Thursday, March 26, 2009

god is not Great Chapter 6: Arguments from Design

Chapter six addresses one of the most common issues that causes division between theists and atheists. This should of course be clarified that it is mostly Young Earth Creationists who tend to make this a problem. The arguments from design, of course, state that certain levels of complexity in the universe, be it in the form of the living cell, a star, an eye, or the fact that conditions in the universe are conducive to life.

These ideas are compelling to some, but do not tend to convince most skeptics, and as Hitchens shows, if somewhat inexpertly, the science does not require the assumption of design. After some anecdotes Hitchens gets to his point starting with the eye, which has long been inaccurately described by YEC's as nearly impossible to have evolved. This is, as Hitchens argues, patently absurd due merely to the obvious evolution that we see in eyes, from planarian eyespots all the way to the most advanced eyes in vertibrates.

In this very section, though, I have to commend Hitchens somewhat as he uses a common creationist quotemine that creationists use against evolution's proponents and turns it around on them exposing it as a fraud:

"To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree."

He continues the quote thusly:

"When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory."

It is a common quotemine at this point, and one most atheists know pretty much on sight. But I would argue it is good to have it exposed as mining Darwin is such a common tactic, and was used even as recently as Ben Stein's documentary Expelled in particularly bad taste to link evolution with the Holocaust.

But Hitchens makes further arguments against the design hypothesis by noting how if we are designed it was by a very poor designer, using the eye again as an example citing it is in fact upside down and backwards, which seems quite inefficient.

Something he does later in the chapter is point out a favorite fallacious argument of Ray Comfort, which he seems to think trumps any belief against creation:

"Do you know of any building that didn't have a builder
Do you know of any painting that didn't have a painter?
Do you know of any car that didn't have a maker?
If you answered YES for anyof the above, give details."

Hitchens doesn't go the way I would have here, and instead of exposing the fallacy of comparing things we know were created with something that we have no proof was created he opts to explain that even if something is created it still follows evolution. He uses the examples of aircraft technology evolving gradually through trial and error. I'm not sure I like this example, particularly as at this very same time he declares that "speculation about who designed us to be designers becomes as fruitless and irrelevant as the question of who designed that designer."

He spends much of the rest of the chapter simply discussion the evolutionary theory of those such as Stephen Jay Gould. A bit of discussion of the Cambrian explosion as well as explaining the capriciousness of evolution, including its lack of pointed direction.

All in all, the chapter was interesting and informative, but did suffer from Hitchens' lack of being a scientist, and a tendancy to branch off into tangents.


  1. It is dangerous to discuss "design evolution" at all, in my opinion. It gives in to the idea of design from the getgo, and then you're setting yourself up to defend against quote mining and just quoting.

    The fact of the matter is, while I can go watch a car being made, nobody ever saw god making anything, ergo . . . at the very least, you're making quite the extraordinary claim with no extraordinary proof. Simple, easy, no need to mess with airplanes.

  2. I completely agree. I really like Hitchens, but I think he has a problem where he at times out-clevers himself. He has a great thought, but ineloquently expresses it in such a way that it just doesn't quite work.