The Bad Design Argument


I did a fair amount of coding in my younger days. Is an iteration of Windows Office “bad design” because it comes with certain options turned off? Or what if the process used valued “efficiency” in terms of how little effort it took to make a change in code rather than how much it could pare down the code in size? This question applies equally to evolution or special creation. In the latter case, I as a coder cut and pasted and left in non-functional code many times because it just didn’t matter to my function and it was easier to leave it in than take it out. And why remove the code of unneeded modules which had an “off” switch. Just use the switch (on the evolution side, someday you might want the function again).


That depends. Was it developed by a perfect coder? Did the development team include someone omniscient and omnipotent?

We’re up to MS Office v9 and they still ship with broken bits of VBA. I’m sure there are some ‘bad design patterns’ that other professional programmers could recognize still lurking in MS Office applications.



The better writers don’t just talk about genes switched off. A few good cases is much better than lots of mediocre ones.

So, the best cases are those where a gene is switched off or broken, there is no apparent detriment to having the gene working vs. a known benefit to having the gene working, and only one or two populations have the non-functioning “gene”, and there is a demonstrable path for “common descent” for the flaw, because all the other branches of the “family” that don’t descend from the same common ancestor have a fully working version.


Bill Gates wishes. I knew I should not have used an MS product as an example. I will use myself. I am neither of those things but it matters not for this analogy because I knew the code was turned off/useless or unnecessary and I had the power to go through and remove it, I just saw no point in doing so.

I will also say, with the exception of man, my model is that the command was given to the earth to bring forth living creatures and God only had to step in like an adult would with a child, to help when they were going off track. We would only expect the parts done by the adult to be spiffy. This creation is suitable for beings like us to live in it- we can’t do God’s will without God’s help either.

Maybe instead of stirring the winds to make a “just so” hurricane God more enjoys knowing which butterfly to get to flap its wings where in order to produce a hurricane which will do for whatever He had in mind. A stringent application of how we think God is obligated to value things or do business is a house built on sand.
And of course that last paragraph would be undetectable by science. We could only see the results of an apparently naturally produced hurricane.


Yep. The ‘Bad Design’ argument does not apply to your particular model.



I hope that sentence was intended as a joke.

What is not detectable… is not the hurricane. God’s intentions or his “touch” is not detectable by science. Do you understand the distinction that is being made here?


This is a much better analogy than the computer one.

He means to say that science would not be able to detect God’s action in the scenario he laid out. And he is right.


I would add to that, Joshua, the question how TEs can hold both good design and bad design arguments in the same brain or the same model. We have the recent BioLogos series on “my favourite wonderful creature of God”, and then in the same month examples of bad design that he wouldn’t have created, being God, ergo it was blind evolution.

I remember raising this at that site years ago when they did a piece on a particular detailed wonder in the human brain that showed God’s provision. I agreed with that, and rejoiced, but there was no explanation of how God could be responsible for such wonderful adaptations through his oversight of evolution, but not accountable for supposedly inadequate spines, reproductive organs, jaws, not to mention viruses, parasites, cruel cats and so on. All I achieved was a temporary shutdown on all comments, but no explanation of the contradiction once they’d sorted that out!

The problem seems to be a clash between incompatible theologies whereby (in one) God is able to be hands-off in evolution and produce even the exact specs for man by purely natural, but impossibly fine-tuned, laws after 3 billion years, but (in the other) gives evolution “freedom” (so called - it really means “subject to randomness”) to account for its supposed failures. It’s hard to see how both can be true, quite apart from the theological implications of saying that “all things in heaven and earth” were not after all, created in, by, through and for Christ, but by some deficient non-divine demiurge.

That said, what we would expect from biblical perspectives is that all things are created by God good for what they are intended do (which, to use the tired phrase, may impose design constraints), but also, in a world of material change and entropy, the possibility of corruption or damage.


Hmm - let’s exclude, for a moment, saying that man was specially created. If he evolved by the same process as the rest of life (and nothing in Scripture makes him biologically exceptional), then one requires a model that, over billions of years, does a vaguely successful job of creating a bunch of undetermined species, but converges on a particular species intended from the very start of the process. That seems implausible - if God uses secondary causes, they must be adequate to the results.

