Some bad scientists, bad theologians, bad philosophers – 1

Well, it seems BioLogos and the Discovery Institute are once more locked in contention for the heart and mind of (I suppose) the Informed Christian. The recent spat seems mainly to stem from BioLogian Jim Stump’s review of a book on design arguments, and can be summed up (from that side) in the now well-worn phrase: Design arguments are bad science and bad theology.

It would be quite legitimate, if equally tendentious, to reply that the argument that design arguments are bad science and bad theology is bad philosophy and bad history. Or at least, I want to ask (and attempt to answer) the question, “Just when did design arguments become so bad?”. For it’s easy to demonstrate that for many centuries, design arguments were regularly put forward not only by the best scientists and the best theologians, but by the best philosophers too. This does not validate their arguments, but it certainly indicates their respectability, against the present disdain for teleological arguments.

The first part is a far from exhaustive list of some of the notables in the Christian era who considered such arguments to be of great weight, omitting the great Greek philosophers who had already employed them for centuries. Tomorrow, I’ll look at some more objections and conclude.

The first to mention is, of course, the inspired author Paul, who in Romans 1.19-20 says that what has been made since the creation of the world plainly shows his power and divinity, thus showing both the scope and limitations of natural theology. He didn’t pretend to be a scientist, but most rate him as a theologian – or if they don’t, they call into question their own orthodoxy rather than his.

Minucius Felix (2nd-3rd century) and Augustine (354-430), amongst the early Church Fathers, use arguments from the order and functionality of creation, in their due place, as evidence for God.

In the mediaeval period, the greatest theologian-philosophers of all three Abrahamic faiths employ the argument from design: Maimonides (Jewish, 1135-1204), Averroes (Muslim,  1126-1198) and, of course, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). The last’s teleological argument, his Fifth Way, is metaphysical rather than empirical and is therefore considered a proof rather than a pointer (except to those who reject it!), but it still begins with a basic design argument: it denies that observed teleology is possible from chance alone, and requires intelligence.

It’s worth interjecting here the objection, known to most or all these writers, that design arguments per se are not proofs (in the modern, QED sense) that would convince an atheist. That however does not make them bad arguments, but limited ones. And, when boiled down, their limitations come down to a judgement between what were, and are, the most plausible alternatives for most people: chance, or a divine creator. So an Islamic philospher like Al-Farabi could argue that God does not create like a craftsman but yet rationally orders the universe, and (a) he has conceded the teleology that design arguments set out to prove anyway and (b) very few Muslims except philosphers would even understand the distinction. No doubt they would be more impressed by their Qur’an when it says:

Allah has created every animal out of water. Of them (is a category which) walks upon its belly, (another which) walks upon two legs, and (a third which) walks upon four. Allah creates what He wills. Allah is able to do everything (he wants).


I mention this at this point because very many of the early modern natural philosophers saw design arguments as central to their worldview, even though they were well aware of objections prefiguring Hume’s later one, that they do not necessarily prove the God of the Bible, or even a divine creator. If it is argued that they did not make such arguments as scientists, I reply that they made them from the paradigms on which their science depended. They include:

William Harvey (1578-1657), physician, who discovered the circulation of the blood.

Henry More (1614-1687) and Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), philosophers (principal figures of the “Cambridge Neoplatonists”).

Robert Boyle (1627-1691), who spent his whole adult life assembling a natural theology against atheism which he never published. He wrote:

[T]here are positive Reasons afforded by Philosophy to prove a Deity, namely … the Cartesian Idæa, the Originall of Motion, the use of Parts in Animalls, especially the Eye, the valves of the heart, the musculi perforantes & perforati, & the temporary [parts]of a foetus <& the Mother>.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on him adds,

Moreover, he thought, such arguments should particularly convince those who were knowledgeable about nature, who knew enough about the details of the world to be impressed by the intricacy of the presumed workmanship.

Boyle was quite aware of the limitations of his arguments, but:

He notes explicitly that none of the proofs he was prepared to offer amounted to a demonstration of God’s existence, and indeed he felt that a demonstration was not possible. A demonstration was typically held to proceed from necessarily true premises (often Aristotelian principles) via a valid argument to a necessarily true conclusion, and part of what was at issue was whether we should be looking for a demonstration of God’s existence, or something less which would nonetheless still be useful in the fight against atheism.

