I have heard the argument of the watchmaker, and the appearance of design so many times, I want to scream. It has become a favorite of both average believers and professional apologists, and I’ve heard it used frequently on YouTube apologetics and debates. Like all arguments for god(s), it’s long ago been debunked. But before I go into why it’s wrong, let’s give the argument a fair shake and discuss why it’s so powerful to believers.
Basically, the argument goes like this. If you were walking down the beach one day, and you happened upon a watch lying in the sand, you wouldn’t assume that it was a product of natural forces. You would rightfully assume that it was a manufactured item that happened to land here. The reason for this, the argument goes, is because we can recognize design. Even if you had never seen a watch before in your life, as you hold it in your hands you will notice that it has many components that function together to achieve a single purpose, and all the pieces are useless unless they are put together in just such a way. If we extrapolate out, we can see that our universe is so highly tuned, and put together in such a way, that we are able to be here. This is design. And since it was designed, there was a designer. And that designer is God.
I really hope I gave that argument a fair shake. I’m not going to set up a straw man for ease of knocking down. No, that’s a tactic of the apologist. I want to take this argument head-on. But first, you have to admit, it’s a pretty powerful sounding argument. This universe IS pretty special, because we are here! If the laws of physics were a bit different, we wouldn’t be here. If we were closer or farther from the sun, we wouldn’t be here. There’s so many small changes that could be made to the universe that would cause us to not exist at all. It really seems like there had to be a guiding hand in all this. This resonates with believers because every individual on this planet IS here, with their own mind, and their own sense of being, and their own acknowledgement that just being here is wonderful. The atheist is not immune to these feelings, by the way. The atheist also looks around, and introspects, and is amazed that out of the billions and billions and billions of stars and planets that we happened to assemble in such a way that we exist. It can be mind boggling, and it can make us feel very special just for making the cut.
So what about the design argument? Let’s dig into that just a little. We don’t have to scratch the surface very far to find out that this argument is really a thoughtless, flippant endeavor. You see, when the apologist says “we can recognize design”, the first question should be what characteristics are there that point toward design? What characteristics are of both designed and naturally occurring things? What characteristics are only found for things that are not designed? Brace yourself for the answer! No, just kidding. There are no answers from the apologist. They claim they can recognize it, but are unable to give a single feature of design to support their claim. I’d love to hear one of them come up with some criteria. If anyone hears of anything let me know, and I’ll happily dig into that.
But are we designed? Of course not. And the quickest way to demonstrate that is with my favorite counter argument to the watchmaker because it really makes me laugh: Watches don’t grow up.
Yeah, it’s true. Watches don’t start as little infant watches, then go through puberty, then become adults, have sex with other watches, and reproduce. And even though the idea is kind of funny to picture in your mind, it completely wrecks the entire exercise for the apologist. We become adults because we grow up. We were once babies. Before that, we were embryos. Before that, we were a clump of cells. And before that, we were all a newly fertilized egg. NOBODY needs to build adults. Nobody has to tinker with us as we grow up. We don’t need to add parts. We don’t need to upgrade hardware. It happens by a completely natural process, and that process is growing up. Since everyone knows this, and everyone knows that we aren’t assembled on a plant in Michigan, the design argument is dead.
But Spartan Atheist, you said you weren’t going to just knock down straw man arguments and growing up is not what they mean! Never fear, I’m working toward it. But it’s important to recognize that as far as becoming adults, we universally recognize that it doesn’t take a designer. That’s a natural process.
Considering the idea that there is a designer, they’re quite vague as to exactly god designed and when. One view is god created us to be human beings, and THEN natural processes take over. He created us in his image and made us able to reproduce, right? Well, except even some believers understand evolution, which means we didn’t need a designer to become humans. For those believers, god was the key to firing up the process of DNA replicating itself, and THEN natural processes took over. Except many believers are up to date on the current research into abiogenesis, that is, in which case god was needed to design the right conditions for life to exist, and THEN natural processes took over. Except for the believers that are familiar with big bang theory, that is, and then god was the impetus for the big bang, and THEN natural processes took over.
