Suppose I Pitched My Foot Upon a Stone

Suppose I Pitched My Foot Upon A Stone

A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question. ~Fred Hoyle

Clockwork Cufflinks

The argument of intelligent design for the existence of God, or for the existence of a greatest possible being, is not a recent phenomenon. It has been a belief which has spanned the last two millennia.  Cicero foreshadowed it in his De natura deorum:

When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance.  How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers? [1]

Rene Descartes would later, in his attempt at describing the functions of the human body, state that:

Nor will this appear at all strange to those who are acquainted with the variety of movements performed by the different automata, or moving machines fabricated by human industry, and that with help of but few pieces compared with the great multitude of bones, muscles, nerves, arteries, veins, and other parts that are found in the body of each animal.  Such persons will look upon this body as a machine made by the hands of God, which is incomparably better arranged, and adequate to movements more admirable, than is any machine of human invention. [2]

The argument of intelligent design is at its base this:

  1. Machines are produced by intelligent design.

  2. Therefore, probably the universe was produced by intelligent design. [3]

  3. The universe resembles a machine.

Robert Hooke, who developed the laws of elasticity and developed and popularized the microscope would state in his magnum opus that:

For, as divers Watches may be made out of several materials, which may yet have all the same appearance, and move after the same manner, that is, show the hour equally true, the one as the other, and out of the same kind of matter, like Watches, may be wrought differing ways; and, as one and the same Watch may, by being diversely agitated, or moved, by this or that agent, or after this or that manner, produce a quite contrary effect: So may it be with these most curious Engines of Insect’s bodies; the All-wise God of Nature, may have so ordered and disposed the little Automatons, that when nourished, acted, or enlivened by this cause, the produce one kind of effect, or animate shape, when by another they act quite another way, and another Animal is produced.  So may he so order several materials, as to make them, by several kinds of methods, produce similar Automatons. [4]

Boyle in the 18th century would, after having seen the new chemistry at work, argue that:

[The universe] is like a rare clock, such as may be t hat at Strasbourg, where all things are so skillfully contrived that the engine being once set a-moving, all things proceed according to the artificer’s first design, and the motions of the little statues that at such hours perform these or those things do not require (like those of the puppets) the peculiar interposing of the artificer or any intelligent agent employed by him, but perform their functions upon particular occasions by virtue of the general and primitive contrivance of the whole engine. [5]

His universe was that of perpetual motion.  Once initially built and put in to motion by the creator, it would require no more intervention.


Boyle's Self Flowing Flask

Wikipedia: Perpetual Motion

The most famous of all the proponents of intelligent design is William Paley.  Though he falls quite outside the time frame of this analysis, his influence cannot be forgotten and therefore it is requisite that a bit of his Natural Theology be included.

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer.  But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there.  Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case as in the first? … we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose… that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. [6]

The idea of an intelligent designer is the basis for that religion which many scientists followed at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment – deism.  Deism is the belief that God, or some being outside of our realm, created the universe and set it in motion and never returned to it again, much like the watchmaker who pieces together the watch, sets its springs at the correct tightness (the laws of the universe), and after winding it up allows it to tick on all by itself without intervention.  The deistic practices of the 17th and 18th centuries laid the foundations for other religious sects to develop such as Unitarianism.  Though the watch mechanism in its Renaissance form faded away as a religious view, it has more recently been brought back into the fold, though in a much more complex form, as the battle between evolution and creationism has been stirred anew.

[1] Cicero. De natura deorum. ii.34

[2] Decartes, Rene. The Description of the Human Body. 1647

[3] Rowe, William. Philosophy of Religion. 4th Edition. 2007

[4] Hooke, Robert. Micrographia. 1664

[5] Boyle, Robert. A Free Enquiry.

[6] Paley, William. Natural Theology. 1809. 12th Ed. London.

Bibliographical notes:

1. Cicero, Decartes, Hooke, Boyle, and Paley are all well known names, along with their works which are almost equally well known. This episode was more an overview of the mechanistic philosophy and its supports and as such required a greater scan of authors. The professions of these men vary from scientists to natural philosophers, however all are well regarded in the history of science and philosophical communities.

2. Again Rowe makes an appearance... William Rowe is not a historian of science per se, though I'm sure he'd have a great deal more knowledge on its history than most. His book on the philosophy of religion is a staple to most introductory classes on the subject. He is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Purdue University and the Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers has said that he has helped cause a "remarkable revival of analytic philosophy of religion since the 1970s."

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