Is “Who Designed the Designer?” a Good Argument?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The intelligent design movement claims that when we look at certain features of the natural world, we are justified in inferring that these features were designed by an intelligent agent or designer.  The exact arguments are hashed out elsewhere on this blog and in numerous books and websites.

One of the most common responses to the inference that a feature of the natural world is designed is the question: “Well then, who designed the designer?”  The point of this question seems to be that merely positing a designer is useless unless we can say what caused the designer.

In a recent post written by Barry Arrington on the Uncommon Descent blog, he refutes the idea that we must know the cause of a designer before we can infer that a designer exists.  Here is his  short, but clear refutation:

Step 1:  Assume that Craig Venter succeeds in developing an artificial life form and releases it into the wild.

Step 2:  Assume that a researcher (let’s call him John) later finds one of Venter’s life forms, examines it, and concludes that it was designed by an intelligent designer.

Step 3:  John’s design inference is obviously correct.  Note that John’s design inference is not any less correct if he (a) does not know who Craig Venter is; and (b) is unable to say who designed Craig Venter.

Craig Venter is , of course, a famous scientist who is doing research on synthetic life forms, so he serves Arrington’s refutation well.  I hope you can see why the demand to say who designed Craig Venter is completely irrelevant to the inference that Venter designed the artificial life form.  The fact that John discovered that this life form was designed is an important scientific finding, in and of itself.

The goal of asking “Who designed the designer?” as a way of derailing design inferences just does not work.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “One of the most common responses to the inference that a feature of the natural world is designed is the question: “Well then, who designed the designer?””

    I’m not sure that is one of the most common responses. Scientists have picked apart, for example, Michael Behe or William Dembski’s arguments by showing scientific or maths flaws in their reasoning. I don’t think I’ve never seen the response you cite used as an argument against Behe or Dembski. Similarly, if ‘John’ has a decent argument for why Venter’s creature is intelligently designed, then we can address that argument on its own terms.

    I HAVE seen the “who designed the designer?” argument, but not in response to that. I have seen it offered when someone is discussing ultimate origins, and says that the universe is too complex not to have been designed. You might say that that is the same as ‘inference that a feature of the natural world is designed’. However, if one is using that argument, without citing any features of design, fingerprints of a designer, purely saying that something so complicated simply MUST have a designer – then I think on that occasion such a response is justified. Positing an even more complicated entity as an origin just knocks the problem on another level.

  • Let me give you another example.

    A woman was walking in the forest and came upon a beautiful puddle, that just happened to be there. What a beautiful design!! She came to the conclusion that the puddle was the happenstance occurrence of nature itself. ” Ahhhh,” she thought to herself. “Now I know how the universe came to be. It is the result of being “in its own nature.”

    The idea that a god, or supernatural entity caused our universe goes beyond our causal experiences, whereas in your example, the induction comes within the realm of our experience. Even though causality applies to the known world, it does not necessarily apply to the universe at large. In other words, it is unwise to draw conclusions from an extrapolation of causality beyond experience.

    We have experience of humans designing things, so we can infer human design. But we have NO experience of the supernatural designing anything at all, and we have no way of knowing whether our causal laws go beyond our universe.

    Furthermore, the example you gave also suggests that there could be aliens similar to us, but with the knowledge of how to create life, and/or universes.

  • Vince Hart

    I’m not sure that is ever a response to intelligent design arguments.

    Man designs things. Anyone who believes in evolution by natural selection believes that man is undesigned. Therefore, evolution necessarily entails a belief in undesigned designers.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah: “who designed the designer?” is the response to the cosmological fine-tuning argument, not the “woo, isn’t the eye just too nifty to have evolved!?!?” argument.

    Not that you care, but the actual responses to the “woo, isn’t the eye just too nifty to have evolved?’ argument are: (1) no, it isn’t; we have a plausible evolutionary history of basically everything you guys call irreducibly complex; and (2) where we don’t, we’re not ashamed to say “I don’t know; we’re still working on that” instead of “gosh, I can’t figure it out, so God must have done it!”

