Tag Archives: Design

The Design of Salvation, Part 1

“Golgota” by Mihaly Munkacsy, 1884

There are many critics of how the Bible describes God’s plan to save the human race, but it’s far easier to criticize someone else’s design than to work through what’s actually the best choice to accomplish a particular goal yourself. If you had the job of providing a means of salvation to a stubborn and rebellious people – many of whom don’t even think they need to be saved from anything  and want to actively resist any rescue attempt – how would you do it? How would you design salvation?  Let’s look at some alternatives and see whether those criticisms are really justified or not.

First off, is salvation even necessary? In case you haven’t read the newspaper, watched the news on TV, or gotten on the internet in a while, it’s pretty obvious that the world is a messed-up place. People are messed up. We like to think we’re not as bad as _____. Just fill in the blank with the person or group you tend to look down upon, because we all do that. Comparison comes naturally to us. But the fact is, none of us are perfect. A lot of times that doesn’t bother us because we assume that God grades on a curve. “Nobody’s perfect, but my saintly old grandma would surely get bumped up to a high A. I may not be as good as her, but I’ll certainly still pass, probably with a high B, or maybe even a low A. People like Hitler will obviously get an F. That guy that cut me me off on the highway the other day may be a borderline C, but God certainly wouldn’t fail me – I’m a good person.” Right? Well, God doesn’t grade on a curve, and there’s only 1 passing score: perfection. That’s bad news for all of us. Turns out, we’re in the same boat as Hitler and all the “really bad” people  that we feel so superior to according to our subjective grading curve. We have a serious problem, and need a serious solution. What are some options?

  • Would you make salvation dependent on earthly power? Is eternal life a gift not to be wasted on the masses? Are only the movers and shakers – the Pharaohs and Caesars of world history – worthy of it? Most of us are in that category of “the masses”, and probably wouldn’t pick that option. But historically, those in power wouldn’t have minded rigging the system to favor the powerful. However, power can actually be a hindrance in that it tends to blind us to our real needs that only God can meet. [Mk 8:36] Thankfully, God makes salvation available to the leaders of superpowers and the untouchable outcasts in the filthiest slums, and everyone in between.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on wealth? How much should tickets to Heaven cost? What value do you place on eternal life?  Judging by how much people will spend on surgery to try to retain the fleeting looks of youth, I imagine eternal life could fetch quite a price – maybe enough to price most of us out of the bidding.  There are many people with prideful hearts that would love to simply throw some money at God to purchase life eternal rather than pay the costlier price of submitting themselves to Him. “$100 to go to Heaven when I die, and I can live however I want until then? I’m in!” But what about when the price is $10,000?  $1 million? $1 billion? Even if it’s only a few dollars, any price you could come up with would be out of reach for somebody. Of course, there’s also the question of whether you would really enjoy Heaven if you just bought your entrance guarantee and spent the rest of your life living like the devil. Yet God makes salvation available to all, from the richest fat cat to the most destitute, bankrupt beggar.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on knowledge? Would people need to pass an exam, or be some type of Illuminati? Would you have a bridgekeeper asking obscure trivia like in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail?[1] The Gnostics believed one needed “secret knowledge” beyond what the ignorant masses could ever hope for. I remember struggling in certain classes in college, and the frustration of being the student that just didn’t understand what everyone else seemed to grasp so easily. It was frustrating then, and it was just a class grade on the line, not eternity! So as much as I appreciate knowledge and enjoy learning new things, I thank God He didn’t make my salvation dependent on how much I know. On a related note, what if I’m in a car accident and suffer brain trauma and have amnesia and mental retardation as a result, or if I develop Alzheimer’s and can’t even remember what I learned the day before? Would my loss of knowledge put my salvation at risk? Thankfully, it’s not our IQ or our learning that saves us, for God makes salvation available to the genius and the dunce alike, to the scholar with a string of letters after his name and the illiterate orphan.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on race or ethnicity? The idea of one group of people being intrinsically more valuable than others is generally reprehensible to us now, but preference for those like us still creeps in to our thoughts, it seems. I can’t help but notice (and be amused at) how very white and European Jesus – a Jew from the Middle East – has typically been portrayed by Western artists in the centuries since. Yet God is no respecter of such shallow traits like nationality or skin color. He makes salvation available to the Jew and the German, the Russian and the American, and every other nationality there is. Likewise for every skin color: “red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight”, as the old children’s song goes.
  • Would you make salvation unconditional? Everybody goes to heaven/paradise/eternal bliss in the end? That sounds very loving and good at first. But it seems like it might be a little awkward if you were an innocent victim brutally beaten to death, and you meet your very unrepentant murderer in heaven. Might you feel a little slighted? Might you wonder where justice is when the victim and the laughing victimizer get the same reward? We have to minimize the justice of God for this option to appear feasible. Yet God offers salvation lovingly while still being just.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on good deeds? That is the probably the most common approach in man-made religions. And I get it: we understand the need for justice, and so we naturally think good should be rewarded and bad punished. But what about the one who realizes the error of his ways late in life? What good can he possibly do at the end to offset a life of selfishness, greed, dishonesty, theft, or murder? What hope is there for him? Or what of the child who gets hit by a car before she has much opportunity to earn credits in her “account”? But even with a long life of good behavior, it’s still not perfect behavior, and so it still falls short.  Works appeals to us because we do understand working and earning benefits, but also because we don’t understand the hole we’re actually in. So we think it is something we can work our way out of. In reality, if it’s on us to get ourselves out, the situation truly is hopeless.

