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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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It is significant that revival of interest in the design
argument appeared in Europe along with the birth of
natural science in its distinctly modern form. It is the
most empirical of the arguments for God, requiring,
as we have seen, observational premisses about the kind
of order we discover in nature. These are not the only
premisses, of course, that go into its structure, and we
have already noted some of the distinctively philo-
sophical disputes that may arise in connection with its
use; but from this point forward we shall find that the
design argument is intimately linked with the history
of modern science.

Copernicus, who in many ways began this history,
appealed to the wonderful harmony and divine reason-


ableness of the sun's placement at the center of the
universe: “In the middle of all sits Sun enthroned. In
this most beautiful temple could we place this luminary
in any better position from which he can illuminate
the whole at once?” (De revolutionibus orbium caeles-
[1543], Book I, Part 10). Likewise Kepler, the
great Neo-Platonist astronomer, advanced passionate
arguments for the elegant and beautiful mathematical
structure of the cosmic design.

Through the seventeenth century it continued to be
the scientists, or those with deep scientific interests,
who stated the design argument with most force. John
Ray, author of The Wisdom of God Manifested in the
Works of Creation
(1691), was best known as a wide-
ranging naturalist. Robert Boyle, the eminent physicist
and chemist, was responsible for developing an early
analogy between the universe and a clock, and the
Boyle Lectures established by his will were influential
in defense of Christianity among the intellectually
advanced. Robert Hooke was also a brilliant scientist
who, among other achievements, anticipated Newton's
inverse square law and formulated the kinetic theory
of gases, and lent his support to belief in God based
on the order of nature. Even Ralph Cudworth, chief
of the Cambridge Platonists, a philosopher who seems
the one prominent exception to the list of scientists
employing the design argument, also cast his argument
for a divine intelligence into the scientific matrix of
his day in The True Intellectual System of the Universe

The greatest scientist of the age, however, was Isaac
Newton, whose publication of the Principia (1687)
established the framework of the new science and drew
the physical outlines of the great world-machine that
was to dominate scientific imagination for centuries.
Newton's own deployment of the design argument,
therefore, is especially interesting. Newton summarized
his view in the “General Scholium” added to Book
Three, “The System of the World,” of the Principia
in 1713, and carefully revised it in 1726. There he
argued that the beautiful arrangement of the heavenly
bodies—especially the planets, the comets, and the
moons of the planets—demands an intelligent agent
to account for such formal perfection. The great law
of gravitation, which he had first enunciated, could
only deal with part of the facts:

The planets and comets will constantly pursue their revolu-
tions in orbits given in kind and position, according to the
laws above explained; but though these bodies may, indeed,
continue in their orbits by the mere laws of gravity, yet
they could by no means have at first derived the regular
position of the orbits themselves from those laws

“General Scholium,” 1713).

That “mere mechanical causes” could have given rise
to such regular motions as the facts of science show
is quite inconceivable, Newton insisted, and concluded,
as Plato also had: “This most beautiful system of the
sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the
counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful
Being” (ibid.).

But unlike Plato, whom we saw to have allowed the
possible multiplicity of intelligent and powerful beings,
Newton adds a new argument, now for the first time
made scientifically possible by his having shown the
existence of a single system of the world. “And if the
fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these,
being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all
subject to the dominion of One; especially since the
light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the
light of the sun, and from every system light passes
into all the other systems” (ibid.). Although we have
previously seen this attribution of unity in the cosmic
designer as mythically portrayed by Plato and as theo-
logically affirmed by Saint Thomas, this is the first time
we find the design argument itself extended to support
such a monotheistic conclusion.

Newton went even further, however, and argued that
such universal control over limitless space and endless
duration as must be admitted for the One Being, given
the Newtonian system of the world, requires that this
Cosmic Intelligence also be recognized as Lord God.
“He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient;
that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity;
his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all
things, and knows all things that are or can be done”

For some time the prestige of the leaders of modern
scientific thought supported the design argument they
employed and believed. Even David Hume's brilliant
attacks in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,
posthumously published in 1779, did not immediately
dampen the enthusiasm of eighteenth- and early nine-
teenth-century exponents. The classical statement of
the argument in its modern form, indeed, was not
published until 1802 when William Paley brought out
his celebrated Natural Theology, or Evidences of the
Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from
the Appearances of Nature.
In that work Paley argued
explicitly for the presence of intelligently designed
features in nature. The marks of design, he said, are
what we observe in contrasting a watch with a stone.
The stone, for all we can tell, might just have “hap-
pened”; but the watch is clearly put together out of
parts that work together in an arrangement that is
essential to their function, and the function of the
whole has a discernible and beneficial use. Wherever
we find such a constellation of characteristics, Paley


said, we must admit that we are in the presence of
“contrivance” and “design,” and since in our experi-
ence the only known source of such contrivance is the
intelligence of some designer, we are entitled—
obliged—to infer an intelligent designer somewhere
behind anything possessing the above mentioned marks
of design. Given this general approach, Paley then
multiplies instance after instance of natural phenomena
that require the admission of intelligent design in their
contrivance. Not astronomical phenomena alone, as
had been the mainstay of design arguments from Plato
to Newton, but biological mechanisms were Paley's
stock in trade. The human eye, plants, anatomical and
physiological features of men and beasts, instincts,
birds, insects—all these and more went into Paley's
massive argument, the constant theme of which was
that all these data reveal elaborate structures made up
of parts which work together with amazing ingenuity
to perform useful functions for their possessors. Each
taken separately, he contended, proved the need for
an intelligent designer working behind the “appear-
ances of nature”; taken together the case was crush-
ingly conclusive.

