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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 3. The Teleological Argument.

A. Its Nature.

This argument also admits of being stated in a syllogistic form. Design supposes a designer. The world everywhere exhibits marks of design. Therefore the world owes its existence to an intelligent author.

By design is intended, — (1.) The selection of an end to be attained. (2.) The choice of suitable means for its attainment. (3.) The actual application of those means for the accomplishment of the proposed end.

Such being the nature of design, it is a self-evident truth, or, even an identical proposition, that design is indicative of intelligence, will, and power. It is simply saying that intelligence in the effect implies intelligence in the cause.

It is moreover true that the intelligence indicated by design is not in the thing designed. It must be in an external agent. The mind indicated in a book is not in the book itself, but in the author and printer. The intelligence revealed by a calculating machine, or any similar work of art, is not in the material employed, but in the inventor and artist. Neither is the mind indicated in the structure of the bodies of plants and animals, in them, but in Him who made them. And in like manner the mind indicated in the world at large must be in an extramundane Being. There is, indeed, this obvious difference between the works of God and the works of man. In every product of human art dead materials are fashioned and united to accomplish a given end; but the organized works of nature are animated by a living principle. They are fashioned as it were from within outward. In other words, they grow; they are not constructed. In this respect there is a great difference between a house and a tree or the human body. But, nevertheless, in both cases, the mind is external to the thing produced; because the end, the thought, is prior to the product. As the thought or idea of a machine must be in the mind of the mechanist, before the machine is made; so the idea or thought of the eye must be anterior to its formation. “It is a simple and pregnant conclusion,” says Trendelenburg,153153Log. Untersuchungen, 2d edit. Leipzig, 1862, vol. ii. p. 28. “that so far as design is realized in the world, thought as its ground has preceded it.” And this thought, he goes on to say, is not dead, as a figure or model, it is connected with will and power. It is, therefore, in the mind of a person who has the ability and purpose to carry it out. He further says, “tiefsinnige Zweckmässigkeit bewustlos und blind,” cannot be imagined, i.e., a blind and unconscious adaptation of means to an end is inconceivable.

As the conviction that design implies an intelligent agent is intuitive and necessary, it is not limited to the narrow sphere of our experience. The argument is not, Every house, ship, telescope, or other instrument or machine, we ever saw had an intelligent maker, therefore we may take it for granted that any similar work of art was not formed by chance or by the operation of blind, unconscious forces. The argument rather is, Such is the nature of design, that it of necessity implies an intelligent agent; and, therefore, where ever, or whenever we see evidence of design we are convinced that it is to be referred to the operation of mind. On this ground we not only authorized, but compelled to apply the argument from design far beyond the limits of experience, and to say: It is just as evident that the world had an intelligent creator, as that a book had an author. If a man can believe that a book was written by chance, or by blind, unconscious force, then, and not otherwise, can he rationally deny the validity of the argument from design in proof of the existence of a personal God.

B. Evidences of Design in the World.

This is a boundless subject. One of the most important and valuable of the “Bridgewater Treatises,” the volume by Dr. Charles Bell, is devoted to “The Hand, its mechanism and vital endowments as evincing design.” Hundreds of volumes would not be sufficient to exhibit the evidence of the intelligent adaptation of means to an end, which the world everywhere affords. In the few pages now at command all that can be attempted, is an indication of the nature of this evidence.154154It may be well to give the titles of the valuable series of the Bridgewater Treatise devoted to this subject, besides the work of Dr. Bell mentioned in the text. The volumes are, The Adaption of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constituion of Man, by Dr. Thomas Chalmers; On the Adaption of External Nature to the Physical Constitution of Man, by John Kidd; Astronomy and General Physics treated in Reference to Natural Theology, by William Whewell; Animal and Vegetable Physiology considered in Reference to Natural Theology, by Peter Mark Roget; Geology and Mineralogy considered in Reference to Natural Theology, by William Buckland; The Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation of Animals, by William Kirby; Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion considered in Reference to Natural Theology, by William Prout. The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, by C. Babbage; Footprints of the Creator, by Hugh Miller; Théologie de la Nature, by H. Durkheim (1852, 3 vols. 8vo.); Butler's Analogy of Religion and Nature; Paley's Natural Theology; Dr. McCosh's Typical Forms and Special Ends in Creation; Dr. James Buchanan's Faith in God and Modern Atheism compared, 2 vols. 3vo; and Dr. John Tulloch's (Principal of St. Mary's College, St. Andrew's) Theism; The Witness of Reason and Nature to an All-Wise and Beneficient Creator, may also be mentioned.

