No Rev. William Paley’s 1802 book “Natural Theology”: The

No version of the design argument for God’s
existence is more famous than a passage from the Rev. William Paley’s 1802 book
“Natural Theology”:

The universe, to Paley, was more like a watch
than a mere stone. But he was scarcely the first to argue that nature suggests
a designer.

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The philosopher Plato (d. ca. 347 B.C.)
proposed in his “Timaeus” that the cosmos was formed by an incomprehensibly
intelligent “Demiurge.” In “On the Nature of the Gods,” Cicero (d. ca. 43 B.C.)
contended that divine reason pervades the whole of nature. he wrote, sounding
curiously Paley-like,

 

While a theology student at Cambridge
University (1828-1831), Charles Darwin (d. 1882) was fascinated by William
Paley’s work. “I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley’s ‘Natural
Theology,'” he recalled in an 1859 letter to John Lubbock. “I could almost
formerly have said it by heart.”

But then Darwin’s own theory
of evolution hit western thought like a freight train, seeming to eliminate any
need for a designer — and Darwin
himself apparently died a sometimes rather tortured and despondent agnostic.

As its title suggests, “The Blind Watchmaker,”
a 1986 book written by the Oxford evolutionary biologist and “New Atheist”
polemicist Richard Dawkins, is at least in part a response to Paley-style
design arguments. “Biology,” Dawkins declared, “is the study of complicated
things that have the appearance of having been designed with a purpose.”

That appearance, in Dawkins’ view, is mere
illusion.

But the idea of divine design never quite died.
Indeed, the unjustly lesser known co-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel
Wallace (d. 1913), seems to have broken with Darwin over precisely this issue,
insisting that certain features of the natural world could be explained only by
invoking what he called an “Overruling Intelligence.”

Strikingly, suggestions of
design or intention in nature have reappeared over the past few decades — and not only or even chiefly in explicitly
religious circles or as part of the “Intelligent Design” movement, which
focuses mostly on terrestrial biology. Many cosmologists and others have noted
what James Gardner, in his 2003 book “Biocosm,” terms “the anthropic, or
life-friendly, qualities of our cosmos — a spectacularly unlikely congeries of
physical laws and constants that seem altogether too perfectly suited to the
emergence and evolution of carbon-based life and intelligence to be the product
of any conceivable random process.” “These clues,” he says, “indicate that the
impression of design in nature is no mere illusion.”

“What (scientists) find,” wrote the late
physicist Heinz Pagels, apparently an atheist, in his 1988 book “The Dreams of
Reason,” Famously, the great astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle (d. 2001) discovered
a mysterious quirk in the process by which stars produce the carbon that makes
life possible. It seemed, to him, to have been designed. “Nothing,” he is
reported to have said, “has shaken my atheism as much as this discovery.”

The English physicist Paul
Davies — scarcely a Christian
apologist — writes in his 1984 book “God and the New Physics” that