Over at Beliefnet, David Klinghoffer presents an unintentionally amusing piece on the argument for evolution from bad design:
Because of my sore knee, it follows that there this is no God.
You think I’m kidding but this line of reasoning is commonly heard from devotees of evangelizing atheism like Richard Dawkins. It’s the argument from seemingly poor, botched, or suboptimal design.
Klinghoffer then points to a nice site, “Some more of God’s greatest mistakes”, that gives dozens of examples of “bad design” in animals. (If you’re into the evidence for evolution, bookmark this site!) He then pulls off the moronic creationist “aha”:
The human knee appears to be ill-suited to its task, hence the prevalence of knee pain, similar to that of back pain, and so on. I’ve had trouble from this recurrent minor soreness, brought on by running. So here’s a website devoted to cataloguing instances of apparently faulty designs like my knee that, so goes the argument, a creator would not allow in his creatures.
That is a theological argument, not a scientific one, based on the premise that Dawkins & Co. know what a God would or wouldn’t do if that God existed which he does not. As Dawkins writes in The Greatest Show on Earth, regarding the extravagantly lengthy and circuitous recurrent laryngeal nerve of the giraffe, “Any intelligent designer would have hived off the laryngeal nerve on its way down, replacing a journey of many meters by one of a few centimeters.” Atheists think they’ve discovered a devastating “Ah hah! Gotcha!” sort of a response to religious believers who, it’s assumed, never realized that nature has a certain painful lack of perfection built into it.
I’ve discussed before the contention that the bad-design argument is theological rather than scientific. And it is scientific. It’s scientific in the sense that that kind of bad design is evidence in favor of evolution and against several competing hypothesis. One is that a divine being designed organisms so that they’re perfect. But, more important, it’s also evidence that, if life was made by a god, it must have been a certain kind of god: one who designed creators to make us think that they had evolved. For the “bad designs” are more than just random flaws in the “design” of organisms: they are flaws that are explicable only if those organisms had evolved from ancestors that were different.
Why do cave fish have nonfunctional eyes? That’s bad design for sure. You could impute it to the quirks of God, but isn’t it more parsimonious to conclude (and we know this independently from molecular data) that those fish evolved from fully-eyed fish that lived above the ground? Similarly, the recurrent laryngeal nerve, beloved of Dawkins and myself as a wonderful piece of evidence for evolution (see our books), is way longer than it need be — but that excessive length is completely understandable given the evolutionary history of that nerve, which once innervated the gills in our ancestors.
Over and over again, bad designs make sense as byproducts of evolution. They make no sense if you posit that they’re the product of a creator’s whim — UNLESS you think that creator’s whim was to fool us into thinking that life had evolved. And who wants to believe in a god like that?
Anybody who makes the argument that bad designs are simply part of God’s unknowable plan, rather than evidence for evolution, is doubly irrational. Those imperfections are indeed evidence for evolution, for they make sense only in light of evolution. And if you still accept the God hypothesis, then you can’t claim that the divine plan is unknowable: it has to be a plan that makes things look as if they evolved. Wise up, creationists!
After balling up the evolution argument, Klinghoffer simply gets himself in deeper by engaging in theodicy, and explaining exactly why there is evil and bad design in the world. (It always mystifies me that people who claim that God works in mysterious ways are nevertheless so certain about his motives.) Theologians should stay away from theodicy, because they have no convincing rationale for why a benevolent god would allow evil things to happen to innocent people. They just sound dumb when they try to explain this, and in their hearts people know that it’s wrong. Klinghoffer’s explanation of evil invokes the well-known Argument from Hamsters:
The world can be rough and it’s obviously not all a matter of people freely choosing evil. The verse in Isaiah (45:7) says it directly:
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.
My apologies if this upsets any delicate sensibilities, but consider the alternative. A world without evil. What would that be like? It would be the perfect hamster cage or turtle terrarium, where all our needs are provided, there are no predators, no contagious disease, no confusion, no loneliness, no sin, no particular purpose, no growth, just spinning aimlessly on our exercise wheel or swimming idly in our calm, algaed paddling pool.
For Dawkins & Co., it’s either the turtle terrarium or a Godless universe. What an absurd false dilemma. For the God he doesn’t believe in, however, it’s easy to see why the turtle alternative would hold little charm, hardly enough to justify creating a world in the first place. Creatures that could never grow or change spiritually because they were unchallenged and therefore totally uninteresting? What’s the point? Once we admit that some lack, or anyway so we perceive it, in creation was inevitable if there was to be a creation, what extent of deficiency was going to be enough? Maybe a little, maybe a lot. You will have to ask God when you meet him.
I’m taking it for granted that part of His purpose in creating us was to relate to us, once humanity has matured to a point where that’s really possible. Who would want to have a relationship with a hamster?
I may be wrong, but couldn’t God have arranged the world so that people could “grow and change spiritually” without horrible things happening to innocents? Do little kids have to get leukemia so the rest of us can experience spiritual growth? What kind of growth is enabled by the deaths of thousands of people in Indonesian tsunamis? And how, exactly, is our world better than one in which recurrent laryngeal nerves were of the proper length?
In the end, theodicy is the Achilles heel of religion: attempts to explain evil just make theologians look more ridiculous and unconvincing. They’d avoid the topic if they could, but too many people want to know why a good God made a bad world. We, of course, have a better answer.