Design in Single Organs.

1. No work of human art can compare with the nicety and completeness of the separate organs of organized bodies for the purpose for which they are designed. In the eye, for example, there is the most perfect optical instrument constructed in accordance with the hidden laws of light. We find there the only nerve in the body susceptible of the impressions of light and color. That nerve is spread out on the retina. The light is admitted through an orifice in the ball, which opening by the most delicate arrangement of muscles is enlarged or contracted, according to the degree of light which falls on the retina, which enlargement or contraction is not dependent on the will, but on the stimulus of the light itself. Light, however, merely passing through an orifice would make no image of the object from which it was reflected. It is, therefore, made to pass through lenses perfect in form so to refract the rays as to bring them to a proper focus on the retina. If the inner chamber of the eye were white, it would so reflect the rays entering the pupil at every angle as to render vision impossible. That chamber, and that alone, is lined with a black pigment. By a delicate muscular arrangement the eye is enabled to adapt itself to the distance of external objects so that the proper focus may be preserved. These are a small part of the wonders exhibited by this single organ of the body. This organ was fashioned in th darkness of the womb, with a self-evident reference to the nature and properties of light, of which the creature for whose use it was fashioned had neither knowledge or experience. If the eye, therefore, does not indicate the intelligent adaptation of means to an end, no such adaptation can be found in any work of human ingenuity.

The same remarks apply to the ear. In its cavity lies the auditory nerve. A tortuous passage is formed in the bony structure of the skull. The orifice of that passage is covered by a membrane to receive the vibration of the air; on the centre of that membrane rests the termination of a small bone so connected as to convey those vibrations to the only nerve capable of receiving or interpreting them, or of transmitting them to the brain. It is by this organ, constructed according to the recondite principles of acoustics, that our intercourse with our fellow-men is principally kept up; through which the marvels of speech, all the charms of music and eloquence become possible for man.

We cannot live without a constant supply of oxygen, which must every moment be brought to act upon the blood, to vitalize it, and by combining with the carbon it contains fit it for renewed use. The infant, therefore, comes into the world with an apparatus prepared for that purpose. In its formative state, it did not breathe. Yet it had lungs. They were given for a foreseen necessity. Nothing can exceed the intricacy, complication, or beauty of the organ or system of organs thus prepared, for the absolutely necessary and continuous purification of the blood, and for its distribution in an uninterrupted flux and reflux to every part of the body. This process goes on without our supervision. It is as regular during sleep as during our waking hours.

Food is as necessary for our support as air. The unborn infant needs no food. It is included in the circulation of its mother. In the state on which it is soon to enter food will be a necessity. Full provision is made beforehand for its reception and use. Teeth are embedded in the jaw for its mastication; salivary glands to furnish the fluid for its chemical preparation for the stomach; an œsophagus to convey it to the stomach, where it meets with a fluid found nowhere else, capable of dissolving and digesting it. It then comes into contact with a set of absorbent vessels which select from it the elements suited for the wants of the body and reject all the rest. The valuable portion is poured into the blood by which it is distributed, each constituent going to its own place and answering its predestined purpose; carbon to be consumed to keep up the vital heat, lime to the bones, fibrine to the muscles, phosphorus to the brain and nerves.

The child before birth has no need of organs for locomotion or for apprehending external objects. But it was foreseen that it would need them, and therefore they are prepared beforehand. The bones are grooved for the reception of muscles, and have projections for points of support; joints of all kinds, hinge and ball and socket, for the flexure of the limbs; the instruments for motion, the contractile fibres, arranged and attached, according to the strict laws of mechanics, so as best to secure the two ends of symmetry and power. Thus the body is a perfect marvel of mechanical contrivances. The several organs, therefore, of the animal frame, viewed separately, present the most incontestible evidence of foresight, intelligence, and wisdom. This, however, is only a small part of the evidence of design furnished even by the body.

Design in the Relation of one Organ to Another.

