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Deism Debates

We had earlier remarked on the significant affect of Isaac Newton on Enlightenment thinking. The shift from Augustinian trinity (Father:Son:HS, intent:action:reception, see his Confessions) to Newtonian trinity (time:space:matter, no creation/intention: no purpose/action: no miracle/intervention), left a mechanistic metaphysic with decidedly materialist leanings. Newton himself reinterpreted God along mechanistic lines, though he would still view himself as a Unitarian or Arian Christian. Later Enlightenment thinkers, following the Continental drifts illustrated by Descartes, Voltaire, and Kant, argued for an even more rationalist religion with an even more abstract and mechanical universe. As Brooke points out, the attacks on orthodox Christianity came from many quarters, it was not solely a "science vs. religion" battle that was fought in the Enlightenment, but a confluence of many cultural trends: the anticlericalism of the French, the mechanization of Newton, the rebound from the wars of religion, the rise of Deism, the agnostic skepticism of Hume. We don't have space to do justice to all the causes at play, but we focus on Materialism because from a 21st century vantage point we know it was the victor of the melee.

The materialists, who seem to live in every age, siezed these opportunities to trumpet the even greater rationality of atheism. Thus the lines were drawn between Deist/Theists and Materialists as to the proper interpretation of the facts: the proper observation of Nature. The debates were fierce, and many people despaired of ever arriving at a conclusion. Hume, and later Kant, even argued that the debate was intrinsically meaningless because science (observations) could never lead to or prove religion (faith). Many people bought into this argument, because it decoupled science from religion, and separated the combatants. However, again from our 21st century perspective, we know that the battle went underground, and in the 2 centuries of Cold War that followed, religion continuously lost ground.

We have mentioned this before, so I will be brief, but Kant's wall that separated the phenomena (science, facts, observations) from the noumena (faith, mind, belief) turned out to be the blade of bulldozer moving in only one direction. Faith was attacked as mere projection of human wish fulfillment, mind became an epiphenomena of brain functioning, belief a self-delusion predetermined by sensory experiences, etc. All of these battles fill the pages of 20th century scholarship, and while they bring up many interesting questions, are red herrings in our quest to identify the root of the modern malaise. Kant really wanted his wall to end the fighting, he thought he had "made room for faith" in the world of science, but all he had done was put a wall around the Warsaw ghetto. Knowing now that his effort failed, we need not argue its fallacies or foundations, which Jaki ably lists, but return to the problem Kant couldn't solve.

Can we determine, from the observed facts, whether the world is the result of a benevolent being, or the random accumulated accidents of Nature? A Christian apologetic could draw upon Romans 1:18ff which would suggest both that man can observe nature and discover God. Of course, Deists and Theists would disagree what kind of God they had discovered, which led Augustine and Aquinas to suggest that there are limits to what we can learn about God from the book of Nature. Nonetheless, all would agree that Nature leads us away from atheism and materialism, in what came to be called, Natural Theology.

The Materialist, despite the offer of safe haven from Kant, preferred to directly oppose the claims of Natural Theology. Perhaps the logic of the debate can be made more clear if we choose a less emotional object. Suppose I claim that there are little green men on Mars, and infer their existence from observations of canals that bring water from the polar caps. One could debate (a) the quality of the observations (b) the necessity of the inference, or (c) the rationality of the conclusions. Note that the attack need never present a better explanation of the facts, only that it raise doubts about the religious interpretation. Nor do these doubts even have to be internally consistent, as the famous joke about the legal defense of borrowed pot that was returned broken "There is no pot. The pot isn't broken. And no one saw him break it anyway."

Following this approach, the Materialist argued that (a) the evidence we see in Nature is not very clear for the support of God, e.g., for every example of design, there's an example of mistake, (b) while a designer is one possibility to explain the world, there are alternative explanations that do not require a God, e.g., the planetary orbits arrived from the coalescence of a gaseous nebula, and not from God's individual creation and placement, (c) the very idea of God is inconsistent, e.g., a all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God could not allow preventable evil from existing.

Well naturally, the D/Theist isn't going to take this laying down, so the counterargument is made, (a')just because we think its a mistake doesn't make it one, e.g., the appendix may not have a known function, but it isn't a mistake. (b') Perhaps some alternative explanations for simple phenomena do not require a designer, but the really, really complex phenomena reveal a designer is still necessary, e.g., the human is too complex to ever be explained by an accident, (c') To argue that belief in a God is irrational is to require the belief in rationality which is itself a form of "irrational" belief.

