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18th and 19th Centuries: New Form and New Challenges

A. New Form

In the 18th century philosopher William Paley reformulated the argument from design by attending to specific instances of design. He took the eye as a case in point and the "ways in which the various parts of the eye cooperate in a complex way to produce sight." To explain this adaptation of means to ends, he claimed; we need to postulate an intelligent designer. (Much as we would if we found a watch while "crossing a heath;" rather than assume it had come together by chance we would assume an intelligent designer put it together).

For the record I just want to note the title of Paley's book Natural Theology: Or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Those were more confident days indeed!

B. New Challenges

David Hume in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion attacked Paley's position for privileging the model of human design of artifacts. This he claimed skews the argument. Why not use another model, for instance the model of biological generation, which does not require intentional design? One could as easily say the universe is like an organism therefore there must be a cosmic womb.

Paley's argument is an analogy, it is not a proof. Of course much of our working knowledge depends on analogies - thought constructions rather than direct access to reality - things in themselves. The question is whether a chosen analogy is a good one, bearing a useful resemblance to reality - always a contestable point.

Paley had his defenders who preferred his analogy to Hume's. They observed that in biological generation creatures reproduce themselves rather than producing new and various things. When we query why a rabbit has organs that are so well adapted to meet its needs we are not helped by the answer that this is because it springs from other rabbits that were similarly adapted. It only pushes the question further back.We are not out of the woods with this response however. Hume countered if the best answer is that there is an intelligent designer, then we still have to give an account for why the designer has a mind...

Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason also put forward objections to the argument from design. He thought that science and religion should be completely separated and natural theology was for him a contradiction in terms (Emerton 1989 p. 145). Nevertheless he said of himself, "Two things fill my mind with wonder and awe...the starry sky above and the moral law within" (Kant, Critique of Practical Reason 1788, Conclusion). Still it was the latter - the moral law within - and not the former that he took to be the clearer pointer to God and God's goodness. He constructed his own ethical argument for the existence of God. Something must account for the "moral law within". There must be a highest good, a coincidence of virtue and happiness. God must exist as the guarantee of the triumph of the good, for we do not see it in this life.

With the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 the argument from design met a truly formidable challenge to its credibility. In the theory of evolution there came to the fore a genuine alternative explanation for apparent design in organisms. One was not left with mere chance on the one hand or intelligent design on the other. Organic structures come to be what they are by development from simpler forms through purely natural processes of mutation and natural selection over an extended period of time. No intelligent designer is needed to design the eye for sight.

Contributed by: Dr. Anna Case-Winters

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
The Argument from Design: What is at Stake Theologically?

18th and 19th Centuries: New Form and New Challenges

Early Greek Philosophy and the Early Church
The Middle Ages: Classic Formulation
The Scientific Revolution: Challenges and New Forms
20th Century: New Forms and New Challenges
Contemporary Forms: Intelligibility and Suitability for the Emergence of Life
Conclusion: What is at Stake Theologically?


Anna Case-Winters

A revised version of this paper was published in Zygon, March 2000, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 69-81.

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