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Reason and Revelation Volume 14 #3

The Perfect Analogy

by  Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A.

One of the problems with William Paley’s design arguments, critics allege, is that his analogies were imperfect. For example, while we know that watchmakers exist and make watches, or at least that such skill is available, we cannot be sure that nature has such a Maker. In other words, while the watchmaker is real and apparent, we know of God only by inferring His existence from the things He supposedly designed.

The clearest response to this claim comes from archaeology, which rummages through nature looking for evidence of human activity. On occasion, it unearths something with no modern analogy. For example, archaeologists still do not fully understand how the Egyptians built the Great Pyramid, and no one is building such pyramids today. Yet few people would argue that it is anything but a feat of ancient Egyptian engineering.

The argument applies equally to future events. Carl Sagan wrote that a “single message from space” would show evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe (1979, p. 275). Just recently (1993), he and his co-workers declared that Earth harbors not only life, but intelligent life, based solely on data gathered from the Galileo spacecraft. Researchers hope to use similar techniques in identifying intelligence from extraterrestrial radio emissions (even in a “single message”). Yet they would know nothing about the cause of that message, apart from inferring that it must be intelligent enough to make such a transmission.

This is precisely the argument used by Paley, and modern science has served only to sharpen his analogies. Paley saw design in the wonders of life, but through our knowledge of DNA, we can observe the genetic code responsible for that life.

How do we know that something has an intelligent cause, like DNA or a message from space? Simple order is not enough (e.g., a crystal of salt, or the sequence of letters “aabbaabb”). Nor is mere complexity sufficient (e.g., a random arrangement of molecules, or the sequence of letters “adndjbsaf”). Rather, it must contain information, or specified complexity (e.g., a sequence of binary digits making up a computer program, or the sentence “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”). Using four chemical “letters,” DNA contains instructions for thousands of different proteins, enzymes, and hormones. This information is so like the products of intelligence—especially language and computer programs—that we must infer an intelligent cause of life (Geisler and Anderson, 1987).


Geisler, Norman L. and J. Kerby Anderson (1987), Origin Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Sagan, Carl (1979), Broca’s Brain (New York: Random House).

Sagan, Carl, et al. (1993), “A Search for Life on Earth from the Galileo Spacecraft,” Nature, 365:715-716, October 21.

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