The Illusion of Design: Dawkins’ anti-naturalist argument


A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean it had to be designed, but they couldn’t imagine the alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. Would that he had succeeded with all of us. (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Kindle Edition, pp. 138-139)

It [Darwinian evolution] shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well. (Dawkins, pg. 143)

Richard Dawkins has told us throughout his book The God Delusion that we should pay more attention to the world around us, see all of its mystery and wonder, and marvel at just how lucky we all are to be born in this world and how lucky we are to live on planet earth (the one planet of what could’ve been billions that survived and could sustain human life).

For Dawkins, there is a physical origin to life, so Dawkins believes that to focus on “God” or a “god” to explain the origin of life is intellectually lazy, a sign that an individual doesn’t want to do the intellectual legwork to investigate the origin of what we see: “Those people who leap from personal bafflement at a natural phenomenon straight to a hasty invocation of the supernatural are no better than the fools who see a conjuror bending a spoon and leap to the conclusion that it is ‘paranormal,'” Dawkins says (TGD, pg. 155).

And yet, as I’ve pointed out, the origin of life is no magic trick. Dawkins himself has said that the origin of life has a low probability of occurrence, yet we’re here:

It doesn’t matter how many planets we have to play with, lucky chance could never be enough to explain the lush diversity or living complexity on Earth in the same way as we used it to explain the existence of life here in the first place. The evolution of life is a completely different case from the origin of life because, to repeat, the origin of life was (or could have been) a unique event which had to happen only once. (The God Delusion, page 167)

For Dawkins, there is a distinction between the evolution of life and the origin of life. Dawkins says that the evolution of life occurred via natural selection, but he can’t use natural selection to argue the origin of life because, contrary to the life forms visible, the origin of life could happen only once (it could be a one-time act, not something that can be repeated more than once). And yet, if the origin of life happened only once, science can’t verify it (because science can only verify the repeatable), and this means that, contrary to Dawkins’s previous claim, the origin of life is no magic trick.

Magic tricks can be repeated and observed, while the origin of life (if we presume its low probability and one-time occurrence) cannot. Thus, Dawkins cannot reduce the theistic perspective to intellectual laziness because, if the creation event happened once, then it is a miracle — and thus, by default, invokes a Divine Designer. Of course, Richard Dawkins can’t have that, now can he?

Well, in the quotes above that mention the phrase “the illusion of design,” Dawkins tells us that what we see and conclude from what we see are incorrect. When Christians look at the world, and see how they (themselves intelligent beings) bake cakes, write books and plays, build homes and cars, plant flowers, and so on, they see that they are able to design something from scratch — and they conclude that, if they’re the best of the earthly creation and they didn’t create themselves, then an Intelligent Designer did.

This argument is no different than looking at your house and, seeing your door kicked in and tables and possessions thrown in your floor and destroyed, conclude that a robber invaded your home. It’s an intelligent argument, an argument that looks at the universal constants and design of the objects themselves and concludes the logical argument to be what reality tells us: “if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.”

And yet, Dawkins wants to say the opposite, that “if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a kangaroo.” That is, he argues that, if humans look at the universe’s plant and animal life and see design, “they must be wrong. It can’t be design. Design can’t explain all that we see.” Is this not a direct contradiction to reality, though?

Let’s say that you’re out and about walking in the middle of the street. It’s a rainy day and there’s been little traffic all morning. You walk out in the middle of the street, only to notice that a large truck is headed straight for you. What would you do? If you’re a person that believes what you see is real, you’ll be afraid, show fear on your face, and get out of the highway.

For someone to stay in the highway with oncoming traffic headed straight toward him or her is the exact opposite of what we’d expect from someone living in reality. To stay in the road and risk getting hit and/or killed is irrational, against the standard expectation for human life and survival. If you see an oncoming car, telling yourself “it’s not real, it’s just an illusion of a truck, it’s just an illusion of death” isn’t going to save you or make the truck disappear into thin air. When it comes to our survival, we live in reality — and whatever reality tells us, whatever reality shows to our senses, we believe it.

