Introduction to the Argument from Design

You may not know it, but all our discussions so far about DNA, intelligent design, the fine-tuned universe and even evolution relate directly to an idea known as the argument from design.

Now, don’t start getting ideas of people shouting at each other about the best way to redecorate the living room – the argument from design is not a shouting match and it is not about aesthetic taste. Rather, the argument from design is about seeing G-d in the natural world.

It’s an ‘argument’ in the philosophical sense and it’s design in the engineering sense (such as well-designed, manufactured and put together).  In short, the argument from design states that one can detect an intelligent Creator from the inherent design that we see in nature.

The Modern Version

The argument from design is actually a rather old argument.  Rabbi Akiva and Plato held by it. It also seems that Dovid HaMelekh (aka King David) and Yeshayahu HaNavi (aka the Prophet Isaiah) held by it.   But let’s be modern snobs for a moment and focus on the modern version of the argument.

Perhaps the most famous modern expression of the argument from design comes from William Paley in his famous watchmakers analogy. Here is a long (but elegant and worth reading) quote from Paley:

[quote]In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer that for anything I knew to the contrary it had lain there forever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had given, that for anything I knew the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone; why is it not admissible in that second case as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, namely, that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive — what we could not discover in the stone — that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g., that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed in any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.

This mechanism being observed … the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker — that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.

Nor would it, I apprehend, weaken the conclusion, that we had never seen a watch made; that we had never known an artist capable of making one; that we were altogether incapable of executing such a piece of workmanship ourselves, or of understanding in what manner it was performed; all this being no more than what is true of some exquisite remains of ancient art, of some lost arts, and, to the generality of mankind, of the more curious productions of modern manufacture…

The contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtlety, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety; yet in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office than are the most perfect production of human ingenuity. (source:

And here are a couple of modern day versions of Paley’s argument:

The 21st Century Watch

The Origin of the Watch

The Heart of the Argument

While intuitively appealing (a fact that I think is significant), it’s important to understand what exactly forms the intellectual heart and soul of the argument. What exactly in nature indicates that there is a G-d?

There are, in essence, two factors worth noting:

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  • Nature performs useful and (seemingly) purpose oriented functional actions
  • The ability to perform these functional activities depends upon a highly sophisticated, specified and complex arrangement of material elements


Just like a watch requires it’s parts to be of the right size, shape and arrangement to work, so too nature depends on various parts to be of the right size, shape and arrangement – the only difference being that the number of parts and the specificity and complexity of their arrangement and shape are far more sophisticated than even the most advanced machinery that man has ever made (from watches to computers and beyond).

It is this sophistication and advanced engineering apparent throughout nature that leads many to say “the Heavens declare the glory of G-d”.

We’re Not Done Yet

Of course, this is only the beginning of the story.  The argument from design is a powerful argument, but it has its challenges and limitations.  In fact, many people today claim that the argument from design has been refuted.

So we’ll have to spend some time understanding why people think that this argument is no longer valid.  Furthermore, even at it’s strongest the argument from design has some inherent limitations and we’ll have to understand those also.

But first, we have a more pressing demand.

It’s not enough to simply state that the natural world is sophisticated, complicated and well-designed.  It’s important to also see it for yourself with your own two eyes.  Seeing, as they say, is believing – and that is certainly true here.  Furthermore, when we get into the challenges to the argument design it is crucial that we have some sense of what they are challenging.

In other words, just how well designed is our world?  How impressive is it?  We’ll attempt to answer that question in the next post.

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