I have to say, I’m not very impressed with any of the alternatives above. Are there other alternatives to what God did that you can think of that might’ve worked better? I don’t think there are, but I’d love to hear if you think I’ve missed something. It’s easy to criticize a plan without actually having a better option. But it’s when we work through the problems and consequences of alternatives, that we see the superiority of a plan we might’ve dismissed at first. Design is all about making choices to accomplish a specified purpose, and now that we’ve eliminated some alternative choices, join me next week for Part 2, where I’ll look at God’s actual choice for offering salvation, how it accomplishes His purpose, and why it really is the best design for rescuing us from our desperate situation.


[1] If you don’t know what I’m talking about there, your life is incomplete. Watch that scene from Monty Python on YouTube to catch up: https://youtu.be/Wpx6XnankZ8

Armchair Engineers

I just got back from representing my state structural engineering association at the National Council of Structural Engineering Associations 2017 Summit. Besides the normal business side of being a representative in an organization, and getting to learn about new products from vendors at the accompanying trade show, there were also lots of great educational sessions on things like blast design, progressive collapse, wind and seismic design, and even design of wood skyscrapers. A little slice of “nerdvana”. We even got to hear a keynote presentation from 2 of the engineers involved in the repairs to the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument after a 2011 earthquake damaged those two masonry structures. It made for a very busy but fun week. But one thing I was reminded of repeatedly that is worth noting here is that there really is no perfect design. What do I mean by that? Let’s work through that today.