Similarly, before reading this thread I was thinking, whilst walking the dog, of the idea that simply by God’s telling the earth to produce life, independent of any physical means to do so, it could do so merely from creaturely obedience. That makes God seem powerful, but seems to me more incoherent, because it’s actually a statement about the power of nature.

As an analogy, consider God telling one of us in a dream to create life de novo in the laboratory. Obedient servants we may be, but he didn’t create us as magicians, or even biologists. If I have no intrinsic potentia for creating life (a power that should be amenable to scientific investigation), then I could only do so if God’s command were also an enabling, through showing me the trick of actually doing it.

The same is surely true, only more so, if the command is being given to inanimate matter - for God to command the earth to bring forth life, he must have created it with the power to do so, or endue it with that power as he commands.


Jon, first of all your blog is down, and it is missed so I hope you get it back up soon.

But the “secondary causes” are the tools which He Himself created. Further, why aren’t they adequate to the results? Scripture 1 Cor15 et al) teaches us that the new bodies we are going to get in the next life are different than the ones we have here. The ones we have here are suitable for the temporal but not the eternal. It is written “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”. So if the bodies we are going to get will be better and more suited for the higher realm it only stands to reason that those we have now are the product of inferior (though suitable for their purpose) methods.

Well we don’t know what conditions were present on the earth when the commands came. The text does not tell us for example, if bacteria or algae or protozoans were present. We don’t know what raw material nature had to work with. And any power nature has is a derived power anyway. I don’t see how you can have a nature without derived power without at the same time making God the author if sin.

Again we don’t know what the starting conditions were vis-a-vi the existence of life. Further it is reasonable to suppose that God did communicate much more information to the natural universe than the text has space to allow for.

Again, you are focusing on abiogenesis but we don’t know the starting conditions regarding the presence of microscopic life. The formation of breathing animals seems to be the real hurdle in the text.

Further, a close look at the text shows that creation is happening in two realms at once. The realm we are in now and the one we shall go to when we leave this one. The land above does have the power to fully comply with God’s commands without His further intervention as it is in perfect relationship with Him. This realm is more suitable for creatures like us to inhabit. It can’t do God’s will without God’s help. So both realms are following the same instructions, one well and one suitably. That’s the model and its all supported by the text of the scriptures.


the simple answer is because it was functional at the beginning. and become pseudogene after a while. thhere is no bad design here at all, just a natural degeneration. if we will find a car with a broken mirror we will conclude that the car had a full mirror at its begining. the same is here.

by the way: no one can prove a bad design. for instance: at the past evolutionists always claimed that the retina is an example of a bad design since its in the “wrong direction”. now we know that its actually a great design:

“Having the photoreceptors at the back of the retina is not a design constraint, it is a design feature. The idea that the vertebrate eye, like a traditional front-illuminated camera, might have been improved somehow if it had only been able to orient its wiring behind the photoreceptor layer, like a cephalopod, is folly”


Phys. Rev. Lett. 104, 158102 (2010) - Retinal Glial Cells Enhance Human Vision Acuity

“The retina is revealed as an optimal structure designed for improving the sharpness of images”


“IT LOOKS wrong, but the strange, “backwards” structure of the vertebrate retina actually improves vision”


@swamidass you write: “He means to say that science would not be able to detect God’s action in the scenario he laid out. And he is right.”

Are you absolutely sure about that? @Revealed_Cosmology, maybe you could cast the deciding vote.

Why wouldn’t we be able to “see the results of an apparently naturally produced hurricane”? If God makes the hurricane through a miracle, and it takes the roof off my house, I’m not going to notice it?

You said “results” of a hurricane. Perhaps you meant “cause” of the hurricane?



I generally like the contents of the post above… except for this sentence. I have spent a lot of time pondering just this question.

Would it ever be necessary for God to interject himself miraculously in the middle of a long chain of natural causation? I have concluded, YES, there could be times!

As @Jonathan_Burke has successfully pointed out several times back at BioLogos, God is the God of the “possible” - - meaning, God may very well have no interest in trying to do something that violates logic or natural law.

Regarding the old trope that God can make a rock so big he can’t lift it, and then he can pick it up and throw it across the cosmos. One, this is like saying God can make a round triangle; but even an omnipotent being can’t play havoc with definitions.

But there is a conceivable chain of events - at least for hypothetical examination; good ol’ GJDS would read this hypothetical and simple mutter “how presumptuous” one more time in my general direction and sign off from the forum for a day.

