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.

Science and Antidisestablishmentarianism

If you want to support religion, the worst possible thing you can do is let the government run it.

It’s more than a little ironic, therefore, that a political religious movement that typically decries the role of government helped introduce a bill in North Carolina that declared that the state had the right to establish a state religion (though the bill wouldn’t actually establish one.)  The religious right has turned to antidisestablishmentarianism, rejection of the notion that the state must not have an establishment of religion.

Despite the constitutional exegesis in the bill itself, it is manifestly unconstitutional—ignoring the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively amended the Tenth by restricting the right of states over individual citizens.  In 1947, the Supreme Court recognized that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from enacting laws that effectively caused an establishment of religion.

This week comes the news that the bill won’t receive further consideration, and so stands little chance of becoming law.  But the bill’s very introduction suggests that something very strange has evolved in the ongoing relationship between religion and the state.  In both the short and the long term, that relationship has had a very complex interaction with science.

It’s easy to see the short term impact of such a bill with respect to science.  By removing the requirement that laws need not to favor religion, state efforts to prohibit the teaching of evolution and climate science (for example) will be free of the judicial requirement that alternatives pass as “science”  Put another way, critiques of evolution such as creation science and intelligent design, which the courts have ruled are not scientific, would no longer have to ignore the religious aspects of their research programs in order to try to pass as science.

But it’s the longer term history of science, religion, and the state that sheds the most light on the question of religious establishment.  In Britain and its colonies in the century or so leading up to American independence, forced conformity to the doctrines of an official state church kept many people from attendance at universities, election to public office, and many other positions of responsibility, prestige and fortune.  Even though the North Carolina bill wouldn’t have singled out a particular denomination, it would have excluded atheists, and many other people whose particular religious beliefs would have conflicted with the interpretations of religion that might have been established.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution were parties to a long debate over religious toleration.  In the years leading to the Bill of Rights, the most important voices for toleration were not opponents of religion.  They saw themselves as defenders of true religion.  They argued that the state should not require oaths invoking God because it only tempts people to swear false oaths, putting their souls at risk.

Their reasoning was impeccable. If you offer an incentive— a job, education, social advancement—to someone for swearing an oath, mostly you get people swearing false oaths.  For members of the Church of England who argued for Toleration (such as Archbishop Edmund Law and Archdeacon William Paley) this was worse than having the wrong belief.  It was perjury. Taking the Lord’s name in vain. It could condemn your soul.

It was better, they argued, that oaths never be required.  If someone simply believed wrongly, then in time they could be converted and saved, but if they perjured themselves, they were already lost.  Paley and Law believed that their religion was right, but state power was the wrong way to win people to God’s side.

Today, religious toleration and American disestablishment are justified by appeals to pluralism, the view that no belief should be considered exclusively right or holds enough political clout to enforce their beliefs.  But this has made people wary of religious toleration when they know their own religion is true.  Toleration’s original supporters were not pluralists, but they might be strategically wiser (or more committed to a disestablishment principle) than those who would enlist the government to spare themselves the hard work of saving souls.

Where does science fit into this? Instead of converting people by threatening them or incentivizing them, advocates of toleration basically said that since their religion was right, their arguments ought to appeal to anyone who was open minded and could understand evidence and logic.  They therefore began with arguments that took very little for granted.  In the case of Paley, this is why he begins with looking at natural theology, because everyone can look at nature, and can be persuaded by rational argument from it.  It’s only later on that Paley argues for the reliability of Scripture as evidence, because not everyone would be willing to take that for granted.

Though it’s anachronistic to call this a “scientific method,” the arguments put forward by the writers who helped inspire the Establishment clause effectively said that religious reasoning ought to draw first from objective knowledge found in nature—knowledge that could appeal to everyone.  In effect, antidisestablishmentarianism isn’t just anti-science in a trivial or short term way (like making it easier to ban evolution.) It’s anti-science in a fundamental way, by claiming that objectivity, and empiricism have no better claim to knowledge than affirmed truths.

This history of religious toleration, and its intertwinement with the development of science in Europe in the modern era, also suggests that there may be deeper linkages between a separation model of the relationship between science and religion (in a manner such as Stephen Jay Gould proposed) and the idea of separating church and state.

The Creation of History

I took a research trip in September to the University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections to look at the records of the 1959 Darwin Centennial Celebration.  I was hoping to find material to use in a talk at the History of Science Society meeting two months later.  That talk discussed the way that the interpretation of William Paley as a scientific foil to Darwin gradually evolved over two centuries.  My efforts to find any trace of Paley being invoked at the conference led me in turn to Jaroslav Pelikan’s address at the “Proceedings of the Institute on Science and Theology” which ran in conjunction with the main conference.  It was not until recently that I was able to listen to an audio recording of Pelikan’s address (thanks to the Library’s willingness to have the original reel-to-reel recording reformatted) Pelikan’s paper was published in both the third volume of the conference proceedings and then in the Journal of Religion (available online via Jstor.)  It contains what appears to be the only mention of Paley at the conference.  But that mention comes in a very strange context.