We can arrive at an optimum design, but as long as there are conflicting parameters, there can never be an actual design that maximizes everything we want to maximize (like strength or flexibility) and simultaneously minimizes everything we want to minimize (like weight or cost). We have to pick and choose, and so any designed item will always fall short of perfection in one aspect or another. And this isn’t just a structural engineering issue. The session that most brought this point home was an extended session looking at the recent publication of ASCE 7-16, the “Minimum Design Loads & Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structures”. I know, we can’t even design a short name for our standards, but long names aside, that book is an integral part of most of our structural design. Changes there have major impacts on our daily work. A gripe from many engineers, myself included, has been the ever-increasing size and complexity of the overall building code, and this portion in particular. In fact, the growth from one volume into two this version was a particular incentive for a meeting to discuss on a national level the direction this was going. But as the committee chairman pointed out, we have 3 main goals – safety of structures designed to the standard, economy of structures so designed, and simplicity of applying the provisions of the standard – but you can only achieve two out those three! We certainly don’t want to  have a simple code that allows for cheap buildings at the expense of life safety. But do you make a standard that is simple and extremely conservative, that makes buildings too expensive to actually build? As it turns out, we engineers have tended to emphasize the third way: safety and economy at the expense of design simplicity. Hence, the now 800 page, 2-volume standard that is just one of an entire shelf of standards with which structural engineers are expected to be familiar. And let’s not forget all the revisions to each one of those each code cycle. So while information overload and lack of transparency are problematic, design simplicity is one of those competing parameters that just ends up having to take a lower priority.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Christianity? Well, there are some “armchair engineers” out there that like to try to say that nature testifies against the existence of God because it is evidence of “bad design” which an all-knowing and all-powerful Creator wouldn’t use. And just like the “armchair quarterbacks” out there, so insistent on what play the real quarterback should’ve executed, these skeptics are great at second-guessing God, but pretty bad at proposing better alternatives. Like armchair quarterbacks, they can criticize what’s currently in play, and sometimes throw out some quick, “obviously better” alternative, but they come up sorely lacking when the pros and cons of each option are subjected to a careful, rigorous analysis. Just like me, I could gripe about the new 2016 design standard, but sitting in a room with the chance to actually vote for how I would like to see the standard changed for the 2022 edition, I found myself reluctantly accepting of the current version. When it came to actually fleshing out what any proposed changes might entail, I found myself a lot more understanding of the ASCE 7 committee’s final version of the current standard that I had complained about before. Alternatives that seemed so much better couched in  vague terms like “less complicated”, “clearer”, and “more practical” ended up having unintended consequences that I liked less than the current book when it came to working out the real effects of those ill-defined wishes. It reminds me of what’s been said about God’s choices: “If God would concede me His omnipotence for 24 hours, you would see how many changes I would make in the world. But if He gave me His wisdom too, I would leave things as they are.”[1]

Can I always explain how God’s design is the best choice? No – I am all too aware of my limitations in knowledge. But I can easily see cases in daily life where, not seeing the big picture, I would make ultimately worse choices trying to fix what I initially perceived to be a bad choice. Then I am reminded all the more why we should always approach God with humility. It seems the drive-by allegations by skeptics of bad design in nature  are highly suspect given our very limited human perspective, especially when we do investigate certain cases and find them to be astonishingly well-designed. So I would encourage my skeptical readers to approach the possibility of design in nature pointing to God with at least as much humility and openness as we engineers (try to) give our colleagues when critiquing their designs. After all, we often don’t know all the reasons behind the decisions with which we disagree, and learning those reasons often puts our criticism to rest.


[1] J.M.L. Monsabre, source unknown.

What I Found

“Still Life with Bible” – Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

Atheists will sometimes ask what it would take for a Christian to walk away from Christianity. I think Paul addressed that in his letter to the Corinthians when he stated that if Jesus was not raised from the dead (i.e. bodily, as an actual historical event occurring in space and time), then our faith is in vain, we are to be most pitied of all men, and we should abandon this then-false religion, for we would be false witnesses against God by saying God raised Jesus from the dead if He didn’t [1Cor 15:14-19]. This emphasis on actual, objective, historical events that could be investigated is a really bad way to start a false religion, but a great way to proclaim truth. Per the apostle Paul, Christianity stands or falls with the Resurrection.However, an atheist probably would not be content with a Christian leaving Christianity simply to turn to Judaism.  For, of course, refuting Christianity would still not eliminate the need for God. But the desire, nonetheless, is still for us to leave all religion and join their atheist ranks. So that got me thinking: what have I found in Christianity that I would be leaving if I were to oblige the atheist missionary? Well….