He looked only for what was termed “moral certainty” which, as John Locke (1632-1704), physician and philosopher, wrote, “is not only as great as our frame can attain to, but as our Condition needs” .

John Ray (1627-1705), the taxonomist.

Robert Hooke (1635-1703), another polymath and FRS, one of the first to use the watchmaker analogy later expanded by Paley.

Isaac Newton (1642-1726), as much a student of theology as of science, who wrote:

One principle in Philosophy is the being of a God or spirit infinite eternal omniscient, omnipotent, & the best argument for such a being is the frame of nature & chiefly the contrivance of the bodies of living creatures. All the great land animals have two eyes, in the forehead a nose between them a mouth under the nose, two ears on the sides of the head, two arms or two fore leggs or two wings on the sholders & two leggs behind & this symmetry in the several species could not proceed from chance, there being an equal chance for one eye or for three or four eyes as for two, & so of the other members. Nothing is more curious & difficult then the frame of the eyes for seeing & of the ears for hearing & yet no sort of creatures has these members to no purpose. What more difficult then to fly? & yet was it by chance that all creatures can fly which have wings? Certainly he that framed the eyes of all creatures understood the nature of light & vision, he that framed their ears understood the nature of sounds & hearing, he that framed their noses understood the nature of odours & smelling, he that framed the wings of flying creatures & the fins of fishes understood the force of air & water & what members were requisite to enable creatures to fly & swim: & therefore the first formation of every species of creatures must be ascribed to an intelligent being. These & such like considerations are the most convincing arguments for such a being & have convinced mankind in all ages that the world & all the species of things therein were originally framed by his power & wisdom.  And to lay aside this argument is unphilosophical.

Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) was, as I mentioned in my previous post, opposed to Newton because of his own Deism – he held that God would have designed the universe as a self-winding watch. But dig deeper, and design arguments are just as much in his thinking. According to Leibniz, the universe is completely made from individual substances known as monads, programmed to act in a predetermined way. As Bertrand Russell summarised it:

In Leibniz’s form [of the design argument], the argument states that the harmony of all the monads can only have arisen from a common cause. That they should all exactly synchronize, can only be explained by a Creator who pre-determined their synchronism.

This is a classic teleological design argument, reminding us that such arguments have never been primarily about showing either a particular God, or a particular mechanism, but rather the necessity of intelligence and intention, instead of chance, as the source of everything around us.

William Derham (1657-1735) was a theologian and natural philosopher who made the first accurate assessment of the speed of sound.

Richard Bentley (1662-1742) was a theologian and philologist.

Voltaire (1694-1778), a Deist, insisted that reason, not faith, was the correct tool for coming to a knowledge of God. He used the watchmaker analogy as such an argument to God from reason.

David Hume (1711-1776) both defended and criticised design arguments. Sometimes it seems that he saw his task as finding the best arguments for or against a position, rather than coming to truth he could live by. But his argument against natural theology admitted that one could indeed validly argue back from creation to an intelligent natural creator, with natural limitations – just not a supernatural one. This is, of course one of TE’s arguments against ID today.

But his argument, if accepted, effectively excludes the possibility that a supernatural being could create what is natural at all, for it claims the philosophical impossibility of the divine interacting with the material in any way. So the theistic evolutionist has to reject Hume’s reasoning one way or another or become an atheist – a slight conundrum. Boyle, indeed, had been aware of this perennial philosophical problem, but simply ignored it on the basis that since the spiritual soul of man does interact with the body, it must be false.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) considered the design argument flawed, but said it “always deserves to be mentioned with respect. It is the oldest, the clearest, and the most accordant with the common reason of mankind”. He would not, therefore, have countenanced the “bad science, bad theology” charge.

Asa Gray (1810-1888), the botanist, was probably the first Christian follower of Darwin. But he opposed the latter’s dismissal of the argument from design – see here.

B B Warfield (1851-1921) was also an evolutionist (who trained first in science) and one of the greatest Reformed theologians of the nineteenth century, but he considered design arguments compelling (in opposition to Darwin) – here. He wrote:

[Prof. Le Conte] tells us that “matter by combination, recombination, and therefore by purely chemical forces, rose to higher and more complex forms until it reached protoplasm.” …So it is not only a theory of self-creation, but it is a theory of the self-creation of all that is. …It will assuredly not escape the reader that this philosophical theory has no claim to be called science. It is purely a priori construction.

