In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (...) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (...) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. — William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)
The most famous example of the argument for God’s existence on the basis of design is Paley’s “watchmaker” illustration. The assumption of such an argument is that there are certain complex systems in the natural world that cannot be explained by natural means and therefore require a super-natural designer.
Critics of this argument have pointed out that just because a complex system may not be explicable on natural grounds at the present moment, that doesn't mean such an explanation doesn’t exist. Future scientific inquiry may uncover one. In other words, the God of these sorts of design arguments is a “God-of-the-gaps,” a God whose work is limited to the gaps in our current scientific understanding of natural processes. As scientific understanding grows, the “gaps” shrink, and thus God Himself becomes irrelevant.
This criticism has a degree of merit. It is true that many discoveries have been made throughout history that have shed light on how nature works and removed any need for direct, miraculous, divine intervention. I must also say that this principle works in reverse. For instance, many systems and structures of the human body which non-theists once claimed were vestigial organs and proof of non-design have been found to have a very important purpose (can I have my tonsils back?!).
However, the real problem with the “God-of-the-gaps” approach to the design argument is that it is simply not biblical. It posits a view of reality that pits the work of God over and against the processes of nature. But from a biblical standpoint, there are no processes of nature apart from God! In his majestic hymn of praise for Christ in Colossians 1 Paul says: “All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). Not only did Christ create all things – He continues to “hold together” all things. In a similar vein, the author of Hebrews praises God by saying “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).
From a biblical point of view, there is no such thing as “the natural world,” if by that expression we mean a realm of existence disconnected from the sustaining work of God. So to speak of what nature does over and against what God does is nonsense in this way of thinking. What we can say is that there is a world that is visible to us and a dimension that is invisible to us (this is also language found in Colossians 1; see verses 15-16). And we can say that there is the ordinary work of God in the visible world (what we sometimes call “natural laws” or providence) and then there is extraordinary work in the visible world (what we might call “miracles”). But whether God works directly or indirectly through the natural processes He created, there is no “God-of-the-gaps.” He is the “God-of-the-whole-show”!
What I am suggesting here is not a novel concept. It is the plain teaching of the Scriptures. In passage after passage, the Bible says things like:
You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills;they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches.From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. (Psalm 104:10-13)
Is this a psalm about water tables, the evaporation cycle, or survival instincts (all processes of the “natural” world); or is this a psalm about God’s care for His creation? Do you see what a false choice such a question presents? Whatever processes we may see in the visible realm are the result of the abiding, sustaining, world-upholding work of God.
This doesn’t mean that the argument from design is invalid – it just means we also need to see design at a much broader level. In addition to zooming in on such specifics as the human eye (one of Paley’s favorites), or the flagellum of a bacteria (a modern favorite), I would also suggest asking this question: why is the study of science even possible? It is possible because we live in a universe that behaves “rationally” (there are processes which we can describe with elegant, beautiful mathematics, for instance); and we possess the rationality capable of the abstract thought required to do this study. The existence of many constants which must be finely tuned for there to be a universe at all, and the existence of human rationality which enables us to discover and describe these constants, bears great evidence to me that there is a rational mind and Designer behind this visible world.