Intelligent Design

Was Paley a mechanist?

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In my previous post on Rev. William Paley’s argument from design, I showed that the argument was carefully formulated to rebut Hume’s criticisms of design arguments that were current in his day. I also demonstrated that Paley’s argument was not (as is commonly believed) an argument from analogy; that it was not intended to be an inductive, probabilistic argument but a deductive proof; and that it was intended to establish the existence of a Deity Who is no absentee landlord or impersonal Force, but a living, personal Being Who continually maintains Nature in existence and keeps the various systems in the universe running, in addition to having designed them.

In this post, I’m going to address another myth about William Paley: the myth that he was a mechanist. What I intend to show is that Paley (a) affirmed the reality of final causes in living things; (b) recognized that the parts of living things possess intrinsic teleology, as they work together for the good of the whole organism; (c) acknowledged that natural objects have both active and passive powers; (d) declared that things possess natures which make them the kinds of things they are; and (e) referred to things as having organizing forms in his Natural Theology. In other words, Paley’s philosophy of Nature was much closer to that of Aristotle than is commonly supposed. When Paley described organisms in mechanical terms, he was not espousing biological reductionism; rather, he was simply making a matter-of-fact statement about the way living things work. And when he referred to animals’ body parts as contrivances, what he meant was that all their parts worked together in a co-ordinated fashion for a common purpose, indicating that they were designed.

While Paley disparaged the “essential forms” of ancient Greek philosophy, it was their vagueness and lack of a well-defined internal structure that he found objectionable, rather than their teleology. Paley sought to remedy this vagueness by providing a detailed description of living things’ body parts and the workings of their sub-components, in his Natural Theology.

Finally, Paley’s view of matter was quite different from that of the seventeenth century philosopher Descartes, who regarded matter as a purely passive entity, defined by the mathematical attribute of extension, upon which forms were externally imposed. However, Paley strenuously denied that matter had any built-in capacity to initiate motion: Paley’s cosmos, like that of Aquinas, required an incorporeal Prime Mover. And contrary to the claims made by atheists in his day, Paley rejected the view that matter possessed the innate capacity to spontaneously organize itself into complex systems, composed of co-ordinated parts working together for a common purpose. For Paley, belief in the self-organizing capacity of matter was superstitious nonsense.

For the purposes of this post, I’ve decided to summarize Paley’s views on teleology, form, matter and mechanism, by listing them under the following six theses:

Thesis 1. Paley’s writings make it quite clear that he is a teleologist, like Aquinas: he believes that a living thing has a nature of its own, and that its parts are arranged in a way that subserves the good of the whole. He explicitly affirms the reality of final causes in living things, and declares that the various parts of a plant or animal are intended for the action or the use to which we see them applied.
Thesis 2. Paley also holds that both living and non-living things possess certain powers – both active and passive – which naturally inhere in them. In other words, Paley is a firm believer in immanent finality, like Aquinas.
Thesis 3. Although Paley disparages the Aristotelian doctrine of “essential forms” for its philosophical vagueness, he nevertheless vigorously affirms that things possess natures, and he repeatedly refers to their forms. According to Paley, the form of a living thing organizes the body of a developing individual into a mature organism, through a process which is largely mysterious to us, but which is (in principle) amenable to scientific investigation.
Thesis 4. Paley’s doctrine of matter is more like Aquinas’ than Descartes’. Paley nowhere maintains that matter is wholly passive and devoid of all attributes save extension, as Descartes did in the seventeenth century. Writing in the early nineteenth century, Paley has to contend with atheistic materialists who were prepared to impute a host of active properties to matter, in order to explain how it had given rise to life and intelligence. In keeping with the science of his day, Paley maintained that matter in the form of a body still possessed the natural property of inertia – in other words, that one body is naturally incapable of moving another body, unless something else is moving it.
Thesis 5. Paley stoutly denies the existence of a principle of order in Nature. By “principle of order”, he does not mean immanent finality. Rather, what Paley is denying is that things have a spontaneous or built-in tendency to form co-ordinated arrangements of parts subserving some end, or what he elsewhere refers to as contrivances. Thus Paley would reject as absurd the notion (championed by Stuart Kauffman) that life itself may have arisen through the development of an initial molecular autocatalytic set which evolved over time. Abiogenesis, according to Paley, cannot be a spontaneous natural process. Only intelligent agents are capable of creating co-ordinated arrangements of parts subserving some end.
Thesis 6. Paley repeatedly affirms the existence of mechanisms in living things, by which he simply means: co-ordinated arrangements of parts subserving some end, or what Paley elsewhere refers to as contrivances. In affirming that “there is mechanism in animals”, Paley is not reducing them to artifacts, whose finality is purely extrinsic. Nor is he denying that the parts of living things have an inherent tendency to function together. All he is saying is that the parts of living things, like those of machines, are arranged and co-ordinated in order to serve some end. In a mechanism, this end may be either intrinsic to the entity (as in organisms) or extrinsic to it (as in a watch). It is only because there is no common English word for describing co-ordinated arrangements of parts which subserve an end (whether internal or external) that Paley is forced to settle on the awkward term “mechanism”.

In Part A, I shall defend each of these theses in detail, by providing supporting quotes from Paley’s Natural Theology. After that, I’ll examine the criticisms made by Thomist philosopher Edward Feser of Paley’s design argument, and I shall attempt to show that Professor Feser completely misconstrues Paley’s argument. Finally, I shall briefly examine the arguments of another Thomist philosopher, professor Marie George, who contends that Aquinas and Paley are much more similar in their thinking than is commonly believed.

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Part A: Paley’s views on teleology, form, matter and mechanism

1. For Paley, living things have a “good of their own”, and there are “final causes” in living things

Thesis 1. Paley’s writings make it quite clear that he is a teleologist, like Aquinas: he believes that a living thing has a nature of its own, and that its parts are arranged in a way that subserves the good of the whole. He explicitly affirms the reality of final causes in living things, and declares that the various parts of a plant or animal are intended for the action or the use to which we see them applied.

Two giraffes in the old giraffe enclosure at Wellington Zoo, New Zealand. The evolution of the giraffe’s neck is often used as the example in explanations of Lamarck’s theory of evolution. Paley rejected the theory, because “it does away final causes,” as he put it, replacing them with “appetencies,” whose actualization depended on the way in which they were exercised. Instead of the parts of living things being for the sake of the function they currently possess, the mere action of exercising a pre-existing (and more primitive) body part is claimed to be sufficient to explain the origin of a new body part. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

(a) Paley’s view of organisms was unmistakably teleological

In his book, Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009), Professor Edward Feser, who is a prominent exponent of Thomistic philosophy, accuses William Paley of denying that anything in Nature possesses a built-in teleology of its own:

Paley, taking for granted as he does a modern mechanistic view of nature, denies that purpose or teleology is immanent or inherent to the natural order. (2009, p. 115)

If we examine Paley’s writings, however, we find that his view of living things is clearly teleological. For example, in his Natural Theology, he describes the process by which living things nourish themselves, as follows:

Unconscious particles of matter take their stations, and severally range themselves in an order, so as to become collectively plants or animals, i.e. organized bodies, with parts bearing strict and evident relation to one another, and to the utility of the whole.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 420).

If that is not a ringing affirmation of teleology in living organisms, then I don’t know what is.

Paley also refers in his Natural Theology to “the law of vegetable nature” and “the law of animal nature” (Natural Theology, Chapter I, p. 7). It is clear, then, that he envisaged living things as having a nature of their own, and as being composed of parts dedicated to the good of the whole organism.

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(b) Paley envisaged the growth and development of organisms in teleological terms

Paley also described the development of living organisms from embryos to adults in unmistakably teleological terms:

In the most general case, that, as we have said, of the derivation of plants and animals from one another, the latent organization is either itself similar to the old organization, or has the power of communicating to new matter the old organic form.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXVII, pp. 545-546)

A frog produces a tadpole. A black beetle, with gauze wings, and a crusty covering, produces a white, smooth, soft worm; an ephemeron fly, a cod-bait maggot. These, by a progress through different stages of life, and action, and enjoyment (and, in each state, provided with implements and organs appropriated to the temporary nature which they bear), arrive at last at the form and fashion of the parent animal.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 422)

Paley, whose embryological knowledge was very limited, like that of his contemporaries, seems to have entertained the notion that the form of an organism might be communicated through information contained in the “germs” from which organisms developed:

In the ordinary derivation of plants and animals, from one another, a particle, in many cases, minuter than all assignable, all conceivable dimension; an aura, an effluvium, an infinitesimal; determines the organization of a future body: does no less than fix, whether that which is about to be produced, shall be a vegetable, a merely sentient, or a rational being: an oak, a frog, or a philosopher; makes all these differences; gives to the future body its qualities, and nature and species.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXVII, p. 544)

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(c) Paley often refers to final causes when writing about organisms

All the great cavities of the body are enclosed by membranes, except the skull. Why should not the brain be content with the same covering as that which serves for the other principal organs of the body? The heart, the lungs, the liver, the stomach, the bowels, have all soft integuments, and nothing else. The muscular coats are all soft and membranous. I can see a reason for this distinction in the final cause, but in no other.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XI, p. 209)

…[B]ears, wolves, foxes, hares, which do not take the water, have the fur much thicker on the back than the belly: whereas in the beaver it is the thickest upon the belly; as are the feathers in water-fowl.

We know the final cause of all this; and we know no other.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XII, pp. 214-215)

It is easy to understand how much more necessary such a provision may be to the body of an animal of an erect posture, and in which, consequently, the weight of the food is added to the action of the intestine, than in that of a quadruped, in which the course of the food, from its entrance to its exit, is nearly horizontal: but it is impossible to assign any cause, except the final cause, for this distinction actually taking place.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XII, pp. 228-229 – Intestines)

The eyes of animals which follow their prey by night, as cats, owls, &c. possess a faculty not given to those of other species, namely, of closing the pupil entirely. The final cause of which seems to be this. — It was necessary for such animals to be able to descry objects with very small degrees of light.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XII, pp. 239-240)

To this great variety in organized life, the Deity has given, or perhaps there arises out of it, a corresponding variety of animal appetites. For the final cause of this, we have not far to seek.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XIX, p. 345)

[T]hough the action of terrestrial bodies upon each other be, in almost all cases, through the intervention of solid or fluid substances, yet central attraction does not operate in this manner. It was necessary that the intervals between the planetary orbs should be devoid of any inert matter either fluid or solid, because such an intervening substance would, by its resistance, destroy those very motions, which attraction is employed to preserve. This may be a final cause of the difference; but still the difference destroys the analogy.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXII, p. 380)

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(d) Paley rejected Lamarckian evolution, precisely because it neglected final causes

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. 1802-1803. Portrait by Charles Thevenin. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that Paley acknowledged the reality of final causes may be found in Chapter XXIII of his Natural Theology, entitled, Of the Personality of the Deity, in which he critiques a Lamarckian version of evolution, without mentioning Lamarck by name. (Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection would not be published for another 50 years.) Paley characterizes Lamarck’s theory as follows: matter is endowed with certain “appetencies” or propensities for certain actions which it does not yet manifest, and it is the continual exercise of these propensities which explains how matter, over the course of millions of years, came to take on the forms of the various living things we see today. (The reader may recall Lamarck’s explanation for how the giraffe got its long neck: a given giraffe could, over a lifetime of straining to reach high branches, develop a longer neck, which would be passed on to its descendants.)

Paley acknowledges that Lamarck’s theory leaves room for an Intelligent Author of Nature, but still objects to it, because “it does away final causes.” Instead of the parts of living things being for the sake of the function they currently possess, the mere action of exercising a pre-existing (and more primitive) body part is claimed to be sufficient to explain the origin of a new body part. Paley observes that Lamarck’s theory “dispenses with that which we insist upon, the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent, designing mind,” and then goes on to dismiss the outlandish theory on the grounds that “No changes, like those which the theory requires, have ever been observed… [T]he hypothesis remains destitute of evidence.” I shall reproduce the relevant passage from Paley here, as it establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Paley genuinely believed in immanent finality, contrary to the assertions of many Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers:

Another system, which has lately been brought forward, and with much ingenuity, is that of appetencies. The principle, and the short account, of the theory, is this: Pieces of soft, ductile matter, being endued with propensities or appetencies for particular actions, would, by continual endeavours, carried on through a long series of generations, work themselves gradually into suitable forms: and, at length, acquire, though perhaps by obscure and almost imperceptible improvements, an organization fitted to the action which their respective propensities led them to exert. A piece of animated matter, for example, that was endued with a propensity to fly, though ever so shapeless, though no other we will suppose than a round ball, to begin with, would, in a course of ages, if not in a million of years, perhaps in a hundred millions of years (for our theorists, having eternity to dispose of, are never sparing in time), acquire wings. The same tendency to locomotion in an aquatic animal, or rather in an animated lump which might happen to be surrounded by water, would end in the production of fins: in a living substance, confined to the solid earth, would put out legs and feet; or, if it took a different turn, would break the body into ringlets, and conclude by crawling upon the ground…

Although I have introduced the mention of this theory into this place, I am unwilling to give to it the name of an atheistic scheme… because, so far as I am able to understand it, the original propensities and the numberless varieties of them… are, in the plan itself, attributed to the ordination and appointment of an intelligent and designing Creator…

In one important respect, however, the theory before us coincides with atheistic systems, viz. in that, in the formation of plants and animals, in the structure and use of their parts, it does away final causes. Instead of the parts of a plant or animal, or the particular structure of the parts, having been intended for the action or the use to which we see them applied, according to this theory, they have themselves grown out of that action, sprung from that use. The theory therefore dispenses with that which we insist upon, the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent, designing mind, for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear…

The scheme under consideration is open to the same objection with other conjectures of a similar tendency, viz. a total defect of evidence. No changes, like those which the theory requires, have ever been observed.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, pp. 431-433)

I submit that a fair-minded person would have to conclude that Paley’s view of living things was teleological, and that it would be incorrect to characterize him as a mechanist.

