Thingamajig #2

What’s the causal relation between these two objects, and what third object is missing from this picture?


Crossing the Heath with William Paley (1743-1805)

On this date in 1805, the Christian church lost one of its ablest and most-remembered defenders. William Paley—Anglican minister, professor, and author—is permanently associated with the analogy of a watchmaker and the God of personal theism. He wrote that “the contrivances of nature . . . are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances, not less accommodated to their end or suited to their office, than are the most perfect productions of human ingenuity” (Natural Theology, 1802).

Paley mined the riches of biology for samples of such contrivance. In his day, the state of scientific knowledge in the field of biology permitted comparatively easy inference to the appearance of teleology in the natural world. Critics today forget this. The

William Paley, Natural Theology

William Paley, Natural Theology

“demise” of Paley’s design argument for the existence of God is credited especially to a development that was to happen some 60 years later—the emergence of the new theory of evolution, beginning with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Paley’s major work—Natural Theology; or, Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Collected from the Appearances of Nature—enjoyed a pretty good “survival” record itself. His work was considered essential reading at universities for a hundred or more years.

Also, some critics maintain that David Hume dealt a decisive blow to Paley’s argument. Never mind that Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion appeared posthumously in 1779, that Paley was thoroughly familiar with the Dialogues, that Paley developed his argument in express response to Hume’s critique, and that Paley was thought to have bested Hume by many of Paley’s contemporaries. He was not entirely unsuccessful in this endeavor, though some, like John Stuart Mill, believed that they had detected formal weaknesses in his argument.

Here is the famous passage from Paley’s Natural Theology:

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 anything I knew to the contrary it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for anything 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? Why is it not admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a 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.

Paley then produces examples of these components in a watch:

To reckon up a few of the plainest of these parts, and of their offices, all tending to one result: We see a cylindrical box containing a coiled elastic spring, which, by its endeavour to relax itself, turns round the box. We next observe a flexible chain (artificially wrought for the sake of flexure) communicating the action of the spring from the box to the fusee. We then find a series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in, and apply to each other, conducting the motion from the fusee to the balance, and from the balance to the pointer; and at the same time, by the size and shape of those wheels, so regulating that motion, as to terminate in causing an index, by an equable and measured progression, to pass over a given space in a given time. We take notice that the wheels are made of brass in order to keep them from rust; the springs of steel, no other metal being so elastic; that over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work; but in the room of which, if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not be seen without opening the case. This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood), the inference, we think, is inevitable; that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

This truly economical and accurate description of a watch and its function is impressive. It is described in meticulous detail for a reason, to bring it into comparison with “contrivances of nature”:

For every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the world of nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. I mean, that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtilty, 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 contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect products of human ingenuity.

An astonishing array of natural objects are observed and described next. The inference, of course, is that, there being an analogy between (a) an artifact of the sort that a watch is and (b) objects in the natural world such as the ones he has cataloged, there is an “artificer,” or designer, of the natural world.

Darwin was not impressed. He was convinced that the natural phenomena in Paley’s inventory could be accounted for by a process of purely natural selection. But it was not clear when Darwin introduced his thesis, and it is not clear even now, that the full range of natural phenomena are best explained in terms of natural selection.

There isn’t space here to defend Paley in detail. But it is key to his argument that close observation and deep understanding of an object may be needed to pick out what is best explained by the design hypothesis. Darwin’s theory entails that fully formed organisms that function in complex ways are the by-products of a long, slow, unguided process. And yet, for many organisms under observation today, at various stages in their developmental history, they lack functional utility. On the Darwinian hypothesis, nothing draws them toward functionality. And for some such organisms, nothing is extraneous to their function once they reach a capacity for function.

This is Paley’s basic insight. It has been exploited more recently by Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, where the human “contrivance” he uses to make the same basic point is even simpler than a watch; it is the common mousetrap.

William Paley

William Paley

While Paley is best known, and most commonly chastised, for his teleological argument, he made other important contributions to the cause of Christian apologetics. His earlier work A View of the Evidences of Christianity, investigates the special evidence that supports apostolic testimony concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ and defends the historicity of their accounts of Jesus in the Gospels. Those who follow the work of today’s apologists in defense of these claims will recognize the influence of William Paley. (See, for example, William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, chapter 8.)

Paley’s critics have been altogether too dismissive of his extraordinary achievement. I feel sure that most have never examined his two major works for themselves. These skeptics are as likely as not to have rendered a negative verdict on the basis of brief snippets of Paley’s teleological argument, lifted from context and reprinted in some classroom anthology, or on the basis of hearsay, which is guilty of the same.

And many Christian apologists today have neglected the riches of William Paley’s methodical and systematic work. I commend fresh consideration of his writings. Who knows what a ramble in the heath with this great thinker might turn up?



• Paley’s Natural Theology (Oxford World’s Classics series) is avaliable at Amazon here.

• A free Kindle edition of Paley’s A View of the Evidences of Christianity can be obtained here.

Death Is a Big Deal—Mortal Motivation Theory in Psychology

Death is a big deal. Most of us know it, or acknowledge it. Those of us who don’t are in denial—a fairly typical way of coping with unpleasant or unwelcome realities.

