Is design arbitrary?

I thought I'd start a series on design. Why not? Everyone else is talking about it. Unlike other blogs, though, I'm addressing this one explicitly to Christians. I'll kick off the series with this comment from a reader:
In a sense, common claims by creationists, like "See, it's designed," are arbitrary, but it also seems that we have within us an ability to recognize that these designs came from the Creator "clearly seen."
He's responding to a comment I left at Steve Matheson's blog:
The design argument as articulated by Paley was a nearly arbitrary mapping of some of God's attributes (often wisdom and benevolence) to attributes of nature.
There are several related issues here. First (related to my point), is there any mapping of divine attributes to features of creation? Second, is the attribution of design to amazingly complex things just arbitrary? Third, aren't we supposed to be able to see God's attributes in creation, as per Romans 1 and Psalm 19?

To address the first question, I hesitate to try to map God's attributes to specific features of creation. I've heard of a few creationists who like this idea - maybe dogs exhibit loyalty and cats sophistication, etc. But I fear such speculations can go way, way, WAY too far. Witness this passage from John Ray's Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation:
Here, by the by, I cannot but look upon the Strange Instinct of this noisome and troublesome Creature the Louse, of searching out foul and nasty Cloaths to harbour and breed in, as an Effect of Divine Providence, designed to deterr Men and Women from Sluttishness and Sordidness, and to provoke them to Cleanliness and Neatness. God himself hateth Uncleanliness, and turns away from it, as appears by Deut. cap. xxiii. ver. 12, 13, 14. But if God requires, and is Pleased with bodily Cleanliness, much more is he so with the Pureness of the Mind.
Yeah, sure. Lice demonstrate God's holiness. I'm having trouble swallowing that one.

Now I realize it's wrong to condemn a position based on the most extreme and silly form of it, but at the same time the extreme form raises an important question: Where do we draw the line? By what standard do we say that one comparison of God's attributes to creation is legitimate while another is not? I don't know. That's in part why I see design as a kind of arbitrary thing, because you can make up silly little "just so" design stories about anything.

Design also seems arbitrary because it gets applied to anything and everything. Think about so many creationist books or papers out there. They describe the complexity of something like the ear (eyes get too much credit - ears are just as amazing) or genetic processes or even life itself, and then they conclude that it must be designed. There's a strong part of me that likes that conclusion, but there's also part of me that recognizes that reaction as a form of worship. The reaction I have to the complexity of life is not rational. It's a deep reaction, perhaps a faith reaction. As long as we all recognize what is going on, I don't have a problem with concluding that this or that is designed. When the Bible says that God's existence and His attributes are clearly seen, I think that's what it's talking about. Not that we can reason or argue God's existence or attributes, but that there's something amazing about this creation that speaks to everyone everywhere in a deep and profound way.

Where I cringe is when we begin to mix that deeply personal "design reaction" with (sometimes dogmatic) claims about mechanisms. For example, I often read papers that go like this: Here is a complex biological system. Evolution doesn't have an explanation for this system, therefore it's designed.

Whoa, there. Wait a minute. Since when does "design" entail a mechanism? This is a point I tried to make when I wrote about "mediated design" (which is another term for secondary causation). Could God have used a purely evolutionary mechanism to bring about a design? Sure. Could God have helped evolution along a little? Yep. Could God have just popped things into existence? Absolutely. In each case, "design" would still be a legitimate description, but the mechanism would be quite different.

Think of it this way: Let's say I'm sick, and I pray for healing. I then go to the doctor, and he gives me medicine that cures what ails me. I then thank God for sending a doctor with the appropriate medicine. Three weeks later, the doctor's bill arrives, and I pray for money to pay it. I go to work the next day and discover that the boss is giving a Christmas bonus in the exact amount of my medical bill. I thank God again for answering my prayer.

To a nonbeliever that sounds silly, but Christians know exactly what I'm talking about. I wouldn't hesitate to thank God for the human help He sends into my life, but it would be kind of juvenile to try to argue that such instances are really divine intervention and nothing else. I know God's hand when I see it, just like I know His voice when I hear it. Such is the nature of faith. Try to systematize and formalize and rationalize it, and you'll probably kill it.

And that's my point: too many design "arguments" try too hard to make that gut-level recognition of God into an irrefutable argument. I fear that if we try to contain God in an argument like that, we're setting ourselves up for failure. On the other hand, by mixing anti-evolution arguments with design arguments, we implicitly reduce design to a particular mechanism, which it isn't.

If this "design reaction" is an unquantifiable, faith-based experience, how in the world can it possibly be part of science? Great question, and I'll deal with that one in another post.

In the meantime, email questions, comments, rants, refutations, and insults to toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.