Does the concept of an intelligent designer make sense?
Human beings explain features of the world around them in two main ways. One way is to supply naturalistic explanations that appeal to features of the natural world, such as natural events, forces and laws. The explanations of physics and chemistry fall into this category. The other way is to offer intentional explanations – explanations that appeal to the beliefs and desires of more or less rational agents. Why is there a tree in this spot? Because Ted wanted to see a tree from his bedroom window, and so planted a sapling here correctly supposing it would grow into a handsome tree.
When we are unable to explain something naturalistically, it is, of course, tempting to look for an intentional explanation instead. When we could not offer naturalistic explanations for why the heavenly bodies moved about as they did, we supposed that they must be, or must be moved by, agents – gods of some sort. When we could not otherwise explain diseases and natural disasters, we put them down to the actions of malevolent agents, such as witches and demons. When we could not provide naturalistic explanations for the growth of plants and the cycle of the seasons, we again invoked agents – sprites, fairies, and gods of various sorts.
As our scientific understanding of the world has increased, the need to invoke witches, fairies, demons and other such agents to account for features of the natural world has diminished. However, when we ask: why does the natural world exist at all, and what explains why it has the fundamental laws does? such naturalistic explanations are not available. So an explanation in terms of the activity of some sort of transcendent agent might seem attractive.
But does such an explanation even make sense? Suppose I claim that there exists a non-spatial mountain. It’s a mountain – with a sharp summit flanked by valleys and steep crags. Only it is not located or extended in space at all. It does not have spatial dimensions. This mountain transcends our spatial world.
You might well ask me why I suppose there is any such mountain. And if I cannot give you good reasons, you will rightly be sceptical. But actually, isn’t there a rather more fundamental problem with my claim that such a mountain exists? Can’t we know, before we get to the question of whether there is any evidence for the existence of my non-spatial mountain, that there can be no such thing?
For the very idea of such a mountain makes no sense. My hypothetical mountain has a summit and valleys and steep cliffs, but these are all features that require spatial extension. A summit requires that one part of the mountain be higher than another. A valley must be lower than the surrounding terrain. The concepts of a mountain, summit, valleys, and so on are concepts that can only sensibly be applied within a spatial context. Strip that context away and we end up talking nonsense.
But if we now turn to the concept of a transcendent designer, does that make any more sense?
The concept of an agent has its home within a temporal setting. An agent is someone or thing that performs actions as a result of its various beliefs and desires. But actions are events that happen at particular moments in time. And beliefs and desires are psychological states that have a temporal duration.
Now when we suppose that the spatio-temporal universe was created by some sort of agent, we are presumably supposing it was designed by a non-temporal agent – an agent that does not (or at least did not then) exist in time. For there was not yet any time for the agent to exist in. But if desires are psychological states with temporal duration, how, then, could this agent possess the desire to create the universe? And how did it perform the act of creation if there was not yet any time in which actions might be performed? It is hard to see how talk of a non-temporal agent makes any more sense than talk of a non-spatial mountain.
We could sidestep these puzzles by supposing that God exists, and has always existed, in time. This provides God with the necessary temporal dimension in which he might possess the desire to produce a universe, draw up a design, and perform the act of creation But it raises a host of other bizarre questions, such as: why did God wait so long before creating the universe (presumably, if God did not himself have a beginning, an infinitely long time)? And what was he doing in the meantime?