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2. For Paley, both living and non-living things possess inherent active and passive powers

Thesis 2. Paley also holds that both living and non-living things possess certain powers – both active and passive – which naturally inhere in them. In other words, Paley is a firm believer in immanent finality, like Aquinas.

Magnetic field of an ideal cylindrical magnet. William Paley described magnetism as a power of an organized substance. Like Aquinas, he believed in immanent finality. Image courtesy of Geek3 and Wikipedia.

Paley’s beliefs regarding the powers of natural objects can be summarized under the following three points:

(i) Natural objects possess genuine causal powers; however, they are not primary but secondary causes. The powers of natural objects ultimately derive from an intelligent agent or agents: either the intelligent beings (angels) which guide them in their movements, or an Intelligent Agent which gives them the dispositions that characterize them;

(ii) Active and passive causal powers inhere in both animate and inanimate natural objects. Additionally, spiritual creatures have powers of their own;

(iii) Paley also speaks of living things as having propensities. For instance, he defines instinct as “a propensity, prior to experience, and independent of instruction.”

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(i) Natural objects as secondary causes

Top: Light micrograph of a moss’s leaf cells at 400X magnification. Image courtesy of Kristian Peters and Wikipedia.
Botttom: Structure of a typical plant cell. Image courtesy of Mariana Luiz (Lady of Hats) and Wikipedia.
William Paley marveled at the way in which “Unconscious particles of matter take their stations, and severally range themselves in an order, so as to become collectively plants or animals, i.e. organized bodies, with parts bearing strict and evident relation to one another, and to the utility of the whole.” (Paley, W. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 420)

Chapter XXIII of Paley’s Natural Theology, entitled, Of the Personality of the Deity, contains a striking passage in which Paley simultaneously affirms his belief in secondary causality and in the built-in teleology of living organisms, “with parts bearing strict relation… to the utility of the whole.” Paley insists that regardless of whether these parts are guided in their movements by “particular intelligent beings” (e.g. angels) or whether they are simply “the result of trains of mechanical dispositions” (emphasis mine), there must be an Intelligence beyond Nature which not only designed these parts, but supplies the power to keep them in action:

Neither mechanism, therefore, in the works of nature, nor the intervention of what are called second causes (for I think that they are the same thing), excuses the necessity of an agent distinct from both…

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; there must be more in nature than what we see; and, amongst the things unseen, there must be an intelligent, designing author. The philosopher beholds with astonishment the production of things around him. Unconscious particles of matter take their stations, and severally range themselves in an order, so as to become collectively plants or animals, i.e. organized bodies, with parts bearing strict and evident relation to one another, and to the utility of the whole: and it should seem that these particles could not move in any other way than as they do; for, they testify not the smallest sign of choice, or liberty, or discretion. There may be particular intelligent beings, guiding these motions in each case: or they may be the result of trains of mechanical dispositions, fixed beforehand by an intelligent appointment, and kept in action by a power at the centre. But, in either case, there must be intelligence.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, pp. 419-420)

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(ii) Powers of natural objects

In Chapter XXIV of Paley’s Natural Theology, entitled, Of the Natural Attributes of the Deity, there is a passage where Paley refers to the powers of natural objects as being observable throughout the entire cosmos:

In every part and place of the universe with which we are acquainted, we perceive the exertion of a power, which we believe, mediately or immediately, to proceed from the Deity. For instance; in what part or point of space, that has ever been explored, do we not discover attraction? In what regions do we not find light? In what accessible portion of our globe, do we not meet with gravity, magnetism, electricity; together with the properties also and powers of organized substances, of vegetable or of animated nature? (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIV, pp. 445-446)

It should be noted that the powers listed in the passage quoted above are not merely passive powers, but active powers of natural objects: in particular, the power of attraction, which can be observed in the phenomena of “gravity, magnetism, electricity.” Additionally, Paley’s reference to the “powers of organized substances, of vegetable or of animated nature,” shows that he attributes causal powers to both animate and inanimate objects. Finally, Paley obviously believes that these powers inhere in natural objects, since he elsewhere refers to them as “powers of nature which prevail at present” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIV, p. 440).

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(a) The powers of living organisms

The human digestive system. Image courtesy of Mariana Luiz (Lady of Hats), Joaquim Alves Gaspar and Wikipedia.
William Paley, in his Natural Theology, described digestion as an internal power belonging to an animal.

Most of Paley’s references to powers in his Natural Theology relate to powers belonging to living organisms, especially animals.

For instance, in Chapter VII, On the Mechanical and Immechanical Parts and Functions of Animals and Vegetables, Paley writes of “the number and variety of the muscles and the corresponding number and variety of useful powers which they supply to the animal; which is astonishingly great” (Natural Theology, Chapter VII, p. 80). Later in the same chapter, when discussing digestion, Paley muses:

Why does the juice, which flows into the stomach, contain powers, which make that bowel, the great laboratory, as it is by its situation the recipient, of the materials of future nutrition?
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter VII, p. 91)

Paley explicitly refers to an animal’s internal powers as playing an active role in the process of digestion:

There are, first, what, in one form or other, belong to all animals, the parts and powers which successively act upon their food…
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XV, p. 263)

There subsists a general relation between the external organs of an animal by which it procures its food, and the internal powers by which it digests it.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XV, p. 267)

From the foregoing remarks, it is clear that Paley imputes these powers to the creatures which exercise them, rather than to their Creator, as an occasionalist would. In other words, he genuinely envisaged these powers as being internal to creatures.

In another chapter, when discussing the way in which our bones, joints and sinews work together to enable us to stand upright, Paley attributes our erect stance to the operation of combined powers:

The whole is a wonderful result of combined powers, and of very complicated operations.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XI, p. 206)

Paley is particularly impressed by the fact that the powers of the various creatures which live on the Earth all correspond, in an appropriate fashion, to the terrestrial environment in which they have been placed:

Take the earth as it is; and consider the correspondency of the powers of its inhabitants with the properties and condition of the soil which they tread.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XVII, pp. 294-295)

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(b) The powers of inanimate objects

The reader may be wondering whether Paley believed that inanimate objects possess what Aristotelian philosophers refer to as immanent finality. In other words, did he believe that all natural objects possess built-in powers and tendencies of their own?

It turns out that Paley occasionally refers to the powers of inanimate objects in his Natural Theology. For instance, in his chapter on astronomy, Paley contends that “there is a power above the highest of the powers of material nature; a will which restrains and circumscribes the operations of the most extensive” (Natural Theology, Chapter XXII, pp. 406-407).

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(c) The powers of spiritual creatures

Finally, in chapter XXIII, entitled, Of the Personality of the Deity, Paley even alludes to the powers of spirits, when he suggests that these powers may be manifest to rational creatures who are higher in the order of Creation than ourselves:

There may be more and other senses than those which we have. There may be senses suited to the perception of the powers, properties, and substance of spirits. These may belong to higher orders of rational agents: for there is not the smallest reason for supposing that we are the highest, or that the scale of creation stops with us.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 411)

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(iii) Propensities

A black woodpecker with its young, in Finland. Image courtesy of Alistair McRae and Wikipedia. William Paley cited the example of the woodpecker as a living creature whose propensities must have been planted into it by a Designer.

Propensity is another term frequently used by Paley in his Natural Theology, which carries unmistakable connotations of immanent finality. Here, for example, is how he defines instinct:

An Instinct is a propensity, prior to experience, and independent of instruction.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XVIII, p. 299)

In the same chapter, Paley rebuts the suggestion that the abilities of certain birds to adapt their nest-building behavior to their environment may reflect skill and intelligence on their part rather than instinct, by pointing out that this fails to account for why birds have a propensity to build nests in the first place:

The thing which we want to account for, is the propensity. The propensity being there, it is probable enough that it may put the animal upon different actions, according to different exigencies. And this adaptation of resources may look like the effect of art and consideration, rather than of instinct: but still the propensity is instinctive. For instance, suppose what is related of the woodpecker to be true… that in each situation she prepares against the danger which she has most occasion to apprehend… and to be alleged, on the part of the bird that builds these nests, as evidence of a reasoning and distinguishing precaution; still the question returns: whence the propensity to build at all?
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XVIII, pp. 311-312)

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3. Did Paley deny the reality of Aristotelian substantial forms?

Thesis 3. Although Paley disparages the Aristotelian doctrine of “essential forms” for its philosophical vagueness, he nevertheless vigorously affirms that things possess natures, and he repeatedly refers to their forms. According to Paley, the form of a living thing organizes the body of a developing individual into a mature organism, through a process which is largely mysterious to us, but which is (in principle) amenable to scientific investigation.

The initial stages of embryogenesis. Image courtesy of Zephyris and Wikipedia.
William Paley marveled at the process by which a developing organism acquired its form, writing: “In the ordinary derivation of plants and animals, from one another, a particle, in many cases, minuter than all assignable, all conceivable dimension; an aura, an effluvium, an infinitesimal; determines the organization of a future body: does no less than fix, whether that which is about to be produced, shall be a vegetable, a merely sentient, or a rational being: an oak, a frog, or a philosopher; makes all these differences; gives to the future body its qualities, and nature and species.” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXVII, p. 544)

It has been argued by some scholars that Paley’s conception of bodies was a purely mechanistic one, and that he denied the reality of substantial forms. The following passages in Paley seem to support this interpretation.

Whilst so many forms of plants and animals are already in existence, and, consequently, so many “internal moulds,” as he calls them, are prepared and at hand, the organic particles run into these moulds, and are employed in supplying an accession of substance to them, as well for their growth, as for their propagation. By which means, things keep their ancient course. But, says the same philosopher, should any general loss or destruction of the present constitution of organized bodies take place, the particles, for want of “moulds” into which they might enter, would run into different combinations, and replenish the waste with new species of organized substances.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 428)

Lastly; these wonder-working instruments, these “internal moulds,” what are they after all? what, when examined, but a name without signification; unintelligible, if not self-contradictory; at the best, differing in nothing from the “essential forms” of the Greek philosophy?
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 430)

On the other hand, Paley elsewhere in his Natural Theology refers to bodies as possessing natures and forms of their own – which clearly puts him at odds with the Cartesian conception of matter as wholly passive and devoid of any positive determinations, except for extension.

… the bodies of animals hold, in their constitution and properties, a close and important relation to natures altogether external to their own; to inanimate substances, and to the specific qualities of these, e. g. they hold a strict relation to the ELEMENTS by which they are surrounded.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XVII, p. 291)

When we pass from the earth to the sea, from land to water, we pass through a great change: but an adequate change accompanies us, of animal forms and functions, of animal capacities and wants; so that correspondency remains.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809,, Chapter XVII, p. 295)

Why, then, did Paley disparage the ancient Greek doctrine of “essential forms”? I would suggest that it was their vagueness and lack of a well-defined internal structure that he found objectionable, rather than their teleology. In other words, what distinguished Paley from Aristotelian Scholastic philosophers was that the latter viewed substance as being indivisible, in and of itself; whereas for Paley, material substances are by nature highly structured and divisible. Structure, for Paley, is not an accidental determination of a material substance; rather, the internal structure of a substance is part of the substantial form itself. (NOTE: I say “part of” because an entity’s substantial form is not exhausted by its structure: an entity’s internal dynamics, its control hierarchy, and its development over time also come under the umbrella of its substantial form.)

I would add that it is precisely because the internal structure of a substance (as well as the other features listed above) can be described that we can speak of it as having its own specific nature.

