Wednesday, September 06, 2006


William Paley's Natural Theology

I recently came accross a reprint of the first edition of William Paley's Natural Theology (1802) published by Oxford University Press in their World's Classics series (2006). I propose to make a series of posts quoting from Paley and passing a few hopefully interesting observations of my own. First, some general observations:

One point to note is that Paley wrote after David Hume's over-rated critique of the design argument but before Charles Darwin's version of the theory of evolution. He was, however, aware of the evolutionary thinking of Darwin's father. It seems to me that the only material effect of this historical placing upon Paley's thesis is that he is insufficiently careful about developing design detection criteria and differentiating between instances in nature to which these do and do not apply. In other words, Paley drifts from the careful design detection criteria laid out early on in his book and slips into thinking that anything complex in nature must be the result of design. He seems to be caught up in the same false dichotomy as plagued Darwin, namely, the idea that either everything is the result of design or else nothing is the result of design. Intelligent Design Theory breaks the false dichotomy, coming down neither on Paley's side nor Darwin's side but saying that some things are clearly designed and other things are not clearly designed and may well be the result of evolutionary forces - albeit the case that evolutionary forces per se are themselves the result of design tracing back to cosmic fine tuning.

Another surprise, having only ever read the common extract from Paley to be found in compendiums of philosophy of religion texts, is to find Paley advancing cosmological design arguments very similar in essense to contemporary anthropic discussions albeit framed in terms of now outdated scientific knowledge.

And now, to begin an examination of Paley's argument:

Paley (in green) begins:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to shew the absurdity of this answer.

To show the absurdity of the suggestion, made by Bertrand Russell about the universe, that it is 'just there', a brute fact, one would have to provide some sort of a cosmological argument, showing that the stone (or universe) is a contingent thing ultimately requiring a non-contingent ground or cause.

But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be enquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that, for any thinkg I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch, as well as for the stone?

The answer, of course, is that unlike the stone, the watch is obviously the product of intelligent design. Both the watch and the stone may provide the starting point for a cosmological argument, but the watch is clearly a much more prommising starting point for a design argument than a rock. Continuing this trajectory it should be clear that the most prommising - that is, metaphysuically rich, 'object' with which to begin natural theology would be with a human being, wherein are combined all of the considerations that the natural theologian may wish to advance for their case. Like rocks, humans are continent, like watches humans contain evidence of design, humans also contain evidence about moral value, free will, rationality, religious experience, desire for transcendence, etc.

Making the distinction between rock and watch, between the sense of the 'its just there' answer in the first instance, and the nonsense of the same answer in the latter instance, is simply a matter of common good sense - there is nothing esotetic in our detection of design; detecting design is a perfectly natural and every-day opperation of the human mind, and the detection of design does not even require that we carefully infer or deduce design by eemploying some rational argument for the conclusion of design - beliefs about objects being the product of design are typically properly basic beliefs. You see a watch, you form the beleif that it is the product of design. Such properly basic beliefs are, by the principle of credulity, to be accepted at face value until such time as we are given sufficient undermining counter-evidence. The failure of evolutionary explanations for such apparently designed facets of nature as DNA or the bacterial flagellum or the blood-clotting cascade is the failure to rebut the natural inference to design promoted by our observation of such systems. Design is the default position, innocent until proven guilty. This is one reason why the intelligent design argument is not an 'argument from ignorance'.

Nevertheless, like design theorists, Paley goes on to offer some criteria of design detection. Having such criteria is clearly very useful for engaging in rational argument about design. And the first design detection criteria proposed by Paley looks, with the bennefit of hindsight, for all the world like a nascient definition of Behe's 'irreducible complexity'. Talking about the watch, Paley observes that:

if the several parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or of different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use, that is now served by it.

In Darwin's Black Box Michael Behe defines an irreducibly complex system as follows:

'By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.' (p. 39.)

Clearly, both scholars are thinking in the same ball-park, even the same pitch, and are playing on the same team!

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