A handful of psychologists have developed a theory about how the fear or anticipation of our personal demise influences the way we make sense of our world.

On their view, our notions about death drive much of our behavior, and in ways we little suspect. This may seem obvious for some people, organizations, religious groups, and such. But these psychologists propose a completely general thesis with universal application. What is most controversial is their claim about each of us as individuals:

At a more personal level, recognition of our mortality leads us to love fancy cars, tan ourselves to an unhealthy crisp, max out our credit cards, drive like lunatics, itch for a fight with a perceived enemy, and crave fame, however ephemeral, even if we have to drink yak urine on Survivor to get it.

This movement within the field of psychology has come to be called “terror-management theory.”

Some who demand an evolutionary explanation for our psychological constitution, in all of its rich complexity, apparently feel some uneasiness about the proposal. But Sheldon Solomon, one of the theory’s chief architects, doesn’t seem to be fazed by this. He has no trouble referring to a human person as a “breathing piece of defecating meat.” I would imagine we have evolution to thank for that.

His book, a co-authored treatise, is called The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. William James (1842-1910), the philosopher and psychologist, provided the authors with their title in his own reference to death as “the worm at the core” of the human condition. I suspect, though, that similarities between their conception of human persons and William James’s don’t extend much further than this borrowing.

Also, I wonder if they’ve thought very deeply about how the Christian religion locates the problem of our mortality within the total picture of human meaning and purpose. More likely than not, they would explain the hold of a Christian worldview on the minds and psyches of so many people as a fear-of-death management-system. That would make for an ironic parallel and discontinuity between their perspective and that of the Christian Bible.

That the anticipation of death reverberates throughout our sensibilities and actions has been thought before. The authors themselves credit Ernest Becker (1924-1974), author of The Denial of Death, for setting them on this particular research path. But the notion may have special appeal in a social context dominated by scientific naturalism. In such a context, one advantage of their theory is that it lends support to convenient debunking of claims about life after death. Doctrines of immortality are reduced to coping mechanisms. And that’s about all there is to it.

If belief in immortality provides a person with psychic support in the face of death, it may be supposed, then we have a psychological explanation for his belief in immortality.

Or not. The trouble is, the move made in this explanation for belief is a non sequitur. For a doctrine might actually be true and a believer in immortality might actually be justified, on reasonable grounds, for affirming that doctrine, even if immortality does provide believers with psychic support. In fact, belief in immortality would be a triple advantage if (1) the doctrine of immortality is true, (2) there’s good reason to affirm the doctrine, and (3) the doctrine provides powerful psychological support (in the form of hope, for example) in a world of mixed blessings.

Of course, the believer must reckon with the specter of a modus tollens reversal:

  1. If the doctrine of immortality is true, then the doctrine of scientific naturalism is false.
  2. The doctrine of scientific naturalism is true.
  3. Therefore, the doctrine of immortality is false.

This isn’t a serious obstacle, if the doctrine of scientific naturalism is false. It isn’t an obstacle if there is little evidence or argument that scientific naturalism is true. And since the evidence for scientific naturalism is ambiguous at best, the doctrinaire naturalist still has reason to consider the significance of his life within the framework of the possibility that some doctrine of immortality is true. And this may induce fear for anyone clinging to scientific naturalism.

No naturalistic explanation for the psychic power that derives from hope for an afterlife can dispense with this challenge to naturalism.

So what if belief in immortality aids in managing the fear of our eventual earthly demise? I suppose it’s as likely that the denial of immortality could also be a terror-management strategy. How convenient to think that death is not a threshold of crossing between the known and the unknown, but just the end of it all?

The Stoics advised composure in the face of death on the grounds that when it comes there will be no regret because no one left to regret it. Or at least no basis for fearing it. Why fear now what you won’t fear when it actually happens? But that isn’t the problem, is it, this side of the fatal divide? The real problem is knowing whether there is something in it for us beyond the threshold of death, and knowing, if there is, what it might be, and whether there are different possibilities, depending on your existential and doxastic commitments here and now.

There is room, I think, for more than one version of “mortal motivation theory” in psychology. There is the secularist-naturalist version promoted by the authors of The Worm at the Core. And there is the religiously serious version according to which death is a fitting device for contemplating our place in a super-naturalistically haunted universe and reflecting on where it might all be leading.


For a detailed review of the book in The Chronicle of Higher Education, click here: Mortal Motivation – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education. Direct quotations in this post are from the Chronicle review by Marc Parry.

How One Psychologist Is Tackling Human Biases in Science

How One Psychologist Is Tackling Human Biases in Science.

What is no doubt bad news for many scientists should be good news for the progress of science and the enterprise of knowing.

It’s good to see greater effort being made to explore the place of intellectual virtue in the practice of science. And there is some irony in the fact that problems of bias in research and intellectual activity in general is confirmed by the methods of scientists.

It would be good to have more examples of the problem described by these researchers on bias. And it would be useful to study the effects of such pervasive scientific shortcomings on belief in matters beyond scientific judgment—in religion, for example.

