First, our aim is not to argue in favor of design hypotheses.
It is often claimed that, as a result of scientific progress, we now know that the natural world displays no design. Although we have no interest in defending design hypotheses, we will argue that establishing claims to the effect that we know the denials of design hypotheses is more difficult than it seems. We do so by issuing two skeptical challenges to design-deniers. The first challenge draws inspiration from radical skepticism and shows how design claims are at least as compelling as radical skeptical scenarios in undermining knowledge claims, and in fact probably more so. The second challenge takes its cue from skeptical theism and shows how we are typically not in an epistemic position to rule out design.
It is something of a trope in science writing to claim that design hypotheses about the natural world are obsolete and that science “reveals a universe without design,” as the subtitle of Richard Dawkins’s famous 1986 book The Blind
Watchmaker put it. Evidence for the absence of design is even thought to be strong enough to warrant claims to knowledge of design denials, i.e., claims to the effect that we know that seemingly designed parts of the natural world are in fact not designed. Says Dawkins:
The analogy between telescope and eye, between watch and living organism, is false. […] Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. (1986: 5)
Victor Stenger concurs, asserting that “the evidence points firmly to the absence of design” (Stenger 2007: 67). And after having claimed that we know that God doesn’t exist (Rosenberg 2011: 4), Alex Rosenberg even adds a modal
twist to the plot:
Taking physics seriously has the surprising consequence that you have to accept Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the only possible way that the appearance of purpose, design, or intelligence could have emerged anywhere in the universe. rosenberg 2011
Design hypotheses cannot be shown to be false because they are fully compatible with the evidence that we have.
notwithstanding popular claims to the contrary, we do not know that seemingly designed features of the universe and the living are not designed. Anyone who claims to know that something is not designed must come to terms with the fact that there are plausible evidential principles on which certain properties constitute indicators for design. It is entirely possible that X has a proper function, is goal-directed, or has another unfamiliar design-indicating property without us being able to notice this. This is important, for absence of evidence for design is not evidence for the absence of design. Hence, it remains possible that X has a design-indicating property and is in fact designed. Knowing the contrary is therefore impossible.