I have found Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover[1]; Aquinas’ First Cause[2]; the “Highest Good” that the ancient philosophers sought for; Anselm’s “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” [3]; the Necessary Being upon which all else depends for existence; the Fine-tuner of the universe that explains the Goldilocks dilemma we face when we examine the universe; the Enabler of abiogenesis, without whom life cannot come from non-life; the Source of all the information we find encoded in our own DNA; the Designer behind all the “apparent design” in biology that frustrates Richard Dawkins; the Mind that explains the consciousness of our minds that scientists can’t explain; the Truth that explains objective transcendent truth [Jn 14:6]; Love that explains how and why we love [1Jn 4:19]; the Grand Artist that explains aesthetics[4] in what should be a cold, cruel, survival-focused universe; and the Author of life [Acts 3:14-15 ESV]. It would be intellectual suicide for me to give up all that. But the atheist is asking me to do far more than just drop an intellectual stance.

I have also found the One who loved me from before the beginning of time [Rom 5:8, 2Tim 1:9, Eph 1:4, 1Jn 4:9-10]; a perfect Father [Rom 8:15-16]; the Savior of my soul [Lk 2:11, Jn 4:42]; my Redeemer who rescued me [Ps 19:14, Job 19:25]; the One who made me in His image and gives me intrinsic value [Gen 1:27, Gen 9:6, Matt 6:26]; my Mediator before a just and holy God whom I could never satisfy in my sinfulness [1Tim 2:5]; my Counselor, Advocate, and Intercessor [Jn 16:7-14, Rom 8:26-27]; my source of freedom – truly beautiful, joyous freedom! – [Jn 8:32,36]; my Comforter in times of trouble [2Cor 1:3-5]; the delight of my heart [Ps 35:9]; my Peace when all around me is turmoil [Jn 14:27, 2Thes 3:16]; my steadfast foundation in the tumultuous craziness of life [Lk 6:47-48]; my Hope of glory [Col 1:27];  and the Architect of my eternal home [Heb 11:10]. Yeah, I found all that, too.

Christianity is not simply a rational intellectual viewpoint, but a relationship with my Creator. It isn’t simply some sterile, isolated idea or opinion, but rather the very presence of my Creator. And you ask me to give up that relationship, and all those answers to life’s questions to boot, and be content with the loneliness and unanswered questions of atheism? Are you crazy?! Maybe, but I’m not!


[1] “Aristotle has an argument … which he makes in Book 8 of the Physics and uses again in Book 12 of the Metaphysics that there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world.” Sachs, Joe. “Aristotle: Metaphysics”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[2] “It is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.”  See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Vol. I, Question 2, Article 3, 2nd way.
[3] See this previous post for a refresher of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument, based on Plantinga’s reformulation of it last century.
[4] Or, “that best and most systematic Artisan of all”, as Nicolas Copernicus would say in his preface to “On the Revolutions”. See Nicolas Copernicus, Complete Works: On the Revolutions, translation and commentary by Edward Rosen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 4.

Purpose

Purpose. What is it, and does it matter? Dictionaries will define it as one’s objective, goal, intention, desired result, end, aim, or design. In fact, purpose and choice are the two pillars of design; when you design anything, you make certain choices to achieve a specified purpose. Purposes aren’t always apparent to bystanders. In my own branch of engineering, we assemble very detailed plans and instructions for fabricators and erectors so that a safe structure can be built correctly. Sometimes other trades ignore some aspect of our design because they couldn’t see the purpose in it and assumed it was a mistake. Of course, the safety of the public is always our ultimate purpose and is our first obligation in our code of ethics. But smaller purposes might include maximizing open space in an office building, maximizing resilience in a community tornado shelter, or minimizing cost or weight. But what about purpose in the “big picture” of life in general? Is there a purpose? Can we know it?

If there were a purpose for each of us in life, then not knowing it could certainly make for a frustrating life. Imagine trying to use a tool for a purpose it was never intended, like trying to make a screwdriver work as a hammer in an emergency, and you can see how a person trying to accomplish a purpose for which they are not intended might be frustrated. But how could they know their purpose? Is it just what their skills and attitudes point toward? Is my purpose just to be an engineer? That seems rather arbitrary. After all, people often change occupations throughout their life. Even when they stay in a field their entire career, they often retire at a certain point. Have they lost their purpose in life then? While some may feel that way at the time, I think not.

