Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why Teleology is terrifying

WARNING: The following blog contains disturbing images and descriptions of natural phenomena. This is the last cute picture on the page. Scroll down at your own risk.

I recently listened to a sermon on how to reach atheists, dealing specifically with the so called “proofs” for the existence of God – the Cosmological Argument, the Ontological Argument and the Teleological Argument. After listening to these arguments I have to say that if I was an atheist, those would have failed spectacularly to convince me of the existence of God. To me, the Cosmological Argument fails because even if you accept that there is an ultimate cause to the universe it certainly doesn’t follow that this cause has to be God. The Ontological Argument is the kind of thing that makes philosophers all giddy but anyone more practically minded would first go “Huh?” and then realize that it could just as easily be used to prove the existence of elves, unicorns and fairies. I think it’s for this reason that you don’t come across these arguments very often (at least in my limited experience). The Teleological Argument (aka the Argument from Design) on the other hand remains very popular and is the main reason most Christians feel the need to fight tooth and nail against evolution. After all, if you believe that every creature great and small is designed by a higher intellect and that this designer is God, then it follows that you will also feel that any suggestion that organisms came to their present state through natural means is in fact just another way of saying that there is no God. This is why to many Christians belief in God and acceptance of evolution will forever be mutually exclusive. This is also why the Creationism vs. Evolution debate will never be resolved as it is not about scientific evidence or reason but rather about defending the Faith. No amount of science and evidence will ever change that. Therefore I am not going to waste my energy trying to explain the facts of evolution or attacking Intelligent Design. Rather I will take the less exhausting (and futile) way out and explain why I think it’s a terrible idea to use the Argument from Design as a proof for the existence of God.

Recently I came across this satirical video that asks a question so obvious I have to wonder why it never occurred to Dr Behe – if the bacterial flagellum proves the existence of God, what does it prove about God?

It reminded me of an interview with Sir David Attenborough where he mentioned all the hate mail he gets from Christians for not giving credit to God in his nature documentaries. He said: “They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.” To me that sums up the problem with the Teleological Argument in a nutshell. It’s easy to imagine that all the beauty in nature proves God, but what about all the horrors of nature? If nature is a proof of God then what exactly does that say about God? Its easy (for some, me not so much) to believe that all plants used to be good but then some grew thorns and became poisonous or that some vegetarian animals started eating meat instead because of the Fall, but what about all those creatures who seem designed for nothing else but death and pain and suffering? Snakes, spiders and scorpions are only the tip of the iceberg. For a view into the abyss, look at:

Leucochloridium paradoxum is a species of flatworm that as part of its reproductive cycle infests a snail. Inside the snail it migrates to the eye stalks of the snail and then proceeds to stretch and change them until they resemble pulsating brightly coloured caterpillars. Birds see this and come rip the (normally retractable) eye stalks off the snail allowing the parasite to finish its life cycle inside the bird.

Sacculina is a type of barnacle that latches on to a crab. The female Sacculina seeks a joint in the crab’s shell and then ejects her protective shell, reducing herself to a gelatinous blob, and invades. "Inside the host, the parasite grows long, root-like tendrils throughout the crab's body, eventually emerging as a bump on the underside. During this process she renders the crab infertile, and creates a small opening in the crab's back that will allow a male Sacculina to make residence there. Soon the crab is filled with millions of Sacculina eggs and larvae, and like a zombie, the crab cares for these eggs and larvae as though they were its own, losing all interest in mating. When a male crab is infected, the parasite alters its physiology and behavior to be female, to better care for the Sacculina's young. The parasite basically rewires the crab for its own ends, and the crab becomes a helpless vehicle, expending its energy caring for the young organisms that will move on to inflict themselves upon other crabs."

Cymothoa exigua is a small crustacean that enters through a fish’s (specifically, a red snapper) gills and uses claws to attach itself to the base of the snapper’s tongue where it survives for a while by drinking blood from an artery. Eventually the fish’s tongue will disappear (There is some confusion on what exactly happens, whether the louse eats the tongue or simply causes it to atrophy due to blood loss) and once the tongue is gone, the louse becomes the new tongue and manipulates the fish’s food and consumes the free food particles as the fish eats.

Now these animals are all designed specifically to do things that are unspeakably horrible and cruel (not to mention really disgusting) and if they owe this design to an Intelligent designer then this designer makes the Spanish Inquisition look like a lovable bunch. However if they owe their design to evolution then they are merely the products of an imperfect world and its just nature being heartless nature. This is why I think Christians would be better off just letting go of the Argument from Design and simply accepting evolution. For if Teleology proves God then the God it proves is anything but kind and compassionate.

(For more on these and other terrifying creatures check out the article: "The 7 most horrifying parasites on the planet" )


GumbyTheCat said...


I run into the "Nature's beauty is proof of God" argument all the time. I finally have something to throw at them other than "No, nature's beauty does NOT prove God exists".

I'm surprised I haven't thought of doing this kind of research before. Now I don't have to! Thanks.

digapigmy said...

i don't understand why i would want to argue with anyone about the existence of God.

Tania said...

What gruesome little critters... You make an excellent point!

Eugene said...

Diga - ask Ray Comfort

Gumby - yeah I don't think most people realise that Nature as a proof is a double edged sword, you can't just pick and choose the parts you like and throw out all the nasty stuff!

Tania - you should see the stuff I didn't post! While the tongue replacing bug haunts my nightmares, at least it doesn't attack humans (that we know of...), you should see some of the stuff that does!

Biblestudyman said...

You answered your own question when you mentioned the Fall of Man with the resultant thorns, thistles and eventual carnivorism. There's the phrase: "the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now", being in "bondage to corruption". The creation awaits the Perfect Age to arrive, when the wrongs will be made right.

The fact that an obvious multi-part machine can be misused by errant or malfunctioning organisms doesn't take away from the marvel of the invention whatsoever! Many human inventions have been used for both good and evil. So what's your point?

The state of the world today is no reflection upon the love of God...this world is "under the power of darkness" and ruled by Satan. Lets hope that soon changes. No more demon-possessed people, demented murderers... child molesters and torturing incestuous monsters will all be removed at last. The Lion will lay down with the Lamb. God's love for you was displayed at Calvary whether you accept it or not.

Eugene said...

No Biblestudyman, I'm afraid that saying "the Fall did it" doesn't answer my question any more than "the power company supplies it" would answer the question "How does electricity work?"

The subject of discussion here was the Argument from Design and its implications. These creatures (as well as many other) are not misusing any part of their makeup, in fact they are working exactly as they are "designed" to. My question was how did they get this way?

If they came to be this way through a natural process then there is no problem, at least not a theological one.

If the Teleological argument is correct then an Intelligent Being designed them to be this way. But these designs are inventively and unnecessarily cruel and horrifying so what does that say about this Being?

If you blame this on Satan then are you saying that he is the Intelligent Designer? All of orthodox Theology would deny Satan that ability (and I doubt the Discovery Institute would appreciate the implication that they are in fact Satanists). You certainly can't just get away with vaguely blaming "corruption" because everything here functions with streamlined intent and has features specifically for this lifestyle.

Did God re-create after the Fall? To my knowledge all theological thinking seems to reject that idea. Did God pre-program certain creatures to change into something completely different when cursed then? Then God is directly responsible for these horrifying designs and the unspeakable suffering they bring for no rhyme or reason.

No matter how you slice it, the Argument from Design is not a good one because even if it does prove a Higher Intelligence/Designer/Being it does not prove a good and loving one, it proves a cruel and malicious one.