2. Every animal is a complete whole. Each part has a designed and predetermined reference to every other part. The organs of sight, hearing, breathing, nutrition, locomotion, etc., are so arranged and adjusted as to answer a common purpose to the best advantage. Besides, these organs, although common to all animals (at least to all above the lowest), are modified in each genus and species to meet its peculiar necessities. If the animal is to live on the land all its organs are adapted to that condition. If it is to live in the water or move through the air, all is prepared beforehand for that destination. And more than this, if one organ be designed for some special use, all the rest are modified in accordance with that purpose. If the stomach is suited for the digestion of flesh, then the teeth, the limbs, the claws, are all adapted to secure and prepare the proper aliment. So complete is the adaptation that the anatomist can determine from a single bone the genus or species to which the animal belonged. Birds which wade in the water have long legs and long necks. Those which float on the surface, have web feet, and feathers impenetrable by water; two things which have causal relation, and which are united by a kind of intelligence external to the animal itself. Birds which fly in the air are fitted for their destiny by hollow bones, wide-spread wings, and great accumulation of muscles on the breast. Those which climb trees have feet and tail adapted for that purpose, and, as in the case of the wood-pecker, a sharp bill for boring the tree and a barbed tongue to seize its food. These modifications of animal structure are endless, all showing an external intelligence cognizant of the necessities of every distinct species.

The Adaptation of the Organs to the Instinct of Animals

3. There is a correspondence between the organs of every animal and the instincts by which it is endowed. Beasts and birds of prey having the instinct to feed on flesh have all the organs requisite to satisfy this inward craving. Those having an instinct for vegetable food, have teeth and stomachs adapted for that purpose. The bee whose body secretes wax, has the instinct to build cells; the spider furnished with the peculiar viscid matter, and apparatus for spinning it, makes a web and watches for its prey. So it is throughout all animated nature. Here then are two very distinct things: instinct and corporeal organs; the instinct cannot account for the organs nor the organs for the instinct; and yet they are never found the one without the other. They of necessity, therefore, imply an intelligence which implants the instinct and furnishes the appropriate organs.

Argument from Prevision.

4. There cannot be a more decisive proof of intelligence than prevision; preparation for an event in the future. The world is full of evidence of such prevision. It is seen not only in the preparation of the organs of sight, hearing, breathing, nutrition, etc. for necessities still future; but still more strikingly in the provision made for the support of young animals as soon as they are born. In the mammalia before the birth of the offspring, the breast or udder begins to swell; it commences the secretion of milk, so that the moment the young animal enters the world he finds prepared the most nutritious and suitable food the world contains. The egg furnishes a still more instructive illustration. It consists of albumen and the yolk. To the yolk is attached a minute germ or cell. When by heat the germ begins to develop, if nourishment were not provided and at hand, it would of necessity perish. But the yolk is there to supply the needed material out of which the future animal is fashioned. If this does not indicate a foreseeing mind and a providing power, then the most skilful productions of human skill and kindness do not prove the intelligence of man, Where then is this intelligence? Not in the parent bird, for it understands nothing about it. Not in mere blind forces of nature. There may possibly be room for question where to place it; but to deny that these provisions indicate an intelligent agency somewhere, is altogether irrational.

Vegetable Organisms.

5. The vegetable kingdom is as full of the indications of benevolent design as the animal. Plants have their organism and their physiology. Their structure, in their organs for growth and reproduction, is quite as marvellous as that of most species of the animal kingdom. They constitute an essential part in the great system of nature, without which there could be no sentient life on our globe. Animals cannot live on inorganic matter. It is the province of the plant to reduce this matter into such a state as to be fit for the support of animal life. If it were not therefore for the functions of the leaf which transmutes the inorganic into the organic, there could be no sentient life on our earth. Is there no design here? Is there no intelligent adaptation of one part of the great system of nature to another?

From the Adaptations of Nature.

6. This leads to another department of the subject. The evidences of design are not confined to the separate organs of the plant or animal; nor to the relations of these organs to each other, nor, in the case of animals, to the instinct which impels to the proper use of those organs; they are to be found just as abundantly in the adaptation of external nature to the necessities of animal and vegetable life. Neither plants nor animals could exist without light, air, heat, water, and soil, to produce the common food of all living things. Who created the light and heat and diffuses them over the whole earth? Who made the sun from which they radiate? Who constituted the atmosphere with its chemical adjustments, precisely what is necessary for the support of life, everywhere and always the same, and poured it round our globe? How is it that water at a certain temperature evaporates, rises in mist, is gathered into clouds, is carried everywhere by the winds, and falls in rain to fertilize the earth? The eye supposes light, as the lungs suppose air; the appetite of hunger supposes food, and the power of digestion. Food supposes soil, light, heat, and water. Surely this is one great system. There is unity and mutual relation in all its parts. It must have had one author, and He must be infinite in intelligence and goodness.

All living Creatures on the Earth have Organic Relations.