Does atheism offer any justification for purpose in life? Not really. Under atheism, there is no God to establish any kind of overarching purpose for humans. Under materialism, which typically goes along with atheism, there is nothing beyond the physical: you have no soul, you are simply a collection of atoms brought together by chance processes, only to disintegrate and return to the dust after a few decades on average. Maybe you live a hundred years or so, but death can come at any moment really.  If that’s all life is, why do we all seek purpose in our lives, and often despair without it? What ground is there for actually having purpose in an atheistic universe? I’ve heard atheists say people should be good “for goodness sake”, or for the “flourishing” of humankind. But that rings a bit hollow given atheism. We are insignificant blips in a thoughtless, uncaring universe if atheism is true. Why waste our short time here trying to better the world for present or future generations? Knowledge of your accomplishments beyond your lifetime is the closest thing to immortality that atheism can offer, so a person might find purpose in bringing glory to their name so that people hundreds of years from now would remember their deeds.  But even if you were one of the very small percentage of individuals in human history to be remembered for any length of time, it’s still all for naught, for it does you no good. You die all the same and become … nothing… if atheism is true. And call me cynical, but I’ve seen too many changes in command where someone with a different perspective specifically erases a predecessor’s accomplishments. So all my best efforts, whether done out of compassion or a desire for notoriety, can be rolled back by those who come after me.

Is there an alternative view that fills this seemingly universal desire for purpose in life? I think so. The Bible tells us that God made mankind in His image, or likeness. [Gen 1:26-27] This gives us all an intrinsic value regardless of our social status, intelligence, talents race, gender, or anything else. It also tells us that we were created for His glory. [Is 43:7] This is our purpose. Consequently, no matter what we do, we are to “do all to the glory of God.” [1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:23] God did not have to create humans (or anything else). But He chose to create us, and He lovingly put us in a very hospitable spot in a very hostile universe. God alone is worthy of all glory, or honor, and glorifying Him is our joyful duty. Duty? Yes, it’s our very purpose in life – “the chief end of man” as the Westminster Catechism puts it – but joyful duty! As Jesus said, His burden is light. [Matt 11:28-30] For when you fulfill what you were created for, you can be content and at peace – yes, even joyful – in the good times and the bad.

Whether you are a world leader or starving in a North Korean prison camp, whether on top of the world on Wall Street or down in the deepest, darkest mine, whether you live another 100 years or die tomorrow, you can know that your enjoyment of life doesn’t have to be shackled to your ever-changing circumstances. You can have a deeply satisfying purpose that transcends occupation, culture, fads, and the like. Fulfilling that purpose of honoring God permeates and gives beautiful meaning to everything in life from epic deeds down to the most mundane tasks. And who wouldn’t want that?

What is a well-designed faith?

faith-constructionFor this 2nd anniversary of my blog here, I wanted to take some time to explain what a “well-designed faith” is. It is, of course, this blog: this exhausting labor of love dedicated to helping fellow Christians and skeptics alike to see the beautiful, reasonable truth of Christianity. It’s where I do my best to answer objections to Christian beliefs, explain misunderstood doctrines, encourage clear thinking through the application of logic and sound philosophy, give an engineer’s perspective on God and the Christian faith, and hopefully give those who have rejected Christianity in the past reason to take a second look. It is an endeavor that, if it were followed and read by millions, but nobody came to accept the truth of God’s Word through it, would amount to nothing but a supreme waste of time. But on the other hand, if I get to Heaven, and the one person that had read my ramblings says, “Thank you. God used your words to point me back to Him,” all the hours spent here will be justified. But beyond the blog itself, a “well-designed faith” is also the focus of the blog. For I do believe that “well-designed” aptly describes the Christian faith.

Hebrews 11 is often called the “faith chapter” or the “faith hall of fame” of the Bible because it defines faith, and gives many examples of it lived out in Jewish history. Verses 9-10 tell us about Abraham, and say that “by faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” That last description of God as an architect and builder has always caught my eye. Shortly after that, Hebrews 12:2 tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of faith“.

