Intelligent Design: Law and Design in Nature

By James Freeman Clarke. This essay originally appeared in the North American Review, May, 1879.


Photograph courtesy Daniel McAdam


In a paper which opened a discussion on "Law and Design in Nature," Professor Newcomb announced in a single sentence a proposition, the truth or falsehood of which, he told us, was "the sole question presented for discussion in the present series of papers."

But, as soon as we examine this proposition, we find that it contains not one sole question, but three. The three are independent of each other, and do not necessarily stand or fall together. They are these:—

1. "The whole course of Nature, considered as a succession of phenomena, is conditioned solely by antecedent causes."

2. In the action of these causes, "no regard to consequences is traceable."

3. And no regard to consequences is "necessary to foresee the phenomena."

Of these three propositions I admit the truth of the first; deny the truth of the second; and, for want of space, and because of its relative unimportance, leave the third unexamined.

The first proposition is so evidently true, and so universally admitted, that it was hardly worth positing for discussion. It is merely affirming that every natural phenomenon implies a cause. The word "antecedent" is ambiguous, but, if it intends logical and not chronological antecedence, it is unobjectionable. So understood, we are merely asked if we can accept the law of universal causation; which I suppose we shall all readily do, since this law is the basis of theology no less than of science. Without it, we could not prove the existence of the first cause. Professor Newcomb has divided us into two conflicting schools, one of theology and the other of science. Taking my place in the school of theology, I think I may safely assert for my brethren that on this point there is no conflict, but that we all admit the truth of the law of universal causation. It will be noticed that Professor Newcomb has carefully worded his statement, so as not to confine us to physical causes, nor even to exclude supernatural causes from without, working into the nexus of natural laws. He does not say "antecedent physical causes," nor does he say "causes which have existed from the beginning."

Admitting thus the truth of the first proposition, I must resolutely deny that of the second; since, by accepting it, I should surrender the very cause I wish to defend, namely, that we can perceive design in Nature. Final causes are those which "regard consequences." The principle of finality is defined by M. Janet (in his recent exhaustive work, "Les Causes finales") as "the present determined by the future." One example of the way in which we can trace in Nature "a regard to consequences" is so excellently stated by this eminent philosopher that we will introduce it here: "Consider what is implied in the egg of a bird. In the mystery and night of incubation there comes, by the combination of an incredible number of causes, a living machine within the egg. It is absolutely separated from the external world, but every part is related to some future use. The outward physical world which the creature is to inhabit is wholly divided by impenetrable veils from this internal laboratory; but a preëstablished harmony exists between them. Without, there is light; within, an optical machine adapted to it. Without, there is sound; within, an acoustic apparatus. Without, are vegetables and animals; within, organs for their reception and assimilation. Without, is air; within, lungs with which to breathe it. Without, is oxygen; within, blood to be oxygenized. Without, is earth; within, feet are being made to walk on it. Without, is the atmosphere; within, are wings with which to fly through it. Now imagine a blind and idiotic workman, alone in a cellar, who simply by moving his limbs to and fro should be found to have forged a key capable of opening the most complex lock. If we exclude design, this is what Nature is supposed to be doing."

That design exists in Nature, and that earthly phenomena actually depend on final causes as well as on efficient causes, appears from the industry of man. Man is certainly a part of Nature, and those who accept evolution must regard him as the highest development resulting from natural processes. Now, all over the earth, from morning till evening, men are acting for ends. "Regard to consequences is traceable" in all their conduct. They are moved by hope and expectation. They devise plans, and act for a purpose. From the savage hammering his flint arrowheads, up to a Shakespeare composing "Hamlet," a Columbus seeking a new way to Asia, or a Paul converting Europe to a Syrian religion, human industry is a constant proof that a large part of the course of Nature on this earth is the result of design. And, as man develops into higher stages, this principle of design rises also from the simple to the complex, taking ever larger forms. A ship, for instance, shows throughout the adaptation of means to ends, by which complex adaptations produce a unity of result.

And that there is no conflict between the action of physical causes and final causes is demonstrated by the works of man, since they all result from the harmonious action of both. In studying human works we ask two questions,—"How?" and "Why?" We ask, "What is it for?" and "How is it done?" The two lines of inquiry run parallel, and without conflict. So, in studying the works of Nature, to seek for design does not obstruct the investigation of causes, and may often aid it. Thus Harvey is said to have been led to the discovery of the circulation of the blood by seeking for the use of the valves of the veins and heart.

The human mind is so constituted that, whenever it sees an event, it is obliged to infer a cause. So, whenever it sees adaptation, it infers design. It is not necessary to know the end proposed, or who were the agents. Adaptation itself, implying the use of means, leads us irresistibly to infer intention. We do not know who built Stonehenge, or some of the pyramids, or what they were built for; but no one doubts that they were the result of design. This inference is strengthened if we see combination toward an end, and preparation made beforehand for a result which comes afterward. From preparation, combination, and adaptation, we are led to believe in the presence of human design even where we did not before know of the presence of human beings. A few rudely shaped stones, found in a stratum belonging to the Quaternary period, in which man had before not been believed to exist, changed that opinion. Those chipped flints showed adaptation; from adaptation design was inferred; and design implied the presence of man.