Do we notice a pattern? Wherever the individual religious person is willing to admit natural processes, they are fine with that. And just before that, GOD happened, he must have designed it. It doesn’t matter where that line is, but it is always just when their knowledge runs out. The opposite of knowledge is ignorance, so they in fact are putting their god in their ignorance. What does this sound like? Sounds a lot like the “god of the gaps,” doesn’t it. Because it is! Design arguments sound different up front because they seem to posit a positive claim. But they don’t really. They superficially posit that we can recognize design, without any attempt to justify that claim. Then, right where their individual knowledge horizon ends, insert designer.
Yes, the watchmaker analogy is just another god of the gaps argument. It’s demonstrably incorrect because it’s comparing inanimate objects with reproducing, growing, living things, or natural processes in general. And it’s an excuse that’s barely veneer thick because they haven’t considered what characteristics indicate design.
As their table is down to one leg, the argument is already an abject failure. But let’s go ahead and kick that last leg out as well. You see, part of their argument is that the world seems designed in the first place. So let’s see just how competent this watchmaker is. If we hired God to make us, would we be happy with his performance? (Neil DeGrasse Tyson does the best to eloquently illustrate “stupid design”, and I highly recommend you find it on YouTube.)
I’ll be god. You decide to hire me to build a watch! Sure! I build you a watch. I build a whole bunch of watches. I added some extra gears, though, and as a result almost half of the watches break even before they are purchased. Instead of the normal spring, I use a spring that I designed to be bent funny. It usually works, but about 1/3 of the watches have trouble keeping time after a year, and some of them just break as well. The wind knob must be turned every 6 hours or the watch will stop. However, if you turn it more than 3 minutes early, the watch will also stop, and must be brought to a jeweler to re-start. The watch has a light to see the face in the dark, and while I could have easily added a small strip of metal to make the electrical connection, I decided to run a wire down and around and protrude out the side of the watch where it makes a 1” loop, then back into the watch to complete the circuit. It’s great except the wire gets damaged every now and then and the light doesn’t work.
Who, in their right mind would think this is good design? Nobody, I’m sure. But these are the same functions of our bodies that are supposedly so ingeniously put together. Over half of all fertilized embryos don’t even implant. And since Christian’s believe that the soul is bestowed upon us at the moment of conception, god is in fact the worlds most prolific abortionist. Stupid. We have a curved spine with protruding nerves that bends to absorb shock, ensuring that a portion of the population will suffer back problems such as pinched nerves and torn disks. Any engineer could have come up with a different design from scratch. But as evolved animals, we had to work with what we had. As a design, however, it’s stupid. Our entire bodies are built for sex, yet we’re not supposed to do it. Except in this one case. Talk about over-engineering a function. And speaking of sex, why do my testicles have to hang down in such a vulnerable position? Other animals get to have balls inside their bodies, other mammals even! Why do we get screwed with this stupid design?
The universe is equally stupidly designed. I’m still god, and now you hired me to build an ant farm. To build this ant farm, I set to work dozens of bulldozers to make a mountain 10,000’ tall. On the mountain, I tapped into lava reservoirs to run down the side of the mountain, making part of the mountain uninhabitable. On another section of the mountain, I released 40,000 ant eaters. On fully half of the mountain, I sprayed 80,000 gallons of ant pesticide. On top of the mountain, I built a preserve for birds, most of which include ants as part of their diet. And finally, I took a couple of pieces of plastic and wood and made a 3”x6” ant habitat somewhere on the slope. Forty-five years and $89,000,000 later, you have your ant farm. Are you happy with this?
Of course not. But this is our universe. It’s bigger than we can even imagine, made up of billions and billions of galaxies, each with billions and billions of stars. It’s almost 14 billion years old, and we came along so late in the process that our presence is a mere flash in time. Most of the universe will kill us. Hell, most of this planet will kill us. This is not good design. Yes, we have managed to find our niche in this horribly designed universe and adapted to fit the conditions. But that looks suspiciously like the result of a natural process, and not at all like design.
So, the watchmaker analogy works, but only if you ignore the egregiously wasteful use of resources used to create the universe, ignore the ridiculously horrible design of nearly everything, ignore the knowledge that science has attained, ignore the complete lack of depth to the argument, and ignore the fact that we sexually reproduce. And if you can ignore all of that, then I suppose you can still hold on to your religion.
The Spartan Atheist