Read AN EXAMINATION OF THEISM: CHAPTER VI of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on


Kant called the argument from design “the oldest, the clearest, and the most adapted to the ordinary human reason,” of all the arguments advanced on behalf of the belief in God. Kant’s dictum, it will be observed, omits all opinion as to its quality, and his own criticism of it left it a sorry wreck. John Stuart Mill treated it far more respectfully, and commenced his examination of it with the flattering introduction, “We now at last reach an argument of a really scientific character,” and, although he did not find the argument convincing, gave it a most respectful dismissal. The purpose of the present chapter is to show that the argument from design in nature is in the last degree unscientific, that the analogy it seeks to establish is a false one, that it is completely and hopelessly irrelevant to the point at issue, and that one might grant nearly all it asks for, and even then show that it does not prove what it sets out to prove. That such an argument should have, and for so long, exerted so much influence over the human mind, gives one anything but a flattering impression of the power of reason in human affairs.

True it is that of late years the argument from design has felt the influence of the growth of the idea of evolution, and the champions of theism have used it with much greater caution, and under an obvious sense that it no longer wielded its old authority. The fact that this is so forms a commentary on the statement so often made that man’s craving for an ultimate cause leads to the belief in God. The truth being that man the average man only seeks for an explanation of immediate happenings. Once the immediate thing before him is explained his curiosity is allayed. The average man lives mentally from hand to mouth, and troubles as little about ultimate explanations as he does about the exhaustion of the coal supply.

It is a point of some significance that the perception of design in nature, as with the belief in deity, is, if one may use the expression, pre-scientific in point of origin. What I mean by that is that it originates at a time when no other explanation of the origin of natural adaptations existed. It did not establish itself as one of several rival explanations and in virtue of its own strength. It was established simply because no other explanation was at the time conceivable. And so soon as another explanation, such as that of natural selection, was placed before the world, the origin of adaptations as a product of an extra-natural designing intelligence became to most educated minds simply impossible. The perception of design in nature was, as a matter of fact, no more than a special illustration of the animistic frame of mind which reads vitality into all natural happenings. It is impossible to find in the statement that particular adaptations in nature are designed anything more scientific than one can find in the belief that rain is the product of a heavenly rain-cow, or that flashes of lightning are spears thrown by competing heavenly warriors. It is the language only that differs in the two cases. The frame of mind indicated in the two cases are identical.

The attractiveness of the argument from design lies in its nearness to hand and in its appeal to facts, combined with the impossibility of verification. That nature is full of strange and curious examples of adaptation is clear to all, although the significance of these adaptations are by no means so clear. Moreover, a very casual study of these cases show that they are better calculated to dazzle than to convince. The presentation of a number of more or less elaborate facts of adaptation, followed with the remark that we are unable to see how such cases could have been brought about in the absence of a designing intelligence, is, at best, an appeal to human weakness and ignorance. The reverse of such a position is that if we had complete knowledge of the causes at work, the assumption of design might be found to be quite unnecessary. “We cannot see” is only the equivalent of we do not know, and that is a shockingly bad basis on which to build an argument.

When, therefore, an eminent electrician like Professor Fleming says, “We have overwhelming proof that in the manufacture of the infinite number of substances made in Nature’s laboratory there must be at all stages some directivity,” this can only mean that Professor Fleming cannot see the way in which these substances are made. It does not mean that he sees how they are made. And in saying this he is in no better position than was Kepler, who after describing the true laws of planetary motion, when he came to the question of why the planets should describe these motions fell back on the theory of “Angelic intelligences” as the cause. The true explanation came with the physics of Galileo and Newton, and with that, farewell to the angelic “directivity.” The only reason for Kepler’s angels was his ignorance of the causes of planetary motion. The only reason why Professor Fleming says that the atoms “have to be guided into certain positions to build up the complex molecules” is that he is unable to isolate this assumed directive force and to show it in operation; he is like a modern Kepler faced with something the cause of which he doesn’t know, and lugging in “God” to save further trouble. It is an assumption of knowledge where no knowledge exists. “God” is always what Spinoza called it, the asylum of ignorance. When causes are unknown “God” is brought forward. When causes are known “God” retires into the background. “God” is not an explanation, it is a narcotic.

The argument from design rests upon the existence in nature of adaptations either general or special. And quite obviously the value of evidence derived from adaptations will be determined by the existence of non-adaptations. If, that is, it can be shown that a certain assemblage of forces produce adaptation, while in another instance they fail to produce it, it would then be logical to argue that the difference was due to the directive power being withdrawn in the latter case. But that as we know is never the case. What we see is always the same conditions producing the same effects. We are never able to say, “Here are natural forces working minus a directing intelligence, and here is an assemblage of the same forces working plus the addition of a directing intelligence.” If we could do that we should be able to attribute the difference to the new factor. But this we are never able to do. And it is an elementary principle of scientific method that before we can assert the existence of a distinct force or factor, the possibility of isolation must be shown. Adaptation can, then, only be demonstrated by non-adaptation. And non-adaptation in nature simply does not exist, except in relation to an ideal end created by ourselves.

