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Where's Waldo and the Design Argument

September 22, 2022 | by Rabbi Adam Jacobs

Are atheists and Intelligent Design advocates both missing the point?

The Skeptic vs. The Believer

Dr. Ed Feser has a fun analogy on his blog in the form of a "skeptic" and a "believer" arguing over the existence of the "Painter" of a Where's Waldo scene. The skeptic says:

"Painter? Oh please, there's no evidence of any painter! I've been studying this canvas for years. I've gone over every square inch. I've studied each figure in detail -- facial expressions, posture, clothing, etc. I've found plumbers, doctors, dancers, hot dog vendors, dogs, cats, birds, lamp posts, and all kinds of other things. But I've never found this painter of yours anywhere in it. No doubt you'll tell me that I need to look again until I find him. But really, how long do we have to keep looking without success until people like you finally admit that there just is no painter?"

And the believer retorts:

"I think you're overlooking crucial evidence, Skeptic," Believer says. "I agree that you're not going to find evidence of the painter on any cursory examination or in most of the painting. But consider that in the upper left corner, among the other figures, there's a policeman leaning at about a ninety-degree angle, yet whose facial expression gives no indication that he feels like he's going to fall over.

“Now it's possible that he's leaning on something -- a mailbox perhaps -- but that seems very unlikely given that we see no mailbox, and a mailbox would be too big for part of it not to be visibly sticking out from behind one of the other figures standing around. No, I think that the best explanation is that there is an invisible figure standing next to the policeman, or at least an invisible force of some kind, which is operating at that spot to hold him up.

“And an invisible cause like that is part of what we think the painter is supposed to be, no? Also, you've said that you've gone over this painting square inch by square inch. But we've got techniques now to study the painting at the level of the square centimeter or even the square millimeter. Who knows what we'll find there? In fact, it seems there are some really complicated patterns at that level, and it doesn't seem remotely probable that any of the figures we do see in the painting could have produced them.

“But an invisible painter could have done so. In fact, the patterns we find at that level show a pretty high level of cleverness and artistic skill. So, when we weigh all the evidence, I think there's just a really strong case for the existence of a painter of some sort, in fact of a really skillful sort!"

Behind Intelligent Design

This dialogue is meant to capture the modern debate between atheists like Richard Dawkins and Intelligent Design advocates like Steven Meyer - who is a modern-day proponent of a classical line of argumentation for God's existence known as the Teleological Argument.

In a nutshell, this argument notes that the world appears to exhibit design evidence- a heart is essentially a pump, a bacterial flagellum looks like an outboard motor and a liver functions like a filter. Scientists like Meyer observe the remarkable machine-like qualities of the various organelles of the cell, such as Ribosomes, Golgi, Mitochondria, and the DNA molecule. They conclude that given the universe's age, there could not have been sufficient time for natural processes to produce the level of functional information to make these things work. This argument strikes me as very strong and very intuitively obvious.

Professor Feser thinks it's all beside the point. He sees the skeptic and the believer as butting heads over a red herring and that the real discussion should revolve solely around the "Painter." As he says:

Skeptic's and Believer's shared conception of how to determine whether the painter exists is like the dispute over whether William Paley or ID theory provide sufficient "scientific evidence" for a "designer,"; whereas the correct conception of how the painting points to the painter is like the conception of God's relation to the world one finds in the cosmological argument rightly understood -- understood, that is, the way Aristotelian, neo-Platonic, and Thomist and other Scholastics understand it.

whereas the correct conception of how the painting points to the painter is like the conception of God's relation to the world one finds in the cosmological argument rightly understood…

It is not a question of natural science -- which, given the methods that define it in the modern period, can in principle only ever get you from one part of the world to another part of it and never outside the world -- but rather a question for metaphysics, which is not limited by its methods to the this-worldly. (See the posts collected here for what's wrong with "design inferences," as usually understood. See the posts collected here for what the cosmological argument, rightly understood, has to say.)

To change the analogy slightly, it's as if the New Atheist, on the one hand, and his "theistic pesonalist" and "design inference" opponents, on the other, are playing a pseudo-theological variant of Where's Waldo? (also known as Where's Wally?) The New Atheist thinks that the problem is that too many people refuse to admit that Waldo is nowhere to be found in the picture.

The theistic personalist and the ID theorist think the problem is that the New Atheists refuse to see how strong the evidence is that Waldo is at such-and-such a place in the picture (hiding behind a bacterial flagellum, perhaps). The classical theist knows that the real problem is that these guys are all wasting enormous amounts of time and energy playing Where's Waldo instead of talking about God.

We hear in these debates about "open theism," "process theism," "onto-theology," "neo-theism," and so on. Perhaps we need a new label for the essentially creaturely or anthropomorphic conception of deity that gets endlessly hashed over in pop apologetics and pop atheism while the true God -- the God of Athanasius and Augustine, Maimonides and Avicenna, Anselm and Aquinas -- gets ignored. Call it "Wally-theism" or "Waldo-theology."

Image source thewaldowaldo.com




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