Pelikan’s principle statement about Paley—”Providence over Nature, as formulated by writers like Paley in his Natural Theology, could not stand if Darwin was right.” is wrong.  But it’s wrong in a way that seems consistent with the Paley-as-Darwin’s-Foil trope that seems to have had a resurgence right around 1959: where Paley was seen as incompatible with Darwin but was not yet depicted as presenting a scientific explanation for natural complexity that Darwinism refutes.  From this one statement, it would be easy to conclude that Pelikan had a naïve view of Paley.  But Pelikan only mentions Paley  tangentially; it seems that he only did so in order to connect his talk to the Darwin-themed conference rather than Paley really being part of the argument of his paper.  By 1959, it appears, invoking Paley had already become a shorthand for referencing pre-Darwinian thought (in general).

And that’s what I find so strange, because Pelikan’s paper is an exploration of the idea of “creation” and he points out an interesting evolution in the way that it was understood in the history of theology.  In brief, there’s a gradual distinction drawn between creation in the sense of creating something by assembling matter in a purposeful way, and creating something ex nihilo — out of nothing.  Pelikan argues that in the Old Testament both forms or creation are described the same way, when done by the deity, and in some cases it’s unclear whether creation needs to be understood in one way or the other.  That Genesis 1 could be understood as God co-existing with unformed matter and creating the world by giving it form, direction and purpose.  But by the early centuries of the Christian era, the distinction is drawn sharply and Tertullian (according to Pelikan) is the first to give “a full-scale refutation of the claim that matter existed before creation. Creation must mean creatio ex nihilo, even though the creation accounts do not say this in so many words.”  Later, creation from assembly of matter came to be seen as not a type of “creation” at all. The insistence that God’s act of creation was a singular miraculous event, rather than an ongoing act of creation through the operation of matter in nature (Pelikan argues) paralleled a distinction that emerged out of the Reformation: that the redemptive sacrifice of Christ was also singular, as opposed to recurring in the sacrificial nature of the mass.  So the interpretation of creation was bound up with debates over the nature of the eucharist, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and more generally the political quarrels of the Reformation and religion in Christian Europe.

So by a series of steps the meaning of a term shifts, and at each stage, the differences between old and new iterations of the term become pinned to other religious and/or political ideas, which compels at least some people to re-emphasize the differences between them.

I’m not an expert on early church history at all, but if anyone who reads this wants to weigh in on the Pelikan’s account of this history, I’d love to hear it.  It seems that several writers on science and religion after Pelikan have made similar points.  Ian Barbour (for example) even cites Pelikan’s article.  And more generally, it seems that the idea of “continuing creation” has found quite a lot of traction in the science-religion dialogue.  Perhaps Pelikan’s historical account of “creation” has also influenced that science-religion field.

But what I personally find conflicting in this article is that it can be such a clear explication of the history of ideas about creation and yet almost unreflectively typecast Paley, when the essay’s discussing a question about creation that Paley’s evidently interested in.  It’s strange because, to me, a discussion of Paley’s Natural Theology could actually strengthen Pelikan’s case.

I wouldn’t have put it this way before, but it might be fair to say that part of Paley’s goal in the Natural Theology is to demonstrate that the initial creator (ex nihilo) is the same entity as the continuing creator.  At one point, Paley writes: “it is as though one Being should have fixed certain rules and, if we may so speak, provided certain materials; [the creatio ex nihilo] and, afterwards, have committed to another Being, out of these materials, and in subordination to these rules, the task of drawing forth a creation [the creation by assembly.]”

In effect, Paley goes on to say that the fact that the continuing creation can lead to contrivances that go on to make further use of the fixed rules to achieve purposes is evidence that the two creative aspects are unified—that there’s a single unitary Deity behind it.

Because of a brief reference in the audio recording of the conference that does not appear in his published paper, I think it’s fair to say that Pelikan was suggesting that this debate about what creation meant was of major importance in 18th century Christian religious thought.  If that’s true, then Paley—writing just after the 18th century—seems to be responding to that debate by arguing for a reconciliation between the sides.  Of course that’s not the only thing Paley was doing, but it’s another context to consider in understanding the Natural Theology.

Getting back to my overall project concerning the ways people read and interpreted Paley: I’m not surprised that historians of science tend to dismiss Paley, but if ever a reader in the mid-20th century ought to have found something meaningful in Paley, it ought to have been a historian of theology asking exactly the questions Pelikan asked.  The fact that he invokes Paley in such a way only leaves me with more questions.  But new ones!