  • Cory Chiarelli

    Your analogy simply fails — a pool in a forest is NOT the same as the intricacy of the human eye or the information in a DNA strand.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Intricacy or information is not necessarily a good test of design. A rock is more complicated than a football, a snowflake more intricate than a paperclip. It is often the simplicity of an object that gives away its design.

    The above analogy works regardless of the intricacy of a puddle.

  • Andrew_EC

    Since UD censors and deletes critical comments, I’ll leave my response to BarryA’s argument here:

    In Step 2, Barry claims that John draws a design inference from observing Venter’s creation. Presumably, this is a design inference to a *human* creator and not, say, a beaver creator or a spider creator or any number of non-sapient animal creators. In other words, although John doesn’t have to identify J. Craig Venter as the specific creator, he does indeed have to identify *some* things about Venter as a creative human being (and not an uncreative beaver) as part of this inference.

    Yet ID advocates claim that ID need not say *ANYTHING* about the creator at all. (This is, of course, central to the ID movement’s now-failed efforts to sneak ID into public high schools; it’s a philosophical vestigial organ, so to speak.)

    My argument is that this dodge — the idea that one can properly infer a creatION while at the same time failing to identify any synthetic content about the creatOR — renders Step 2 impossible.

    So my question is this: in step 2, how could John plausibly draw a meaningful design inference to Venter’s lifeforms without drawing ANY conclusions about the nature of the creator that designed Venter’s lifeforms?

  • Andrew,
    Why can’t it be enough to posit that something was designed by an intelligent agent? Surely this is an important conclusion, in and of itself. Of course it would always be interesting to know something more about the intelligent agent, but that is a further question.

    I just don’t understand why John has to draw any conclusions whatsoever about the designer of the life form, except that the designer is an intelligent agent.

  • Vince,
    The Christian answer to “Who caused God?” is nobody. God is uncaused. There has to be some thing that is uncaused to avoid the infinite regress, so the Christian answer is God. I assume you already know this, so I don’t know why you think this is a legitimate response to cosmological arguments.

  • “Even though causality applies to the known world, it does not necessarily apply to the universe at large. In other words, it is unwise to draw conclusions from an extrapolation of causality beyond experience.”

    This is special pleading. If everything inside the universe needs a cause, then to deny that the universe needs a cause is completely unwarranted. What grounds do you have for saying that the universe is exempt from the law of causality?

    “But we have NO experience of the supernatural designing anything at all”

    You’re begging the question. The question is whether there is a supernatural cause of the universe. If your response to the question is “we have no experience with the supernatural designing anything” then you’ve assumed the answer to the question without ever investigating it. You’ve begged the question.

    There are millions of theists who would radically disagree with the claim that “we have no experience with the supernatural designing anything.”

  • Vince Hart


    I think it is a legitimate response because I don’t find the Christian’s answer particularly convincing. The Christian posits the necessity of causation and then claims that the necessity of causation establishes the necessity of something uncaused. The Christian declares infinite regress to be a terrible problem and solves it by positing an infinite being. I think its all smoke and mirrors.

    You’ll notice that I did not assert that it was an irrefutable response or even a convincing response (although I find it so). I merely said it was a legitimate response. You may find the Christian answer convincing, but surely you are not so arrogant as to maintain that all the philosophers who have devoted so much time to the question of an uncaused cause have not been dealing with a legitimate issue.

    If you really don’t know why someone would think it’s a legitimate response, then you really need to broaden your reading.

  • Andrew_EC


    Did you read my original post? My argument is that you cannot logically conclude that something was designed while at the same time claiming that you know *nothing* about the designer.

    It’s not a “further question.” Concluding design means postulating something about the designer in every field of inquiry except “Intelligent Design” (which is of course by design; ID was borne out of a legal strategy to try and evade the Establishment Clause).

  • Andrew_EC

    Also: define “information.” I’ve yet to find an ID advocate who can do this.

  • Bill,

    What I am referring to in regards to causality is the causal laws as we know them are within our realm of reality. Whether or not they apply outside of our realm of reality IS the question! There is no “special pleading” on my part–I am merely stating a fact. Again, as Hume points out:

    “Even though causality applies to the known world, it does not necessarily apply to the universe at large. In other words, it is unwise to draw conclusions from an extrapolation of causality beyond experience.”

