Complexity and design seem to be infused into the very elements if life. Francis Crick, winner of the Nobel prize for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA, famously said "Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved."1 Indeed, the strong map of design in the living creatures of the earth seems at first blush so strong that the scientists themselves have a hard time describing them without using vocabulary that implies design.
Richard Dawkins dismisses the appearance of the complex, organized features of life as pointing to a designer, though. In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins acknowledges that the complex nature of things like DNA are things that biologists "have difficulty explaining." Yet, Dawkins states that the organized complexity of either the DNA molecule or the molecular machinery used to replicate proteins in no way points to a designer, simply because what ever created it would need to be even more complex. He writes, "Of course, any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself." This would then lead to looking for an even more complex designer of the designer and so on, regressing back to infinity. Thus, Dawkins concludes, to claim a designer "is to explain precisely nothing. "2
Alvin Plantinga, in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, deftly takes Dawkins argument apart. He leads with a rather simple analogy showing why Dawkins' cleverness is unconvincing:
Design doesn’t explain organized complexity (says Dawkins); it presupposes it, because the designer would have to be as complex as what it creates (designs). Perhaps, therefore, Dawkins means to argue along the following lines: there are really just two explanations of life: unguided Darwinism and an explanation, guided Darwinism, perhaps, that involves design. But the latter is really no explanation at all. Therefore the only candidate is the former.
Here there are two problems. First, this argument doesn't depend on the facts of biology; it is substantially independent of the latter. Is it likely that Dawkins would be offering an argument of that sort? If so, why would he claim that it is "the Evidence of Evolution" that "Reveals a World Without Design"?
Set that problem aside for the moment; there is another and deeper problem with this argument. Suppose we land on an alien planet orbiting a distant star and discover some machine-like objects that look and work just like a 1941 Allis Chalmers tractor; our leader says "there must be intelligent beings on this planet-look at those tractors." A sophomore philosophy student on the expedition objects: "Hey, hold on a minute! You have explained nothing at all! Any intelligent life that designed those tractors would have to be at least as complex as they are!" No doubt we'd tell him a little learning is a dangerous thing and advise him to take the next rocket ship home and enroll in another philosophy course or two. For of course it is perfectly sensible, in that context, to explain the existence of those tractors in terms of intelligent life, even though (as we can concede for present purposes) that intelligent life would have to be at least as complex as the tractors. The point is we aren't trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity, and we aren't trying to explain organized complexity in general; we are only trying to explain one particular manifestation of it (those tractors). And (unless you are trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity) it is perfectly proper to explain one manifestation of organized complexity in terms of another. Hence it is not the case, contra Dawkins, that an explanation in terms of divine design is a nonstarter. Such an explanation doesn't constitute an ultimate explanation of organized complexity (if God is complex, nothing could constitute such an explanation); but it is none the worse for that. 3
2. Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton, 1986. Print.
3. Plantinga, Alvin. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 26-27. Print.
Image courtesy goofup [CC BY 2.0]