7. The design indicated in nature is, however, not confined to the individual organisms and to their relations to the world around them, but it has in the progress of science been discovered, that the whole vegetable and animal world has been constructed on one comprehensive plan. As there is a relation of one organ of a given plant or animal to all others and to the whole, so the whole race of plants, and the whole race of animals are related. There are certain typical forms of which all the infinite variety of plants are modifications; and certain other types of which the innumerable genera, species, and varieties of animals are only modifications; and these modifications are precisely of the kind to suit each species for its end, and for the circumstances in which it is to live. So obviously is this the case that Professor Agassiz's “Essay on Classification,” is, to say the least, as strong an argument for the being of God as any of the “Bridgewater Treatises.” And it is so regarded by its illustrious author. On page 10 of his “Contributions to the Natural History of the United States,” he says, “I know those who hold it to be very unscientific to believe that thinking is not something inherent in matter, and that there is an essential difference between inorganic and living and thinking beings. I shall not be prevented by any such pretensions of a false philosophy from expressing my conviction that as long as it cannot be shown that matter or physical forces do actually reason, I shall consider any manifestation of thought as evidence of the existence of a thinking Being as the author of such thought, and shall look upon an intelligent and intelligible connection between the facts of nature as direct proof of the existence of a thinking God, as certainly as man exhibits the power of thinking, when he recognizes their natural relation.”

Evidence that the Earth was designed for Man.

8. It is not only, however, the living organisms inhabiting our earth, which exhibit such evidence of an intelligent creator, but also the earth itself. If a father, who when he provides a home for his children, fits it up with all the necessities and all the luxuries which they can possibly need, gives indisputable evidence of intelligence and love, then are those attributes to be ascribed to Him who fitted up this world to be the home of his creatures. This is seen, as already intimated, in the constitution of the atmosphere, in the distribution of light and heat, of electricity and magnetism, in the establishment of those laws which secure the regular succession of the seasons, in the preparation of soil by the disintegration of rocks, the falling of rain, the deposition of dew which falls gently with life-giving power on the thirsty earth; in innumerable other provisions and dispositions of the forces of nature without which neither vegetable nor animal life could be sustained. There are many special provisions of this kind which fill the mind with gratitude and wonder. It is a general law that bodies contract as they become colder. Water, however, when it freezes expands and becomes lighter. If it were not for this benevolent exception to the general law, not only would the inhabitants of all our rivers perish, but the greater part of the temperate zone would be uninhabitable. It is no answer to this argument to say that there are a few other exceptions to this law. We may not know the final cause why bismuth should expand on cooling; but this does not prevent our knowing why ice is made lighter than water. Our not understanding one sentence in a book, does not prove that it has no meaning, nor that we cannot understand another sentence.

The whole configuration of the earth, its position in relation to the sun, and the inclination of its axis, are obviously intended to render it a suitable residence for the creatures by which it is inhabited. Their well-being depends on the distribution of land and water on its surface; on the elevation of its mountain ranges and plateaus, and on the ocean currents which are determined by the configuration of its coasts. If North and South America were not connected by the narrow Isthmus of Darien, Great Britain and the northwestern portions of Europe would be uninhabitable. They owe the moderate temperature which they enjoy to the immense body of warm water, which is prevented by that Isthmus from flowing into the Pacific, being floated in a northeasterly direction across the Atlantic. When we see such benevolent arrangements among men, we refer them instinctively and by a rational necessity to a benevolent and intelligent agent. No rational ground exists for refusing to ascribe like arrangements in nature to a similar source. Is it any more an evidence of prudent or benevolent foresight that a man should store away abundant fuel for himself or others, knowing that winter is approaching, than that God has laid up inexhaustible stores of coal in the bowels of the earth, for the use of his children on the earth?

Cosmical Arrangements.

9. The argument for design founded on cosmical arrangements is so vast a subject that it seems absurd even to refer to it, in a single paragraph. The simple facts are, that our globe is one of eight primary planets which revolve round the sun. The most distant of these planets is some three thousand millions of miles from the central luminary. These planets all move in the same direction, in nearly circular orbits, in nearly the same plane, and with so equable a motion that each performs its revolutions in the proper time. The stability of the system depends on these circumstances. To secure these results matter must attract matter according to its quantity and the square of its distance. The central body must be of such mass as to hold the planets in their course. The centrifugal and centripetal forces must be exactly balanced, to prevent the planets from flying off into space, or falling into the sun. Each planet must have been projected with a precise definite velocity to secure its orbit being nearly a circle, rather than any other curve. The central body alone, in accordance with the evident plan, is luminous and heat-producing. All the others are opaque and cold. These are facts, which Sir Isaac Newton says he is “forced to ascribe to the counsel and contrivance of a voluntary agent.”155155Newton's First Letter to Bentley, quoted by Tulloch, Theism, edit. N.Y. 1855, p. 109. Since the time of Newton, indeed, it has been the commonly received theory that the planets were at one time fluid, highly heated, and luminous; and that they have become opaque in the process of cooling. But this only puts the argument one step back. The fact is that a most wonderful and beneficent result has been accomplished. The question How? is of minor importance. It is the beneficence of the result which indicates mind, and this indication of mind implies a “voluntary agent.”