Whew! No wonder Kant opted for a wall. Well, point (c') has been made many times in various forms, perhaps the most ancient form is the Ontological proof of God's existence dating to the medieval scholar, Anselm. It goes something like this "Imagine there is a perfect being, which we'll call God. It is more perfect to exist than to not exist. Therefore God exists." You are forgiven if the thrust of the syllogism is not obvious to you, but you should be warned that you undoubtedly have been contaminated by materialist metaphysics. At any rate, you should see immediately that this debate was never going to get resolved this way.

Likewise, (a') seemed immune to logic. The Materialist protested that if good design and bad design alike proved that there was a designer, then the existence of a designer seemed completely independent of the quality of the design altogether. No, no, the D/Theist protested, we really cannot be judges of design, being designed ourselves; the pot cannot say to the potter "why have you made me thus?" Evidently clarity is in the eye of the beholder, and it seemed impossible to agree on some common ground of when the data is "clear enough" to compell belief.

This left (b') as the one place progress might be made. The D/Theist argued that given a high quality piece of data, the inference of a designer was necessary. The Materialist then was put on the spot, because he had to find at least one counterexample. And he rose to the challenge. Newton's original design argument about planetary orbits fell to the nebular replacement of Laplace. Chemistry and its vital forces had fell to Lavoisier. Only Biology, as the pinnacle of complexity, seemed unassailable by Newtonian reductionism. Thus the Natural Theologians rallied around the living organism as their final defense of a necessary omniscient designer. And their strategy was sound, for this citadel of divine craft remained secure for nearly 2 centuries. Nevertheless, the Cold War went on, with the sappers undermining the bulwarks even as the banners of Deism snapped vigorously in the breeze.


The first notable attack on (b') came from the french zoologist, Jean-Baptist-Pierre-Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829), who hypothesized that complexity might arise not by fiat creation, but as a long accumulation of more and more complex traits. He did not believe in species, since this accumulation meant that progeny differed considerably from their ancestors. He recognized that biological complexity serves a purpose, that the eye is necessarily complex with no extraneous parts, and that to attack the design hypothesis, one must address the question of purpose. Lamarck solved this problem by arguing that it was the living creature, not the creator, who provided the impetus, the purpose. The overused illustration illustrating this idea is that a giraffe has a long neck, not because God designed it to eat the leaves from trees, but because generations of giraffes strained for those leaves causing a change in their physiology. Today he is universally despised by neo-Darwinists who view him as the anathema of evolution, but "methinks the lady doth protest too much." No less a person than the distinguished 20th century evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, said of Lamarck

For Lamarck's great contribution was not his theory about organisms modifying their own genetics, (which, we are told, was disproved by W..? cutting off the tails of 23 generations of mice without any noticeable effect on the length of newborn mouse tails), rather, his contribution lay in moving the stubborn "purpose" of design from creator to creature, from God to Nature, from "mind" to "matter". It was this step that cleared the way for Darwin to find an even less purposeful purpose on which to pin his theory. For even should Lamarck have gained his objective of removing vitalism from biology, a D/Theist might say "ahh, but where did the animals get their purpose, their goals from?" No, Darwin had to find a purpose so low, so despicable, that even a Deist would not claim it for God. Strangely enough, he found it in the work of an Anglican priest.


Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was one of those unfortunate people of whose book everyone has heard but no one has read. Marx and Engels have trashed him, Darwin credits him for inspiring him to view Nature as a relentless duel to the death, everyone assumes he must have been a gloomy pessimist with Machiavellian cynicism. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Descent with modification + population pressure = natural selection
Purpose is procreation

Tree of life: Common Descent--> variation =>=>=> natural selection
It was a simple enough theory, and with the willingness to use enormous amounts of time (millions of years) it *might* just work. Evidence was thin though. One could look at dog breeding, or the Galapagos finches. But the source of the variation was not infinite. Rose breeders would die for a blue rose, for example. Or imagine dog breeders trying to use that most friendly and helpful of domesticated species, the dog, as a farm labor assistant. It just couldn't be done. Roses don't come in shades of blue, and dogs don't get any bigger than Saint Bernards. And all this had been known since the Neolithic middle east circa 6000 BC when breeding began.

So what made Darwin famous? He extrapolated to infinity and boldly went where no man had gone before. Time was on his side. (Lyell & geology.) Neil Broom writes in How Blind is the Watchmaker? that



The Neo-Darwin Theory

Finally, the

Cancer Research

Watson & Crick

The Biochemistry Explosion