    Thusly, the cause of the universe might be within its “own nature” and whatever that is, could have existed prior to the part of the universe that we experience. And in fact, it might even be infinite. Now, many Christians claim that there is a “supernatural” cause, and they attempt to draw an analogy with the causal laws that are known to us.

    I do not “assume” to answer the question, but I am merely illustrating to the theist that he has no proof of his claim that the universe is caused “supernaturally”. Secondly, the theists’ explanation for the existence of the universe is not the “best explanation,” and if we aplly theistic logic, they cannot refute the universe being the cause of itself. i.e being “in its own nature.” Now, this is again primarily offered to illustrate to the theist that he has no proof. As an ignostic atheist, I do not claim to know how the universe began.

    Anyone who offers an argument by analogy must suffer the consequences of not being able to illustrate the correlation–thus, Hume’s point. Now, what if i claimed that since everything has a cause, that the universe was caused by a unicorn, that has special universe causing powers in his horn. Now, if you pointed out that my causal argument failed because of Hume’s point, you would not be begging the question! Now, if you say that this is NOT begging the question, then you would be in agreement with whatever correlation/analogy a person claimed–surely, you see the absurdity in that! The person making the claim MUST provide the proof.

    Now, the experience argument will not do. Note, that I am not using an experience argument, I am merely pointing out that we have no proof of how causality works beyond our experience. Christian theists claim to experience Jesus. Hindu theists claim to experience Krishna. Emperor Fu Hsi claimed to have experienced unicorns. So, if the Christian theist wishes to use the experience argument, then to be consistent, we would also have to accept the other so-called theistic experiences of believers of other faiths–which leads to absurdity for the Christian theist who claims there is only ONE god–theirs. See the absurdity.

  • So you believe there are things in our universe that are uncaused?

  • But we do know something about the designer. The designer is an intelligent agent.

    I suppose that if the SETI program ever finds a signal from outer space that contains complex and specified information (a la the movie Contact), you will also say that their discovery is useless. Is that correct?

  • Anonymous

    See, the SETI project/Contact is a stupid analogy, because SETI — unlike ID — makes explicit assumptions about what kind of aliens we expect to send the messages that SETI is designed to detect. Nobody thinks that SETI will detect *all* extraterrestrial life.

    I would recommend you read up a little bit on quasars — or perhaps on Percival Lowell’s canals on Mars — before pursuing this line of argument any further. This is the fundamental problem with drawing any sort of open-ended design inference; until you specify meaningful characteristics about the designer, you’re going to wind up with nothing but false positives.

    (Side note: “complex specified information” is nonsense on stilts, and not even Bill Dembski defends it any more.)

  • Anonymous

    I’m not “A is for Atheist,” but of *course* there are things in the universe that are uncaused. When specific atom A undergoes radioactive decay and emits a beta particle, nothing “causes” that particular atom to do so — and if you rewound the universe and pressed play, all of the physics we know now suggests that a *different* radioactive atom B is going to undergo decay instead.

    Pretty much all of quantum physics is about documenting “uncaused” events.

  • What kind of aliens do we expect to detect? Please describe them.

  • Anonymous

    Way to miss the point. But okay, I’ll play along:

    SETI is designed to detect aliens (1) with physical bodies, (2) that are tool-using, (3) that are self-aware, (4) that have desires, (5) that are capable of communication, (6) that are capable of postulating the existence of other species, (7) that perceive cause-and-effect, (8) that desire to communicate with other species, (9) that have postulated the existence of other species, (10) that have some concept of some analogue of the scientific method; that is, that improve their tools in a process that it at least analogous to what we call ‘technology’, (11) that are of a sufficient level of technological experience to develop tools that use the electromagnetic spectrum, (12) that have sense organs that detect sounds — i.e., some analogue of ‘ears’, (13) that use the electromagnetic spectrum to communciate sounds, (14) that have some form of complex astronomy such that they have detected or postulated the existence of other planets AND that space is a vacuum medium through which electromagnetic waves can be transmitted….

    And so on. And that’s off the top of my head.

    Repeating for clarity: design inferences are never eliminative; they’re inductive. That’s how even Bill Dembski’s favorite (stupid) pet examples like SETI work.

    Design inferences are also fraught with Type I errors (false positives). That’s why quasars tripped the SETI test.