Now, we find in Nature, especially in the organization and instincts of animals, myriads of similar instances of preparation, combination, and adaptation. Two explanations only of this occurred to antiquity,—design and chance. Socrates, Plato, and others, were led by such facts to infer the creation of the world by an intelligent author—"ille opifex rerum." Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, ascribed it to the fortuitous concourse of atoms. But modern science has expelled chance from the universe, and substituted law. Laplace, observing forty-three instances in the solar system of planets and their satellites revolving on their axes or moving in their orbits, from west to east, declared that this could not be a mere coincidence. Chance, therefore, being set aside, the question takes another form: "Did the cosmos that we see come by design or by law?"

But does this really change the question? Granting, for example, the truth of the theory of the development of all forms of life, under the operation of law, from a primal cell, we must then ask, "Did these laws come by chance or by design?" It is not possible to evade that issue. If the universe resulted from non-intelligent forces, those forces themselves must have existed as the result of chance or of intelligence. If you put out the eyes, you leave blindness; if you strike intelligence out of the creative mystery, you leave blind forces, the result of accident. Whatever is not from intelligence is from accident. To substitute law for chance is merely removing the difficulty a little further back; it does not solve it.

To eliminate interventions from the universe is not to remove design. The most profound theists have denied such interruptions of the course of Nature. Leibnitz is an illustrious example of this. Janet declares him to have been the true author of the theory of evolution, by his "Law of Continuity," of "Insensible Perceptions," and of "Infinitely Small Increments." Yet he also fully believed in final causes. Descartes, who objected to some teleological statements, believed that the Creator imposed laws on chaos by which the world emerged into a cosmos. We know that existing animals are evolved by a continuous process from eggs, and existing vegetables by a like process from seeds. No one ever supposed that there was less of design on this account in their creation. So, if all existing things came at first by a like process from a single germ, it would not argue less, but far more, of design in the universe.

The theory of "natural selection" does not enable us to dispense with final causes. This theory requires the existence of forces working according to the law of heredity and the law of variation, together with a suitable environment. But whence came this arrangement, by which a law of heredity was combined with a law of variation, and both made to act in a suitable environment? Here we find again the three marks of a designing intelligence: preparation, combination, adaptation. That intelligence which combines and adapts means to ends is merely remanded to the initial step of the process, instead of being allowed to act continuously along the whole line of evolution. Even though you can explain by the action of mechanical forces the whole development of the solar system and its contents from a nebula, you have only accumulated all the action of a creative intelligence in the nebula itself. Because I can explain the mechanical process by which a watch keeps time, I have not excluded the necessity of a watchmaker. Because, walking through my neighbor's grounds, I come upon a water-ram pumping up water by a purely mechanical process, I do not argue that this mechanism makes the assumption of an inventor superfluous. In human industry we perceive a power capable of using the blind forces of Nature for an intelligent end; which prepares beforehand for the intended result; which combines various conditions suited to produce it, and so creates order, system, use. But we observe in Nature exactly similar examples of order, method, and system, resulting from a vast number of combinations, correlations, and adaptations of natural forces. Man himself is such a result. He is an animal capable of activity, happiness, progress. But innumerable causes are combined and harmonized in his physical frame, each necessary to this end. As the human intelligence is the only power we know capable of accomplishing such results, analogy leads us to assume that a similar intelligence presides over the like combinations of means to ends in Nature. If any one questions the value of this argument from analogy, let him remember how entirely we rely upon it in all the business of life. We know only the motives which govern our own actions; but we infer by analogy that others act from similar motives. Knowing that we ourselves combine means designed to effect ends, when we see others adapting means to ends, we assume that they act also with design. Hence we have a right to extend the argument further and higher.

The result of what I have said is this: The phenomena of the universe cannot be satisfactorily explained except by the study both of efficient causes and of final causes. Routine scientists, confining themselves to the one, and routine theologians, confining themselves to the other, may suppose them to be in conflict. But men of larger insight, like Leibnitz, Newton, Descartes, and Bacon, easily see the harmony between them. Like Hegel they say: "Nature is no less artful than powerful; it attains its end while it allows all things to act according to their constitution;" or they declare with Bacon that "the highest link of Nature's chain is fastened to the foot of Jupiter's chair." But the belief in final causes does not imply belief in supernatural intervention, nor of any disturbance in the continuity of natural processes. It means that Nature is pervaded by an intelligent presence; that mind is above and around matter; that mechanical laws are themselves a manifestation of some providing wisdom, and that when we say Nature we also say God.






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