When the Bible tells us that Abraham was faithfully seeking that city “whose architect and builder is God”, it’s telling us about the long-term plan that God has held for all eternity, the goal that He both selected before the creation of the universe, and works to actualize across human history. When it states that Jesus is the author and perfecter of faith, it is saying that He perfects – completes – the trust, (or faith) birthed in us by God.[2] In fact, this word “perfecter” is the Greek word τελειωτὴν (teleiōtēn), meaning a consummator, one bringing a process to its finish. Digging deeper, this is based on the Greek root “telos”, which denotes the end goal of something. This is the root of our modern word teleological, meaning “to show evidence of design or purpose.”[1] That’s why the argument for God from observed design in nature is called the “teleological argument“. How does this perfecting of faith work? Maybe similarly to how we see design work in the building industry I’m a part of.

My profession of engineering is often lumped in with 2 other related fields to form the industry grouping AEC: Architecture, Engineering, & Construction. And these generally go together well as we’re constantly working together to complete a finished project. The architect is designing the building to meet certain goals of the client, whether it be a hospital, school, business, or a residence. The hospital needs to contain a certain number of beds, lab equipment, operating and exam rooms, and offices to accomplish their goal of caring for the sick. The school needs to have a certain mix of classrooms, teaching labs, music rooms, and sports areas,  to accomplish their goal of providing a well-rounded education. A business may need flexible floor plans that can be changed as the business changes and grows. Some businesses even have essential specialty equipment that the building has to be constructed around. Even a home is going to have very different needs to accommodate one family versus another. Different home designs might focus on things like handicapped access to all the rooms, natural ventilation in the tropics, heating efficiency in the far north, “safe rooms” in America’s Tornado Alley, and so on. But in all of these examples, there is one thing in common – an end goal, a purpose. That goal drives the design. It’s counterproductive for an architect to design an amazing sports stadium for a music school that doesn’t even have a sports program!

As engineers, we work to ensure the architect’s vision of the client’s goals is actually achievable. We complete, or perfect, that initial design, by putting bones to the flesh, so to speak. We execute specific selections to make the architect’s idea buildable.  The laws of physics can be brutally unforgiving, and sometimes we have to be creative to ensure the architect’s “bold vision” holds up in real life. There’s a lot of coordination there as architects and engineers work together to make choices that accomplish the client’s purpose while conforming to real-life constraints. But finally, the plan is complete and the builders come in and turn the client’s dream, the architect’s vision, and our calculations into an actual, usable building.

It seems like there is a similar spiritual workflow as:

  • God the Father initiates a plan for us, drawing us to Him,
  • God the Son completes the plan and accomplishes tasks (like the atonement) needed to make it happen, and
  • God the Holy Spirit develops it in us through His work of sanctification in our lives.

Initiation, execution, and development working seamlessly together in the perfect unity of the triune Godhead to conform us to His image, that we might fulfill our purpose and glorify God – that is a most well-designed faith, if you ask me!


[1] https://www.wordnik.com/words/teleological, accessed 2016/09/08.
[2] John 6:44, NASB. As Barnes says in his commentary on this verse: “In the conversion of the sinner God enlightens the mind (John 6:45), he inclines the will (Psalm 110:3), and he influences the soul by motives, by just views of his law, by his love, his commands, and his threatenings; by a desire of happiness, and a consciousness of danger; by the Holy Spirit applying truth to the mind, and urging him to yield himself to the Saviour. So that, while God inclines him, and will have all the glory, man yields without compulsion; the obstacles are removed, and he becomes a willing servant of God.”

S.D.G.

Essence vs Accident

The School of Athens - Raphael (1511)
The School of Athens – Raphael (1511)

A friend hosts a video conference call of sorts each week where a guest speaker presents on a certain topic, and other participants can just listen in, submit questions or comments via a chat function, or dialogue via video with the guest speaker.[1] The guest speakers represent many different views, from Christian to atheist to Muslim, from supporting evolution to intelligent design, from pro-abortion to pro-life. It’s an interesting chance to hear a representative of an opposing view make their best case, and then open up to questions from anyone who agrees, disagrees, or is still trying to decide.

