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Salvo 29

Salvo 29

Column: Archives — Topic: IDSalvo #29

Elements of Design

Rehabilitating Natural Theology by Cameron Wybrow

William Paley's Natural Theology (1802) is an old book that is more talked about than read. As is often the case with such books, it is misunderstood.

If you've heard of Paley, but not read him, you likely suppose that: (1) he argued for design in nature from machine analogies; (2) he failed to understand natural selection; (3) he thought of creation as a series of divine interventions; and (4) his God was quasi-Deistic, creating and then retiring. Only the first supposition is correct.

Natural Theology begins thus:

. . . suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever. . . . But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be enquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of . . . [that] answer. . . . [W]hen we come to inspect the watch, we perceive . . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g., that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped . . . of a different size . . . or placed . . . in any other order . . . either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have . . . served [its purpose].

We know the watch is designed, because, unlike the stone, it displays "the purposeful arrangement of parts"; Paley goes on to draw similar design inferences for the human eye and many other complex features of plants and animals. That is his argument to design; and subsequently he makes the argument from design to the existence of God.

Darwin later argued that the real "designer" of creatures was not a divine watchmaker, but the "blind watchmaker" of natural selection. This is not the place to take up that dispute, but it should be noted that Paley anticipated the idea of natural selection (ch. IV, sec. IV-V), and gave reasons for rejecting it.

Paley did not argue that design required serial divine interventions. In chapter II, he imagines finding a watch that contained a mechanism for copying itself. He concedes that we could not tell whether this watch was the first of its kind or merely a copy; we therefore could not be sure it was made personally by a human designer. But while any given watch could have been the product of an automated process, the very existence of that automated process itself requires an explanation, and so the design inference remains valid. The obvious organic analogy would be to biological reproduction: God did not literally knit us together in the womb, but he designed the process that did the knitting. Individuals are thus produced without special intervention, yet possess a biological form that is designed.

Could the analogy extend to the generation of species? Could one species produce another, without supernatural intervention, as one watch produced another? Perhaps; for Paley writes (ch. XXIII): "There may be many second causes, and many courses of second causes, one behind another, between what we observe of nature, and the Deity; but there must be intelligence somewhere . . . [living things] may be the result of trains of mechanical dispositions, fixed beforehand by an intelligent appointment." Evolution would thus be possible, albeit within a non-Darwinian framework, if the evolutionary process were itself designed to produce characteristic outcomes. Paley was not in fact an evolutionist, but it's false to say he was hostile to God's working through natural processes.

Finally, Paley's God is no absentee landlord. Paley argues (ch. XXIV) that mechanism and power are two different things. Thus, while God needs to design the mechanisms of nature only once, he must perpetually provide the power by which natural mechanisms are driven. Wherever electricity or gravity or any other natural power is at work, God is there.

Thus, the Paley of hearsay is not the Paley of Natural Theology.

More on ID from the Salvo online archives.

There Is a Huge Chasm Between Humans & Nonhuman Animals by Michael Egnor

The Law of Conservation of Information: Part I by Denyse O'Leary

Evolutionists Don't Know a Good Eye When They See One by Jonathan Wells


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