Are bad or sub-optimal designs in nature supportive of atheism?

Engineer Bill Pratt explains why “bad design” is not supportive of atheism at Tough Questions Answered.


The other day I heard an atheist say that the fact that he sees poor design in the natural world leads him to the conclusion that the Christian God does not exist. Here is the argument:

  1. An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator God would create organisms that have optimal design.
  2. Organisms have features that are sub-optimal.
  3. Therefore, God either did not create these organisms or is not omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

There are several things wrong with this argument, but I want to focus on premise 2 – organisms have features that are sub-optimal.

I am an electrical engineer who has been designing integrated circuits (IC) for 20 years, either personally or through managing other engineers. I am extremely familiar with IC design. Over the years, I have often heard young engineers, who did not design a particular IC, criticize the design of that IC by saying it is sub-optimal, that they could do a better job. I have then seen these same engineers eat crow when they finally talk to the original designer and discover the constraints that original engineer was under when he designed the IC and the purposes for which he designed the IC.

It is impossible to judge a design as optimal or sub-optimal without knowing the purposes of the designer and without knowing the constraints the designer faced during the design. Young engineers just assume that they know both when they look at somebody else’s design. After being embarrassed a few times, they usually drop this approach and gain some humility.

Engineers know that designs are always a balance between competing NFRs – non-functional requirements. Many of the the NFRs are often opposed to each other, like speed and memory. If you want something fast, it often requires more memory. If you want something cheap, you sacrifice memory and your program runs slower because there is more disk access.

Even more than that, atheists assume that if God designed organisms, then he should have designed it for our benefit – to make us happy, healthy and long-lived. But that is not God’s purpose for making us. He doesn’t want us to be happy (apart from him), he wants us to know him. And there is nothing to say that designs that are “bad” for happiness are also bad for knowing God.

10 thoughts on “Are bad or sub-optimal designs in nature supportive of atheism?”

  1. Pratt’s answer is a great answer for engineers like us, and isn’t too difficult to explain to non-engineers (e.g. speed vs. memory, noise vs. power). I also like WLC’s point that God is not constrained like we are and doesn’t need to be efficient or optimal (which attacks premise 1).


  2. In my spacecraft-designing days, there was always one guy in the room who was the “critic.” This type had never really done anything, but went from design review to design review criticizing the work of others. While it’s always good to have a skeptic in the room – to a point, after awhile my reply to the “critic” was “you don’t get to shoot down my design unless you provide a better design to replace it with – one that satisfies all of the constraints. No criticism without creation.” That usually solved the problem.


  3. Also, I notice a lot of their supposed instantiations of “bad design” have rather obvious purposes even from a human point-of-view. I was linked to a College Humor video about the “bad design” of various parts of the human body. As each was given, I could immediately think of a purpose for the most of the supposed flaws. In order to prove that there really was an instance of “bad design” they’d have to prove it served no purpose whatsoever, which would be extraordinarily difficult.


  4. WorldGoneCrazy,

    I’d be very, very careful with trying to use this argument against anyone committed to completely naturalistic explanations for the origin and development of life. The second you say, “No criticism without creation”, they can use the same exact argument when you critique naturalistic theories.

    Of course, you could object that a designer is a better proposal, but you know where that will go.


    1. James, this is a great point you make. I guess I was thinking along these lines: if I provide the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments as evidence for creative design, and the atheist attacks these arguments (which is fair game), then I can both reply to his attacks and also demand his positive arguments for atheism. He can criticize, but he doesn’t just get to sit back and take shots without providing something toward his worldview, just as I can criticize his evolutionary views, but I need to also respond with something positive and superior (namely the arguments above). Then I can ask the question: is your worldview more plausibly supported or mine? In the same way, the critics of my designs were welcome to take shots at them, but they also had to replace them with something better, a design which is more plausibly supported by evidence and solid engineering. (A design, by definition, has not yet been tested or fielded, so I think that some acknowledgment of uncertainty is valid – but by both parties, of course.) To me, this approach separates the pure complainers from those who are constructive critics. Not sure, but this seems to be the approach that WLC takes in his debates (no good reasons for atheism, but very good reasons for theism). He continuously places the burden on the atheist too, so that it is not just WLC playing defense all day long.


  5. Having built wiring harnesses and trucks, people just do not realize the trade-offs that have to be made in designing those things for specific purposes. All I can do is look at God’s world and be amazed by it, and the craziness that comes out of some people’s mouths.


  6. Species survival through adaptation has nothing to do with “perfection”.

    How the atheist argument sounds to me: the sky is blue because motorcycles don’t have doors.


  7. My favorite example is the laryngeal nerve. Even jaded old engineers can see that God made a boo-boo with that. We know it’s inefficient, and we also know step-by-step how it got that way.

    I’m sure you guys can come up with lots of other examples, if you want to get down to the real discussion.


    1. Are you claiming that the recurrent laryngeal nerve is an example of poor design? Because it isn’t. To claim that it is a poor design is to assume that the most direct route for a nerve is always the best one and that there are no design constraints that affect the current route of the nerve. Both assumptions are false.

      Check out this article for a brief introduction to the topic:

      “The left recurrent laryngeal nerve is not poorly designed, but rather is clear evidence of intelligent design:
      •Much evidence exists that the present design results from developmental constraints.
      •There are indications that this design serves to fine-tune laryngeal functions.
      •The nerve serves to innervate other organs after it branches from the vagus on its way to the larynx.
      •The design provides backup innervation to the larynx in case another nerve is damaged.
      •No evidence exists that the design causes any disadvantage.”


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