But the proposal would go like this:

From the moment of creation, God has planned down to the tiniest details the creation of Earth through cosmic processes. He also has planned the evolution of Dinosaurs. And, slyly, he has also planned to wipe out the dinosaurs at a certain point, so that mammals (ultimately, including primates and humans) can begin to flower and take hold of their God-defined destinies!

But God, in considering all the ways he might accomplish these aims, notes that if the normal kind of asteroid for smashing planets is used, it will either be too powerful or not powerful enough. He could compensate in other ways with an asteroid that is too weak… or he could do a completely different set of mitigations if the asteroid is too strong. But he doesn’t like the result of either of those scenarios.

So… in the middle of a super long chain of natural causations… a thousand years before impact, God miraculously replaces the natural asteroid with a “special” or “miraculous” asteroid, that produces exactly the right effects.

This is clearly not a Deist-style scenario. God doesn’t start the clock rolling, and then walk away. In Real Time, this God has to intercede at various times throughout creation, to keep things exactly on track. Certainly ID proponents must believe this is the kind of God they have - - for when they say natural evolutionary forces couldn’t create a flagellum on single celled creatures - - they mean that at some point in the development of the aforementioned creatures, God had to wiggle his little finger (or something like that), to get that flagellum to come out just right.

Deism … it’s not for “real time God”!


Mark, my point is that secondary causes are just that - creations empowered to do certain work, by certain means, whether that be by regular laws, complex algorithms (which need complex processors), or some kind of volition within created limits.

So if one is going to say (for example) that God asked the earth to bring forth vegetation, and it obeyed, you are either simply being poetic and personalising a planet, or saying that it “obeyed” metaphorically because it was created to bring forth vegetation (it had the right chemistry, or it had some pan-psychic capacity, or some as yet undiscovered algorithmic processing power).

So the products of evolution depend on the power and specificity of the processes involved (which, as secondary causes, are amenable to study), and/or the direct “instrumental” direction of creation by God. If he creates a machine (let’s call it “evolutionary mechanism”) that has a free rein to produce any kind of species that works, then the only way it will exceptionally produce a designated species (let’s call it “man”) is by being reprogrammed to do that (in other words, by an act of direct creation).

That’s no problem to you if your view is that mankind was specially created, but I’m countering a quasi-mystical view that evolution has no teleological mechanisms, but nevertheless achieves man as a teleological goal without further input from God, by some natural process.


@gbrooks9 I am afraid you have lapsed back into that old pattern wherein you are not “getting” what I write, though others do. In this case, @swamidass got it. We could only use science to detect the results of a hurricane- signs would be left that one came through, but not its cause.



The case of the asteroid may not be the best example, in that our meticulously-planning God could have made sure from the beginning that the relevant asteroid was appropriate to the task. But the question seems to involve circumstances in which it’s logically impossible to program the universe’s laws to get that kind of asteroid at that point in time.

And I don’t disagree with that - I think the contingency of the world rules out that machine-like unfolding at every point, which is kind of my point about postulating a law-driven evolutionary process whose outcomes, generally, are pretty optional, except in the case of mankind, for whom God has a close specification. That seems to be the position of a good number of TEs, who say God “designed” mankind, but left nature to do squids and aardvarks on its own. That sounds to me like giving the universe freedom to make decisions on coin tosses, as long as the 478th coin toss is heads. Coin tosses don’t work that way.

I would, however, argue against the “God achieves specific aims through natural causes with occasional nudges to maintain direction” model on three grounds:
(1) I don’t think there is evidence that the structure of reality is even open to such deterministic outcomes as that. Certainly a human free choice to nuke the world, or even to hunt mammoths to extinction, is going to disrupt the smooth operation of the machine. Arguably a cat’s decision to eat the bird with a key mutation would upset the clockwork too. God would need to make regular nudges if any creature has any degree of freedom of action.
(2) Frequent or infrequent, having to nudge spoils the ideal of a nature that works all by itself. Is God trying to save himself labour, or impress the neighbours, or what? If you want to build an automaton, you lose points if you have to keep pushing it to keep going (as Leibniz said to Newton).
(3) Which leads to the biggest question - who said that God wanted to create the world to operate entirely by secondary causes? Or almost entirely, with occasional nudges? And why should anyone believe them, when Scripture portrays God as intimately concerned to interact both with history and nature actively? the Bible seems to picture nature as not as a machine, automatic or semi-automatic, but as what he does, or even what he relates to personally - it’s a musical instrument he plays, or perhaps a household he heads up.

