Why has Ramanuja refuted the design argument in his Vedanta Sutra commentary?

by Chaitanya CharanMay 23, 2014

Question: Is it true that Ramanujacarya has refuted the design argument in his Vedanta Sutra commentary Shri Bhashya? If yes, why?

Answer: Yes. Ramanujacarya has not exactly refuted but he has pointed out the inadequacy of the design argument as a decisive proof for the existence of God and more specifically as a way of knowing God. In the Vedanta Sutra ‘Athato brahma jigyasa’ is the first sutra. Second is ‘janmadya asya yatah’. ‘Enquire about spirit’ and second is ‘spirit is the source of everything, Brahman is source of everything’ and third is how do we know about that Brahman ‘shastra yonitvat’ ‘by Shastra’. So these first two sutras, the acaryas have given fairly long commentaries. So in his commentary to this sutra ‘Shastra yonitvat’ shastra is the way to know about Brahman, about the Supreme reality. There Ramanujacarya counters other ways by which people may say we can know about the Absolute truth. And then one of the ways that he talks about is the design argument.

So can we know about God…now the word Brahman and the word God are not exactly the same but for our purposes we can keep them similar, we can treat them as similar right now. So, anyway…can we know about God from the design argument? Well, we can know something, the design argument can lead to the inference that God exists, it can lead to the inference that God is extremely intelligent and God, we could say in today’s language, God is a super scientist who has designed so many systems mechanisms and things. That is ok. But when we want to know deeper nature of God, that we can’t come to know about. So, it is this point that when we want know about Brahman properly then Shastra is the only way, that is the context that Ramanujacarya is using. And therefore he says that from the design argument what are the inferences that we can make? He gives three inferences. In fact, later on, it was almost five hundred six hundred years later in European history they came up with similar arguments of pointing out the problems with the design argument and that actually weakened the appeal of that argument considerably in modern minds. So what the European thinkers have thought of just a few centuries ago, Ramanujacarya has pointed out a long ago. That indicates his dexterity in logic.

1. So, first he says is, we could say that, ok, there is an evidence of design in this world but from that we can’t infer that the designer is the being with omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence that the designer is the all-attractive Supreme God. It could just be that the designer is someone who is stronger than us, greater than us, wiser than us but why does he have to have the attributes of God. So the design argument doesn’t necessarily point to the Supreme Being it could just point to some being higher than us. So that’s why in and of itself the inference of design argument doesn’t point positively to God only, definitively.

2. Secondly he says is that from the design argument we could argue also that there are so many things in this world and those different things can be designed by different people. So, what it would point to is polytheism. Not that there is one Brahman, one Absolute Truth we have to say that there are different things and they are designed by different people and then the conclusion will be polytheism and polytheism is not the nature of the Absolute reality. So that way also we cannot know about Brahman.

3. And third he says is somebody can argue that there is so much suffering in this world and nature, if it is designed by God, nature itself seems to cause so much suffering. Internally the body is vulnerable to so many diseases. There are so many predators in the jungle which attack and kill…rip apart the body. There are so many inimical natural forces, earthquakes and all these. So, if the world is designed and there is so much suffering in the world, one could conclude that the designer is an evil person. And it is not a good God, the God with ananta guna sampanna with unlimited auspicious qualities who has designed the world. It is some evil person who has designed this world.

So again these are three possible inferences that can come from observing design in this world that some non-omnipotent designer or array of multiple designers and an evil designer and all these three inferences are possible. They are tenable from the design that we see in this world. Now, of course they can be countered, we can point arguments to point out why they are false. But the point is, from the design argument we cannot arrive at positive knowledge about God and certainly not about God as He is described in the Scripture.

Therefore, what Ramanujacarya’s point is that shastra yonitvat, if you want to know about Brahman we can do inference from this world and know something about Him but the nature of inference is, multiple inferences are possible and it is not conclusive. So, therefore if we want a decisive, authoritative knowledge about the Absolute truth then we have to turn towards shastra. So it is not that he is refuting the design argument per se, he is pointing out the inadequacy of the design argument for us as a source of reliable, authoritative knowledge about God. It can be used to talk about the existence of God. That is different. But it can’t be used to talk about God as a authoritative… God as described in scripture. That is not what we can conclude from it.

Now of course regarding the three misinferences that are possible, there’s always the understanding that there is such complex design in the world that …such magnificent design is there…that it would require not just some higher being but the highest Being. And similarly there is consistency of excellence in the design that we see everywhere which also points to one designer ultimately. Although that one designer may have a crew of people engaged like there is a Supreme Lord working through the demigods but there is one. And thirdly, yes there is evil in this… there is suffering in this world but there is also good in this world and a Satan would not make good and if you look at the philosophy we understand that this world is like a hospital or a prison and in a hospital or a prison it is not the doctor or the jailor who is the cause of the suffering. The jailor wants reformation, the doctor wants treatment. So this world is provided for us to come out of it and it is a facility for us to come out. Suffering in this world is not caused by God, it is caused by our own wrong choices and God is the cure for the suffering. He is offering us a way to become free from the suffering; he is not the cause of the suffering. Thank you! Hare Krishna!


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Chaitanya Charan

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