Paley also insisted that the forms of organized bodies (he is writing here about plants and animals) had to have been designed by an intelligent agent:

… that which we insist upon, the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent, designing mind, for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 433)

Again, this makes perfect sense if we construe (substantial) form as being equivalent to “internal structure.” For what Paley is saying is that because the bodies of living things contain numerous contrivances – i.e. systems of precisely co-ordinated parts working together for a common end – their forms must possess what we now call specified complexity. This kind of complexity can only be produced by an intelligent being.

In the same passage, Paley makes fun of the Lamarckian evolutionists of his day, who maintained that the various forms we see in the natural world resulted from different kinds of creatures exercising their bodily capacities in different ways – as in Lamarck’s story of how the giraffe got its long neck. The flaw in this account, as Paley saw it, was that it failed to account for the internal organization of the various kinds of animals:

… it is a straining of analogy beyond all limits of reason and credibility, to assert that birds, and beasts, and fish, with all their variety and complexity of organization, have been brought into their forms, and distinguished into their several kinds and natures, by the same process (even if that process could be demonstrated, or had it ever been actually noticed) as might seem to serve for the gradual generation of a camel’s bunch, or a pelican’s pouch.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 438)

Finally, although Paley’s knowledge of embryogenesis was extremely limited – the human ovum was not discovered until 1827, or 22 years after his death – he was far-sighted enough to intuit that the form of a living organism had to not only explain that organism’s structure, but also the various stages in the physical development of that organism’s body – in other words, its ontogeny:

In the ordinary derivation of plants and animals, from one another, a particle, in many cases, minuter than all assignable, all conceivable dimension; an aura, an effluvium, an infinitesimal; determines the organization of a future body: does no less than fix, whether that which is about to be produced, shall be a vegetable, a merely sentient, or a rational being: an oak, a frog, or a philosopher; makes all these differences; gives to the future body its qualities, and nature and species.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXVII, p. 544)

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4. Did Paley consider matter to be wholly passive, as the mechanists of the 17th century did?

Thesis 4. Paley’s doctrine of matter is more like Aquinas’ than Descartes’. Unlike Descartes, Paley nowhere maintains that matter is wholly passive and devoid of all attributes save extension, as Descartes did in the seventeenth century. Writing in the early nineteenth century, Paley has to contend with atheistic materialists who were prepared to impute a host of active properties to matter, in order to explain how it had given rise to life and intelligence. In keeping with the science of his day, Paley maintained that matter in the form of a body still possessed the natural property of inertia – in other words, that one body is naturally incapable of moving another body, unless something else is moving it. Aquinas upheld the same view, as did Aristotle.

Three-dimensional Cartesian co-ordinates. The seventeenth century philosopher Rene Descartes denied that matter possessed either a substantial form or qualities, as Scholastic philosophers had maintained. The only property that Descartes was willing to ascribe to matter was that of extension.
William Paley, on the other hand, wrote his Natural Theology in the early nineteenth century. Unlike Descartes, Paley ascribed to each body a nature or form of its own, along with various powers and qualities. His conception of matter was very different from Descartes’. Image courtesy of Andeggs and Wikipedia.

(a) Paley, unlike Descartes, did not believe that matter was wholly passive

William Paley wrote his Natural Theology in the early nineteenth century. It would therefore be absurd to impute to him ideas about matter which were held in the seventeenth century, and long abandoned since. One such notion was the Cartesian idea that matter is wholly passive and devoid of form, and of any properties except for extension.

Atheists of the early nineteenth century, by contrast, were prepared to impute to matter a whole host of dynamic properties – for example, a built-in striving towards actions that would only be realized in the distant future (appetencies, discussed in Thesis 1 above), or a tendency towards self-ordering (which I shall discuss in Thesis 5 below) – precisely because they believed that doing so would enable them to dispense with the need for a Creator. Later in the nineteenth century, Marx would elaborate on the notion that matter has dynamic properties, with his theory of dialectical materialism.

When reading Paley, it is therefore advisable to keep in mind the intellectual milieu in which he lived. When he writes of matter being inert, he does not mean that it is wholly passive, as Descartes did; rather, as he explains, he simply means that it is incapable of self-movement. Aquinas, as we have seen, held the same belief; in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, chapter 20 (That God is not a body), he states in paragraph 8 that “no body moves locally unless it be moved,” and again in paragraph 27 that “no body moves except by being moved.” This is identical with what Paley meant when he wrote that matter “cannot move, unless it be moved” (Natural Theology, Chapter XXIII, p. 412).

God, therefore, has been pleased to prescribe limits to his own power, and to work his end within those limits. The general laws of matter have perhaps the nature of these limits; its inertia, its re-action; the laws which govern the communication of motion, the refraction and reflection of light, the constitution of fluids non-elastic and elastic, the transmission of sound through the latter; the laws of magnetism, of electricity; and probably others, yet undiscovered.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter III, pp. 40-41)

Of this however we are certain, that whatever the Deity be, neither the universe, nor any part of it which we see, can be He. The universe itself is merely a collective name: its parts are all which are real; or which are things. Now inert matter is out of the question: and organized substances include marks of contrivance.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 412)

“Spirituality” expresses an idea, made up of a negative part, and of a positive part. The negative part consists in the exclusion of some of the known properties of matter, especially of solidity, of the vis inertiae, and of gravitation. The positive part comprises perception, thought, will, power, action, by which last term is meant, the origination of motion; the quality, perhaps, in which resides the essential superiority of spirit over matter, “which cannot move, unless it be moved; and cannot but move, when impelled by another (Note: Bishop Wilkins’s Principles of Natural Religion, p. 106.).” I apprehend that there can be no difficulty in applying to the Deity both parts of this idea.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIV, pp. 448)

(b) Paley did not believe that matter could exist without form

At times, Paley writes as if he believed that form was something superimposed on pre-existing matter, which might appear to suggest that his God was a mere Demiurge Who shaped matter rather than creating it. In other passages, though, Paley speaks of attraction being a “primordial property of matter.” He also speaks of God as having “appointed” laws to matter, and he also insists that the laws of Nature show that everything in the cosmos is maintained in existence by God – something which he could not have written, had he supposed that formless matter was capable of existing on its own.

It has been said, that the problem of creation was, “attraction and matter being given, to make a world out of them:” and, as above explained, this statement perhaps does not convey a false idea.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter III, pp. 42)

The Deity, having appointed this law to matter (than which, as we have said before, no law could be more simple), has turned it to a wonderful account in constructing planetary systems. (Paley, W. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXII, p. 390)

If attraction be what Cotes, with many other Newtonians, thought it to be, a primordial property of matter, not dependent upon, or traceable to, any other material cause; then, by the very nature and definition of a primordial property, it stood indifferent to all laws.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXII, p. 391)

Neither mechanism, therefore, in the works of nature, nor the intervention of what are called second causes (for I think that they are the same thing), excuses the necessity of an agent distinct from both. (Paley, W. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 419)

If, in tracing these causes, it be said, that we find certain general properties of matter which have nothing in them that bespeaks intelligence, I answer, that, still, the managing of these properties, the pointing and directing them to the uses which we see made of them, demands intelligence in the highest degree.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 419)

Of the “Unity of the Deity,” the proof is, the uniformity of plan observable in the universe. The universe itself is a system; each part either depending upon other parts, or being connected with other parts by some common law of motion, or by the presence of some common substance. One principle of gravitation causes a stone to drop towards the earth, and the moon to wheel round it. One law of attraction carries all the different planets about the sun. This philosophers demonstrate…

We never get amongst such original, or totally different, modes of existence, as to indicate, that we are come into the province of a different Creator, or under the direction of a different will. In truth, the same order of things attend us, wherever we go.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXV, pp. 449-450)

The Divine “omnipresence” stands, in natural theology, upon this foundation. In every part and place of the universe with which we are acquainted, we perceive the exertion of a power, which we believe, mediately or immediately, to proceed from the Deity. For instance; in what part or point of space, that has ever been explored, do we not discover attraction? In what regions do we not find light? In what accessible portion of our globe, do we not meet with gravity, magnetism, electricity; together with the properties also and powers of organized substances, of vegetable or of animated nature? Nay further, we may ask, What kingdom is there of nature, what corner of space, in which there is any thing that can be examined by us, where we do not fall upon contrivance and design? The only reflection perhaps which arises in our minds from this view of the world around us is, that the laws of nature every where prevail; that they are uniform and universal. But what do we mean by the laws of nature, or by any law? Effects are produced by power, not by laws. A law cannot execute itself. A law refers us to an agent. Now an agency so general, as that we cannot discover its absence, or assign the place in which some effect of its continued energy is not found, may, in popular language at least, and, perhaps, without much deviation from philosophical strictness, be called universal: and, with not quite the same, but with no inconsiderable propriety, the person, or Being, in whom that power resides, or from whom it is derived, may be taken to be omnipresent. He who upholds all things by his power, may be said to be every where present.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIV, pp. 445-446)

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5. Did Paley deny the existence of immanent finality within Nature?

Thesis 5. Paley stoutly denies the existence of a principle of order in Nature. By “principle of order”, he does not mean immanent finality. Rather, what Paley is denying is that things have a spontaneous or built-in tendency to form co-ordinated arrangements of parts subserving some end, or what he elsewhere refers to as contrivances. Thus Paley would reject as absurd the notion (championed by Stuart Kauffman) that life itself may have arisen through the development of an initial molecular autocatalytic set which evolved over time. Abiogenesis, according to Paley, cannot be a spontaneous natural process. Only intelligent agents are capable of creating co-ordinated arrangements of parts subserving some end.

The citric acid cycle, a key component of the metabolic pathway by which all aerobic organisms generate energy. The citric acid cycle is an autocatalytic cycle run in reverse. An autocatalytic cycle is said to be self-sustaining. The citric acid cycle is now known to have evolved from a simpler system: components of the cycle were derived from anaerobic bacteria. In 1995, the biologist Stuart Kauffman proposed that life itself originally arose as an autocatalytic chemical network. In his Natural Theology, however, William Paley argued that a contrivance, or a co-ordinated arrangement of parts working towards some end, could not arise naturally from disorganized parts. Nature, he argued, has no built-in tendency to produce such arrangements; only intelligent agents are capable of creating them. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

There is a passage in Paley’s Natural Theology which appears, on a superficial reading, to contradict the Aristotelian notion that natural objects possess an immanent finality of their own. For instance, in Chapter V, Paley categorically rejects the suggestion that Nature may contain its own principle of order, on the grounds that: (i) there would be no practical way to distinguish such a principle from the activity of an intelligent Creator; (ii) without a suitable analogy to explain it, the notion of such a principle makes no sense; and (iii) if such a principle existed, then order should be found everywhere throughout Nature, which it is not:

Others have chosen to refer every thing to a principle of order in nature. A principle of order is the word: but what is meant by a principle of order, as different from an intelligent Creator, has not been explained either by definition or example: and, without such explanation, it should seem to be a mere substitution of words for reasons, names for causes. Order itself is only the adaptation of means to an end: a principle of order therefore can only signify the mind and intention which so adapts them. Or, were it capable of being explained in any other sense, is there any experience, any analogy, to sustain it? Was a watch ever produced by a principle of order? and why might not a watch be so produced, as well as an eye?

Furthermore, a principle of order, acting blindly, and without choice, is negatived, by the observation, that order is not universal; which it would be, if it issued from a constant and necessary principle: nor indiscriminate, which it would be, if it issued from an unintelligent principle.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter V, pp. 71-72)

At first blush, the passage above may appear to contradict the Aristotelian claim that immanent finality is found in all natural objects. But this would be a mis-reading of Paley, whose target (in the passage above) is not Aristotle but the 18th century naturalist, Count Buffon:

…[T]he old system of atheism and the new agree. And I much doubt, whether the new schemes have advanced any thing upon the old, or done more than changed the terms of the nomenclature. I could never see the difference between the antiquated system of atoms, and Buffon’s organic molecules. This philosopher, having made a planet by knocking off from the sun a piece of melted glass, in consequence of the stroke of a comet; and having set it in motion, by the same stroke, both round its own axis and the sun, finds his next difficulty to be, how to bring plants and animals upon it…. For this, however, our philosopher has an answer. Whilst so many forms of plants and animals are already in existence, and, consequently, so many “internal moulds,” as he calls them, are prepared and at hand, the organic particles run into these moulds, and are employed in supplying an accession of substance to them, as well for their growth, as for their propagation. By which means, things keep their ancient course…

One short sentence of Buffon’s work exhibits his scheme as follows: “When this nutritious and prolific matter, which is diffused throughout all nature, passes through the internal mould of an animal or vegetable, and finds a proper matrix, or receptacle, it gives rise to an animal or vegetable of the same species.” Does any reader annex a meaning to the expression “internal mould,”in this sentence?
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, pp. 427, 428, 430)

In other words, Paley is not denying that objects have built-in tendencies of their own. What he is denying is that they have a built-in tendency to create what he calls “order.” Paley continually refers to “order” and “contrivance” in the same sentence, in his book, – e.g. when he writes: “There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance without a contriver; order without choice; arrangement, without any thing capable of arranging” (Natural Theology, Chapter II, p. 11). It is reasonable to suppose that he equates the two here. But as we saw above, the three distinguishing properties of a contrivance are: “relation to an end, relation of parts to one another, and to a common purpose” (Natural Theology, Chapter XXIII, p. 413). A contrivance is a co-ordinated arrangement of parts subserving some end.

