Argument from Design, Two

LI’s friend at Fragmenta Philosophica, noting Flew’s apparent conversion to at least a watered down version of theism (but see our post yesterday), writes:

“I've always thought that the argument from design is the strongest "motive of credibility" for theism. Flew seems to agree, finally viewing it as the tipping-point:

'There was no one moment of change but a gradual conclusion over recent months for Flew, a spry man who still does not believe in an afterlife.

'Yet biologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved," Flew says in the new video, "Has Science Discovered God?"'

LI has a different take on the argument from design. Our argument depends on two things: how one interprets a “motive of credibility,” and what exactly the argument from design is all about.

Fontenelle, in his History of Oracles (1687), which is one of the first early modern attempts to devise an anthropology of religion, also believed that a variation of the argument from design gave rise to the idea of the gods back in ‘ces siècles grossiers’ before writing.

“The men who had a little more genius than the others naturally tended to investigate the causes of what they saw. Where, for example, does that ever flowing river come from, a contemplative from those centuries must have asked themselves? –a weird sort of philosopher, but who can tell – he might have been a Descartes in this century. After long meditation, he happily discovered that there was someone who took care to pour out this water, eternally, from a pail (cruche). But who furnished this person with the water? The contemplative did not go into those depths.

It is necessary to keep in mind that these ideas, which could be called the systems of those centuries, were always copied after the most well known objects. One had often seen water poured out from inside a pail: one easily imagined, thus, a God pouring out that of a river; and by that same ease by which one imagined it, one could as easily completely believe it. Thus, in order to explain thunder and lightning, one represented God as a human figure throwing arrows of fire at us; an idea manifestly taken from familiar objects.”

The argument from design, here, is transformed, by Fontenelle, into a way of explaining the anthropological crisis that faced Christendom from the era of discovery: there was a world of people who, evidently, had lived and died for generations without hearing the good news. What was their cosmological status? It was the revival of a question that confronted the early Christians, once they had decided, after Paul, that Christ had come to redeem the world. This transposition of a specifically Jewish God who recognized himself solely in one people to a cosmopolitan God who established a relation with all people (a relation based on caritas) obviously leads to the question of the gods those people are worshipping. I'll note, in passing, that re-defining the bond between God and man in terms of love also reworked the whole notion of God -- a term that then took on amazing connotations as the centuries rolled by. But to return to our story...

Doubtless, if Flew is convinced, by the amazing complexity of the cell, that there is a God – instead of there being many gods, or instead of there being Persian 'angels' tinkering with organisms down here – this is due less to his own innate monotheism than to the triumph, for two thousand years in Western culture, of monotheism.

However, that triumph, as Hume cleverly saw, has an unconscious effect upon the philosophic discourse about God. Ourselves, we think Fontenelle’s idea is startlingly relevant to the naïve use of the computer metaphor to meet our contemporary cosmological questions. But we also think that there is something thin about the argument from design to explain belief in the gods. Our belief is that the real impress in our animal souls of a feeling of God – what Epicurus called prolepsis (although there is vast scholarly disagreement about what this means -- Cicero described this as “innate power”) is, in the anthropological order, prior to and more “credance giving” than the proof by design. We would call the latter a way of specifying God. Which is a different thing entirely.