Finishing class and starting a blog

Last week, I taught the final class of my undergraduate course at Birkbeck. The class is titled “Science and Religion: From Galileo to Global Warming.”  Soon after I proposed the course, I started questioning whether it would have been better to call it “From Galileo to the God Particle” because the discovery of the Higgs Boson had just recently been announced.  In the end I decided to keep it because: 1) Global warming has a lot more impact on people’s daily lives than the Higgs Boson; 2) “Galileo to the God Particle” might imply that the course is all about physics and astronomy, whereas the other title also suggests a spectrum of sciences taking in physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, and ecology; and 3) it was too late to officially change the name with the Department and the College.

For several weeks, I’d been starting the lecture by asking the students if there was anything of note science-religion-wise in the news.  And of course, on the last week of the course the ‘God Particle’ was news again, as the news came that the particle discovered last year was now confirmed to be a Higgs Boson.

So God particle it was, or almost was.  Because the morning of my class was the inauguration of Pope Francis. In his inaugural homily, the Pope discussed religious obligations towards the environment.  At least in the English translation of his address, this was brought under a discussion of the idea of being a ‘protector’ of creation.  The theme recurs quite a bit in the homily, but one moment in the speech in particular struck me as noteworthy.

Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!

There has been quite a debate in recent decades among different religious groups over questions of environmental conservation.  There are several issues involved. One argument raised is that it seems absurd to claim that human beings have the power to damage the Earth in a way that’s beyond God’s power to restore it, which would suggest that humans are (in this way) more powerful than God.  The idea that humans could cause irreversible climate change seems to be intricately bound up in this question. That’s an oversimplification of the range of voices on this issue, but this question also impacts discussion of whether humans have the right to consume and exploit the created world and whether, having the right to do so makes such consumption moral.

Also lurking in the background of many of these environmental debates is the question of whether human beings can have moral obligations towards parts of creation that are not also moral beings.  That is, if you take the position that nonhuman created things (e.g. animals, plants, ponds, ocean currents, the Greenland ice shelf) don’t have their own free will, then can you really have a moral duty towards them? Put another way, can they have rights?

And that’s why Pope Francis’s homily is so interesting.  Because he entwines the idea of environmental protection with the care of human individuals and human societies, including provision for economic well-being.  In a way, this sidesteps the issues of moral obligations towards the rest of creation.  If the destruction of the environment affects the ability of human beings to live safely and to improve their social political and economic lives, then it becomes a moral question at the point of moral obligation towards other human beings.  For that reason, a religious environmentalism that is also framed as an issue of social, political, and economic justice has the power to achieve more than a position that is rooted solely in claims of obligation to the environment as such.

Another important clause in that one statement (in a homily that is deeply and carefully laden with them) is the notion of us as “protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature” the idea of a divine plan has frequently been invoked by recent opponents of evolution, who insists that evolution is “random” and undirected and leaves no room for God.  Some supporters of evolution agree with this, but many others insist that an evolutionary history of life on earth does not negate the possibility of God.  (This issue will be the subject of several future posts.)  Those who would see the Pope’s invocation of God’s plan as a possible rejection of evolutionism miss the point.  The more important claim nestled into that sentence is the claim that the plan is “inscribed in nature.”  While certainly not a new idea, it is a declaration in the core tenet of natural theology — the idea that understanding nature can inform understanding of God and God’s plan.

Historically, natural theology has not only been invoked as an argument against atheism, but also against the claim that individual personal experience of God or the scriptures alone are the only true pathways towards understanding God.   this is not at all new. The idea that the Bible alone was sufficient for understanding God was a core tenet of the Protestant Reformation, and in some ways, pointing out that the Pope has invoked a form of natural theology is as insightful as stating the Pope is Catholic.

But the explicit connection between natural theology and environmentalism is—if not new—then historically underdeveloped.  This may be because natural theology has been widely regarded as obsolete since the late nineteenth century(partly because of the myth “That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology“)  And most histories of environmentalism would claim to see only antecedents of modern environmentalism that early.

At the very end of last week’s class I suggested that maybe, after more than 150 years of debating Darwinism, perhaps evolution might cease to be the definitive issue of the science-religion relationship.  Recent antievolution legislation in the United States, such as last year’s law enacted in Tennessee has drawn together the debates over teaching about evolution and teaching about climate change under an umbrella of teaching “scientific weaknesses to scientific theories.”  Putting evolution and climate change on equal footing (even as equally objectionable) might be a transitional moment when one issue gradually overtake the other in public importance.  Of course, understanding evolution is critical to understanding environmental impact, and what’s more likely is that the issues will become more and more fused, rather than one simply eclipsing the other.

If that fusion does continue, then what might prove to be most interesting is the possibility that eco-theology might be able to extend arguments from natural theology that natural theologians themselves did not make even in the early nineteenth century, but which might find purchase in the twenty-first.  The Pope’s homily offers glimpses of what that might entail.

And there’s something rather enjoyable about being able to finish a course by bringing the class up to the history of just 7 hours earlier.  Happy end of term!