Theological Arguments about ‘Design’ Fall on Hard times

Arguments about ‘design’ in creation have been around a long time. The earliest one I’ve been able to find that explicitly explores it is from Xenophon, 4th Century BC, (and diligent readers if you know of earlier texts I would love to be directed to them!). Xenophon was a sometimes-student of Socrates and, like the wise teacher’s more famous student Plato, wrote a series of dialogues featuring Socrates and various interlocutors. One of these, from his Memorabilla, sounds like it was lifted right out current intelligent design creationist debates.

Here is the scene. A bunch of guys are hanging around Socrates at the saddler’s shop near the Market, they are talking about the godhead (and yes he uses that word) and the opinion of a rather atheistic fellow named Aristodemus the dwarf is being examined by Socrates. It seems Aristodemus does not offer sacrifices, pray, or even use divination to sort out the perplexities of life. Socrates probes whether he admires anyone engaged in the arts. Aristodemus lists of a cadre of people who he thinks are undisputed masters. Then Socrates asks,

Which, think you deserve the greater admiration, the creators of phantoms without sense and motion or the creators of living, intelligent and active beings.

Of course, the contrarian is unhesitant in praising anyone who can pull off making intelligent beings as long as, “they are created by design and not mere chance.”

(He would have loved Dr. Noonien Soong the fictional creator of Star Trek’s beloved android Data.)

Socrates, starts circling for the kill,

Suppose that it is impossible to guess the purpose of one creature’s existence, and obvious that another’s serves a useful end, which, in your judgment is the work of chance, and which of design?”

Aristodemus answers as expected as one of Socrates’ foils.

Socrates, presses ahead, “Do you not think then that he who created man from the beginning had some useful end in view when he endowed him with his several senses, giving eyes to see visible objects, ears to hear sounds.” Socrates then starts a very nice list of designed features in creatures. Paley, the eighteenth century author of Natural Theology the book that most completely and thoroughly argued the proof of the existence of a creator from design in nature, would be nodding in agreement

Again, the incisors of all creatures are adapted for cutting, the molars for receiving food from them and grinding it. And again, the mouth through which the food they want goes in, is set near the eyes and nostrils; but since what goes out is unpleasant, the ducts through which it passes are turned away and removed as far as possible from the organs of sense. With such signs of forethought in these arrangements, can you doubt whether they are the works of chance or design.

Aristodemus, beat into submission, answers: “No, of course not. When I regard them in this light they do look very like the handiwork of a wise and loving creator.”

Socrates wins the day.

However, these days Natural Theology has fallen on hard times. First, we know now that organisms are designed poorly in many respects (I mean sheesh, it is so not fair that Octopi get better eyes than us). Unintelligent design is rampant in biology. Second, evolution completely explains how design arises through natural selection, inheritance, and variation. And when I say, ‘completely explains’ what I mean is, ‘completely explains.’

But this opens a question: How important is ‘design’ to LDS thinking? I don’t see that it necessarily enters our theology at all. Why bring in this Greek-derived concern? Why should we even bother with the argument from design? Does it really add anything we need?

Xenophon, Memorabilia, translated by E. C. Marchant (Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1923), 56-57.

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18 Responses to Theological Arguments about ‘Design’ Fall on Hard times

  1. John Walsh says:

    It doesn’t. Sacred narrative (i.e., the scriptures) are cultural anthropological stories about sacred people, sacred things, and sacred places. They do not generally give scientific commentary.

    In my studies of biology, chemistry, and physics, I have found nothing but support for Joseph Smith’s metaphysics. From a Mormon theological viewpoint, the only thing we know are concepts, not the details. For example, unlike traditional Nicene theology, Joseph Smith believed that there were laws that God did not create and which are co-eternal with him.

    One easy example. Chemistry has the law of conservation of mass: matter can neither be created nor destroyed but only changed (rearranged). While Nicene ex nihilo creation has issues with this, this seems to match up very well with the concepts of eternal matter taught by Joseph Smith.