In other words, Paley is not denying here that things possess natural tendencies of their own. Rather, he is denying that the chemical constituents of which a living thing is composed have an innate tendency to suddenly come together and form an ordered, co-ordinated arrangement of parts subserving some end. If the constituents of things possessed such an innate tendency to create order, argues Paley, then we would be far more likely to see the constituents of a watch coming together to form a watch – which we never do. And if an Aristotelian-Thomist were to object that the watch is not a proper entity but a mere assemblage of parts, Paley (were he alive today) would probably answer, “That’s precisely my point. How much more unlikely is it that separate molecules of amino acids, nucleotides and other chemicals could come together in a co-ordinated fashion to form a single entity whose parts are totally subservient to the good of the whole – in other words, a living thing?”

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6. Was Paley a mechanist?

Thesis 6. Paley repeatedly affirms the existence of mechanisms in living things, by which he simply means: co-ordinated arrangements of parts subserving some end, or what Paley elsewhere refers to as contrivances. In affirming that “there is mechanism in animals”, Paley is not reducing them to artifacts, whose finality is purely extrinsic. Nor is he denying that the parts of living things have an inherent tendency to function together. All he is saying is that the parts of living things, like those of machines, are arranged and co-ordinated in order to serve some end. In a mechanism, this end may be either intrinsic to the entity (as in organisms) or extrinsic to it (as in a watch). It is only because there is no common English word for describing co-ordinated arrangements of parts which subserve an end (whether internal or external) that Paley is forced to settle on the awkward term “mechanism”.

A Gram-negative bacterial flagellum. Paley would have unhesitatingly described this as a mechanism, had he known about it, and he would have been right. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
A flagellum (plural: flagella) is a long, slender projection from the cell body, whose function is to propel a unicellular or small multicellular organism. The depicted type of flagellum is found in bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, and rotates like a propeller when the bacterium swims.
The bacterial movement can be divided in 2 kinds: run, resulting from a counterclockwise rotation of the flagellum, and tumbling, from a clockwise rotation of the flagellum.

Many of Paley’s critics have portrayed him as a mechanist in his approach to living things. I shall argue below that he was no more of a mechanist than Aquinas.

(a) How ancient philosophers viewed animals in mechanical terms, long before Descartes

Before we go on, here’s a quiz for my readers: which mechanistic philosopher said this?

The movements of animals may be compared with those of automatic puppets, which are set going on the occasion of a tiny movement; the levers are released, and strike the twisted strings against one another; or with the toy wagon. For the child mounts on it and moves it straight forward, and then again it is moved in a circle owing to its wheels being of unequal diameter (the smaller acts like a centre on the same principle as the cylinders). Animals have parts of a similar kind, their organs, the sinewy tendons to wit and the bones; the bones are like the wooden levers in the automaton, and the iron; the tendons are like the strings, for when these are tightened or leased movement begins. However, in the automata and the toy wagon there is no change of quality, though if the inner wheels became smaller and greater by turns there would be the same circular movement set up. In an animal the same part has the power of becoming now larger and now smaller, and changing its form, as the parts increase by warmth and again contract by cold and change their quality. This change of quality is caused by imaginations and sensations and by ideas. Sensations are obviously a form of change of quality, and imagination and conception have the same effect as the objects so imagined and conceived For in a measure the form conceived be it of hot or cold or pleasant or fearful is like what the actual objects would be, and so we shudder and are frightened at a mere idea. Now all these affections involve changes of quality, and with those changes some parts of the body enlarge, others grow smaller. And it is not hard to see that a small change occurring at the centre makes great and numerous changes at the circumference, just as by shifting the rudder a hair’s breadth you get a wide deviation at the prow. And further, when by reason of heat or cold or some kindred affection a change is set up in the region of the heart, even in an imperceptibly small part of the heart, it produces a vast difference in the periphery of the body — blushing, let us say, or turning white, goose-skin and shivers and their opposites.

Give up? The above passage is taken from Aristotle’s On the Motion of Animals, Part 7. Elsewhere, Aristotle defined not only the movements but also the emotions of animals in mechanical terms, even while referring to their built-in teleology:

[A]nger should be defined as a certain mode of movement of such and such a body (or part or faculty of a body) by this or that cause and for this or that end. That is precisely why the study of the soul must fall within the science of Nature, at least so far as in its affections it manifests this double character. Hence a physicist would define an affection of soul differently from a dialectician; the latter would define e.g. anger as the appetite for returning pain for pain, or something like that, while the former would define it as a boiling of the blood or warm substance surround the heart. The [one] assigns the material conditions, the [other] the form or formulable essence; for what he states is the formulable essence of the fact, though for its actual existence there must be embodiment of it in a material such as is described by the other. (De Anima, Book I, Part 1)

The point I wish to make here is a simple one: the recognition that teleology is a built-in feature of living things is perfectly compatible with the scientific attempt to describe their movements and internal bodily changes in mechanical terms. Aristotle realized this; so, too, did Rev. William Paley.

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(b) What is a mechanist?

The term “mechanist” has many meanings in the philosophical literature. I’d like to propose the following definition.

A mechanist is someone who denies that the teleology we find in Nature is real and irreducible.

A semi-mechanist is someone who affirms that the teleology we find in Nature is real and irreducible, but who denies that it is immanent, residing in living creatures.

A teleomechanist, as I define the term here, is someone who maintains that both the teleological and the mechanical understanding of living organisms are equally fundamental and equally essential. We cannot properly understand what an organism is unless we grasp its telos and at the same time, its mechanical workings that explain its bodily movements. (I am well aware that this is quite different from Lenoir’s definition.) I would argue that most Aristotelian-Thomists are not teleomechanists, as they generally maintain that a proper understanding of a living creature’s telos – the “cause of causes” – would suffice to explain everything else about it – including the way it moves. (If there is a besetting sin of the modern Thomistic account of life, it is teleological reductionism, which I view as being just as bad as mechanical reductionism.)

What I wish to maintain is that Rev. William Paley was neither a mechanist nor a semi-mechanist. As we have seen, he affirmed that living things have a good of their own, accepted the reality of final causes, and located these final causes within organisms themselves. However, it would be fair to describe Paley as a teleomechanist, in the sense that I have defined above: he explicitly compared animals with machines, and wrote that if we knew enough about the laws governing living things, we could describe their movements completely in mechanical terms.

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(c) For Paley, a machine is not the same thing as an artifact

Although Paley frequently described the workings of living things as “mechanical”, he did not envisage living things as artifacts, which lack a “good of their own”, and whose parts have no inherent tendency to function together. Rather, for Paley, the term “mechanism” was synonymous with “contrivance” – a term which, as we have seen, did not connote, for Paley, an artificial arrangement, but rather a system whose components exhibit the three properties of “relation to an end, relation of parts to one another, and to a common purpose.” Such a definition is perfectly compatible with the Aristotelian-Thomist view that what distinguishes living things from other objects is the fact that the causal processes occurring inside them begin and remain within the agent itself, and typically benefit the agent. A Scotist would also add that the parts of a living thing should exhibit a nested hierarchy of function. All of this Paley could happily accept, and as we have seen, he describes living things as “organized bodies, with parts bearing strict and evident relation to one another, and to the utility of the whole” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 420).

Proof that Paley equated “mechanisms” with “contrivances” can be found in the following passage:

I mean that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtility, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety; yet, in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect productions of human ingenuity.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter III, p. 18)

Paley then goes on to compare the human eye with the telescope, declaring that “As far as the examination of the instrument goes, there is precisely the same proof that the eye was made for vision, as there is that the telescope was made for assisting it.”

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(d) Paley: animals are not automata, but they do contain mechanical parts and functions, which point to a Designer

Thus we should not be surprised that in one passage in his Natural Theology, Paley likened animals to automatons, the difference being that “in the animal, we trace the mechanism to a certain point, and then we are stopped” (Chapter III, p. 20). However, it is also true that Paley carefully distinguished between the mechanical and non-mechanical parts and functions of animals and vegetables. For instance, he regarded muscular contraction and impulse transmission as mechanical processes, but the origin of muscular motion was wholly mysterious and non-mechanical (Paley, W. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, pp. 78-80).

The difference between an animal and an automatic statue, consists in this, — that, in the animal, we trace the mechanism to a certain point, and then we are stopped; either the mechanism becoming too subtile for our discerment, or something else beside the known laws of mechanism taking place; whereas, in the automaton, for the comparatively few motions of which it is capable, we trace the mechanism throughout. But, up to the limit, the reasoning is as clear and certain in the one case, as in the other.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter III, p. 20)

I mean that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtility, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety; yet, in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect productions of human ingenuity.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter III, p. 18)

IT is not that every part of an animal or vegetable has not proceeded from a contriving mind; or that every part is not constructed with a view to its proper end and purpose, according to the laws belonging to, and governing the substance or the action made use of in that part; or that each part is not so constructed as to effectuate its purpose whilst it operates according to these laws; but it is because these laws themselves are not in all cases equally understood; or, what amounts to nearly the same thing, are not equally exemplified in more simple processes, and more simple machines; that we lay down the distinction, here proposed, between the mechanical parts and other parts of animals and vegetables.

For instance: the principle of muscular motion, viz. upon what cause the swelling of the belly of the muscle, and consequent contraction of its tendons, either by an act of the will, or by involuntary irritation, depends, is wholly unknown to us. The substance employed … is also unknown to us: of course, the laws belonging to that substance, and which regulate its action, are unknown to us. We see nothing similar to this contraction in any machine which we can make, or any process which we can execute. So far (it is confessed) we are in ignorance, but no further. This power and principle, from whatever cause it proceeds, being assumed, the collocation of the fibres to receive the principle, the disposition of the muscles for the use and application of the power, is mechanical; and is as intelligible as the adjustment of the wires and strings by which a puppet is moved. We see, therefore, as far as respects the subject before us, what is not mechanical in the animal frame, and what is.

(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter VII, pp. 78-81)

In another passage, Paley goes even further: he suggests that if we had perfect knowledge of the laws governing living things, we could explain the movements of their parts completely, in mechanical terms. The distinction made by scientists in Paley’s day between the mechanical parts and the non-mechanical parts of organisms merely reflects our current state of ignorance:

It is not that every part of an animal or vegetable has not proceeded from a contriving mind; or that every part is not constructed with a view to its proper end and purpose, according to the laws belonging to, and governing the substance or the action made use of in that part; or that each part is not so constructed as to effectuate its purpose whilst it operates according to these laws; but it is because these laws themselves are not in all cases equally understood; or, what amounts to nearly the same thing, are not equally exemplified in more simple processes, and more simple machines; that we lay down the distinction, here proposed, between the mechanical parts and other parts of animals and vegetables.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter VII, p. 78)

Paley is even more explicit about his endorsement of the scientific endeavor to provide an account of animal movement based wholly on mechanical principles, in the following paragraph:

That an animal is a machine, is a proposition neither correctly true nor wholly false. The distinction which we have been discussing will serve to show how far the comparison, which this expression implies, holds; and wherein it fails. And whether the distinction be thought of importance or not, it is certainly of importance to remember, that there is neither truth nor justice in endeavouring to bring a cloud over our understandings, or a distrust into our reasonings upon this subject, by suggesting that we know nothing of voluntary motion, of irritability, of the principle of life, of sensation, of animal heat, upon all which the animal functions depend; for, our ignorance of these parts of the animal frame concerns not at all our knowledge of the mechanical parts of the same frame. I contend, therefore, that there is mechanism in animals; that this mechanism is as properly such, as it is in machines made by art; that this mechanism is intelligible and certain; that it is not the less so, because it often begins or terminates with something which is not mechanical; that whenever it is intelligible and certain, it demonstrates intention and contrivance, as well in the works of nature, as in those of art; and that it is the best demonstration which either can afford.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter VII, pp. 81-82)

Does this make Paley a mechanist, then? Not at all; at most, it makes him a teleomechanist. As we have seen, Paley held that the teleology we find in Nature is real and irreducible, and that it is immanent, residing in living creatures. Nothing in his writings on mechanism suggests that he envisaged using it as a tool to dispense with teleological talk, or to separate such teleology from living things. As I argued above, belief in immanent teleology is totally compatible with trying to describe living organisms’ physical movements and internal bodily changes in mechanical terms.

