This past week Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron debated with the Rational Response Squad on the existence of God. Comfort promised us a proof of God, so while many of us in the atheist community were dubious about whether these two twits had even the brain power to come up with something new, we held our breath and actually hoped we wouldn't see one of the tired, old, pathetic apologetics we've be subjected to for the past thousand years. Verdict? We risked hypoxia for nothing. Not really a surprise when these two clowns are involved.
The argument? Ray Comfort held up a picture of a painting of the Mona Lisa and told us that it is obvious that the object must have been made by a painter, a designer if you will. By analogy, then, the universe must have had a creator. This creator they call 'God'. Sound familiar? It's hardly original. William Paley used this argument more than two hundred years ago.
On the surface, this argument seems powerful and compelling. Something that has the complexity contained in a painting must have been designed. But this argument's strength is in fact its fatal flaw. Once the question 'how do we know the painting was designed?' is asked, the argument is dead. We know that a painting was produced through a willful and conscious act of an agent (the painter) because we understand how a painting is made, even if we hadn't seen the painter paint this particular painting. Indeed, we do not even need to know who the painter was. This is an example of making a conclusion based on an understanding of the mechanism by which a painting can be made. This is good Science and this part of Paley's argument from design is so far legitimate.
The flip side of the argument is that like the painting, the universe and its contents is so complex that it must also have had a designer. The problem with this analogy is that 'God did it' does not suffice as a mechanism by which anything can be explained. In point of fact, not only does this response 'beg the question' (I would say 'questions'), but never answered the question in the first place. Genesis tells us that God said 'Let there be light, and there was light'. In essence, 'God did it.' If I say to my coffee maker ,'Let there be coffee', I think its easily predicted that I must go without caffeine. A terrible fate indeed. Generation of coffee requires that I use hot water to extract flavorful compounds and caffeine from coffee beans. In other words, a mechanism must exist for creating a cup of coffee from a handful of beans. Genesis is just another example of bad Science, an attempt without supporting data to explain the universe's existence in the absence of a plausible mechanism. This is a very different animal from the creation of the painting.
Mechanism is an extremely important concept in Science. Saying the universe is here because God created it tells us nothing. We gain no knowledge from it, and it is therefor valueless. Tell me HOW God created the universe and then I'll have a listen. Evolution is a fact. We see a progression of speciation in the fossil record for which the only known plausible mechanism is natural selection. Show me a fossil rabbit in the Paleozoic and then natural selection would fail as a potential mechanism for speciation. But we never see such out-of-order lineages. Gene mutations in current species are predicted by Evolutionary Theory. For instance, have you ever wondered why dogs and cats do not need to eat fruit in order to maintain their vitamin C levels? Primates have a mutation in the gene encoding L-gluconolactone oxidase (a PZ Meyers favorite) which catalyzes the reaction producing ascorbic acid (vitamin C). This is also true for fruit-eating bats. When fruit-eating bats split off from an ancestor common to fruit- and non-fruit-eating bats a mutation in this gene occurred, making this enzyme ineffective in this fruit-eating lineage. Indeed, the use of molecular genetics as a molecular clock is in very good agreement with the fossil record, greatly strengthening the argument. The universe is old. We know this from the measurements of red shifts in supernovae. Our home planet is quite old as well. We know from various methods of radiometric dating that the Earth is ca. 4.5 billion years old. The fact that numerous different methods point to the same age makes this estimate very strong.
The argument from design really shows its inadequacy when the knowledge of mechanism is removed. Let's take a scene from the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, a movie I highly recommend. In this scene, a Coke bottle is discarded from an airplane flying over the African savanna and is picked up by a Bushman (followed by a series of incidents which force the poor sop to conclude that the gods are nuts, hence the movie's title). Having never seen a bottle before, and never having known how a bottle is made, the Bushman makes the perfectly human (and just as perfectly incorrect) conclusion that the bottle was made by the gods.
Was the Bushman's conclusion made on the basis that the bottle is so complex? No. The Bushman jumped to the conclusion without a plausible mechanism. Complexity is just a nebulous buzzword used by the IDiots. When you can quantitate complexity and also determine how much complexity is too much for a conscious agent to NOT have created the universe, then we'll talk some more. But this idea that the chances of a cell spontaneously forming are about the same as a tornado moving through a junkyard and spontaneously creating a Boeing 747 does not cut it as an argument, especially when Evolutionary Theory agrees.
We humans are predisposed to jumping to conclusions in the absence of data or a plausible mechanism. Michael Shermer has written about this extensively in his book Why People Believe Weird Things. Invoking the supernatural as an explanation is an example of bad Science. The scientifically-correct conclusion the Bushman should have made is that he simply can not know the source of the Coke bottle or how it was made without more information. While this is an unsatisfactory answer to any human being (I am not different), jumping to the conclusion that the supernatural is responsible for the Coke bottle's existence, while understandable, is illogical and unscientific.
This is exactly the problem with Paley's argument. On the one hand, we know how a painting can be made from the application of pigments to a canvas in a concerted fashion by a conscious agent. A plausible mechanism is available (good Science). In Paley's time, no plausible mechanism for the creation of the universe was available to draw any conclusion - indeed, we still do not know how it came to be -yet he concluded that it must have had a creator (bad Science). The scientifically-correct conclusion is that there is no conclusion. No scientist, myself included, is satisfied by such an unsatisfying answer (ok, so that's a tautology - sue me). But the difference is that we atheists don't find retreating to the supernatural any more satisfying.
Of course, the final joke of the debate was that Ray Comfort was not holding up a painting as he asserted, but a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. The inaccuracy of this fits exceptionally well with his, or rather Paley's, 'argument'. Neither jumping to conclusions without supporting data nor superstition, alone or in concert, can ever be considered as good Science.