Paley drew back, however, from the strongest of
Newton's claims for the unity and infinity of the deity
thus allegedly proved. With greater philosophic cau-
tion he admitted that attributes like “omnipotence,”
“omniscience,” “infinity,” and the like cannot be
strictly derived from the design argument:

Nevertheless, if we be careful to imitate the documents of
our religion by confining our explanations to what concerns
ourselves, and do not affect more precision in our ideas than
the subject allows of, the several terms which are employed
to denote the attributes of the Deity may be made, even
in natural religion, to bear a sense consistent with truth
and reason and not surpassing our comprehension

Ch. XXIV).

This more accurate way of dealing with such terms
is to recognize their logical status as “superlatives
expressing our conception of these attributes in the
strongest and most elevated terms which language
supplies” (ibid.). “Omnipotence,” thus construed, can
mean no more than “powerful beyond all comparison”
since he must be allowed to be powerful enough to
design and rule our observed universe. “Omniscience,”
likewise, literally means whatever enormous wisdom
is required to account for the yet unmeasured intricacy
of the world's intelligible structure. The uniqueness of
this cosmic intelligence, too, is not demonstrable from
the design argument: “Certain however it is,” Paley
acknowledged, “that the whole argument for the divine
unity goes no further than to a unity of counsel” (Nat-
ural Theology,
Ch. XXV). This is quite enough, how
ever, Paley believed, since the limitations of natural
theology can always be supplemented by revealed
theology which, thanks to the design argument, has
been shown to be wholly compatible with rigorous
empirical thinking.

The pungent philosophical critique, however, of
David Hume had raised serious questions about the
claims on behalf of the design argument's empirical
rigor. And Immanuel Kant had pressed equally severe
objections against the assumption that traditional the-
ology can find relevant support in the design argument.
(For an earlier severe critique of the design argument,
cf. Spinoza's Ethics, Part I, appendix.)

Hume was not the first to point out that the design
argument is an argument from analogy. Samuel Butler
had published his influential book, The Analogy of
in 1736; and from then on it was generally
acknowledged by users of the argument that their
reasoning rested on the discovery of similarity between
the world, or objects in the world, and products of
human continuance. Hume, however, was the first to
raise sustained and imaginative objections to the key
analogy itself. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural
he attacked from several sides. Analogies are
most trustworthy when the things compared are more
or less comparable, he argued; but how comparable,
really, are things in the world to the world as a whole?
Comparing causes between things or events in the
world may sometimes be justified, but logic stretches
beyond its breaking point when one of the terms of
the comparison is supposed to be beyond the world
as somehow its cause. Again, how alike, really (asked
Hume), are the forces now in existence with those
which would have been in the world when it was being
formed? We cannot say, and dare not suppose that our
little analogies, drawn from the present state of things,
can have fruitful application under such vastly different
conditions. What a suspicious choice, in any case, to
make human intelligence the model for the cosmic
cause! The vice of pride may well be lurking here,
especially when there are so many alternative analogies
that might do equally well to account for the order
observed in nature. Why not, Hume asked, take forces
of generation or vegetation as explanatory of the
world? Why not take the analogy, in other words, from
what appears to be immanent ordering principles in
nature, such as the spinning of a spider's web? The
analogy to intelligence is not only farfetched, he chal-
lenged, but it is also far from uniquely serviceable—if
any such explanation must be offered. But must it?
Hume insisted not; any such explanation leads on to
a never-ending regress of further questions (such as,
“Who designed God's intelligence if all orderly things
require a designer?”); any such analogy leads too far


if it leads anywhere (e.g., can we deny that we experi-
ence intelligence only with embodied organisms? Must
we therefore attribute hands, feet, sex to God?); and,
finally, no causal argument for the whole universe
seems logically possible in any event, since the uni-
verse, being unique, does not fall into the class of
caused things—effects are only known to be such by
repeated conjunction in experience with their causes—
and therefore the world is improperly called an

Besides this volley of arguments against the logical
underpinnings of the design argument, Hume pressed
the darker side of the world's organization. If the well
functioning nature is evidence for intelligence, benev-
olence, and power, he pointed out, then disease, dis-
order, and natural evil is counter-evidence for stupid-
ity, malice, or impotence. Which shall it be? The
design argument opens the door to natural evidence
at a very high cost to one who would preserve belief
in the perfection of God since the evidence, if taken
seriously, can never lead to such a conclusion.

Kant, although more sympathetic to the design ar-
gument than Hume in some ways, develops the last
point into a necessary principle. The argument, Kant
said, “is the oldest, the clearest, and the most accordant
with the common reason of mankind” (The Critique
of Pure Reason,
2nd ed. [1787], B651); but it cannot
possibly lead to a theologically significant conclusion
about God. God is not, Kant insisted, merely a
Demiurge; God is not only a Designer of nature's
wonderful contrivances. God, to be theologically ade-
quate, must be understood through a completely de-
terminate concept as absolutely necessary, perfectly
powerful, all knowing, utterly good, and all the rest.
Between the essentially loose textured concept of an
Author of the world which is appropriate to the em-
pirical argument before us—the concept of a being
who is (vaguely and at most) “very” powerful, “enor-
mously” wise, “admirably” good, and the like—and the
full determinate concept of God there is a radical
logical gap. It is a gap that in the nature of the case,
because empirical evidence is never complete, can
never be closed by any amount of additional empirical
evidence. The design argument, therefore, Kant con-
cluded, can never succeed in helping theology in ways
theology should welcome, though it may convince the
speculative reasoner that:

If we are to specify a cause at all, we cannot here proceed
more securely than by analogy with those purposive pro-
ductions of which alone the cause and mode of action are
fully known to us. Reason could never be justified in aban-
doning the causality which it knows for grounds of explana-
tion which are obscure, of which it does not have any
knowledge, and which are incapable of proof