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The Daily Cardinal, September 14th, 2004
Examining the logic behind the existence of God probably ranks behind examining class schedules and double-checking the syllabus in the minds of students these days.
Still, over 100 people crowded the Elvehjem Museum last week to hear Elliot Sober, UW-Madison professor of philosophy, lecture on "The Logic of the Design Argument," a popular argument for the existence of God. After the audience relocated to a larger auditorium to accommodate the unexpectedly large number of attendees, Sober critiqued the logic of the idea that life and palpable reality are designed by an intelligent creator.
Regarded as one of the world's leading philosophers of evolutionary biology, Sober shaped his lecture around a famous argument by pre-Darwinian philosopher William Paley. Paley, lacking exposure to an evolutionary framework, said intelligent design must be behind the creation of delicate organs-the intricate vertebrate eye, for example-in the same way that intelligent design must be behind the creation of, say, a watch.
"I don't think that there's any important difference between what Paley said a long time ago and what creationists are saying now," Sober said.
To counter Paley's theory, Sober referred to the writings of contemporary philosopher Stephen J. Gould, who claimed natural examples disprove the existence of an intelligent creator. A panda's bone-spur-like thumb, for instance, is highly inefficient at stripping bamboo of its covering, thus compelling the animal to spend most of its life peeling food.
"In case after case in biology, we come across these highly imperfect, crude, makeshift adaptations and these are not the sort of things an intelligent engineer would make; hence the intelligent design argument is wrong," Sober said, paraphrasing Gould's work.
Ultimately Sober disagreed with both Paley and Gould, saying the whole design argument is flawed because proponents assume the God in question has a particular set of goals and abilities.
"If you assume that God had the goals that Gould said he would have, then yes, this is an argument against intelligent design of the panda's thumb, but why should we assume this?" Sober asked.
Sober also questioned the flaws of the human eye versus the octopus eye. Blood vessels that feed the human eye traverse parts of the retina, creating a blind spot. The octopus' vessels feed the eye only from behind the orb, making its field of vision complete.
"So they have a better eye," Sober said. "Now one interesting question is, if an intelligent designer designed the eye, why did he give the octopus a better eye than he gave people?"
Christopher Lang, one of Sober's co-authors and graduate students, said, "Without a logical framework, one might say, 'Look at all this stuff, there's got to be a God.' [Sober is] directly addressing that way of thinking, saying, 'Let's look at the logic behind that.'"
Senior Daniel Hubin, a UW-Madison philosophy major, acknowledged this controversial topic could have multiple interpretations.
"That's the good thing about philosophy: You don't have to have it nailed down," he said. "We're okay with rough ideas.