NOTES on A. C. Ewing (1899-1973): The Argument From Design


The design argument is very old — it goes all the way back to Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). However, A. C. Ewing has a modern version of it in his book The Fundamental Questions of Philosophy(1951).

Another name for the design argument is the teleological (refers to ends or purposes) argument. The design argument is based on adaptation — the adaptation of animals in order to survive (that is, adaptation for an end or purpose). For example, a polar bear needs a thick coat of fur to survive in its icy climate, and it has a thick coat of fur.

William Paley

A modern person who used the design argument is William Paley (1743-1805), who believed that the design argument was based on an analogy. In Paley’s formulation of the design argument, he asks you to imagine that you have discovered a watch lying on the ground. Since the watch is a complex machine — too complex to have been created by accident — you, of course, realize that a watchmaker had to make the watch. According to Paley, the watch implies a watchmaker. Analogously, the World — which is too complex to have been created by accident — implies a Worldmaker.

A. C. Ewing

A modern philosopher who defends the design argument — and who denies that it is based on an analogy — is A. C. Ewing. According to Ewing, there is much design in nature, and the fact of this design must be explained. For example, a lower animal loses a leg or a tail, and then it grows a new leg or a new tail. And, of course, we need eyes to see, and we have eyes. Eyes are very complex organs. Ewing writes, “The force of the [design] argument lies not in the analogy, but in the extraordinary intricacy with which the details of a living body are adapted to serve its own interests, an intricacy far too great to be regarded as mere chance.”

According to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, there is an explanation or cause for this design that is abundantly found in Nature. According to Ewing, the best explanation for this design is God.

Of course, another explanation for design may have occurred to many of the people reading this essay. That explanation is evolution. Certainly, all well-educated, rational people must regard evolution as a fact. However, we can ask whether evolution rules out the existence of God.

According to Ewing, it does not. A theist can believe in both evolution and God, because God may be using evolution to accomplish His ends. Ewing writes, “Evolution [is] just the way God’s design works out.” After all, for evolution to get started, a one-celled organism had to exist, and even a one-celled organism is so complex that it is unreasonable to suppose that it came into existence by accident. In addition, according to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, there must be an explanation for why evolution exists; according to Ewing, God is the best explanation for the existence of evolution. A strength of Ewing’s argument is that it recognizes the existence of evolution — evolution is a fact.

Some people might suppose that an “unconscious purpose” of the universe brought design into existence; however, Ewing argues that “unconscious purpose” is an oxymoron. If something has a purpose, that purpose must be conscious.

An argument that could be raised against the design argument is the fact of much disorder in the universe; after all, the existence of evil is as much a fact as is the existence of evolution.

Ewing first replies that the Problem of Evil is an attack against theism in general, rather than against the design argument in particular, then he makes two further remarks:

1) He asks, Is there really much waste in Nature? For example, someone may point out that of the thousands of eggs that a herring lays, only a few will mature into adult herrings. However, Ewing replies that the other herring eggs are not wasted. Most of them serve as food for other living creatures.

2) Ewing also writes, “The occurrence of elaborate adaptations to ends is a very much stronger argument for the presence of an intelligence than its apparent absence in a good many instances is against it.” Ewing points out that our relationship to God is much like the relationship of a dog to its human master. The dog cannot understand such activities as Ewing’s writing a book; likewise, we humans cannot understand some of the reasons God has for acting as He does.

I don’t like this last comment very much, as I am convinced by the Principle of Sufficient Reason that an explanation exists for everything. As a rational human being, I want answers — I don’t want to sit back and say, “Evil is a mystery. We’ll never be able to understand the presence of evil in the world.” However, because we are limited, finite human beings, we may never arrive at the answers to our questions.

One thing to notice about Ewing’s essay is that the design argument still has much life in it. Some people may want to say that God does not exist; however, many arguments for the existence of God are worth considering.

Note: The quotations by A. C. Ewing that appear in this essay are from his The Fundamental Questions of Philosophy(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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