    Likewise, with evolution, if it conflicts with someone’s interpretation of scripture, perhaps they should reevaluate how they are using their sacred records.

    Keep in mind that I am a conservative, traditional theologian. Science is not scary. It’s fun. And can be testimony building. It makes me cry when I see Mormons afraid of knowledge, for Joseph Smith was one of the most intellectually curious people I have come across.

    Please don’t make me cry. Learn to love science! 🙂

  2. Mephibosheth says:

    I suppose it would matter how far we take the idea that we are created in God’s image. Is God a mostly-hairless bipedal primate with opposable thumbs? Or is it just our highly evolved morality that makes us like God? Or does it not matter so long as we get some kind of body and have some kind of morality?

  3. Joseph Smidt says:

    Honestly, I don’t know why you need intelligent design for theological reasons other than to explain all the scriptural claims where God says “I created man…” “I created the earth”, etc…

    But given I take the hard King Follet reading that God would have had to have learned to become God and that He was not always that way, I have no problem with the idea that He grew up in a universe before the existence of a God, ie one that did not have intelligent design.

    As are we following in His footsteps. No intelligent design but “Infinite” potential if we learn to do what He did.

  4. steveP says:

    John, well (and beautifully said), I think that is a point that our creationist LDS crowd keeps forgetting.

    I think we know so little about God’s body–ostensibly only its form–that these questions, as you point out, are open.

    Joseph, I like the idea of infinite potential (theologian John Haught calls it ‘Infinite promise’). Makes more sense than the Mormon ID people trying to squeeze Nicene doctrines into our church.

  5. Jack says:

    I think I’m finally begining to understand why it was imperative that Joseph Smith view the Father and the Son.

  6. Stan says:

    Most of us were raised in LDS or some other Christian faith. LDS primary classes teach the story of Adam and Eve as a factual event complete with pictures. Even the temple ceremony depicts the creation in literal terms. Only those who can understand subtlety and let go of the literal stories taught to us from childhood can appreciate a non-literal viewpoint. In other words, the reason design is important to so many LDS is because that is what we were taught. Evolution invokes in many a disconcerting uncertainty that we were taught is the Devil deceiving us. Confusion abounds.

  7. SteveP says:

    Stan don’t forget the temple specifically points out the figurative nature of the biblical stories.

  8. Mark says:

    ID keeps cropping up in Mormondom because of that “made in the image of God” doctrine, a doctrine which is popularly taught in a literal manner, not metaphorical. This, combined with First Presidency statements such as “The Origin of Man,” (first released in 1909 but reprinted in the Ensign in recent years) do not help Mormons to reconcile what we should believe (everything our leaders tell us, of course), and what reality seems to be.

    Frankly, although I agree with pretty much everything Steve writes, it seems fairly obvious to me why Mormons struggle to know what to believe, especially when such a huge deal is made of the fact that God literally has a body of flesh and bone.

    What I find important about this whole discussion is what it means about our understanding of God – does he have a body of flesh and bone? What does that mean?

    And this relates to the resurrection… I mean, before too long we’re dealing with pretty fundamental principles of Mormon theology… again, it’s not surprising to me that people struggle to make sense of it all.

  9. Gary Carlson says:

    In the LDS Church we have access to revelation that can help lead us past the old evolution verses creationism controversies. Abraham 4 describes creation by the Gods as being organized in phases or times with no clear connection to our modern calendar undermining Biblical literalists and their 7 days or 7,000 years. However, it offers no encouragement to evolutionists who would do without God’s help or have him make merely make the laws and the raw materials then let chance and natural selection rule. In Abraham’s account the Gods are involved at every stage of creation. They planned it. They watched to see that each element or creature of creation obeyed its purpose.
    The fact that the theory of evolution explains most of the known natural history of the earth (and we only know a pitifully small bit of it) does not give it the supernatural power of explaining everything about creation. I believe that God did it and used evolutionary processes as tools. In doing it in a way that does not reveal his guiding hand he leaves those of us with patience to endure long years of schooling and big books free to believe or not. I choose to believe.

