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Intelligent design: In conversation with Derren Brown

Updated Tuesday, 26th October 2010

Psychological illusionist Derren Brown talks to the OU's Nigel Warburton about how personal experiences can be misleading and how people attribute design to objects in the natural world  

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Derren Brown

There is design in the world.  This chair is designed and we design things, and it feels like it’s that sort of human urge of creating God in your own image that we presume that if we can design things and make things that anything else that appears to work well must be therefore designed by somebody else.  But then you get some of them it’s sort of outside of the universe, which is very odd then, you then get into a curious thing of well wouldn’t that thing be part of the universe and then of course if he designed that then who designed him and so on.  I suppose people think well those things can’t just happen by accident and they sort of, I guess that’s just a simple misreading of evolution.  Those things have been designed if you want to use that word by a natural process that’s taken all this time to make something that works as well as possible, so it’s not surprising that these things work very well, because they’re brilliantly evolved.  That’s not, to use the word designed is just I think a projection of what we do that we find it difficult to think outside of our own little box of our own little experience and we project that onto what we create God to be.

I used to do, a trick, I used to go around the tables when I did magic in restaurants with a playing card.  It was always the Queen of Hearts and I would hold it with the card facing me, and I’d go to a lady at the table and I’d say it’s interesting people name cards that always says something about them, what’s your favourite card?  And there’s a slight psychological push for a lady to say Queen of Hearts there and if she said Queen of Hearts I’d turn it around.  It’s certainly much better than one in 52 chance, probably about one in four, one in five, I turn it around and she had a miracle.  And if she didn’t say it, I hadn’t flagged up this card was important, so I’d put it away, I’d bring out a deck of cards and do a trick with whatever card she said.  But what was interesting about it was when it did hit, when it was right, it was such a miracle for that person that short of them seeing the bigger picture that actually I’ve gone down the celebrity table, that maybe was the only one time it worked that night, it becomes a miracle, because they want to believe that I’ve done something, that I’ve put some intention into that to make that happen, whereas in fact I’m just relying purely on chance.

I mean, and I’ve always thought of that as a nice metaphor for people coming away from a psychic and saying well she told me that my grandmother used to work in a florist.  And then you go well how do you explain that?  And you think well can’t explain it, but maybe if you step back, maybe she says that to any number of people, maybe, you know, short of knowing, getting the bigger picture your own personal experience can be so misleading.  And I think in a similar way there is a tendency and urge for magicians to sort of take credit for the coincidences and randomness sometimes or chance events.

Nigel Warburton

I’m really interested in this pattern of reasoning where people want to attribute design to objects in the natural world like fruit or?

Derren Brown

Well funny you mention fruit, a) because I have a banana here and b) because there’s a video on YouTube, and to me it brilliantly encapsulates what’s sort of wrong about the design argument, just happen to have one here.  You’ve got a couple of guys claiming that the banana proves that God exists because it’s so perfectly designed for us to hold.  So we have these phalanges here of our fingers that fit perfectly around the facets of the banana.  There you go.  Now that can’t happen by accident.  It’s got a rubbery grip, so we’re not going to drop it, it won’t slip from our hands.  And there’s a lovely moment, I can’t remember exactly how it says it, but it’s something like and in the same way that soda cans have a ring pull, in the same way God has given us this on the top, and it doesn’t spurt everywhere, it doesn’t spurt in your face.

Nigel Warburton

Yeah.  That’s really interesting, because David Hume, the 18th Century philosopher, has a brilliant analysis of that style of reasoning that moves from apparent design of the universe to the conclusion there must have been a designer.  And Hume goes through all these sort of moves showing I think as a conclusion that if you apportion the belief to the available evidence, the most you could possibly say is, and he was writing in the 18th Century prior to Darwin, the most that you could possibly say is there is some designer, the attributes of the designer are really an open question.

Derren Brown

Yes, if you’re making huge claims about anything, you know, if I say that I believe Father Christmas exists, it’s not up to you to prove that it doesn’t, it’s up to me to come up with really good evidence to back up such an extraordinary claim.  And I think it’s such a simple thing, and the fact that was written around that enlightenment time, and it seems so relevant nowadays, and people go well you can’t prove god doesn’t exist.

Nigel Warburton

Well there is that flipside because, well, no you can’t prove absolutely that God doesn’t exist, but surely there’s enough evidence on which to deliver life that it’s highly unlikely that God…

Derren Brown

Highly unlikely yeah.

Nigel Warburton

And just as it’s highly unlikely that this room is about to spontaneously combust.

Derren Brown

Certainly quite noisy!



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