I will round off this survey by simply mentioning four leading twentieth century thinkers who have used arguments from design: F R Tennant (Natural scientist, mathematician, theologian 1866-1957), Anthony Flew (philosopher, 1923-2010), Richard Swinburne (philosopher, b 1934) and Alvin Plantinga (philosopher, b 1932).

All in all that’s quite an array of talent employing design arguments. Next time I’ll explore some more of what factors have intervened to make them guilty of “bad science and bad theology”.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Some bad scientists, bad theologians, bad philosophers – 1

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Bilbo. We could make this thread (apart from any other comments) a convenient list of such people.

      J S Mill (1806-1873), for those of us who had to look it up, was a philosopher and economist. He was actually an atheist, but that is not really the issue: he found the design argument persuasive, but not persuasive enough for him. But if any argument was guaranteed to persuade, we’d all believe the same things.

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    Design, intelligence (including the intelligent agent that is a human being), and the rationality we find primarily in maths, are concepts that can be derived from reason. I think arguments (if such can be made) for or against this are futile and are made mainly from atheists who wish to promote their belief of purposeless and pointless materialism (and all that can be derived from this).

    The central point I think, is when these notions are turned around to suggest that ‘intelligence’ can be scientifically detected and tested experimetally. Neuroscientists are constantly working towards a basis for brain activity related to thought, but this is as close as the physical sciences may approach such a project.

    Thus I wonder if the almost endless arguments about ID may suffer from a lack of clarrity – if they do, it plays into the hands of atheists/materialists – and Hume’s notions related to spirit/soul are pointed towards materialism as an ideology.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      This particular post is largely to redress an unbalanced view of the history of design arguments before ID. It seems to me that those like Boyle were well aware that all they were really doing was putting a spotlight on God’s works in nature that had always (from Psalm 19 days, let alone Romans 1) naturally put people in mind of God’s “power and deity”.

      Sin, in various ways, blinds us to nature’s glories, if only by familiarity – people are too busy thinking about daily life to notice.

      To Boyle (according to the article on him in SEP) the role of science was to bring people more closely in touch with God’s work, by pointing out the Eye, the valves of the heart, the musculi perforantes & perforati, & the temporary [parts]of a foetus and so on, and challenging the idea that they could have arisen by chance.

      It seems to me that ID’s arguments serve the same purpose in a more specific and quantified way for a more finicky age. “How much can chance quantitatively achieve?” is a reasonable question to seek to answer in an age when chance is accorded almost supernatural creative powers through a particular theory. A bit more on that tomorrow.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I’ll add Charles Babbage (of “difference engine” fame) to the list, because he wrote a ninth, unauthorised, Bridgewater treatise which was somewhat against the flow, especially against Whewell.

    His work is instructive in that he argued against divine “tinkering” in favour of the idea that God’s mathematical laws were capable of providing innovation in nature, an idea that filters through into Darwin’s deistic agnosticism. It descends, I guess, from Leibniz – though we should note that Babbage endorsed the existence of miracles based on God’s transcendence of nature, and the complete truth of Genesis and the rest of Scripture, though not taken literally.

    The importance is twofold (to me). First, to explore the capabilities of natural law as demonstrating God’s wisdom and power is, once more, a classic design argument. This proves that design arguments need have nothing to do with particular mechanisms. The difference is superficial, and can be represented as:
    Divine will -> natural law -> desired, ordered outcomes
    As opposed to:
    Divine will -> direct or indirect creative acts -> desired, ordered outcomes

    In both cases, the wisdom and order of the outcomes, that is the observations of nature, point back to God.

    Secondly, his early Victorian view of natural law was deterministic, and therefore capable of executing divine law, but it is undermined by 20th century relativity and quantum science. God, on current understandings, could not set up the universe to unfold in all its detail like a clock, by the capabilities of natural law – unless the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is false. God would have to intervene to determine the outcomes of those quantum events, which takes us back to the God who is close at hand as well as far away, as the other Bridgewater Treatises had, apparently, assumed.

    The assumption of some TEs seems to be that the indeterminacy of modern science is part of God’s plan: he doesn’t want to determine the outcomes of his laws. This is seldom clearly stated in its stark truth: nothing in the world gives us any certain pointer to God. Expressed as above:

    Vague Divine will -> indeterminate natural law -> unwilled outcomes

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