  10. David H Bailey says:

    > Why should we even bother with the argument from design? Does it really add anything we need?

    Excellent point, Steve. Indeed, the older I get the less sense it makes for anyone, especially LDS, to wage these ‘wars’ with science.

    After all, the LDS movement, from JS onward, cast aside all the old dogma about an inerrant Bible, “ex nihilo” creation, “design”, supernatural action, and the the literal omnipotence and omniscience of God.

    We aren’t bound by those dogmas. Instead, we accept that God can work within the bounds of natural law. Some early Church leaders were quite insistent on this.

    So why are we trying to out-thump the modern-day Bible thumpers, many of whom still insist on a literal 6-day creation?

  11. ujlapana says:

    Bit of a newbie question here, but what about complex inter-organism interactions? For example, wasps that plant eggs in a spider which then cause the spider to make a specialized web, sit in it, and wait to be devoured by the hatchlings? Or parasites in a cat’s gut that, upon finding themselves in a rat’s gut (through feces), migrate to the rat’s brain and cause sexual attraction to cat urine (and thereby end up back in a cat’s gut).

    I don’t believe in ID, but things like this perplex me. Do biologists have clear evolutionary paths for this type of thing?

  12. DougT says:

    Your assumption that because a Greek speaking about it is the beginning of the concept, is based on your logic relative to science. When you have some REAL (I don’t mean “evidence” supported by the cardinals of science falsely so called) evidence of the existence of anything before Adam, come back and dispute the Scriptures with me then.

  13. steveP says:

    ujlapana, yes there are good evolutionary explanations for those things. It is important to keep in mind that evolution by natural selection explains very complex design. It’s not ‘design’ itself in question but its mechanism. While I don’t know the specifics on the examples you draw out (both of which are true!) one can imagine a parasite first only making the mouse disoriented so that it exposed it to the cat more often, those parasites that influenced any behavior of the rat moving toward the cat surviving better than those that didn’t, and that movement being enhanced each generation by those closer to the pheromone of the rat. That’s a ‘just-so” story of course that I just made up, but there is not in principle reason why that could not occur. And often you can find the complete range of complex traits in extant organisms. But the important part is that complex design can be completely explained by evolution by natural selection.

  14. David H Bailey says:

    Doug: You can’t be serious.

    There are literally mountains of evidence, gathered by some of the brightest minds on the planet, using some of the most sophisticated equipment that our modern high-tech world can produce, which has withstood decades of withering cross-examination.

    Nowadays even most creationists acknowledge the evidence that life (and death) have been going on for many millions of years. Some advance the pathetic explanation is that God created things with an “appearance of age”, perhaps as a test of faith. Do you want to go that route — endorsing “God the Great Deceiver” theology!?

    If you have any questions here, you might read LDS biologist Daniel Fairbanks’ new book “Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA”. As he wrote near the end of his book, “Denying the evidence of evolution, including human evolution, is honest only in ignorance.”

  15. DougT says:


    On the assumption that you are an earnest seaker of truth I will attempt to explain my disbelief in what you define as “our modern high-tech world” and its “modern” nonsense.

    Firstly you seem to have accepted the idea that we are some superior civilization. That has been fed to you since birth and is rubbish. Even our ignorant historians make some brief acceptance of revolving knowledge.

    We have Nephi with a steel sword long before the iron age etc.

    As to DNA; obviously dogs and cats have similarities of DNA, as both have 4 legs etc. That a DNA chain can be found is obvious. A five year old child could create such for you using the outward appearance of living things.

    No, I don’t believe God has made some deception. Only man.

    The cardinals of “theory science” (an oxymoron) tell you that there is no problems in their dating methods. But I can assure you they are as flawed a dating method as women playing hard to get.