In other words, is his diary deistically blank? Or does he, on the nudging scheme, have an aeon planner marked with “Remember to adjust mammal evolution at end of Cretaceous”? Or might he rather have a daily “to do” list that includes not only answers to our prayers, but plans for nature’s activities too? “Even now, my Father is about his work,” said Jesus.


@jongarvey, well now you have lost me! Your point (3) says, who even said God wanted to create the world to operate entirely by secondary causes?

Well, exactly.

So, your points (1) and (2) now seem irrelevant.

But let’s briefly touch on them:

(1) You point out that Free Will would disrupt a long chain of natural causes. Yes, it could. Or, if you are of the school that God can KNOW your free choices, and still plan for them, then you are right back where we started from. OR, if you are not of that school, then you can look at Free Will as the same kind of problem of sending an asteroid, but ultimately it will be not quite right by the time it arrives. Imagine instead of an asteroid, it the dinosaurs were unintentionally destroyed by an alien civilization who set off the catastrophe. That would (or could) be something driven by Free Will. So… because of Free Will, God pretty much has to nudge here and there … always compensating for the chaotic influences of Free Will.

Nice, yes/

(2) You make a reasonable argument, except that (1) and (3) rescue you from it. (1) points out that Free Will is the reason why God has to keep nudging… or (I guess this is implied by you) perhaps even cats - - despite not having free will? < did you want to specify this? - - are still not completely determinable. < Did you want to specify this ?


And I support you in that task. And I also believe that man was specially created, though on this earth the “code” used for our bodies was adapted from prior forms.

A separate question from whether or not there are teleological mechanisms is how hard will it be for our current level of science to detect information from them? They could exist but not be detectable by science, though I think that some of them are once we get the tools to find them and understand where to look.

I go back to the analogy of the computer game my children play where they can “create” life forms and help them on their way as they develop. Whoever wrote the program allowed for the program itself to develop some background “life forms”. The “teleological input” came from the programmer from the start, with the gamer only adding a bit more via the “settings” panel of what level or world they want to play on. Further such input comes when the gamer builds and nourishes a specific creature.


Hi everyone,

Just a couple of quick points.

  1. Re God telling the earth to produce vegetation: the real problem here is one of under-determination. God cannot tell the Earth to simply produce vegetation, any more than He can tell dust to simply produce a human body. For the Earth (if it could speak) might respond: “Which vegetation, Lord, and how? Tell me the recipe, please!” Ditto for the dust. So if the Earth did produce life at God’s command, then it must have been a very specific one - in which case, one could argue the work was all God’s, and the Earth just supplied the raw material. One could not even argue that the Earth actively exercised its natural powers, as producing life is not one of the Earth’s natural powers, on this scenario: supposedly it requires a Divine command. At most, the Earth’s role could only have been passive.

  2. If on the other hand it turns out that abiogenesis is possible, then we would have to say that no Divine command was needed to get the process rolling. All that was needed were the appropriate laws and initial conditions.

  3. In his writings, Aquinas frequently cited the Aristotelian adage that God and Nature do nothing in vain. He evidently did not think that God could have made the first human beings in such a way that most of their DNA was junk. Nor did he accept the existence of vestigial organs. St, Augustine was of the same view on this point. I could supply quotes, but in any case, readers can look them up here. I’m not saying Augustine and Aquinas are right; what I am saying is that they would have countenanced the Bad Design argument, and many other Christians did as well. Why else do you think Darwin’s Origin of Species had such a devastating impact on people’s faith, at the time when it was published?

  4. There was an earlier thread on which we discussed whether the design of the genetic code was suboptimal. @swamidass’s response is here.

  5. Upon reflection, it seems that the ID movement has a point when they argue that the inference from an apparent bad design to no design is philosophically problematic. One also has to undercut the mathematical and scientific arguments put forward for a system’s having been designed, in order to show that a design inference is unwarranted.


Isn’t that exactly how molinism works?

It seems that molinism is a way to affirm both ontological chance and God’s providential governance. Have you thought much about that @jongarvey?