Last week’s speaker was Dr. Michael Behe, biochemistry professor at Lehigh University, and one of the more famous intelligent design proponents. In the Q&A, an atheist chemist questioned Behe at length on how to avoid false positives and false negatives when deciding something is the result of design.[2] I think that’s a fair question. For instance, if diagnosed with cancer, you wouldn’t want a false positive (being told you have cancer and going through an expensive and often painful treatment regimen unnecessarily), but you really wouldn’t want a false negative (being told the cancer was gone when it really wasn’t). Yet what I found particularly interesting was that in the course of the dialogue, the atheist revealed a determined adherence to the idea that design was only a human activity. So reluctant was he to admit even the possibility of a supernatural designer of nature, that he seemed unable to bring himself to admit the possibility of a completely natural, but alien, designer. Now, I’ve discussed design on this blog before (like here), and I used a rather cumbersome, but accurate, definition for “design”. Behe chose to use the following concise definition from freedictionary.com: “the purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details.” However one defines design, human involvement actually isn’t a specified requirement. That brings me to this week’s topic.

Why is design not necessarily limited to humans? What is it at the heart of design that helps us recognize it, regardless of source? To answer this, we need to understand a more basic question: what is required to classify something, to see different objects and recognize commonalities between them and assign them to the same universal categories? For instance, why do we put Chihuahuas and Saint Bernards in the same category of “dog”? Why group  pretty little redbud trees and rugged Joshua trees and majestic Giant Sequoias as “trees”? What is this abstract trait of “dogness” or “treeness” that allows us to make these groupings? In philosophy, there is the idea of essence and accident. Something’s essence (like forming branches) is that which a thing must have to be what it is (i.e. a tree). An accident is that which a thing can gain or lose and still remain what it is (i.e. greenness or redness of leaves). For example, skin color, ethnicity, physical appearance, level of intelligence, and so on are all accidental traits of humans, but none of those are what set one apart as human.

At the heart of the atheist’s objection seems to be a confusion between what is essential and what is accidental. In the case of design, there are two essential factors: choice,  and purpose (or a goal). A designer is one who makes choices between alternatives in order to achieve an end-goal. Whether that designer is human, alien, angel, demon, ghost, or God, the essential requirement for design is the presence of a mind capable of determining a goal and making choices to realize that goal. Notice I did not say “brain”, but rather “mind”. While a brain is a physical container and interface for a mind, an unembodied mind is certainly possible. The requirement for a mind still does not limit design to humans.

As Peter Kreeft highlights in his logic textbook, “the most important act of abstraction is the one by which we abstract the essential from the accidental.”[3] But the atheist in this case is only seeing the accidentals, the particular instances of design carried out by humans, and failing to abstract that out to the universal aspects of design that make it design regardless of who’s doing it. In saying that we can only infer human design from seeing something that appears designed, he is effectively hamstringing science. By the same logic, he could say that because he has only ever seen Bob design something, the claim that John also designed something is unsubstantiated. Yet the goal of science is to expand our knowledge beyond what we are already familiar with. We do that by observation of particulars, abstraction to universals, and application of those universals to new particulars. In this case, rather than saying that we can only infer human design from having observed humans designing, we proceed as follows: a) we observe humans designing many things, b) every case observed involved an agent making choices to achieve a goal, c) therefore, a Martian artifact exhibiting these traits could indicate the presence of a Martian designer at some point. Likewise, the presence of these essential design traits in biological systems in humans would justify the idea that a necessarily non-human designer was the cause of any design found in humans. Does that have implications that run contrary to atheist preferences? It does. But we must follow the evidence wherever it leads, even – no, especially – if that leads to our Creator.


[1] Jonathan McLatchie’s Apologetics Academy. Click here for archived videos of past presentations on his Youtube channel.
[2] Click here for the Behe Presentation. The dialogue with the atheist begins at about 54 minutes in & goes for 26 minutes.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, IN, edition 3.1), pp. 34-43, 110.