    The facts are simple. Science (Latin word meaning “to know”) requires PROOF. Not supposition built upon supposition.

    Almost all true science was discovered after many false assumptions were disproven only by application. So how do you plan on PROVING that anything lived before Adam in application? Have you some time machine or footage from aliens having filmed it?


    In other words you have supposition built upon supposition. Oh, loads of money and effort have gone into making it sound legitimate. You could quote me endless reams I know.

    But what are the FACTS of “theory science”?

    I’m not being insulting here but using an example. Are you thinking with your brain? Are you really sure you have a brain? Have you had a scan done? Because one girl was born with absolutely NO brain and lived for 27 days.

    I saw a program about all these people (of whom they had many) who were born with less than a normal brain. Yet decades of research proved they were NO different in any way!!!!

    Do your scientists inform you of this? No.

    Why not?

    Because it disagrees with theory science. So they don’t want you to know.

    God the Great Deceiver theology!?

    No. Man the Great Deceiver theory science.

  16. David H Bailey says:

    I disagree. Science is built on an enormous basis of very convincing data and very exacting experiments, using very precise instruments and sophisticated data analysis tools. And this certainly applies to the framework of modern geology and biology.

    If you are not familiar with these data and experiments, or if you simply do not care to make a serious effort to read and learn about them, well that is your choice, and that’s fine with me. And I am quite sincere in saying that if your right to believe as you do is ever threatened, I would be pleased to serve as the first witness in your defense.

    BUT, if that is your choice, may I humbly submit that whatever your talents and devotion, you are not really in a position to criticize science and scientists as you have done above? Why be so outspoken about something that you are not knowledgeable about?

  17. DougT says:


    You have asked,

    “Why be so outspoken about something that you are not knowledgeable about?

    But I would pose this same question in regard science and its opposition to Scripture.

    I would further pose that just because I don’t agree with theory science doesn’t mean I know nothing of science. Nor, for that matter, of theory science.

    As I have been a TV etc technician I had to study atomic theory, for starters.

    But my expertise is more in the Scriptural area. The Scriptures and theory science don’t fit together.

    My Scriptures tell me that Adam was “the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also.”

    So how do you equate this with theory science?

    Let me give you some examples to consider.

    I watched a program on TV that was discussing several skulls that had been found.

    One of the dogmas of theory science is the idea that the size of that power supply in our head called a “brain” has some relevance to our intelligence (relative to our body size). Therefore they need to prove that where there is more size for a brain to exist in a skull the greater the intelligence of the being must be. This created a problem in that they had a skull dated at being 200 million years older which had greater room in the skull – a terribly inconvenient problem for them. But, hey, they didn’t let that stop them. They went all around the world and finally found a method that came up with a date that made the one with less space to be 200 million years earlier. Scientific????

    A skull was found in Australia of what they call the Lake Mungo people. It was carbon dated as being 2,500 years old. But that wasn’t appropriate because the aboriginies can’t have changed that much in such a small time. So they declared that the date must be wrong because there was lime in the soil. Then they set off and tested varying systems of dating all over the world. They came out as being all under 10,000 years old (they even admit to this, what is more), in fact most were in the small numbers of thousands. Until finally, in the UK, they found one that gave the date they wanted (60,000 years old). Amazing this science!

    Archaeologists discovered that the Persian Gulf had been going out for the last 2,000 years, by evidence of fishing villages being further back. Yet the geologists discovered that the Persian Gulf had been going in for the last 2,000 years. Of course upon discovering this discrepancy between the priests of theory science they formed a united front – a bit meaningless after the event.

    My science book at school showed a picture of a supposed “New Stone Age” building. However they have since found a more modern town underneath.

    In high school my science teacher informed us that scientists said the rings around Saturn were definately continuous in substance and of a liquid nature. However upon sending a probe past we found that they are formed of rocks and are separate from each other. None out of two!