Surprising as this may appear to some, examination shows it to be no more than a truism, and that granted, the whole strength of the argument from adaptation, whether in the inorganic or the organic world, disappears.

To see the matter the more clearly, let us drop for a time the word “adaptation” and substitute the word “process.” For that after all is what nature presents us with. We see processes and we see results. It is because we create an end for these processes that we class them as well or ill adapted to achieve it. We make a gun, and say it is ill or well made as it shoots well or ill. But whether it carries straight or not the relation of the shooting to the construction of the gun remains the same. Judging the gun merely from its construction, the product answers completely to the combination of its parts. Constructed in one way the gun cannot but shoot straight. Constructed in another way the gun cannot but shoot crookedly. And the only reason we have for calling one good and the other bad is that we desire a particular result. But the goodness or badness has nothing to do with the thing itself. Its adaptation to the end produced is as perfect in the one case as in the other. It could produce no other result than the one that actually emerges without an alteration in the means employed. A thing is what it is because it is the combination of all the forces that produce it. And to ask us to marvel at the result of a process, when the one is the product of the other is like asking us to express our surprise that twice two equal four. Twice two equal four because four is the sum of the factors, and no one dreams of praising God because they don’t sometimes make four and a half. The argument from adaptations in nature is, when examined, just about as impressive as the reasoning of the curate who saw the hand of Providence in the fact that death came at the end of life instead of in the middle of it.

Adaptation is not, then, a singular fact in nature, but a universal one. It is everywhere, in the case of death as in that of life. It is the same in the case of a child born a marvel of health and beauty as in that of one born deformed and diseased. There is nothing else but adaptations of means to ends in nature, however displeasing some of them may be to us. The “harmony” which the theist perceives in nature is not the expression of “plan,” it is the inevitable outcome of the properties of existence. Given matter and force, and it requires no “directive intelligence” to produce the existing order, it would indeed require a God to prevent its occurrence.

It is the same if we take the case of animal life alone. To say that animal life is adapted to its environment, and to say that animal life exists, is to say the same thing in two ways. Whether animal forms are fashioned by “divine intelligence” or not, the fact of adaptation remains; for adaptation is the essential condition of existence. And as adaptation is the condition of existence, it follows that an animal’s feelings, structure, and functions will be developed in accordance with the nature of the environment. If the conditions of existence were different from what they are animal life would show corresponding modifications. But all the same we should observe the same correspondence between animal life and its surroundings. Here, again, we have a fact transformed, without the slightest warranty, into a purpose.

Now, if the theist could prove that out of a number of equally possible lines of development living beings show one fixed form, and that against the compulsion of environmental forces, he would do something to prove the probability of some sort of guidance. But that we know cannot be done. The forms of life are infinite in number. They vary within all possible limits; and always in terms of environmental conditions. In brief, what is said to occur with God, can be shown to be inevitable without him. “God” in nature is a wholly gratuitous hypothesis.

Later it will be seen that the whole basis of the argument from design is fallacious; that it proceeds along altogether wrong lines, and that the final objection to it is that it is completely irrelevant to the point at issue. For the moment, however, we proceed with a criticism of the argument as usually stated.

It must be borne in mind that what the theist desires to reach is a Creator, but it is obvious that this plea can never give us more than a mere designer working on materials that already exist. Of necessity design implies two things, difficulties to be overcome, and skill or wisdom in overcoming them. Design is an understandable thing in connection with man, because man is always occupied in overcoming the resistance of forces that exist quite independently of him, and which operate without reference to his needs or desires. But it would be absurd to assume design on the part of one for whom difficulties had no existence, or on the part of one who himself created the forces that had to be overcome, and endowed them with all the properties which made the work of design necessary. Granting the relevance of the data upon which the belief in design rests, one could only assume, with Mill, that “the author of the Cosmos worked under limitations; that he was obliged to adapt himself to conditions independent of his will, and to attain his ends by such arrangements as these conditions admitted of.”