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(e) Reproduction, while teleological, is also a mechanical process, which demonstrates the existence of a Designer

Left: Hoverflies mating in midair flight. Image courtesy of Fir0002/Flagstaffotos and Wikipedia.
Right: The sexual cycle. Image courtesy of UserStannered and Wikipedia.

The generation of the animal no more accounts for the contrivance of the eye or ear, than, upon the supposition stated in a preceding chapter, the production of a watch by the motion and mechanism of a former watch, would account for the skill and intention evidenced in the watch, so produced; than it would account for the disposition of the wheels, the catching of their teeth, the relation of the several parts of the works to one another, and to their common end, for the suitableness of their forms and places to their offices, for their connexion, their operation, and the useful result of that operation. I do insist most strenuously upon the correctness of this comparison; that it holds as to every mode of specific propagation; and that whatever was true of the watch, under the hypothesis above-mentioned, is true of plants and animals… Has the plant which produced the seed any thing more to do with that organization, than the watch would have had to do with the structure of the watch which was produced in the course of its mechanical movement? I mean, Has it any thing at all to do with the contrivance? The maker and contriver of one watch, when he inserted within it a mechanism suited to the production of another watch, was, in truth, the maker and contriver of that other watch. All the properties of the new watch were to be referred to his agency: the design manifested in it, to his intention: the art, to him as the artist: the collocation of each part to his placing: the action, effect, and use, to his counsel, intelligence, and workmanship. In producing it by the intervention of a former watch, he was only working by one set of tools instead of another. So it is with the plant, and the seed produced by it.

Can any distinction be assigned between the two cases; between the producing watch, and the producing plant; both passive, unconscious substances; both by the organization which was given to them, producing their like, without understanding or design; both, that is, instruments?

From plants we may proceed to oviparous animals; from seeds to eggs. Now I say, that the bird has the same concern in the formation of the egg which she lays, as the plant has in that of the seed which it drops; and no other, nor greater. The internal constitution of the egg is as much a secret to the hen, as if the hen were inanimate… Although, therefore, there be the difference of life and perceptivity between the animal and the plant, it is a difference which enters not into the account. It is a foreign circumstance. It is a difference of properties not employed. The animal function and the vegetable function are alike destitute of any design which can operate upon the form of the thing produced. The plant has no design in producing the seed, no comprehension of the nature or use of what it produces: the bird with respect to its egg, is not above the plant with respect to its seed. Neither the one nor the other bears that sort of relation to what proceeds from them, which a joiner does to the chair which he makes.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter IV, pp. 49-52)

The minds of most men are fond of what they call a principle, and of the appearance of simplicity, in accounting for phenomena. Yet this principle, this simplicity, resides merely in the name; which name, after all, comprises, perhaps, under it a diversified, multifarious, or progressive operation, distinguishable into parts. The power in organized bodies, of producing bodies like themselves, is one of these principles. Give a philosopher this, and he can get on. But he does not reflect, what this mode of production, this principle (if such he choose to call it) requires; how much it presupposes; what an apparatus of instruments, some of which are strictly mechanical, is necessary to its success; what a train it includes of operations and changes, one succeeding another, one related to another, one ministering to another; all advancing, by intermediate, and, frequently, by sensible steps, to their ultimate result!
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, pp. 420-421)

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(f) The eye, like the telescope, is a contrivance, which proves the existence of a Designer

Paley’s reference to the eye as being a mechanism, like the telescope, is likely to discomfit Aristotelian-Thomists, who may interpret him as declaring that there is no fundamental difference between organs and artifacts. However, as Paley makes clear in the passages below, that is not his intent: indeed, he explicitly declares that the eye was “made for vision.”

We also need to remember that for Paley, a contrivance is not a man-made artifact, but an entity distinguished by the following properties of “relation to an end, relation of parts to one another, and to a common purpose.” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, p. 413.) Thus when Paley writes that the contrivances of Nature surpass those of human art, he is not declaring that the differences between the two are merely quantitative; rather, he is saying that insofar as living things can be quantitatively compared with human artifacts, living things come out on top, as they are far superior in their design:

I mean that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtility, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety; yet, in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect productions of human ingenuity.

I know no better method of introducing so large a subject, than that of comparing a single thing with a single thing; an eye, for example, with a telescope. As far as the examination of the instrument goes, there is precisely the same proof that the eye was made for vision, as there is that the telescope was made for assisting it.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter III, p. 18)

To some it may appear a difference sufficient to destroy all similitude between the eye and the telescope, that the one is a perceiving organ, the other an unperceiving instrument. The fact is, that they are both instruments. And, as to the mechanism, at least as to mechanism being employed, and even as to the kind of it, this circumstance varies not the analogy at all. For observe, what the constitution of the eye is. It is necessary, in order to produce distinct vision, that an image or picture of the object be formed at the bottom of the eye.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter III, p. 19)

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(g) Does Paley’s mechanical conception of chemistry in any way undermine his belief in immanent finality?

Paley believed that chemical agents operate in a purely mechanical fashion: “natural chemistry, for instance, would be mechanism, if our senses were acute enough to descry it” (Natural Theology, Chapter XXIII, p. 419). Does that statement in any way weaken the force of his earlier statements on the powers of Nature? Not at all. We need to keep in mind what Paley meant by “mechanism”. Paley describes a mechanism as a “system of parts” united by a common purpose (Natural Theology, Chapter III, p. 8), and goes on to treat “mechanism” and “contrivance” as equivalent terms in the following passage, where he describes the mechanical properties of the parts of living things:

[T]he contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtility, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety; yet, in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect productions of human ingenuity.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter III, p. 18)

As I showed above (see my comments on Thesis 1 and Thesis 2), the term “contrivance”, as used by Paley, does not connote a mere assemblage of parts; rather, it means an ordered arrangement of parts, subserving some end.

In the case of chemical agents, the end in question could be described as a dual one: it is both internal and external.

The external end subserved by the laws of chemistry is the smooth and harmonious functioning of the cosmos, which requires most objects to remain fairly stable over time, and to behave in a law-governed fashion. Paley wrote about this end when he declared:

Of the “Unity of the Deity,” the proof is, the uniformity of plan observable in the universe. The universe itself is a system; each part either depending upon other parts, or being connected with other parts by some common law of motion, or by the presence of some common substance. One principle of gravitation causes a stone to drop towards the earth, and the moon to wheel round it. One law of attraction carries all the different planets about the sun.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXV, pp. 449-450)

The other end served by the laws of chemistry is an internal one – namely, the exercise of the chemical agent’s powers and dispositions. Paley referred to these powers in his Natural Theology, when he wrote about “gravity, magnetism, electricity; together with the properties also and powers of organized substances, of vegetable or of animated nature” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIV, pp. 445-446).

I conclude that Paley’s mechanical conception of chemistry in no way undermines his belief in immanent finality in Nature, as expressed in statements where he refers to the powers and propensities of natural objects.

Summary

By now, the reader may be wondering: if even Willian Paley wasn’t a real mechanist, then who was? From my own reading of history, it appears that if we examine the writings of theistic philosophers, the most outspoken defenders of mechanism and/or semi-mechanism published their work not in the early nineteenth century but in the seventeenth century. An obvious case in point is the French Catholic philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who denied the reality of formal causes, and who allowed a very limited role for final causes – not in Nature, but only in God’s intentions. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was somewhat less radical: he did not deny the reality of final causes in Nature, but regarded them as unknowable to science.

But perhaps the most interesting example of a 17th-century Christian philosopher who rejected immanent final causes was that of Robert Boyle, who was renowned not only as a scientist but also as an apologist for Christianity. Jay Richards provides a very insightful description of Boyle’s thinking in his book, God and Evolution (Discovery Institute, Seattle, 2010). In an essay entitled “Separating the Chaff from the Wheat” (Chapter 12), he writes:

Robert Boyle (1627-1691), a teleo-mechanist like Newton, objected to Aristotelian philosophy because he thought it tended to make nature autonomous and self-sufficient. Boyle, in contrast, used the atomistic (or corpuscularian) philosophy that was fashionable in his day as Aristotelianism had been in previous centuries…

For Boyle, a virtue of this teleo-mechanist view was precisely that it showed that the physical world depended on an intelligent Creator. Since matter could do hardly anything on its own, Boyle could argue that nature’s manifest design could only be the product of a transcendent Creator. The apparent teleology of nature pointed clearly beyond nature for its source, as it did in Plato, and was not “immanent” within nature itself, as it was for Aristotle. (2010, p. 244. Emphases mine – VJT.)

I conclude, then, that Paley (like many of his Christian contemporaries) was not a true mechanist or even a semi-mechanist in his view of natural objects, and that his views on mechanism were far less radical than those of the Christian atomists of the seventeenth century, such as Boyle and Descartes. Paley acknowledged the existence of “powers of nature,” as well as the reality of forms, and his overall concept of living things was undeniably holistic and teleological.

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Part B: How Professor Feser completely misconstrues Paley’s Argument from Design


Professor Edward Feser, a leading Thomistic critic of Intelligent Design. Image taken from http://www.edwardfeser.com/.

In his book, Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009, p. 115), Feser offers his own perspective on William Paley’s argument from design, in the following paragraph:

Paley, taking for granted as he does a modern mechanistic view of nature, denies that purpose or teleology is immanent or inherent to the natural order. That is why his argument is a merely probabilistic one. The design argument allows that there might in fact be no purpose at all in the natural world, but only the misleading appearance of purpose; its claim is simply that, at least where complex mechanistic processes are concerned, this supposition is unlikely. And even if there is a purpose, it is imposed from outside, in just the way a human watchmaker imposes a certain order on metal parts that have no inherent tendency to function as a timepiece. The natural world remains as devoid of immanent teleology after the designer’s action as before. Moreover, as with a watch, once Paley’s designer has done his “watchmaking,” there is no need for him to remain on the scene, for once built the mechanism can function without him.

As we have seen, the above passage egregiously misrepresents Paley’s argument in his Natural Theology.

Professor Feser repeats his misconstrual of Paley’s design argument in a recent article entitled, “Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide” (Philosophia Christi 12 (2010): 142-159). Here are some examples:

Aristotelian teleological realism … holds … that teleology is both immanent to the natural world and in need of no further explanation, divine or otherwise. One of the differences between Paley and ID [Intelligent Design] defenders on the one hand, and A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] defenders of Aquinas’s Fifth Way on the other, is that the latter acknowledge the Aristotelian challenge and take it seriously. The reason is that they reject the mechanistic conception of nature held in common by naturalists on the one hand and Paley and ID defenders on the other — a conception which, by definition, rules out from the start the Aristotelian view that teleology is immanent to natural substances. (p. 153)

…[F]or ID theory as for Paley, it is (contrary to the A-T position) at least possible that natural substances have no end, goal, or purpose; they just think this is improbable. The reason is that their essentially mechanistic conception of nature leads them to model the world on the analogy of a human artifact. The bits of metal that make up a watch have no inherent tendency toward functioning as a timepiece; it is at least theoretically possible, even if improbable, that a watch-like arrangement might come about by chance. (p. 154)

[Aquinas] says that unintelligent natural objects cannot move towards an end unless directed by an intelligence, not that it is highly improbable that they will do so… It is not an inductive generalization at all, nor an argument from analogy, nor an argument to the best explanation… This is a metaphysical assertion, not an exercise in empirical hypothesis formation. (p. 157)

The argument [of Aquinas] differs from Paley-style design arguments and the arguments of ID theorists in ways other than those already mentioned. For example, since the entities comprising the natural world have the final causes they have as long as they exist, the intellect in question has to exist as long as the natural world itself does, so as continually to direct things to their ends. The deistic notion that God might have “designed” the world and then left it to run independently is ruled out. Here, as in the other main Thomistic arguments for God’s existence, the aim is to show that God is a sustaining or conserving cause of the world rather than that He got the world started at some point in the past. (pp. 158-159)


In a nutshell, what is wrong with Professor Feser’s analysis of Paley’s argument?

The errors in Feser’s misreading of Paley can be grouped under five main headings.

Feser’s first error lies in his astonishing assertion that Paley denied that natural objects possess any immanent causal powers of their own. The absurdity of this charge should be evident to anyone who has read Paley’s Natural Theology: there are dozens of passages in the book which clearly indicate that Paley believed that natural objects possessed powers in their own right – active as well as passive. For example, Paley refers to the “powers of nature which prevail at present” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIV, page 440) and he writes about “gravity, magnetism, electricity; together with the properties also and powers of organized substances, of vegetable or of animated nature” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIV, page 446). Paley’s view of living things is also clearly teleological. For example, in his Natural Theology, he describes the process by which living things nourish themselves, as follows:

Unconscious particles of matter take their stations, and severally range themselves in an order, so as to become collectively plants or animals, i.e. organized bodies, with parts bearing strict and evident relation to one another, and to the utility of the whole. (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, page 420).