    I remember watching a special on TV that talked of the supposed “Ice Age.” They showed 3 areas in the world that demonstrated this substance in the layers, that they claimed to be evidence of this supposed age. Then, ON THE SAME PROGRAM, further along on a different subject, they showed layers over the same period in two other places. And guess what? NO Ice Age layers! Let me guess, they just didn’t happen to notice that.

    A Roman style sword was found, in Britain, that they figured would have been made in around 650 AD. They took it to be carbon dated. It was dated at 1380 AD! So much for carbon dating (again). But, hey, they didn’t let that upset them, they took some wood samples from the rings of a tree in the area. They concluded 100 years for each ring and “recalibrated” their machine. After sufficient recalibration it then came to a date of 670 AD! Now that is better. Perhaps they should have just got one of their wives to date it at 650 AD and saved the money.

    Then there was the most increadible one that I think even beats these. There was this scientist looking at old cave paintings in France. He noted that the people had obviously put paint in their mouths and blown it onto the wall with their hand in front, making a hand outline. He noted that this also happened in Japan. He then informed us that as the paintings in Japan were dated earlier that this proved that the French were really from Japan originally. Having this great revelation of scientific logic I then thought upon the paintings that my children have done around their hands. And realising that the children in Japan had done the same thing many years before I came to the discovery that this proves we actually came from Japan too.

    If you need more examples (of which they seem endless) just watch any of the science programs on TV and think for yourself.

    What I find appaulling is that people actually believe all this stuff. Now maybe you are just so used to this logic that it all sounds fine to you. And I understand that people can be offended when they feel their religion is attacked; and I have no desire to offend you. But this sounds nothing like scientific to me.

  18. David H Bailey says:


    You accuse scientists of the crimes of: (a) investigating nature; (b) forming hypotheses; (c) testing hypotheses with better equipment and more careful studies; and then (d) revising hypotheses when they don’t fit.

    How do scientists plead? “Guilty as charged!” This precisely the scientific method.

    Then you infer that because scientists change their mind here and there when better evidence comes along, this means that we can blithely dismiss broad swaths of modern science if we don’t like the conclusions. Think again!

    For example, in 1915 Einstein’s special and general relativity displaced Newton’s laws of motion and gravity.

    BUT, none of this changed in the slightest the overall picture of the universe governed by laws of motion and gravitation, with the earth and planets orbiting the sun many millions of miles away, and stars many times further than that. No amount of quibbling will ever bring back the old picture of planets and stars revolving on crystal spheres a few miles above the earth, pushed along with supernatural forces.

    A key reason for the success of Einstein’s relativity is that for almost all ordinary phenomena, his theory agreed to those of Newton’s theory to extremely high precision. Only very precise high-tech instruments can detect relativistic effects, aside from special realms such as extremely high speeds or extremely strong gravitation.

    In a similar way, no listing of quibbles gleaned from some creationist book is ever going to negate the overwhelmingly confirmed picture of living organisms evolving through eons of time. There is simply far too much evidence, far too convincing to ever bring back the old picture.

    For example, any competing theory would have to explain why geologists worldwide measuring the dates of various fossil layers, using any of numerous different techniques, always get the same figures. And it would have to explain all of the huge body of recently discovered DNA evidence, which shows unambiguously the relatively closeness of species, and tracks their evolution mutation by mutation.

    Why fight the world of science? Do you really think that you can overturn the work of thousands of dedicated scientists worldwide, many of them devout religious believers? Think again!

    More importantly, keep in mind that Mormonism, unique among all modern religions, holds that God is not restricted to some “supernatural” realm, utterly beyond the natural world and natural laws, but instead acts within the realm of natural laws. Brigham Young declared that “there is no such thing” as a miracle, meaning an act beyond the realm of natural law. Parley P Pratt declared that “A law of nature has never been broken”. Numerous leaders have described science and Mormonism in harmony, both partaking of modern-day revelation.

    So why should Latter-day Saints, of all people, fight the world of science?

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