Paley, Darwin, and the Future by James Patrick
This is one in a series of "Text & Talk" lectures presented by our friend and colleague, Dr. James Patrick, May 9th, 2020
The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, 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. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.
— St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: Article 3, Question 2
Animals have instinct, which is a name for we know not what, and planets, stars, and trees behave as though they have an intelligent purpose.
William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity was published in 1794. The illustration Paley bought forward was the finding of a watch on a forest trail. His conclusion that someone must have made the watch, obviously some intelligent purposeful creature, construed as an analogy to creation by God, is considered jejune.
Generations of students have believed Saint Thomas’s fifth way (and Paley’s watch analogy) to have been refuted by a parable told in John Wisdom’s book God. It tells of those who came across a perfectly maintained garden in wilderness, the sight of which caused one of the party to claim that there must be a gardener. So they watched carefully and set up a guard. No gardener appeared. So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”
This argument contains or presupposes a famous enthymeme; it assumes that if there were a gardener who tends the universe he would be a finite, material being, Since God governs and perfects creation by his providence, one need not expect him to set off alarms. Still, countless students of philosophy have been impressed by John Wisdom’s parable.
My argument in this short paper is neither to refute nor justify either Darwin or Saint Thomas. I might begin with the vernacular observation that, like all of Saint Thomas’s five ways, the argument from design seems rooted in human imagination. At some point we wake up and look around and see that the world is wonderful. We may be the Hebrew psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), or Saint Francis, who sang of brother sun and sister moon, or Shakespeare: “Juliet is the sun!” or Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world I charged with the grandeur of God,” or perhaps we remember the lyrics of the 1950s song: “Every time I hear a new born baby cry/ Or touch a leaf or see the sky/Then I know why, I believe.” This, in words elevated or popular, is intrinsic to the human heart and to human experience; it is the argument from design writ small, and like Christianity itself I doubt that, while these just sentiments may be suppressed, they will ever disappear.
Darwinism appeared in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), launched into a world that wanted a holiday from Christianity. It was in its origin not very complicated. It was enabled by Charles Lyell’s idea that, creation, as demonstrated by new-born geology, was a million years, not six thousand years old. The same geology had unearthed hundreds of fossilized species. The theory states that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual's ability to compete, survive, and reproduce. There is no agreement as to just who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” [This opens upon an ongoing argument as to the definition of the fittest. To be truly human it is essential to believe that there is something more important than survival.]
Darwin had a motive, even if seldom expressed. He thought the argument from design false and Christianity cruel: ‘I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.’ Of course that depends upon whether, having ample opportunity they consciously and advisedly had ignored God. But the real complaint is not against God’s putative injustice but against his government in the first place. Darwin was one of those Friends of Humanity who wished to set us free. Interestingly enough, his friend and sometimes collaborator William Wallace, came to the conclusion that there must be an intelligent designer.
The theory made some sense of an older, more complex, natural world. On its face it contradicted the Genesis story. If anyone knows anything about the history of public education in the United States it is easy to see why evolution, which John Paul II considered “more than a theory,” is as a practical matter relentlessly inflicted upon the sixth and subsequent grades. A person who believes he has been known to God from the foundations of the world and given a unique soul by God at the moment of conception is different from a person who believes he is one who believes he is a product of nature.
As most of you know, I believe it is possible to do a better reading of Scripture that would not eliminate but reduce the apparently obstinate differences between the Bible and Darwin. Broadly, twenty-first century students of the natural history of the world, evolutionists and students of Genesis, share two ideas or beliefs. The natural world at some point or perhaps from many points has proceeded from disorganization and chaos to a state of organization suitable to human habitation while at the same time humans suitable to inhabit this world appeared. And the second: there have been catastrophes, perhaps not enough to turn a hard evolutionist into a catastrophist, but elements of catastrophism have gained credence among evolutionists. The opening verses of Genesis are a key and a difficulty. I am the opponent of the modern translation of the Hebrew which reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was formless.” Better is “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was or came to be formless.” I do not believe that God came upon a scene of pre-existing formlessness and chaos and then created the world we know by overcoming chaos. That might be an evolutionary tale. But if God can create anything out of nothing, he can create it in or with perfection. Chaos, darkness, and emptiness are the hallmarks of Satan; God’s perfect creation had been invaded by the fallen angels.
But however the text is read, there is at some point a bringing of order out of chaos or next to nothing. There is no chronology of the early verses of Genesis; if evolutionists wish to insert millions of years in Genesis 1, let there be no objection. I am also intrigued by the fact that the age before the age of man was the age of serpents, small and large, birds and the brontosaurus rex. All of whom were suddenly destroyed. By a single meteor. Maybe. I wonder also why one of the gifts of the original covenant, with Noah, was the stability of the seasons (Genesis 8:22); not much gift unless there had been no seasons earlier. What knocked the earth off its axis to create four seasons? And by the way, what ripped the continents apart? And how did all those broken bones of animals get deposited in caves and crevasses around the world?
I am also interested in what mathematics might have to do with evolutionary theory. Evolution as presents a process, not easily subject to rules. Interestingly enough, these laws are held to be permanent; one does not hear of the laws of thermodynamics changing when they become unfashionable. Very often these laws are mathematical. Surely you know somebody who has spent frustrating hours trying to explain to a high school sophomore why the inclined plane experiment is never exact, why in the end we get a percentage of error based on a rule that is never exemplified.
So many puzzles. Why was Paris at one time under water, populated by shellfish, then later dry land, then submerged again but with the bones of mammals, but then dry land again? Why are there no trees older than BC 800? And why are there shellfish on top of Mount LeConte? Geology is not nearly as neat as evolutionary theory.
Finally, let us consider the last four of St. Thomas’s proofs as a cluster of reasonable reflection. If real perfection doesn’t exist somewhere, then best and better are meaningless. The existence of a world of finite beings, no one of which may be here tomorrow, argues by their very persistence the existence of a necessary first cause. Everything that exists must have a cause; this world is no different. And always the argument from design; this beauty and order came from somewhere; I didn’t make it.
As for the future, perhaps, the Pope to the contrary notwithstanding, school children should be taught to appreciate Darwin, as well as St. Thomas, and to remember that every large scale historical theory such as Darwin’s will be refined and amended, we know not how, in the future.