What Paley denied, however, was that natural objects lacking intelligence could possess any built-in powers to adapt means to ends, as such, or to assemble themselves into intricate arrangements of parts which are adapted to some common end. That is what Paley means when he scoffs at the notion of “a principle of order in nature” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter V, page 71). Paley is simply asserting that Nature doesn’t possess any magical powers: in particular, it is utterly incapable of spontaneously organizing itself into systems of well co-ordinated parts working together for the good of the whole.

Second, Feser’s claim that Paley’s argument for a Deity in his Natural Theology is “a merely probabilistic one” is contradicted over and over again, in passages which make it clear that Paley envisaged his argument as nothing less than a positive proof of God’s existence. For example, he refers to “the marks of contrivance discoverable in animal bodies, and to the argument deduced from them, in proof of design, and of a designing Creator” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter IV, page 67) and when discussing the example of the eye, he writes:

“If there were but one watch in the world, it would not be less certain that it had a maker… Of this point, each machine is a proof, independently of all the rest. So it is with the evidences of a Divine agency… The eye proves it without the ear; the ear without the eye.” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter VI, pages 76-77.)

Referring to the human eye, Paley wrote:

Were there no example in the world, of contrivance, except that of the eye, it would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion which we draw from it, as to the necessity of an intelligent Creator. (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter VI, page 75.)

Again, in his discussion of the ligament of the ball-and-socket joint of the thigh, Paley declares that it provides us with unequivocal proof of a Creator:

If I had been permitted to frame a proof of contrivance, such as might satisfy the most distrustful inquirer, I know not whether I could have chosen an example of mechanism more unequivocal, or more free from objection, than this ligament. (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter VIII, pp. 112-113.)

Paley also maintained that design without a Designer is impossible, and not merely improbable:

There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance without a contriver; order without choice; arrangement, without any thing capable of arranging; subserviency and relation to a purpose, without that which could intend a purpose; means suitable to an end, and executing their office, in accomplishing that end, without the end ever having been contemplated, or the means accommodated to it. Arrangement, disposition of parts, subserviency of means to an end, relation of instruments to a use, imply the presence of intelligence and mind. (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter II, pp. 8-11.)

I am at a loss to imagine how Feser could have overlooked passages like these.

Third, Feser’s assertion that “it is at least theoretically possible, even if improbable, that a watch-like arrangement might come about by chance” is contradicted by Paley, who repeatedly affirms in his Natural Theology that what he called “contrivances” could only come from intelligent agents. In the passage below, Paley lists the same three distinguishing characteristics of a contrivance and declares that there cannot be contrivance without a contriver:

There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance without a contriver; order without choice; arrangement, without any thing capable of arranging; subserviency and relation to a purpose, without that which could intend a purpose; means suitable to an end, and executing their office, in accomplishing that end, without the end ever having been contemplated, or the means accommodated to it. Arrangement, disposition of parts, subserviency of means to an end, relation of instruments to a use, imply the presence of intelligence and mind.
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter II, p. 11)

Now we can see why Paley insisted:

“If there were but one watch in the world, it would not be less certain that it had a maker.”
(Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter VI, p. 76.)

St. Thomas Aquinas concurred with Paley on this point, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 7, Lesson 8, paragraph 1436, where he writes that “some things, for instance, health, sometimes come to be by art and sometimes by chance, while others, for instance, a house, come to be only by art and never by chance.” Aquinas goes on to give the reason: “in the case of stones and timbers there is no active power by which the matter can be moved to receive the form of a house” (paragraph 1438), and he adds: “Therefore those artificial things which have this kind of nature, such as a house made of bricks, cannot set themselves in motion; for they cannot be moved unless they are moved by something else” (paragraph 1440).

It gets better. Aquinas goes on to give an example from biology, in his discussion of the “higher” animals, which Aristotle referred to as perfect animals – a term which roughly corresponds to what we call mammals. Aquinas maintains that while these animals have a natural power of generating themselves through sexual reproduction, they are incapable of originating through spontaneous generation: “But those things whose matter cannot be moved by itself by that very motion by which the seed is moved, are incapable of being generated in another way than from their own seed; and this is evident in the case of man and horse and other perfect animals” (paragraph 1454). The reason, as he explains in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 7, Lesson 6, paragraph 1401, is that “the more perfect a thing is, the more numerous are the things required for its completeness.

In his Summa Theologica I, q. 91 art. 2, Reply to Objection 2 (Whether the human body was immediately produced by God), Aquinas explains why inanimate forces – even heavenly bodies, which were then believed to play a vital role in animal reproduction – are incapable of generating these “perfect” animals:

Reply to Objection 2. Perfect animals, produced from seed, cannot be made by the sole power of a heavenly body, as Avicenna imagined… But the power of heavenly bodies suffices for the production of some imperfect animals from properly disposed matter: for it is clear that more conditions are required to produce a perfect than an imperfect thing.

For Aquinas, the reason why more conditions are required to produce perfect animals is that these animals have more complex body parts, partly due to their possession of several senses, but also because of the demands of their active lifestyle. For example, in De Coelo, Book II Lecture 13, paragraph 411, Aquinas writes that “For animals of this sort, the more perfect they are, the greater variety do they exhibit in their parts.” and in Summa Contra Gentiles Book II chapter 72, paragraph 5, he explains that perfect animals have “the greatest diversity of organs,” because they perform “many operations” when exercising their “powers” – especially their sensory powers such as sight and hearing.

If that is not a Paleyan argument, then I don’t know what is.

Fourth, although Paley envisaged the purposes of living creatures’ organs as having been “imposed from outside”, they were nonetheless inherent to those creatures. For an Aristotelian-Thomist, it makes perfect sense to speak of an externally imposed power as being inherent to a creature. Here’s why. When the form of a designed object is imposed on pre-existing matter, that matter will not always retain its nature. Indeed, if the form imposed is what Aristotelian-Thomists refer to as a substantial form, then the matter will acquire a new nature. This is a perfectly legitimate example of design, since the form is conferred from outside by an intelligent agent. In this radical act of transformation, nothing from the old object would remain except for the “prime matter” underlying the change. From the perspective of the “prime matter,” the powers of the new object would be imposed from outside. However, since the powers of the new object arise from its new nature (which includes its new substantial form), these powers would still be natural to the object itself.

Finally, Paley’s Designer is no absentee Deity, who wanders away from His creation after he has finished his “watchmaking.” In his Natural Theology, Paley argues that God is needed to maintain the cosmos at every moment of its existence, and that nothing could continue working without him. Paley, like Aquinas, believed that matter “cannot move, unless it be moved; and cannot but move, when impelled by another” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, page 448.) Spirit, on the other hand, is self-moving, and this power of originating motion is “the quality, perhaps, in which resides the essential superiority of spirit over matter” (ibid.) Hence for Paley it follows that something extraneous to the material world is continually required to keep it moving: “In the works of nature we trace mechanism; and this alone proves contrivance: but living, active, moving, productive nature, proves also the exertion of a power at the centre: for, wherever the power resides, may be denominated the centre.” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXIII, page 418.) Later, Paley specifically declares that God conserves things in existence: he refers to God as “the Preserver of the world” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XVII, page 298) and writes: “Under this stupendous Being we live. Our happiness, our existence, is in his hands. All we expect must come from him. (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXVII, p. 541)

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Part C: Aquinas and Paley: just how far apart were they?


St. Thomas Aquinas used the example of an arrow in his famous Fifth Way, arguing for the existence of God. Image of a target arrow and a medieval arrow, courtesy of Wikipedia.

In a recent article entitled, “An Aristotelian-Thomist responds to Edward Feser’s ‘Teleology'”, (Philosophia Christi, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 2010), Thomist philosopher Marie George made several pointed criticisms of Professor Edward Feser’s modern recasting of Aquinas’ teleological argument. In her view, the differences between Aquinas’ teleological argument and Paley’s design argument have been greatly exaggerated.

The underlying similarity between Aquinas’ and Paley’s arguments that Feser has overlooked

In her article, Professor George contends that Feser has overlooked the profound similarities between Aquinas’ teleological argument for the existence of God, in his Fifth Way, and Paley’s argument from design:

… [Feser’s] emphasis on the intrinsic directedness to an end of natural things leads him to be unduly critical of Paley’s argument, when in fact there are many striking similarities between Paley’s argument and the Fifth Way, similarities that merit careful reflection. (2010, p. 449)

Feser has written a great deal about the distinction between natural and artificial objects. For him, the all-important fact is that the former possess immanent finality (built-in goals or tendencies), while the latter do not. Because Feser is very much concerned with the metaphysical differences between the two classes of objects, I believe he may have overlooked the possibility that there might be a fundamental similarity in Aquinas’s and Paley’s approaches. For example, note how Aquinas readily sees the example of a clock — an obvious equivalent of Paley’s watch — as equivalent to the arrow example he uses over and over again to illustrate the principle that the end-directedness of non intelligent beings must ultimately be reduced to beings that are intelligent… (2010, p. 447)

To drive home the point that she is making, Professor George quotes parallel passages from Aquinas and Paley:

A final suggestion that I will make here is that the same idea underlies both Paley’s general principle that a multiplicity of parts ordered and adjusted to achieve a goal must ultimately be traced back to an intelligent being and the corresponding principle in Aquinas’s argument that “those things which lack cognition do not tend to an end unless directed by someone knowing and intelligent.” As Paley puts it: “Arrangement, disposition of parts, subserviency of means to end, relation of instruments to an [sic] use, imply the presence of intelligence and mind.”35 As Aquinas puts it:

However, in order for the action of the agent to be suited to the end, it is necessary for it to be adapted and proportioned to it, which cannot come about except from some intellect which knows the end and the notion of the end and the proportion of the end to that which is to the end; otherwise the suitability of the action for the end would be chance. But the intellect ordering things to the end is sometimes conjoined to the agent…[and] sometimes separate, as is manifest in the case of the arrow.36

35. William Paley, Natural Theology (1802; Houston: St. Thomas Press, 1972), 9
36. Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae, vol. 2, Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia, ed. P. M. Pession (Turin: Marietti, 1965), 1.5.
(2010, p. 448)

Nevertheless, there is a subtle difference in the two arguments, which George remarks upon in an article entitled, Where Intelligent Design and Dawkins meet: “Aquinas says things which lack cognition do not tend to an end unless directed by someone knowing and intelligent, as the arrow by an archer. Paley says that a thing having multiplicity of parts ordered and adjusted to achieve a goal is necessarily the work of an intelligent being.”

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Do Aquinas and Paley argue for design in completely different ways?

At this point, Professor Feser might argue that there is in fact a fundamental difference between Aquinas’ teleological argument and Paley’s argument from design: all that matters for Aquinas is the mere fact that things exhibit tendencies towards certain built-in ends (or goals, or tendencies), whereas for Paley, the complexity of things is of critical importance in establishing that the natural world has an Intelligent Designer. As Feser puts it in his book, Aquinas (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009):

While Paley and his successors focus on complex biological structures, Aquinas is not especially interested either in biology or complexity per se; even extremely simple inorganic phenomena suffice in his view to show that a Supreme Intelligence exists… For to repeat, he is not interested here in complexity per se in the first place; as Garrigou-Lagrange points out, even a simple physical phenomenon like the attraction of two particles would suffice for his purposes. (2009, pp. 112, 113)

Feser is over-stating the contrast between Aquinas and Paley here: as we have seen, Aquinas appeals most often to biological examples when speaking of the finality in Nature.

Moreover, I believe that Feser is mistaken in his contention that Aquinas’ argument can be formulated perfectly well without appealing to complex phenomena. On the contrary, complex phenomena form a vital part of his argument for the existence of God. This can be seen if we examine the earlier version of the teleological argument in Aquinas’ writings: the argument from the harmony of the world in the Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, chapter 13, paragraph 35:

Damascene proposes another argument for the same conclusion taken from the government of the world [De fide orthodoxa I, 3]. Averroes likewise hints at it [In II Physicorum]. The argument runs thus. Contrary and discordant things cannot, always or for the most part, be parts of one order except under someone’s government, which enables all and each to tend to a definite end. But in the world we find that things of diverse natures come together under one order, and this not rarely or by chance, but always or for the most part. There must therefore be some being by whose providence the world is governed. This we call God.

We have already seen that for Aquinas, the attainment of some good is a vital feature of his concept of final causality. Here we see him arguing that things of various natures all form part of one harmonious world order. I think it is fair to conclude that Aquinas’ teleological argument presupposes a certain amount of complexity in the world, and that it could not be formulated in a satisfactory manner for a universe consisting of nothing more than, say, two particles displaying mutual attraction. Something more is needed: a teleological system has to “hang together” in an ordered, harmonious way. In other words, it has to be complex.

