C Rulon: God, Natural Theology & the Argument from Design

By | February 8, 2012

By Charles L. Rulon     Emeritus, Life Sciences   Long Beach City College

A favorite argument for the existence of God(s) from the ancient Greeks up to 1859 was the argument from design. The incredible design of the human eye, the bird’s wing, the human brain and all the harmony in nature could not have happened by chance. Where there is design, there must be a designer. After all, what are the odds of all this design happening by chance? It’s like believing that scraps of metal could be randomly thrown together to create a 747. God was truly everywhere.

As a result, in the 1700s and early 1800s many in England turned to nature to study the products of God’s Creation in an attempt to learn more about the mind of God. Butterfly and shell collections were proudly displayed in homes as the equivalent of the Bible laid open on the coffee table. Those who would study God’s works (nature) began to be seen as theologians as much as those who would study His word (the Bible). Natural history became transformed into Natural Theology and in the early 1800s nature books even outsold novels. Humans and nature belonged to an almighty purpose and the study of nature’s biological wonders revealed God’s personal concern for humanity.

The English theologian William Paley in 1802 became well known because of his comparison of the complex design in nature to that of a watch. To loosely quote Paley: “Look, if I found a watch on the beach, I would obviously know that all of the parts of the watch didn’t fly together just by accident. I would know that there had to have been a watchmaker. Well, the human eye is much more complex than a watch. So is a beautifully camouflaged butterfly. All of this design obviously proves the existence of an unbelievably intelligent and enormously powerful designer. He had to have been incredibly precise and creative in order to make a livable habitat for all the creatures He designed. The human mind, in particular, is a product of such high quality and complexity that it had to have been designed by a craftsman of infinite skill. That means that He has to be a personal being who cares for his creatures. This designer has to be the Christian God!”

However, there were many critics of Natural Theology, in particular the two famous philosophers and empiricists of the late 1700s, David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In addition, criticisms of Natural Theology continued to grow as more and more scientific discoveries were made related to faulty biological designs, to the appearance of fossils of extinct species, and to earth being extremely old. Some of these criticisms were as follows:

Critic 1: “Even if there is a designer, that doesn’t mean he’s your Christian God. Suppose I find a watch that has design flaws. Doesn’t that tell me the watchmaker is inept? So what about all of the design flaws in humans, like our useless appendix that ruptures, or our wisdom teeth that are mostly impacted, or our wind pipe right next to our esophagus so that we can choke to death on a bite of food, or the birth canal being too small, resulting in hundreds of  thousands of deaths at childbirth? And what about nipples in males? Doesn’t all this prove that your designer god is inept and maybe even mean-spirited?”

Critic 2: “Also, to use your watch analogy, there are lots of different watch-makers, so maybe there are also lots of different designers. Besides, just because all watches have watchmakers, why should it follow that a butterfly has to have a butterfly maker? After all, everyone’s seen a watchmaker, but no one has ever seen a butterfly maker. Maybe there’s some unknown law of nature responsible for making the butterfly and we’re just not smart enough to figure it out.”

And so it went – back and forth – back and forth. Supporters of Natural Theology absolutely knew that God’s goodness and intelligent design was real and, for hundreds of years, continued to present arguments as proof. And for hundreds of years these arguments were rebutted by the critics who pointed out all the cruelty and suffering in the animal world — and all the parasites — and all the extinctions. But the believers had answers for everything.

So why wasn’t either side able to convince the other? Was it because believers had some secret proof unknown to the skeptics, or vice versa? No. Was it because one or the other had just carelessly overlooked the invalidity of their arguments. No. If it were any of these, this issue would have been settled long ago. All the cards were on the table for everyone to see, yet intelligent human beings still continued to disagree over them.

So why wasn’t either side able to convince the other? One reason was blind faith. Another was the fact that well-designed species actually existed. What other possible explanation than “God (or a universal mind) did it” could there be for the existence of all these different species (including us), each with intricate adaptations and designs? If we weren’t created by some kind of super intelligent designer or designers, then how did we get here?”

As a result, even though many scientists and philosophers, especially on the European continent, no longer believed in Natural Theology, biology was still very much tied to theology. How could it be otherwise? All the design in nature obviously demanded a Designer. All of the different species obviously demanded a Creator. As a result,

almost all scientists and philosophers in the early 1800s were either Christian men to some degree, or at least were deists. Also, virtually all the naturalists in England in the early 1800s were ordained ministers, as were the professors at Cambridge who taught botany and geology.

 The Origin of Species

Then in 1859 Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published. The Origin seriously challenged several major pillars of Christian dogma, in particular special creation, the design argument and man’s unique status. God was no longer required as an explanatory factor for all of the design in nature. Instead, The Origin contained considerable argument and evidence to show first, that the evolution of species had really occurred and second, that species could evolve naturally and automatically without guidance or foresight through a process called natural selection. Natural selection could explain the evolution of eyes, of wings and of all the different species, including their many defects. It could explain why species go extinct and why there are far more parasitic species than free-living ones.

The Origin sold out on the first day of publication and subsequently went through six editions and the world has never been the same since. It was the book that “shook the world.” It was to eventually bring about one of the greatest paradigm shifts in scientific, philosophical and religious thinking in the history of the world!

From the moment of its publication Darwin’s fundamental ideas inspired intense reactions ranging from ferocious condemnation to ecstatic allegiance. Most of Darwin’s Victorian contemporaries bitterly opposed and ridiculed the idea that man might have descended from an ape. For scientists and philosophers alike, from Aristotle to Descartes to Kant, man was a creature above and apart from other living beings. He held a unique position in God’s Creation. He had a soul. There was no possible transition from animal to man.

But there were many who supported Darwin. One was Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin and one of the founders of meteorology. On reading Darwin’s book, Galton wrote him the following letter: “My Dear Darwin, I always think of you in the same way as converts from barbarism think of the teacher who first relieved them from the intolerable burden of superstition. I used to be wretched under the weight of the old-fashioned arguments from design, [which I felt were worthless, but unable to prove it]. Consequently, the appearance of your book drove away the constraint of my old superstition as if it had been a nightmare and [gave] me freedom of thought.”

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