Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Cabin from Nothing

The argument from design can be an intriguing argument for the existence of God, but it’s also an intriguing way to explain unbiased reasoning.

Imagine you were walking in a deep forest with a friend when you both stumbled upon a log cabin. You would naturally assume that something with intelligence created it (presumably a person or a group of people), even if there was no empirical evidence of a builder other than the cabin itself. Unless you had more evidence, you will NOT presume a specific builder by name, but the assumption of intelligence will become a base premise that is non-negotiable.
Now suppose your traveling companion said the cabin is just a result of the random forces of nature, matter and energy coming together over time to form the cabin. You would not only disagree, but perhaps also steer your friend toward some psychiatric help. Even if your friend could recite astonishing details about the forces of nature, matter and energy to prove his sanity, you might then conclude that he is so smart, he has become stupid. To accept your friend’s conclusion would be not only unreasonable, but also irresponsible.
  • Now, just begin to increase the physical size of the cabin. Suppose it was the size of a mountain. You would have the same conclusion about “intelligence”. You will not presume the builder must specifically be Paul Bunyan, but the same impartial assumption about an intellect remains.
  • Now, increase the size of the cabin to the size of planet earth…same conclusion about intelligence, although you might drop the part about the source of it being human.
  • Now, keep increasing the size of the cabin to the size of the universe…same conclusion.
  • Now consider our minds, our bodies, our planet and the finely tuned universe we live in that are all much more complex than a log cabin… same conclusion. Intellectual honesty tells us that it’s all beyond what random mindlessness can do for itself.

The science of the past took reason seriously with a premise like this, “We know the creator is intelligent, so we must go forward assuming the universe is intelligible.” This is similar to our approach about the cabin. If you desired to learn more about the construction details, you would do so under the assertion that there is “thinking” behind it all. Today, many hold the backwards, upside down and non-negotiable premise of, “We know the universe is intelligible, so we must go forward assuming there is NO intelligence behind it.”
“It is truly glorious for a religion to have such unreasonable men as enemies.”
- Blaise Pascal

All this might sound very similar to Paley’s watchmaker analogy, which may in turn remind some of the rebuttals offered by philosopher David Hume. For example, very complex self-order is observed in nature regularly, such as the process of snowflake generation from water molecules. This is true, but assuming intelligence behind it is still reasonable. Observing an application running on a computer may give the appearance that the computer is a self-ordered thing, but we know there is a programmer, not to mention a host of other precise, intelligent conditions needed for a computer to run.
Here is another; who designed the designer? If a well-ordered natural world requires a special designer, then this great designer requires an even greater designer and so on and so on ad infinitum. If we can accept a mysteriously self-ordered intelligence as an explanation for the natural world, why not just accept a mysteriously self-ordered natural world by itself?

The problem is the reality we observe in the natural world; the data and the logic. Nothing in the natural world is really self-ordered. The order everything has is contingent upon the order of something else that came before it, until you trace back to some final reality that requires no other condition for its order. Why the need for a final reality? Why not just keep tracing conditions back to infinity? The reason is that an infinite succession of past conditions presents us with a contradiction.
  • Premise #1:Infinity as applied to an accumulating succession is always more than can be ever achieved. It is unachievable.
  • Premise #2: For something to exists, all the conditions needed for its existence must be achieved.
  • Conclusion: Anything that exists cannot come from an infinite succession of conditions because it would depend upon an unachievable number of past conditions being fulfilled. To say it can is like saying the unachievable has been achieved, which is a contradiction. This is true for an infinite succession of intelligent designers as much as anything else.
(see formal proof for an unconditioned reality).

An unconditioned intelligent “something” that transcends the natural world is the reasonable and responsible position to hold using reason alone, and we would all do well to ponder what a curious “something” that would be. Nothing in this post definitively proves all the Catholic theology there is about God, but to say the universe and everything in it, from the stars in the sky to the love in your heart, is a mindless accident that magically happens by itself is truly wishful thinking for the non-believer who wishes to avoid the reality of things. In terms of believing in fairytales, never was the shoe so firmly on the other foot.
“Man does not explain himself to himself without the odd suspicion that he is missing something.”
 - James V. Schall, S.J.




  1. In a world where reason has been jettisoned no amount of evidence or proofs will suffice. As said in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man:

    Luke 16:
    30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

    31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

  2. what a fine article--my highest compliment: "I wish I had written that".

    1. Thanks Bob! Especially appreciated coming from scientist like yourself!

  3. Before I returned to the Church I don't think that this argument ever convinced me--I think I thought it was biased. Even now I'm not sure how convincing I find the argument, though I agree with the conclusion: there is a difference between the cabin and the universe, and I'm sure nonbelievers will pounce on it, so allow me to say it here before one does. The universe is natural, while the cabin is not. The matter that makes up the cabin is natural, but in nature cabins do not appear, but not only does the universe appear in nature, the two are equivalent--that's the definition.

    If I've made a mistake with the argument, can you please show me where?

    Also, this is not how I understood the teleological argument of Saint Thomas Aquinas's--I thought it meant that creatures act towards certain intelligent ends but lack the intelligence necessary to do so, and so they must be being guided by an external Intelligence.

    I did like the end of this article, though, because it is the cosmological argument (a combination of the argument from cause and the argument from contingency) that convinced me at last that there is a God, and began my spiritual journey back to Mother Church.

    God bless!

    1. Hi Pair,
      I would disagree that "the universe is natural, while the cabin is not". Both contain matter, both are subject to the same physical laws , both are part of physical reality and both show finely tuned order. One difference is that we can observe other cabins being made. We cannot observe the universe being made, but the logic about a designer remains for both. God bless.

    2. Let me take a stab. I would try to clarify "the universe is natural, while the cabin is not" as "the universe is not man-made, while the cabin is" What's interesting is that things that are not man-made are less complex than those that are. The universe is full of thing-making factories. Organisms are amazing in that they can reproduce, making little copies of themselves. Tell me, is there more or less complexity in a blender, or a machine that MAKES blenders? When one looks at a cabin or Paley's watch, they compare it to a tree or dirt and say, this is made. Why? Is it because they know what the cabin and watch is for? Doesn't that simply highlight that they don't know what the tree and dirt is for? Not knowing is not equivalent to knowing a negative.

      In a similar vein, I have been asked what the universe would look like without God. It is followed by the assertion that it would look the same, that God makes no impact on it. I then ask, how do you know this? We have never seen a universe without God with which to compare ours. If someone signed their name, you would not know if it was theirs or not unless you had a signature not signed by them to compare it to. Again, not knowing the impact made is not equivalent to knowing there is none.