No Man’s Sky & the Argument from Apparent Design

Does the mere appearance of design in the natural world indicate a designer? And what does a video game have to do with it?

The world does appear to be designed. That’s not overly controversial–even beyond the great cross-section of humanity for whom the complex and well-ordered features of the world suggest a designer or designers. Indeed, individuals who conclude that there is no designer can still be struck by apparent design in nature.

For example, in The God Delusion, atheist biologist Richard Dawkins repeatedly discussed the appearance of design in the natural world, writing at one point:

We live on a planet where we are surrounded by perhaps ten million species, each one of which independently displays a powerful illusion of apparent design.”1

However, Dawkins concluded that, despite the strong appearance of design, given what we know about evolution, life is not in fact designed.

There are two related questions here. First, does the apparent design of our world give us reason to think that it is designed? Second, if natural explanations—like evolution—can be given for apparently designed phenomena, then doesn’t that mean that the appearance of design is, as Dawkins said, an illusion?

Several years ago, the philosopher C. Stephen Evans published an argument from the appearance of design.2 He argued that the answers to those questions are yes and no. We’ll explore a sketch of the argument below.

Even the Appearance
While Evans’ argument was framed in a couple of different ways to satisfy different philosophical theories about knowledge and knowing, we will only consider one slightly modified version here. It’s based on the following principle: if something appears to have some characteristic, that’s a reason to believe it does have that characteristic.3

This basic idea is fairly commonsensical. Suppose you’re walking along the beach and see markings in the sand that appear to form the word “FUN.” That’s reason to believe the word “FUN” really is written in the sand. Of course, it’s possible an unlikely confluence of natural forces made it look like someone wrote the word “FUN” in the sand, but you still have reason to think a person was behind the word. In fact, all things being equal, you even have enough reason to believe a person wrote the word in the sand.

Similarly, you have reason to think the milk in your fridge has spoiled if it appears to be spoiled. In fact, most people don’t need more than “it looks red” to conclude that an apple really is red rather than green. We all base beliefs on such “seemings.” However, they aren’t always sure guides to truth.

For example, suppose your friend shows you her new handbag, which appears to be a Louis Vuitton. As you admire the quality of the bag, your friend cracks a wry smile and sheepishly informs you that it’s actually a counterfeit she bought overseas. The bag may still appear genuine, but now you have strong reason to think it’s not. The apparent authenticity of the bag is outweighed by your friend’s statement.

However, there is more trouble here: given that you were so easily taken in by the counterfeit, you now have reason to distrust your ability to tell the difference between a genuine high-end bag and a counterfeit. So when you see some apparently genuine Gucci handbags being sold on the street at tempting prices, you have reason to think that, after all, you simply can’t tell the difference between a fake and the real article.

This, incidentally, is why gamblers who are certain that the next hand or roll of the dice will be the winning one should reconsider the validity of that “seeming.” There’s good reason not to trust it—even if it feels like a sure thing. Too many people—perhaps even the gamblers themselves—have found themselves losing despite such “seemings” in the past.

So, there’s a caveat to our principle. True, if something seems to possess a certain characteristic, that’s reason to think it really does possess that characteristic. But there may be reason to distrust the “seeming” in the first place—or, failing that, reason to think that the conclusion is false.4

The Illusory Appearance of Design?
Perhaps we’re in something like the original handbag situation. Yes, the world appears designed. So, all things being equal, that means we have reason to think the world is designed.

But all things aren’t equal. Natural processes like evolution and accretion (the process by which planets form) are known to have produced apparently designed elements of our world like dragonflies and planets. Doesn’t that mean the world is not designed, making the appearance of design a mere illusion?

Let’s give this objection the strongest possible position. Let’s assume that the Earth was formed by accretion, that evolution produced all life on Earth, and that natural processes are behind every other internal element of our universe. As Dawkins put it:

Who, before Darwin, could have guessed that something so apparently designed as a dragonfly’s wing or an eagle’s eye was really the end product of a long sequence of non-random but purely natural causes?”5

For Dawkins, Darwinian evolution “shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well.”6

Yet this may go too far, too fast. It neglects how personal agents can be behind impersonal direct causes.

Personal Agents, Impersonal Causes
Suppose your friend orders a watch off of Amazon and has it shipped to you as a gift. Do you thank your friend? Of course! Your friend sent you a watch, even though corporations made the watch and shipped it to you without your friend ever even seeing it.

Or suppose your spouse does a load of laundry. Do you say, “Well, actually, the washing machine cleaned the clothes, so you didn’t actually clean the laundry, dear.” Hopefully not!

Or, as Evans has noted, the farmer who thanks God for the rain is perfectly aware of the water cycle. Rather, the farmer is recognizing that God created the water cycle itself.7

The basic idea here is this: Personal agents can be behind impersonal direct causes.

Procedurally Generated Planets
Now we come to the video game No Man’s Sky.

Released in 2016, this video game has more than 18 quintillion planets to discover, a vast proportion of which feature unique plants and animals. No team of human developers could make that many by hand—so they didn’t.

