Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Some Levinasian Reflections on the Argument from Design

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Some Levinasian Reflections on the Argument from Design

Article excerpt

The argument from design for the existence of God is intuitively powerful. However, its intellectual history is somewhat checkered. Some two and a half centuries ago, it was dealt a serious philosophical blow by David Hume, a blow from which, for a time, it did not look like it could recover. Recently, a heavy dose of modern cosmology seems to have breathed some life back into it,1 enough for us to suppose that it is now not a waste of time to reflect on the argument. In this essay, my reflections are focused not so much on the strength of the argument as on its religious import. My concern is not so much with the effectiveness of it as a logical argument, as with what it tells us about transcendence and infinity. Drawing on the writings of Emmanuel Levinas, I want to question whether the argument brings the believer any closer to God, and to suggest that at worst it could well miss the point about being religious.

In its basic form, the argument from design concludes that given the design evidenced in the observable world, it is more reasonable to think that the world has been purposely created than that it came into existence as a matter of chance. The improbability of the world's existing is better explained by positing a Designer than by supposing that it is a chance occurrence. Learning from Hume, those who reject the argument point out that the improbability of the world's existing is astonishing only if we look at it as a single event, but not if we consider it as one in the totality of all possible outcomes. The winner of the first prize in a lottery may think it astonishing that his or her ticket, which has a one-in-a-million chance of being the winning ticket, turns out to be the winning ticket. To the organizers of the lottery, however, there is nothing astonishing about someone winning the first prize because someone is bound to win it if all the tickets are sold.

Against Hume and his followers, George Schlesinger argues that while some improbable events are not surprising and do not call for an explanation, others are and demand an explanation.2 That Smith won the first prize is not surprising because if he had not, someone else would have. However, it would be surprising, astonishing in fact, if Smith won the first prize in three successive lotteries because we cannot say that if Smith had not won them then someone else would have. Modern cosmologists, particularly those who subscribe to the Anthropic Principle, have furnished evidence to show that the kind of cosmic fine tuning required for the existence of the world is indeed astonishing and does demand an explanation.3 To be sure, the explanation does not necessarily have to invoke an intelligent Designer. We can turn an improbable event that is astonishing into one that is not if we embed it in a larger totality. Thus, if we embed the event of Smith winning three first prizes in a row in a large enough perspective, for instance, a temporal one in which the same series of lotteries is run over an eternity, or one of countless possible worlds with the same series of lotteries being run in each of them, then we can say that there is bound to be (in the probabilistic sense) one time or one world in which someone is the three-time winner. Likewise, if we take the universe in which there is the right cosmic fine tuning to be one among very many universes then there is nothing surprising or astonishing about it. However, as John Leslie has pointed out, if we reject the multiple-universe hypothesis then we are left with the hypothesis of an intelligent Designer as the only possible explanation for the improbability of fine tuning. Indeed, it "could seem that making God responsible for the fine tuning was preferable to believing in greatly many universes and in probabilistic variations among them."4 In the same way, Schlesinger points out that the only way to avoid taking the design argument seriously is to assume a kind of modal realism, or to "assume, for instance with David Lewis, that all possible universes are equally real. …

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