Paley isn’t the Common Ancestor of evolution and creationism

An article by Noah Berlatsky published online at The Atlantic this weekend comments on the creation debate of last week – with the view that creationism and evolution ‘share a common ancestor’ in William Paley.  I’ve been researching and publishing on Paley for quite a while now, and while I think the article does some things well – overall I feel like it really misrepresents Paley’s ideas.  Most importantly it reinforces the error that modern day intelligent design is fundamentally similar to Paley’s arguments for a designer (but using newer examples.)  Paley’s argument is something quite different, perhaps even more consistent with theistic interpretations of Darwinism, but it’s not what Richard Dawkins or Michael Behe describe it to be.

Tonight’s a teaching night, so I only have time for a brief response, but I’ll make a few points:

The kind of creationism that Ken Ham advocates is utterly unrelated to natural theology.  Paley doesn’t evoke scripture in the Natural Theology.  His point is that by using natural arguments (in effect, by using the kind of experience and reason that is available to everyone regardless of their religious commitments) he can make the case for a deity.  When Ken Ham effectively said that no empirical evidence could make him change his views on Christianity (he actually said that it would be impossible for such evidence to even exist) he reaffirmed that in his view, Scripture is the first source of knowledge, and the natural world secondary, and dependent upon that.  For the sake of argument, at least, Paley reverses this: it’s because we see evidence of deity in nature that we are justified in considering the reliability of Scripture (which is what Paley’s Evidences of Christianity is about.)

That said, Paley is not a Deist.  The article conflates unitarianism with Deism, in addressing the views of Samuel Clarke (and Newton) but claiming that there’s not a triune God, or that Jesus is not divinity himself, is not the same as rejecting the idea of an intervenionist God.  Paley was an Anglican, and in his other writings makes it quite quite clear that he’s using natural theology as part of a larger argument to advocate for the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England.  Surprisingly, perhaps, he does so with a firm commitment to religious toleration.  It’s toleration with pluralism.  Part of Paley’s point is to show that the starting place for religion ought to be human reason and natural observation, not the revelation of Scripture or the personal evangelical religious experience.  He’s arguing against Evangelical Anglicans, Methodists and other Dissenters in doing so.  However at the same time, he’s trying to show that natural religion need not lead one to unitarianism or deism.  In part because he takes this middle position, he was widely criticized from both sides when the book first came out.

It’s not at all true that “the questions Darwin was answering were ones that Paley had posed.”  An article by me on how this falsehood about Paley developed was published just two months ago.  One of the most novel parts of Paley’s natural theology, as opposed to that of Clarke, John Ray or others, is that he eliminates considerations of the origins of the material world from his argument, focusing instead on how one can tell that there was purpose behind the arrangement of things.  Paley in part does this as a response to Hume’s criticisms of natural religion.  This also means that Darwin’s questions about the origins of diversity and complexity of life were not ones that Paley was trying to answer.  However, as I relate in my recent article, it’s a question that editors of Paley and some of the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises attributed to Paley in the 1830s (around the time Darwin first read Paley.)  Does this mean that Darwin misread Paley? Not necessarily, because Darwin was also interested in other aspects of Paley’s account of nature.

The only place Paley is mentioned by name in the origin of species, he is cited approvingly.  That is when Darwin considers the “utilitarian objections” to his theory.  Darwin was concerned that the mechanism of natural selection might appear to be unnecessarily cruel or wasteful, but he points out, via Paley that no creature has an adaptation that is primarily injurious to it.  When Darwin mentioned Paley in his autobiography, it is in a sectoin in which Darwin considers his personal faith.  He says the Paley’s theological conclusions (that from nature we see the marks of a God) no longer seem satisfactory to him.  He does not suggest that the thing he finds unsatisfactory about Paley is Paley’s (nonexistent) account of origins.  Misreadings of this passage in the autobiography feature prominently in the Paley-as-Darwin’s-foil myth as it emerges in the mid 20th century.

Paley’s main argument (I outline this in a 2009 article) is that the evidence of purposeful adaptation in nature comes from the correspondence between the laws of nature and the material world.  Berlatsky’s article touches on this well.  Paley considers that one entity might be responsible for setting the laws of nature, and another responsible for the creation of material structures.  The fact that the latter seem to anticipate use of the former, that eyes are arrayed in ways that show adaptation, to the laws of optics, ears to the laws of acoustics, wings to aerodynamics, etc—these examples suggest that the entity responsible for the material world intended these structures to use those natural laws, which they do to achieve purposes (I’m simplifying Paley here, in the interest of time, and not recapitulating my entire article.)

But the real point of this is that it’s because we can know the laws of nature, and because things work within the laws of nature, that we’re able (before we even consider scripture, miracle or revelation) to infer a deity.  This is very different from Ken Ham’s creationism, and it’s also very different from modern intelligent design, which argues from the insufficiency of natural laws to account for observed phenomena.  In fact, Paley explains why he thinks that arguments from insufficiency are absoluetly the wrong approach to take (in part because the kind of God that is implied by that is obscure and unknowable.)

There’s a lot more to say her about the Political and social context of Paley’s thought.  And I have some more articles in progress trying to get to those.  But I wanted to very quickly address the main points of contention with this Atlantic article to prompt further discussion.

If anyone wants either my 2009 or 2013 articles on Paley and can’t access them online, contact me and I’ll send them to you.


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