‘Born Bad’: How the idea that we’re all sinners has shaped Western culture – The Washington Post

‘Born Bad’: How the idea that we’re all sinners has shaped Western culture – The Washington Post.

Read this book review by Michael Dirda and consider where the argument about original sin and the history of Christian doctrine errs.

Your observations are welcome. Feel free to share using the comments box below.

What Do William Gladstone and Little Big Man Have in Common?

I don’t get it, these coincidences with no significance always happening to me.

Allow me to illustrate from today’s events.

Around noon, I hefted my copy of Roy Jenkins’s biography of William Gladstone from the shelf, with the vague intention of reading some portion of its 698 pages. As if this would not be enough to occupy the few moments I could spare, it occurred to me that I might also refresh my memory of what Susan Wise Bauer says about reading biography, in her book The Well-Educated Mind.

Book Cover-Roy Jenkins-William GladstoneBook Cover-Susan Wise Bauer-Well-Educated MindBook Cover-Thomas Berger-Little Big Man

Not only had I forgotten what Bauer says about biography, I had forgotten that she doesn’t say anything about biography as such. Rather, she has a chapter on reading autobiography. And her guidelines are fairly specific to this sub-genre, with only limited application to biography in general. Still, my wandering eye surveyed the pages on autobiography. In there, she recommends several worthy examples. Among them is Mary Rowlandson’s The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration (1682). This autobiography Bauer calls a “captivity narrative,” as if this is a recognized sub-species of the genre. This was news to me, but it was plausible.

This evening—mind you, this was several hours later the same day—I was relaxing with a different book. I had ordered Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man and it arrived with today’s junk mail. Naturally, I began with the Introduction by Brooks Landon. It is mercifully short, so getting to the first page of the novel itself was relatively pain-free.

But now I come to the coincidence that occasions this post.

It was entirely coincidental when I read Brooks Landon’s opinion that this novel is “a literal model of the traditional ‘captivity narrative'” (page xvi).

There it was again—”captivity narrative”—twice in one day, with no recollection of prior encounters with the term. Certainly, the term is not (or was not) a part of my active vocabulary. So why, with no real familiarity of the term, did I encounter two uses of it in such a disconnected sequence of events, in two books, one a work of non-fiction and the other a novel—all within the space of a few hours?

What difference does it make? you ask. But that’s the point, you see. It makes no difference. It just happened. It was a coincidence of no consequence!

But coincidences often are thought to be consequential just in the nature of the case. And so it is doubly puzzling that inconsequential coincidences should happen so often.

Sigmund Freud and the Illusion of Peace

Yesterday’s post was about Karl Marx. Today it’s about Sigmund Freud, who was born on this date in 1856. They have this in common—that religion is a subjective response of one sort or another, to be explained away psychologically or sociologically. Feuerbach contended that God is part of the furniture of a dream world. Marx called religion “the opiate of the people,” a drug that postpones the realization of social utopianism. Freud, when writing about religion, spoke of “the future of an illusion.”

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

All were atheists. All traded the idea of God for a vision of reality that gained traction for awhile, then lost steam. Almost no one knows about Feuerbach, and those who do seldom think of him with affection. Marx’s communism, where it exists, is anything but utopian. And Freudian psychoanalysis is now repudiated by most practitioners and theorists in psychology.

The doctrines that God is a projection of the human imagination (Feuerbach), that religion is a drug that holds humanity back from realization of its highest aspirations and greatest potential (Marx), that the idea of God meets some need for a grand Father figure (Freud), are all affectations. They each acknowledge the pervasiveness of religion in the experience of humanity. Each explains away what it does not argue is false. Each imagines a world improved by the deconstruction of religion. And each has failed in its diagnosis of the human predicament and in its prognosis for a religionless world.

Notice, each of these visions for humanity attempts a solution for the human predicament, which they each in their own way attribute to religion. But the attempt to shift responsibility for the human predicament onto God is itself responsible for the human predicament. The strategy has its origin in the Garden, where the serpent alleged that God’s warning and God’s promise would hold the first couple back from realizing the full potential of humanity.

The impulse is the same for every generation. There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11). Today, the false starts toward utopian society are rooted in scientific naturalism, mysticism, political meliorism, and religious fanaticism. In every case, true religion is either denied or obscured. The effect is the same: to steer men and women away from the only sure source of salvation, individually and collectively.

We frantically grasp for some semblance of peace—peace of mind, peace among nations. But our frenzy only makes things worse. It displaces peace. And it ensures that the true source of peace is passed by, unnoticed. That source is too good to be true, too easy for it to really count: “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).

But isn’t that how the achievement of peace should come? Not as an achievement, but as a gift?

Some dates:

  • 1841—Publication of Ludwig Feuerbach’s, Das Wesen des Christentums (English: The Essence of Christianity)
  • 1848—Publication of The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  • 1922—Formation of the Communist Party in Russia and establishment of the Soviet Union (USSR)
  • 1927—Seizure of control of China by the Communist Party
  • 1927—Publication of The Future of an Illusion, by Sigmund Freud

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