I think it is fair to conclude that the contrast between Aquinas’ and Paley’s teleology is overdrawn.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Two teleological arguments in Aquinas: why St. Thomas selected the first for his Summa Theologica, while Paley decided to defend the second

If we look at Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, we find that there are two teleological arguments. The first argument, which is based on the fact that things act in accordance with their built-in dispositions, is found in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book I chapter 44, paragraph 7:

Again, that which tends determinately to some end either has set itself that end or the end has been set for it by another. Otherwise, it would tend no more to this end than to that. Now, natural things tend to determinate ends. They do not fulfill their natural needs by chance, since they would not do so always or for the most part, but rarely, which is the domain of chance. Since, then, things do not set for themselves an end, because they have no notion of what an end is, the end must be set for them by another, who is the author of nature. He it is who gives being to all things and is through Himself the necessary being. We call Him God, as is clear from what we have said. But God could not set an end for nature unless He had understanding. God is, therefore, intelligent.

It is this argument which Aquinas summarizes in his celebrated Fifth Way (Summa Theologica I, q. 2 article 3). The wording of the main premise is slightly different, although the gist is the same: “We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.”

The second argument, which is based on the harmony of the different things making up our world, is taken from the Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, chapter 13, paragraph 35. I’ll just quote the last part, as I’ve already discussed it:

Contrary and discordant things cannot, always or for the most part, be parts of one order except under someone’s government, which enables all and each to tend to a definite end. But in the world we find that things of diverse natures come together under one order, and this not rarely or by chance, but always or for the most part. There must therefore be some being by whose providence the world is governed. This we call God.

Rev. William Paley’s argument from design is a variant on Aquinas’ second teleological argument. There is an important difference between them: whereas Aquinas refers to “contrary and discordant things” (italics mine) working together as “parts of one order,” Paley is impressed with contrivances, or systems of precisely co-ordinated parts working together for a common end. Nevertheless, what the two arguments have in common is that they are based on the working of different parts of a system towards a common goal. Aquinas’ first teleological argument, by contrast, focused on the bare fact that all things – even relatively simple objects, such as electrons – tend towards built-in goals, as shown by the fact that they behave in a regular, law-like fashion.

It is easy to see why Aquinas, when presenting his Five Ways, selected the first teleological argument rather than the second: the latter seems to presuppose the former, and the former argument would have seemed far less controversial in the thirteenth century, when Aristotle’s philosophy was held in high esteem. By the time William Paley wrote his Natural Theology in 1802, however, the Zeitgeist was very different. So too was the background metaphysics that was accepted by intelligent and educated people: in particular, the Scientific Revolution made naturalists leery of formal and final causes. Efficient and material causes were seen as doing the real explanatory work in science.

In Paley’s time, Aquinas’ first teleological argument would have been difficult to defend, as it included the assertion that things which lack intelligence act “always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.” In Paley’s day, atheists would have ridiculed this statement with withering scorn.

Another stumbling block would have been the Aristotelian premise that “natural things tend to determinate ends.” In Paley’s day, this would have seemed an odd way of talking about inanimate bodies: physics and chemistry were, by then, conceived of in mechanistic terms. Only in the biological realm did teleology still hold sway.

On the other hand, the invention of the microscope had revealed to scientists the existence of complex structures within living organisms whose existence was totally unsuspected. These structures far exceeded anything that human designers could produce, in terms of their ingenuity. The inference to a Designer seemed very natural, for physico-theologians in Paley’s day. Aquinas’ second kind of teleological argument, which dealt with parts and wholes, would have been a logical choice, for a work such as Paley’s Natural Theology.

I conclude that the philosophical distance between the design thinking of Aquinas and that of Paley has been greatly over-stated by over-zealous proponents of Aristotelian-Thomism. It is to be hoped that a more constructive and irenic approach, of the kind championed by Professor Marie George, will yield a richer appreciation of the thinking of these two great Christian philosophers.

26 Replies to “Was Paley a mechanist?

  1. 1
    Breckmin says:

    Thorough work. Has Edward Feser seen any of this? (and did he have a response?)

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    If I missed it I apologize, but what is a mechanist?

    Aren’t we all mechanists? Doesn’t all mechanism imply final causes?

    Guess I’ll have to pull out my Feser and see how he answers these. 🙂

    But really, we should dedicate a couple weeks to each of these threads on Paley!

    Thanks vjt

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    Semi On Topic 🙂

    The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology

    Paley gets more mentions than Plantinga!

    not really 😉

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    vjt:

    It should be noted that the powers listed in the passage quoted above…

    Minor nitpick. This paragraph appears twice in your essay.

    2. and 2.(ii)

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    Neither mechanism, therefore, in the works of nature, nor the intervention of what are called second causes (for I think that they are the same thing), excuses the necessity of an agent distinct from both.

    How is it immanent teleology of it requires an external agent?

  6. 6
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Mung,

    Thanks for your constructive comments. I’ve fleshed out the essay a bit, including a definition of “mechanist,” “semi-mechanist” and “teleomechanist” in section 6 of Part A, and removing the duplicate paragraph, as well as adding a few explanatory remarks here and there. Once again, many thanks. Happy New Year.

  7. 7
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Breckmin,

    I haven’t contacted Professor Feser yet, as I’ll be putting out one more post on Paley in the very near future.

  8. 8
  9. 9
    Lamont says:

    VJT,
    Thanks for the two posts on Paley. He is certainly more interesting and more nuanced than I thought based on the few excerpts I have read. That being said, the fact that he rejects essential/substantial forms means that the natures and final causal powers he speaks of are the same for machines as they are for living things. They are simply present because of the order of the parts imposed on the thing by its designer. Hence the claim that Paley is a mechanist is a legitimate criticism. He uses the same words, but Paley does not mean by nature or final cause what Aristotle or Aquinas means.

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    In keeping with the science of his day, Paley maintained that matter in the form of a body still possessed the natural property of inertia – in other words, that one body is naturally incapable of moving another body, unless something else is moving it. Aquinas upheld the same view, as did Aristotle.

    The Medieval Principle of Motion and the Modern Principle of Inertia

    Be sure to read on, the paper also contains other interesting articles.

  11. 11
    vjtorley says:

    Mung,

    Thank you very much for the links in #8 and #10. I’ve actually read them previously, but readers will find them useful. I believe that Professor Feser has done a grave disservice to Paley’s philosophy, whatever he thinks of the Intelligent Design movement.

    Re #10: In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, chapter 20 (That God is not a body), Aquinas states in paragraph 8 that “no body moves locally unless it be moved,” and again in paragraph 27 that “no body moves except by being moved.” That was the vital point on which he and Paley were in agreement.

  12. 12
    vjtorley says:

    Lamont,

    Thank you for your post. I have to respectfully disagree with your assertion that “the fact that he [Paley] rejects essential/substantial forms means that the natures and final causal powers he speaks of are the same for machines as they are for living things.”

    As I argued above, while Paley does reject talk of “essential forms,” he nevertheless (a) affirmed the reality of final causes in living things; (b) recognized that the parts of living things possess intrinsic teleology, as they work together for the good of the whole organism; (c) acknowledged that natural objects have both active and passive powers; (d) declared that things possess natures which make them the kinds of things they are; and (e) referred to things as having organizing forms. I therefore cannot accept your conclusion that “the natures and final causal powers he speaks of are the same for machines as they are for living things.” The mechanism is the same for both; but the finality is different. I think Paley should be read charitably, and given the benefit of the doubt, when he uses teleological language, and I see no reason to construe him as a 17th century mechanist like Descartes.

  13. 13
    Mung says:

    VJT,

    You appear to be saying that Wm. Paley was a kind of mechanist, but that he was not a mechanist.

    A mechanist is someone who denies that the teleology we find in Nature is real and irreducible.

    Would Descartes be that sort of mechanist, or some other sort?

  14. 14
    Gregory says:

    Thanks to vjtorley for #48 in the other thread. First, I appreciated your reference to Whitman:

    Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

    Now at least you understand why I called you out on writing small-id ‘intelligent designer’ and Big-ID ‘Intelligent Designer’ sometimes, and small-id ‘intelligent design’ and Big-ID ‘Intelligent Design’ at other times, in several recent threads here at UD.

    Second, thanks for attempting to clarify what you mean by capitalising certain words. Here are the two points I find most helpful:

    “(ii) When I’m using the word “intelligent” in front of “designer,” I normally capitalize both (“Intelligent Designer”) to make it clear that I’m referring to the Designer of Nature – a Being Whom I believe to be God (although I cannot demonstrate this on scientific grounds, as science can only tell us so much about the Designer);

    (vi) When using the word “intelligence,” I keep it in lower case if I am referring to an attribute of intelligent beings, but I use capital letters (e.g. “an Intelligence”) when I am referring to the Designer of Nature – a Being Whom I believe to be God;”

    If you can keep to these standards in the future, communication between us will be much improved. (If only others at UD would adopt your careful standards!) This seems to be one of the most significant disagreements between those who promote ‘theistic evolution’ or ‘evolutionary creation’ and those who promote Big-ID theories – 1) Scientificity of ‘design/Design’ claims, and 2) politics involved in the DI’s ‘cultural renewal’ movement.

    As I indicated before, the ‘lower case id’ vs. ‘upper case ID’ distinction from Owen Gingerich (2006) was the watershed here. Big-ID has too often flip-flopped between small-id and Big-ID to suit its PR purposes, which has muddied the communicative waters. That you are deliberate and clear to capitalise, Vincent, does not mean that many or even most others in the IDM hold such a standard of communicative integrity.

    When Paley says, “There cannot be design without a designer,” what you mean in Big-ID language is that “There cannot be Design without a Designer.” There’s nothing lower-case implied about the ‘Design’ based on Big-ID’s analogy between human designs and Divine Designs and univocal predication between human designers and a/the non-human Designer, “whom you [and most IDists] believe to be God”. Otherwise it’s pretty much the same ‘design/Design argument,’ right? Blaming F. Ayala for his crude biologistic claim of how “design with the designer” was Darwin’s greatest discovery doesn’t excuse his remedial philosophy of science or help lead to a better pathway forward today, i.e. by remaining stuck in an outdated argument about ‘design/Design’ from the 19th century.

    It’s like Darwin and Marx vs. Collins/Venter and McLuhan in the 21st century reality!

    However, there is still a major issue in what you wrote above, which is that many Big-IDists simply will not allow themselves to say, as you do, that “science can tell us…much about the Designer” at all. They persist that Big-ID is not about the Big-D Designer at all. Zero. Zilch. Nichevo. How do you square that circle, vjtorley, other than by suggesting that consistency within the IDM isn’t necessarily that important and thus undermining the Big-ID message?

    Again, vjtorley, it is my view that theology, not science, can “tell us so much about the Designer.” And then there’s a major difference between kataphatic and apophatic theologies – what can we know, observe, intuit, feel, experience, understand, etc. Once theology is openly and purposefully brought into the ‘design/Design’ conversation, many more features will be involved than the minimalistic, explanatorily extremely weak (no who, when, where or how, no ‘Design’ process or ‘Designer’) ‘scientific proofs’ for Big-ID that are currently floated as ‘evidence’ in the IDM. That atheists will not be active participants in so far as theology is involved does not invalidate the importance of having such a science, philosophy, theology/worldview conversation in the electronic-information age.

    What I find most interesting in your choice of language is this:

    “(viii) To those who may object that I am being overly theological in using caps in cases (ii) to (iv) to denote a Being Whose existence I am arguing for on scientific grounds

    The issue for me is not whether or not (i.e. to what degree) you are “being overly theological,” but that you are (by kind of knowledge) involving theology at all, even a little bit, enough for a foot in the door, so to speak. Iow, to you (Big-ID) ‘Intelligent Design’ *is* about the Designer in a theological, not a scientific sense. Yes, I know you will protest otherwise, but this is a position that can be disabused; the felt need to speak scientistically in order to be authentic, legitimate, rational, calculative. This is a major point of concession that those who continually holler and argue that Big-ID is a ‘natural-science-only’ theory stubbornly will not concede. Your language shows that you think differently than this.

    Thus, when you speak of ‘Intelligent Designer’ as “a Being Whom I believe to be God,” there is nothing wrong with that. But it means there is also no lack of clarity that Big-ID is not and cannot be thought to be (except by the Anglo-American culture-war deluded) simply a ‘natural-scientific’ hypothesis, full stop. Frankly put, Vincent, you wouldn’t be capitalising the way you do if you thought the Designer could be reduced to what comes within any natural scientific theory’s reach. So why not break new ground and admit Big-ID is properly understood as a science, philosophy, theology/worldview topic.

    I would also possibly be quite aided if you would answer this statement from Gingerich (1994), which relates to your recent posts on Paley’s Natural Theology, where he says: “It would be possible to be a theist and a Christian even in the absence of observed design.” Do you agree or disagree? I would prefer you to answer if the word ‘scientifically’ is added before “observed design” to get right at the heart of small-id (‘design’ = theology) vs. Big-ID (‘Design’ = science) differences.