In the next place, the argument for design is an argument from analogy, and an analogy can by its very nature never give a complete demonstration. It can never offer more than a probability, more or less convincing as the analogy is more of less complete. But in the case under consideration the analogy is considerably less rather than more. Paley’s classical illustration taken almost verbatim from Malebranche, but as old otherwise as the days of Greek philosophy, where a statute took its place was that of a watch. And the conclusion was drawn that as the parts of a watch bear obvious marks of having been made with a view to a particular end, so the animal structure and the universe as a whole bear similar marks of having been designed. It is true that of late years the Paleyan form of the argument has been disavowed by most scholarly advocates of theism, but as they immediately proceed to make use of arguments that are substantially identical with it, the repudiation does not seem of great consequence. It reminds one of a government that is compelled by the force of public opinion to openly repudiate one of its officials, and having removed him from the office in which the misdemeanour was committed, immediately appoints him to one of an increased dignity and with a larger salary.

Thus, we have Professor Fiske saying that “Paley’s simile of a watch is no longer applicable to such a world as this” ("Idea of God”; , and Prof. Sorley telling us that “the age of Paley and of the Bridgewater Treatises is past” (Moral Values and the Idea of God; , and Mr. Balfour repudiating Paley as having been ruled out of court by Darwinism ("Humanism and Theism,” chapter II.). But as Fiske puts the flower in the place of the watch, Sorley, the moral nature of man, and Balfour, the conditions of animal life, it is not quite clear why if the Paleyan argument is invalid, the new form is any more intellectually respectable. The essence of the Paleyan argument was the assertion of a mind behind phenomena, the workings of which could be seen in the forms of animal life. And whether we find that proof in the growth of a flower, or in the moral sense of man, or in the creation of natural conditions that impel the development of life along a certain road, the distinction is not vital. We are still finding proofs of God in the structure of the world (where otherwise, indeed, are we to find it?) and we are still depending on the supposed likeness between the works of human intelligence and natural products.

And that analogy is wholly false. The argument from design aims at proving that all things are made by a creative intelligence. It is not merely animals that are designed; they are selected as no more than striking individual examples of a general truth. Everything, if theism be true, must be ultimately due to manufacture. But the whole significance of the Paleyan argument from design is that behind the manufactured article which we recognise as such, there are other articles or other things that are not manufactured. The traveller, says Paley, who comes across a watch recognises in the relation of its parts evidences of workmanship. But he does not see in the breaking of a wave on the shore, or in the piling up of sand in the desert, or in a pebble on the beach, the same tokens of workmanship. In the very act of attempting to prove that some things are made, the theist is compelled to assume that all things are not made. He can only gain a victory at the price of confessing a defeat.

But is there any real analogy between the works of man and the universe at large? Let us take a familiar example. It is, we are told in a very familiar illustration, as absurd to imagine that the world as it exists is the work of unguided natural forces, as it would be to believe that the rows of letters in a compositor’s “stick” had of their own contained force arranged themselves in intelligible sentences. The absurdity of the last supposition is admitted, but why is that so? Obviously because we have the previous knowledge that the type itself is a manufactured thing, and that its arrangement in orderly sentences is the work of intelligent men. Thus, what occurs when we come across a particular example of type setting is that we compare our present experience with other experiences and recognise it as belonging to a particular class. So with the watch. The only reason we have for believing that a watch is made is that of our previous knowledge that such things are made. The present judgment is based upon past experience. But the case of animal forms, and still more the universe at large, offers no such analogy. We know nothing of world makers nor of animal makers. We have no previous experience to go upon, nor have we any things of a similar kind, known to be made, with which we can compare them. Instead of the points of resemblance between the two things being so numerous as to compel belief, they agree in one particular only, that of existence. At most all we are left with is the palpably absurd position that because man selects and adjusts means to a given end, therefore any combination of forces in nature which produce a certain result must also be the expression of conscious intention.

Some apparent force even to this flimsy conclusion might be given if nature could be said to be working towards a given end. But we do not find this. What we see is a multitude of forces at work, the action of each of which often results in the negation of the other. Put on one side the larger, but not the least pregnant fact that animal life is only maintained in the face of numerous agencies, inorganic and organic, that are apparently bent upon its destruction; put on one side also the fact that multitudes of parasites as much the result of design as any other form of life are constantly preying upon and destroying forms of life higher than themselves, and there still remain myriads of facts altogether inconsistent and completely irreconcilable with the hypothesis of a creative intelligence shaping the course of affairs to a given end. To take only one illustration of this. What is to be said of the myriads of animals that are born into the world only to perish before reaching an age at which they can play their part in the perpetuation of the species? Are we to believe that the same deity who fashioned these forms of life created at the same time a number of forces that were certain to destroy them? Clearly we are bound to assume, either that this hypothetical Being pursues a number of mutually destructive plans, or that there are a number of designers at work and at war with each other, or that none at all exist.

