exist, to be alive, to even possess a mind and then asking us to believe this being just happens to have had the power to organize the whole of the Universe without ever showing a shred of evidence... (except for our lack of an answer of course).
As Douglass Adams once pointed out its rather like a puddle remarking that the hole in the ground it filled was made perfectly for it because it certainly seems that way. As Bruce Lee once pointed out water flows into and becomes whatever vessel you put it into, and life, through natural selection, has adapted to whatever environment it has been forced to adapt to. We are part of that endless flow, that endless stream of life but, as far as we know, we are the first on planet Earth to be able to look at our situation and truly grasp it.
That is a special thing indeed, whether there is a God or not and rather than shy away from learning our place in the Cosmos, from knowing all we can, we should embrace it. That is why arguments from ignorance like the Teleological argument should be rejected, because we should neither celebrate ignorance but we also shouldn't hide from it beneath superstition and answers that fill the gap but do so without satisfying any basic burden of proof or logic. Thanks for reading.