As a product of the government schools and universities, I was
always under the impression that the argument about design
began with William Paley and ended with Charles Darwin.
In fact, in keeping with my indoctrination about the warfare
between science and religion, I was under the impression that
design was strictly a religious issue and objective science,
ala Darwin, had shown a better way. And what is going on
today is nothing more than the echoes of those religious
knee-jerk reactions to Darwin's brilliant explanation of
our biological origins.
But alas, I should have known that my public education
was about as accurate as any other form of one-sided
indoctrination. It turned out that as it always turns out;
things are far more complicated than a simplistic
materialistic-based education lets on. A nice way of finding
this out is to read the first chapter of Barrow and Tipler's
book, "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle." In this
chapter (entitled 'Design Arguments'), Barrow and Tipler
offer an excellent historical overview of both the design
and anti-design positions. I thought I would share some
of their insights so we can see the current design/anti-design
debate in its proper context (rather than the simple-minded
'Inherit the Wind' context that dictates so much of this
debate) for the new millennium.
The Argument is Old
Imagine you walk into a room full of scholars representing two
very different perspectives on the world. One group argues that
living things are the products of some greater wisdom. These
scholars point to various biological structures, such as the human
eye, and argue that the optimal arrangement of the parts seen in
these structures point to some type of designer as their cause. This
same group also highlights the harmony and beauty that is seen in
the natural world, again suggesting a form of wisdom that lies behind
it all. The other group sees things very differently. They appeal to
chance and a huge span of time and argue that the harmony and
optimal arrangements could very well have arisen by chance. They
argue that natural forces, over huge spans of time, served to stabilize
these ordered configurations and thus there is no need to invoke any
type of designer. This same group then highlights various chaotic
features of the world that suggest there is no designer.
You might be thinking that I have been talking about a group of
creationists and evolutionary scientists arguing in the auditorium
of a local college. You would be wrong. The scholars arguing in
that room actually once argued in the halls of Ancient Greece. The
teleologists were represented by men such as Socrates, Plato, Diogenes,
and Aristotle. The nonteleologists were represented by such men as
Democritus, Leucippus of Elea, and Epicurus of Samos. These thinkers
argued back-and-forth with each other over a period of about 200 years.
Their works would later influence such European scientists and
philosophers as Robert Boyle, William Paley and David Hume.
In other words, the arguments for design did not start with Paley, nor
did they start with naÌøve religious believers. No, such arguments
began with people like Socrates and Aristotle. For example,
Socrates once extolled the human eye as a proof of the wisdom of
"Is not that providence, Aristodemus, in a most eminent manner
conspicuous, which because the eye of man is delicate in its
contexture, hath therefore prepared eyelids like doors, whereby
to screen it, which extend themselves whenever it is needful,
and again close when sleep approaches?‰¥ÏAnd cans't thou still
doubt Aristodemus, whether a disposition of parts like this should
be the work of chance, or of wisdom and contrivance?"
Of course, Aristotle would take this all much further. As Barrow
and Tipler (B&T) point out:
"Aristotelian science was based upon presupposition of an 'intelligent
natural world that functions according to some deliberate design'. Its
supporters were therefore very critical of all those pre-Socratic
thinkers who regarded the world structure as simply the inevitable
residue of chance or necessity."
But what of the non-teleologists? B&T write:
"The Epicureans were, of course, anxious to scotch any notions
of supernatural causation or the appeal to any entity who controls
or ordains events. Interestingly, no useful scientific structure
was erected upon this materialistic foundation because Epicurus
had a very low view of mundane scientific investigation."
And then there is the Roman poet Lucretius Carus (99-55BC).
"Lucretius believed life to have originated at some definite
moment in the past by natural processes but that created
beings included 'a host of monsters, grotesque in build and
aspect' who were subsequently eliminated by their sterility."
These ideas sound strangely similar to those of Charles
Darwin. In fact, Lucretius even wrote:
"In those days, again, many species must have died out altogether
and failed to reproduce their kind. Every species that you now
see drawing the breath of the world survived either by cunning
or by prowess or by speed. In addition, there are many that
survive under human protection because their usefulness has
commended them to our care."
I wouldn't be surprised if Darwin borrowed these ideas and thus his
views about natural selection are not something that was
forced upon him by the raw data (as the romantic story
book version of history teaches).
And speaking of borrowing, does this sound familiar?:
"When we see some example of a mechanism, such as a globe or
clock or some such device, do we doubt that it is the creation of
a conscious intelligence? So when we see the movement of the
heavenly bodies‰¥Ïhow can we doubt that these too are not
only the works of reason but of a reason which is perfect
No, this is not from William Paley, but instead was written
by the Roman lawyer and orator, Marcus Cicero (106-43 BC).
Cicero would also write something that sounds equally
"Can I but wonder here that anyone can persuade himself
that certain solid and individual bodies should be moved
by their natural forces and gravitation in such a manner
that a world so beautiful adorned should be made by
fortuitous concourse. He who believes this possible may
as well believe, that if a great quantity of the one and
twenty letters, composed of gold or any other matter,
were thrown upon the ground, they would fall into such
order as legibly to form the 'Annals of Ennius'. I doubt
whether fortune could make a single verse of them."
Finally, even something as odd as the current Many
Worlds Hypothesis (used to side-step Fine Tuning)
is not really new. The materialist Democritus would
"There are worlds infinite in number and different in size.
In some there is neither sun nor moon, in others there are
more than one sun and moon."
The point is that this debate between teleology and materialism
is at least 2500 years old and has involved some of history's
greatest thinkers. The notion that current ID arguments are
nothing more than country bumpkin Christian reactions to the
painful "truth" of Darwinism is a notion divorced from historical
If one's sense of history goes no further than 100 years, it's
easy to get the impression that materialism has been vindicated
and teleology has been refuted. But if that sense spans 2500
years, one suspects only that materialism has just recently
obtained the upper hand (for 4% of the lifespan of this argument)
with more sophisticated versions of the same arguments . The ID
movement has the potential of evening the playing field by reviving
its arguments in more sophisticated versions. Is this 2500 year-old
debate really over among thinking people? Of course not.
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