    Now, I’ve answered your question. Care to answer mine?

  • Andrew,
    Every characteristic you listed for the aliens that SETI is seeking could also describe a supernatural God. Would you allow for that option if SETI detected a sequence of prime numbers?

    And, by the way, why do you say Dembski has repudiated complex specified information? If that is so, I’d surely like to know about it.

  • Andrew, the idea that quantum physics proves that there are uncaused events is highly controversial and hardly settled science. I think it would be far more accurate to say that quantum physics shows that sub-atomic particles behave like probability waves. These waves tell us the likelihood or probability that subatomic particles will be found in a particular place at a particular time. That hardly means that events are uncaused.

  • Anonymous

    1) You have a very weird definition of God — according to you, he’s a tool-using being with a physical body, desires, ears, and a radio transmitter? Neat.

    2) More importantly, you continue to (I suppose wilfully) miss the point: intelligent design **SPECIFICALLY** says that we can say **NOTHING**about the designer. According to their figleaf, it could be omnipotent, immaterial god, or aliens, or crystals, or five guys named Larry.

    But — for the third time — real design inferences in the real world are inductive, not eliminative. That’s why Dembski’s explanatory filter generates false positives (and is thus useless).

    I guess you’ll just continue to ignore this?

  • “You have a very weird definition of God — according to you, he’s a tool-using being with a physical body, desires, ears, and a radio transmitter?”

    If you knew anything about Christian theology, you would know that Jesus is one person in the godhead, and Jesus has a physical body. He could obviously use tools. All three persons in the godhead have desires. God can obviously detect sounds, and communicating through the electromagnetic spectrum is certainly not a problem for him. So your criteria for the kind of alien that SETI is seeking does not eliminate the Christian God as a candidate.

    “According to their figleaf, it could be omnipotent, immaterial god, or aliens, or crystals, or five guys named Larry.”

    Not quite. ID theorists claim that the designer must be an intelligent agent. Intelligent agents are intentional – they have purposes for what they design (i.e., final causation). An omnipotent or immaterial god, aliens or five guys named Larry fit that criteria, but not crystals.

    However, an ID theorist may go even further and say that the complexity of the design should tell us relatively just how powerful and intelligent the designer is. It seems highly unlikely that a human being, or even 5 human beings named Larry, could design the fine tuning in the universe or the biological systems we find in ourselves. Thus we could probably rule out human beings as the designer.

    When you keep saying that ID theorists say we can know NOTHING about the designer, you are completely wrong, I’m afraid.

  • Whether or not anything in the universe has a cause or does not have a cause is a moot question with regards to whether there is a supernatural cause. As an Ignostic, everything we know of that has a cause has been proven to be caused by something natural. Using the Hypothetico-Deductive method, and the best explanation, everything that has a cause in our universe is caused by something natural. With regards to the universe itself, again, using the Hypothetico-Deductive method and the best explanation, the cause of the universe being “in its own nature” is a better explanation than “goddidit.” And note, that however it happened would have happened before our known universe and time as we know it. For more detailed arguments on this subject, see my blog.

  • Ggodat

    So, everything IN the universe is bound by the law of causality but not THE universe? How is that even possible? Isn’t the universe the description for all the “stuff” that is bound by the law of causality?

    How is your point applied to the scientific method? Where is science do we see uncaused universes? How can all time space and mater inside the universe be bound by something and not the universe?

    Just irrational…

  • Ggodat

    Wow, so you are claiming that the “nature” of the universe (before it existed mind you) caused the universe to exist? That’s like saying I’m my own Grandfather. Can I be the cause of my father who caused me before I even existed?

    How can anything in a nonexistent state cause anything at all much less itself? The definition for nonexistent is not having being or existence.

  • Please see my blog for an in depth response that will show that it is not irrational.

    Furthermore, to consider that that part of the universe that I am calling “in its own nature” to be nonexistent is not correct, as it existed prior to time.

    In like fashion, I will show, as the Taoists say, it is a “nameless cause” that exists. When we see beyond the desire to use names, we can sense the nameless cause of these effects–this is the part of the universe that I designate as ‘being in its own nature,’ and that part of the universe that was before time.