Hello Games instead created computer software to procedurally generate the planets (including flora and fauna) automatically and without the need for human intervention. Thus, a player can land on an in-game planet and behold a landscape rich with foliage and frolicking alien critters never before seen by any human eye. While the planets in the game might appear designed, it seems they weren’t designed at all. They were made by computer software.

But it’s not correct to say the game’s planets weren’t designed. The planets of No Man’s Sky were designed because the designers created the software processes to bring about the final results.

In general, simply because impersonal means have been identified as bringing about some end result does not mean that apparent design in that end result can be dismissed as illusory.

From the Earth to the Designer
The situation with Hello Games’ development of No Man’s Sky is remarkably similar to what may have happened with God’s creation of the world. God may have simply created natural processes like accretion and evolution as the means to bring about his final designs.

Indeed, Evans makes the point that if God exists, then he created the natural world and all its natural processes.8 According to Evans,

It is in principle not possible for any natural explanation that employs natural entities and natural laws to falsify the claim that God is the ultimate cause of some event or state of affairs.”9

In other words, any natural process discovered by scientific research is compatible with design and thus with God’s existence.

Simply knowing how the software of No Man’s Sky works doesn’t give reason to think that the game’s planets weren’t designed and that there is no Hello Games. Similarly, simply knowing how the natural processes of our world work doesn’t give reason to think that actual planets weren’t designed and that there is no cosmic designer.

Still, we need to be clear here: just because a natural explanation can’t falsify the claim that God is the ultimate cause doesn’t mean that anyone has the slightest reason to actually believe that God is the ultimate cause.

However, if a complex natural landscape filled with biological life appears designed, then that is reason to think it is designed. Furthermore, believing that accretion, geological forces, and macroevolution brought it about does not in any way reduce the force of the apparent design. At minimum, one could still conclude that there is reason to think the natural landscape was designed—and that the world itself is designed.

Seeing Design in Nature?
But wait! There’s another objection. Aren’t human beings predisposed to see design in nature because it gives us an evolutionary edge? If so, this tendency is not aimed at truth. The apparent design itself is leading us astray.

God's Crime Scene J. Warner WallaceEvans points out that even if an evolutionary explanation for humanity’s tendency to see design in nature can be given, that doesn’t mean that this tendency isn’t aimed at truth.10 If the world truly is designed, then this tendency is truth-aimed. According to Evans, to know that the human tendency to see design in nature produces mostly false beliefs would require us to know that there is no designer of the world for independent reasons. That is, that God does not exist.11

The Argument from Apparent Design says that the world’s apparent design is reason to think the world is designed. This can be true even if we have independent reasons to believe the world is not designed. It’s perfectly fine to have good reasons that conflict with one another, much as a man might have reasons to believe his girlfriend will accept his proposal of marriage and reasons to think she will not.

The Argument from Apparent Design also doesn’t get one all the way to a generic God, much less the God of the Bible. It’s perfectly compatible with supporting other views that claim the world is designed, such as versions of polytheism.

This means the Argument from Apparent Design is very modest but not nothing. For one thing, it adds to the probability of God over rival theories like traditional naturalism that claim the world is not designed. Certainly, the statement that there is no evidence for God isn’t true if the Argument from Apparent Design works. Moreover, in combination with other arguments such as cosmological arguments, arguments from fine-tuning, and arguments from consciousness, the Argument from Apparent Design can form a part of an overall case for a personal creator of the universe.

An argument from a given piece of data—such as the world’s appearance of design—doesn’t need to bear all of the intellectual weight to be a good one. That would be like saying a young lady is wrong for thinking she has reason to believe a young man loves her simply because he proposed marriage to her. Such an act doesn’t prove he even likes her, but it surely is a reason to think he loves her.

A Sign of the Cosmic Designer
Yet even in isolation, the appearance of design may be operating as what Evans called a “natural sign.” If God exists, then it may be that the appearance of design is there to lead human beings to form beliefs in his existence in a way that is both highly accessible to people across the planet and yet also resistable.12

This notion certainly fits in well with the psalmist’s words in Psalm 19:1-4:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Many modern apologetics arguments can feel like one needs a great deal of time, study, and giftings to understand them. Certainly, the Argument from Apparent Design can be engaged with on a deeper level. I recommend beginning with Evans’ piece.

Yet the basic idea here is simple. It’s that the apparent design of our world is itself reason to think the design is not merely apparent. And if our world is designed, then that means that there is a great and powerful source of the design out there–a Mind Behind the Universe.

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A former journalist, Grant Walker Broadhurst writes fiction, poetry, and philosophy, and he believes philosophical apologetics can be beautiful. He holds an M.A. in Apologetics, specializing in philosophy, from Houston Christian University where he received the C.S. Lewis Award for Apologetics. He currently serves on the Board at An Unexpected Journal, a pop-academic cultural apologetics journal and recently published The Deciding Service. You can find and follow his work at