    Indeed, I don’t think you really are arguing “on scientific grounds” for a Big-ID Intelligent Designer at all, vjtorley, nor are most IDists, many/most of whom are not scientists. You are arguing (or apologising) for a Big-ID Intelligent Designer based on natural theology and seeking to dress it up in natural scientific garb. This is often done in order that people may argue with Darwinian theorists, atheists and agnostics who promote public understanding of Science = atheism by using probability arguments and specificationism. Or do you suggest people actually *should* argue for the Designer’s existence on natural scientific grounds too?

    I guess it’s still not clear to me why all the way over there in Japan, a highly secular nation-state where people are almost entirely unfamiliar with Big-ID Intelligent Design theory (though I imagine small-id design theory is much better known there), what’s your connection with (what often appears to be particularly) American Big-ID. From what it appears, you do believe it is both possible and even necessary to (attempt to) produce a scientific theology, a natural theology or a science of theology. Please correct this misimpression if it is wrong.

    Yet, I wonder if I could inquire: regarding your own personal faith, within whichever broader Abrahamic Tradition and Institution, did it initially come to you through ‘natural scientific’ proof or evidence or from outside of natural science? As for me, even though I started in the most mathematical of the social sciences, it was not a ‘rationalisation of the rainbow’ (mechanistic Big-ID-type organic theory) that led me into taking some features of life and transcendence on faith.

    Thanks for your insights on these matters,
    Gr.

  15. 15
    Timaeus says:

    Gregory:

    I am sure you will be more interested in Vincent’s response than in mine, but I would like to respond to one of your questions:

    ‘“It would be possible to be a theist and a Christian even in the absence of observed design.” Do you agree or disagree?’

    I agree. One might become a Christian or some other kind of theist based on religious experience, or on being convinced of the truth of some written revelation. So design arguments are not *necessary* in order to produce belief in God. But everyone agrees on that. Aquinas, Paley, Dembski, Behe, Meyer — all would say that the belief in God does not *depend* on the validity of design arguments.

    But so what? It has never been claimed by any ID Christian that belief in God *should* depend on design arguments. That does not make design arguments logically invalid. It merely means that, for the simple Christian who has no patience or ability for philosophical or scientific reasoning, God is always accessible (which is as it should be in the Christian faith); whereas for those who wonder whether or not the existence of some kind of God, or at least some kind of designer, might be proved through reasoning from the facts of nature, design arguments are available. There is no difficulty about any of this. It is all covered very clearly early on in Aquinas’s Summa. (Of course, Aquinas had in mind metaphysical arguments of a general nature rather than design arguments of the Paleyan type, but the general principle is the same: such arguments are not needed for Christian faith, yet they remain valid for the philosopher who can understand them.)

    I haven’t read Gingerich, so I won’t comment on his remark out of context, but TEs regularly seem to conflate the proposition “design arguments are not necessary for Christian faith” (which ID people agree with) with “design arguments are invalid” (which ID people don’t agree with). An argument might well be logically valid, but unnecessary. (A witness to a crime doesn’t need the D.A.’s logical reconstruction of the crime to know who did it, but that doesn’t make the D.A.’s reconstruction incorrect.)

  16. 16
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Gregory,

    I’ll answer your personal questions first. You asked me about my personal faith and how I came by it. I was baptized and raised as a Catholic. Although I went through various periods of questioning (as well as investigating other religions) while I was in secondary school, it was at university that I began to have serious doubts, in my early twenties, and to spend the following six years weighing up the evidence for Christianity. I finally left the Church when I was 28, as I was convinced mainly on philosophical grounds that Christianity could not be true, although arguments relating to Biblical inerrancy (e.g. Numbers 31:16) which I had imbibed from Tom Paine, influenced me too. I eventually returned to the faith after a long hiatus when I was about 43. By then, the philosophical arguments that had appeared unassailable to me over a decade earlier no longer appeared so persuasive, and additionally, the philosophical and scientific arguments for God’s existence struck me as a lot more powerful. I wasn’t an ID proponent at that time, although I was favorably impressed with the Fine-Tuning argument. I had also done some exploring of other faiths and of “spirituality” (as opposed to religion), and hadn’t found anything satisfying. The idea of the Incarnation appealed to me at the level of the heart, and by 2004 I found that I could express it to myself in language that my intellect could accept too. At the time of my return to Christianity, I didn’t believe in Biblical inerrancy. (Neither did C.S. Lewis, by the way – a fact that may interest you.) That came later. By late 2005, I had returned to the Catholic faith of my childhood. Part of that had to do with my becoming a parent – an event, which, like the prospect of impending death, concentrates the mind wonderfully (to borrow a phrase from Belloc). I realized that I didn’t want my child to grow up believing in nothing in particular. I still retained a childhood memory (from the age of five) of experiencing genuine joy for a brief period, while growing up in an atmosphere which seemed saturated with the presence of God, and I associated that with the Catholic school I attended at that time. (I attended 15 schools altogether during my childhood.) That joy was what I wanted to pass on to my child. I sometimes wonder if children in the 21st century still experience that magical feeling of seeing the world as suffused with the presence of God, at the age when I did. I suspect TV has broken the spell, nowadays. That’s a pity.

    As I recall, I didn’t get involved in the ID movement until late 2006/early 2007, so it had nothing to do with my return to faith. Having said that, I have to say that the biological arguments for Intelligent Design have strengthened my faith in God. I have also encountered people within the ID movement whose commitment to their faith has strengthened my own faith in Christianity.

    I had encountered Intelligent Design much earlier, though – as far back as the early nineties, when I bought Darwin on Trial. I have to say I didn’t like it much, as I felt it didn’t do justice to the way scientists argue for evolution. I was much more impressed with Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. When I first encountered Professor Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, I was very taken with the arguments it presented, but by about 2000, I had read so many replies to Behe’s book on the Internet by neo-Darwinists that I felt I could no longer have confidence in its claims, as a scientific layman. What changed the game for me around 2006/2007 was the growing realization that the biological design of living things at the microscopic level was much, much more advanced than anything that human scientists could have come up with. I figured that if the cell was better designed than our best scientists could have made it, then it had to have had a Designer. Alex Williams’ paper, Astonishing DNA complexity demolishes neo-Darwinism played a role in changing my thinking. (I know Williams is a creationist, but it was his arguments about how DNA stores information that convinced me.) Videos like this one and this one also had a powerful influence on my thinking. Finally, videos like this one helped me realize how much trouble neo-Darwinian evolution is in, as a mathematical theory.

    And now I’d like to address your other remarks, Gregory.

    ‘”It would be possible to be a theist and a Christian even in the absence of observed design.” Do you agree or disagree?’

    It would still be possible to be a theist, certainly – although the Argument from Suffering would buffet my faith in God a lot more, if I didn’t have any evidence for design. Without that, all I’d have would be: (a) the modal cosmological argument, which reasons from the contingency of the world to a Necessary Being (but doesn’t tell us whether this Being is intelligent or not, let alone personal); (b) the argument from Aquinas’ De Ente et Essentia, that finite beings cannot be self-existent, as their essence and existence are distinct (Hmmmmm); (c) the ontological argument, which boils down to the claim that if a perfect Being is possible, then it is necessary (appealing at a gut level, but there’s still the big “if”); and (d) the argument from religious experience (which I don’t think would be enough to sway me, on its own). In short, in the total absence of signs of design in the universe, theism would be a very bumpy ride, for me.

    As for Christianity, it seems committed that there is abundant empirical evidence for design, which we should all be able to recognize (Romans 1:20), so that would be a problem. However, I would certainly be impressed by the evidence for miracles (such as this one, which is about the best authenticated one I’ve come across – please read the whole thing).

    You also write:

    You are arguing (or apologising) for a Big-ID Intelligent Designer based on natural theology and seeking to dress it up in natural scientific garb.

    Here, I think you fail to distinguish between an individual’s personal motivation for making an argument, and the argument that he/she makes. For instance, a scientist may spend his whole life writing books promoting evolution, because he/she had an unpleasant experience of being raised in a religious household as a child. That doesn’t weaken the scientist’s arguments, however. I don’t mind admitting that for me, on a personal level, Intelligent Design strengthens the arguments for natural theology. But I would also add that: (a) I would still believe in an Intelligent Designer of the cosmos, even if I didn’t have any religious faith; (b) my religious faith would not be affected if the arguments for biological Intelligent Design were completely discredited; and (c) I am well aware that scientific arguments alone cannot take us to God – at best, all they could take us to is a personal Intelligent Agent, outside the cosmos, Who might well be God.

    Regarding other people’s arguments for God’s existence: I don’t mind what arguments they use, so long as they don’t diss ID. There are some philosophers who insist that metaphysics alone can take us to God, at a rational level, and that science can’t help. That makes my heart sink, because I know that most people can’t be reached through metaphysical arguments. They can be reached through Intelligent Design arguments, however.

    You ask what on earth I’m doing in Japan. Very simple: I live and work here. I don’t know anyone else in this country who believes in ID, but that’s fine: Japan is a very “live-and-let-live” country. It’s also a mistake to see it as “highly secular.” Most people aren’t religious, but the social glue that binds this society together is that everyone – including nonbelievers – takes part in certain traditional ceremonies which are, at bottom, religious. Additionally, the traditional “village ethic,” which is still very strong even after decades of urbanization, helps produce a society of people who are very kind, thoughtful, courteous, patient and honest. It’s a great place to live.

    You write that your impression is that I believe “it is both possible and even necessary to (attempt to) produce a scientific theology, a natural theology or a science of theology.” Yes, that’s correct. Although you don’t have to be a theist to accept ID, I think it can tell us about the mind and intentions of God. Kepler once said he felt that he was thinking God’s thoughts after Him. All good science should do that, and if ID is good science, then it should, too. Additionally, I think that an understanding of how God thinks, designs and plans things will help answer long-standing philosophical objections to the coherence of theism, and answer the argument from evil. But that’s decades down the track.

  17. 17
    Alan Fox says:

    You ask what on earth I’m doing in Japan. Very simple: I live and work here. I don’t know anyone else in this country who believes in ID, but that’s fine: Japan is a very “live-and-let-live” country. It’s also a mistake to see it as “highly secular.” Most people aren’t religious, but the social glue that binds this society together is that everyone – including non-believers – takes part in certain traditional ceremonies which are, at bottom, religious. Additionally, the traditional “village ethic,” which is still very strong even after decades of urbanization, helps produce a society of people who are very kind, thoughtful, courteous, patient and honest. It’s a great place to live.

    O/T @ Vincent. You were kind enough to respond to my question about the Nisshin Maru and I’m wondering if you might have the time to answer a couple of queries related to whaling “research” and consumption of whale meat? As an editor, you presumably have my email address. I’d be most grateful for any insights you could offer. No worries if you’d rather not.

  18. 18
    Mung says:

    As for Christianity, it seems committed that there is abundant empirical evidence for design, which we should all be able to recognize (Romans 1:20), so that would be a problem.

    If there were no appearance of design, would that contradict Scripture? If so, the design argument should be important as a defense of Scripture.

  19. 19
    Mung says:

    Alan, your concern about whaling appears to be entirely philosophical. Give it up. It’s all bunk.

  20. 20
    Alan Fox says:

    Alan, your concern about whaling appears to be entirely philosophical.

    No, it’s quite practical!

    >blockquote>Give it up. It’s all bunk.

    Just my personal viewpoint on philosophy. I’m very happy for others to indulge as much as they wish. The free exchange of ideas is paramount. I really don’t want to suppress philosophy as an intellectual pursuit.

  21. 21
    Alan Fox says:

    You can see where I went wrong with the tag!

  22. 22
    Mung says:

    Alan Fox:

    The free exchange of ideas is paramount.

    That’s philosophy! It’s bunk.

  23. 23
    George E. says:

    A lot of really good stuff in here, VJ. I’d love to see a debate on these issues get started by this. We’ll see.

    Btw, this is “George R.”, but I’m having password-issues with that name.

  24. 24
    Mung says:

    Alan Fox:

    The free exchange of ideas is paramount.

    Except when it comes to public school education, then it’s bad Bad BAD! I laugh.

    I need to learn how to do haikus.

  25. 25
    Bilbo I says:

    Hi Vincent,

    I confess that I’ve only skimmed your very thorough and thoughtful post. I’ve wrestled with Feser’s anti-IDism myself. My present, tentative view is that God created matter so that it would have the final cause of being externally formed or contrived into living things. Thus a particular animal has the form that it has because it has the matter that it is composed of was meant to have that form, even though the matter did not have the power to make itself into that form. I think this is what you would call the teleomechanist vies. This would be different from machines, which can be contrived from matter, even though that was not its final cause.

    Is that near enough to what you’re advocating, or am I still missing the mark?

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    Bilbo I says:

    view, not “vies.”

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