Why is it, then, when it comes to the origin of life and the universe, Richard Dawkins escapes skepticism and criticism when he refers to “the illusion of design”? After all, it’s not irrational to look at a cake and think, “Someone designed this,” is it? Is it irrational to think that a house was designed by an architect? Is it against reason to believe that a Da Vinci painting was designed by Da Vinci himself?

We weren’t there when Da Vinci made his paintings, we weren’t there when Michaelangelo designed the look of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but we believe they painted their works because we know that primates or the physical world (dust, grass, paintbrushes, etc.) cannot do what they did. Science has proven that chimpanzees cannot design Shakespearean plays, so this is a matter of fact, not fiction or wishful thinking.

In the same vein, we weren’t there when God made the universe. We weren’t present when the origin of life happened, but, like the Da Vinci and Michaelangelo paintings, we can look at the world in all its splendor and see design. We’ve seen painters design paintings, and architects design building drawings, and we know that those designers have incredible talent.

Similarly, the Intelligent Designer who made the world has genius and incredible talent, too — and we know that if we humans didn’t design it, it’s certainly not possible that the physical world (that lacks our intellect) designed it, either. Sure, the universe around us shows incredible intelligence, but nature lacks an intellect. Humans have both intellect and intelligence.

The “illusion of design” argument is anti-naturalist

Michaelangelo Sistine Chapel
Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting. Image Credit: Getty Images

Dawkins says that design is merely an illusion, that there’s another way outside of design and chance to account for the evolution of life in the universe (through small-scale changes over billions of years), but his argument that design is an illusion is anti-naturalist.

Naturalism says that, if we see humans die (and we do), then all humans die. The idea that humans in physical bodies live forever in those same bodies is impossible because “no one has seen it,” “it doesn’t happen,” “it isn’t repeatable,” we say. If one is a naturalist, resurrection of the body can’t (and doesn’t) happen. And yet, when it comes to an intelligent case for an Intelligent Designer (ID), Dawkins has a problem with ID not because of its illusion of design, but instead, because to posit intelligent design is to posit an Intelligent Designer.

It’s the Designer, not the design, that Dawkins has a problem with. Dawkins has a problem with God, and any argument that makes the case for God is one he automatically hates. Keep in mind that he believes there’s a physical cause for the origin of life, though he can only use “probably,” “something like DNA,” and other iffy phrases to describe how life originated physically.

If Dawkins can dabble in speculation with regard to the origin of life, then why can’t Christians? Why can’t Christians, speculate that God, a divine being, made what we see? How is it that Dawkins’ speculative theory is acceptable, but the traditional Christian speculative theory (which, by the way, points to a human Jesus who came to earth and was historically cited) isn’t? Who’s truly stacking the intellectual deck in their favor?


DNA. Image Credit: Oxford University

It has always seemed foreign to the human mind to look at intelligence in nature and conclude that “it’s not design,” but that’s the illusion Dawkins is throwing at us. Dawkins tells us, “Disagree with what you see. Find the courage within to oppose reality as it has been so clearly perceived by so many individuals throughout time and history.” In other words, “tell yourself that the truck is not coming for you, even though it’s going to hit you and you’re going to die.”

By claiming that billions of humans are deceived about the natural world (what they see), Dawkins “ordains” himself as the one that can “tell it like it is”. We Christians have seen this claim before — in Gnosticism, a movement that said one had to have a secret knowledge of God (that opposed the traditional teachings of Christianity, by the way) to be saved. Dawkins’ denial of intelligent design in the universe is akin to the Gnosticism of the second century that forbade marriage and certain foods that were good gifts from a Good Creator (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

The God Delusion author establishes himself as the atheist “prophet,” the one that nature clearly speaks to, the “enlightened” one — and the rest of us that believe what we see are the ones who are really walking in darkness. Atheists claim Jesus is offensive because he made exclusive claims, but they don’t seem to mind what Dawkins is doing. In the similar language of Shakespeare, “methinks they are a bit too hypocritical.”

We know what Dawkins believes, we know what atheists believe, but we also know what Christians believe:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23)

Those who deem themselves to be “most wise” among us and argue for the illusion of design are the ones who are in darkness. Those who use their intelligence to give glory to the Creator God are the ones most enlightened.

If you’ve been buying into the idea that design is an illusion, I highly encourage you to abandon Richard Dawkins and find a new set of intellectual authorities.