An article that recently appeared on Google News, “Origami robot doesn’t need a human to assemble itself and start working,” has a fascinating video of a self-folding robot that mimics the way proteins or insect wings spontaneously fold into their functional form.
This suggests an answer to a common objection to the theory of intelligent design. The objection, stated in various forms by thinkers dating back to David Hume, goes something like this:
We do observe that intelligent designers build complex technology. But they never build things that grow, reproduce, or evolve — i.e., we humans never produce things like life. Thus it’s inappropriate to analogize between human-designed technology and living organisms because human-designed technology lacks key features of life. This causes the argument for design in nature based upon nature’s similarities to human designs to break down.
This objection has always seemed less than compelling to me. Consider reproduction. True, humans haven’t (yet) produced technology capable of self-replication or reproduction in the biological sense, but why should that count against the argument for design? Surely something that cannot reproduce or self-replicate is less complex than something that can. But if human technology (which cannot reproduce) is less complex than biological systems, yet it is designed, doesn’t that suggest a fortiori that living organisms — which are more complex and can reproduce — were designed? In other words, the flaw in the analogy seems to strengthen the argument for design rather than weaken it.
Moreover, the objection is based upon the presumption that human technology will never reproduce. Who is to say what human technology will be able to do in the future? We’re now starting to build self-folding robots. Why is it so hard to imagine that in the future, human technology might reproduce and grow and self-assemble? (In fact, computer simulations can reproduce all of these capacities already.) This objection seems to retreat into the gaps as human technology becomes more and more advanced. And, incidentally, much of that progress comes as human technology mimics nature.
In short, the objection claims that differences between human technology and natural structures count against intelligent design in nature. But I think the logic of the objection is backwards. Here’s how I would frame it:
- (a) If intelligent causes make more complex and efficient designs than unintelligent causes,
- then (b) if nature’s designs are more complex and efficient than human technology, and
- (c) human technology is designed,
- then (d) nature’s features must also exhibit some design.
True, human technology and natural features are not always identical. But those differences tend to point towards design in nature rather than against it.