Our solar system itself, therefore, is vast, varied, and well ordered. Our system, however, is one of probably hundreds of millions. At least astronomers assert their knowledge of a hundred million of suns, some of which are incalculably larger than ours. Sirius is calculated to shine with a light equal to two hundred and fifty of our suns; Alcyone with that of twelve thousand suns. The nearest of these stars is separated from the outer planet of our system twenty-one billions of miles. These millions of stars are not scattered equally through space, but are gathered into groups, the members of which bear an obvious relation to each other.

Besides these systems in which planets are assumed to revolve around suns, there are others in which suns revolve around suns, at distances proportioned to their magnitude. The light emanating from these great luminaries is of different colors, white, red, blue.

Then more distant in space float the unresolved nebulæ. Whether these nebulæ are vast continents of stars too distant to be distinguishable, or cosmical matter in a formative state, is still an open question with astronomers. Two thousand have been counted in the northern hemisphere, and one thousand in the southern. They assume every variety of form; some are spherical, some fan-shaped, some spiral, some in circular rings. It is estimated that the light of some of the stars has been many thousand years in reaching our earth, although travelling at the rate of more than ten millions of miles a minute.

Throughout this vast universe order reigns. In the midst of endless variety, there is unity. The same laws of gravitation, of light, and of heat everywhere prevail. Confusion and disorder are the uniform result of chance or blindly operating forces. Order is the sure indication of mind. What mind! what wisdom! what power! what beneficence! does this all but infinite universe display!

“The result of our whole experience,” said Sir Gilbert Eliot, writing to Hume himself, “seems to amount to this: — There are but two ways in which we have ever observed the different parcels of matter to be thrown together, — either at random, or with design and purpose. By the first, we have never seen produced a regular complicated effect, corresponding to a certain end; by the second, we uniformly have. If, then, the works of nature and the productions of men resemble each other in this one general characteristic, will not even experience sufficiently warrant us to ascribe to both a similar, though proportionable, cause.”156156Dr. Buchanan's Analogy a Guide to Truth and an Aid to Faith, edit. Edinburgh, 1864, p. 414.

This argument from design is constantly urged in the Old Testamcnt, which appeals to the heavens and the earth as revealing the being and perfections of God. The Apostle Paul says that the living God, who made heaven and earth, and the sea and all that is therein, hath not left himself without a witness. (Acts xiv. 15-17.) He demonstrated to the Athenians the nature of God from his works and from our relation to him as his offspring. (Acts xvii. 23-31.) To the Romans he said that the eternal power and Godhead of the Supreme Being, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. (Rom. i. 20.) The ancient philosophers drew the same conclusion from the same premises. Anaxagoras argued that νοῦς, mind, must be admitted as controlling everything in the world, because everything indicates design. Socrates constantly dwells on this as the great proof of the being of God. Cicero157157De Natura Deorum, ii. 37. says that it is as impossible that an ordered world could be formed by the fortuitous concurrence of atoms, as that a book should be composed by the throwing about letters at random. Trendelenburg,158158Logische Untersuchungen, vol. ii. p. 64. after referring to that passage, says: “It is perhaps more difficult to assume, that by the blind combination of chemical and physical elements and forces, any one even of the organs of the body should be formed, — the eye, for example, so clear, sharp, and all-seeing, — much less the harmonious union of organs which make up the body, than that a book should be made by chance, by throwing types about.”

Philo presents the argument in its simplest syllogistic form. “No work of art is self-made. The world is the most perfect work of art. Therefore, the world was made by a good and most perfect Author. Thus we have the knowledge of the existence of God.”159159De Monarchia, i. § 4, edit. Leipsig, 1828, vol. iv. p. 290. All the Christian fathers and subsequent theologians have reasoned in the same way. Even Kant, although denying its conclusiveness, says that the teleological argument should always be treated with respect. It is, he says, the oldest, the clearest, and the best adapted to the human mind.


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