If we are to judge nature from the standpoint of human intelligence, then we must logically decide that it is full of waste, full of bungling, full of plans that come to nothing, of ends that are never realised, of pain and misery that might have been avoided by the exercise of almost ordinary intelligence. There are few animals concerning which a competent anatomist or physiologist could not suggest some improvement in their construction by which their functions might be more efficiently performed. Nor does it seem quite impossible to have so adjusted natural forces that the development of life might have been accomplished without the present enormous waste of material. It is almost stupid to ask, as did the late Dr. Martineau, what right have we to judge the world from “a purely humanistic point of view.” The whole argument from design is based upon a humanistic point of view. The Atheist is only calling the attention of the theist to the consequences of his own argument.

I leave for a later chapter, the moral aspect of the design argument. I am at present concerned with its purely logical presentation. And the crowning charge here is not that it is inconclusive, not that it falls short, as Mill thought, of a complete analogy, the decisive rejection of it is based upon the fact that it is absolutely irrelevant. The argument has no bearing on the issue; the evidence has no relation to the case. What is the essence of the argument from design? It is based upon certain adaptations that are observed to exist. But adaptation is, as we have shown, a universal quality of existence. It exists in every case, and no more in one case than in another. And when the theist says that because certain things work together therefore god arranged it, an apt query is, How do you know? One may even say, Granting there is a God, how do you know that what is was actually designed by him? It is no use replying that the way things work together prove design, for things always work together. They cannot do otherwise. Any group of forces work together to produce a given result. That is part of the universal fact of adaptation which the theist holds up as though it were a divine miracle instead of, as Mallock says, a physical platitude.

Let us take an illustration from everyday life. A man tries his hand at building a bicycle. When it is finished the wheels are not true, the frame is unsteady, the whole thing is ready to fall to pieces and is absolutely unrideable. Is any one warranted in declaring that because the parts have all been brought together by me therefore the resulting machine was an act of design? Clearly not. What I designed was a machine perfect after its kind. What appeared was the miserable structure that is before us. On the other hand that machine with all its imperfections might have been designed by me. I might, for some purpose deliberately have intended to make a machine that would not carry a rider. And when would anyone be logically justified in saying which of the two kinds of machines express my design? Clearly, only when he had a knowledge of my intention. Apart from a knowledge of an intention preceding an act the inference of design is unwarrantable.

Now, assuming the existence of a God, and who stands in the same relation to the world that I do to the machine, how can anyone know that the world as it is expresses design any more than did my home-made bicycle? In this case, as in the former, what is needed to justify the assumption of design is a knowledge of intention. One must know what the assumed maker intended and then see how far the actual result realises it.

Design, in short, although it may be expressed in a physical form is not a physical thing, but a psychic fact. You cannot by examining physical processes and results reach design. You cannot start with a material fact and reach intention. You must begin with intention and compare it with the physical result. Things may be as they are whether design is involved or not. It is only by a knowledge of intention, and a comparison of that with the fact before us that we can be certain of design. Proof of design is not found in the capacity of certain clusters of circumstances or forces to realise a particular result, but in a knowledge that they correspond with an intention which we know to have existed before the result occurs.

To warrant a logical belief in design in nature three things are essential. First, one must assume that a God exists. Second, one must take it for granted that one has a knowledge of the intention in the mind of the deity before the alleged designed thing is brought into existence. Finally, one must be able to compare the result with the intention and demonstrate their agreement. But the impossibility of knowing the first two things is apparent. And without the first two the third is of no value whatever. For we have no means of reaching the first except through the third. And until we get to the first we cannot make use of the third. We are thus in a hopeless impasse. No examination of nature can lead back to God because we lack the necessary starting point. All the volumes that have been written, and all the sermons that have been preached depicting the wisdom of organic structures are so much waste of paper and breath. They prove nothing, and can prove nothing. They assume at the beginning all they require at the end. Their God is not something reached by way of inference, it is something assumed at the very outset.

What the theist does at every step of his reasoning is to read his own feelings and desires into nature. The design he talks so glibly about is in him, not outside of him. As well might a maggot in a cheese argue that the world was designed for him because the agreement between his structure and it are so harmonious. In relation to their surroundings man and the maggot are in the same position. And in the economy of nature man is of no more consequence than the maggot. There is a more complex synthesis of forces here than there, a more subtle exhibition of nature’s infinite capacity for evolving fresh forms of life, and that is all. It is man himself who paints a distorted picture of himself on the surface of things, who reads his own passions and desires into nature, and then admires a marvel created by himself. To he who correctly visualises the process of the evolution of deity, the existence of God is hardly to-day a question for discussion. There is a discussion only of the history of the belief, and in that is found its strongest condemnation.