atheism for lent, day 3
🎶 Watchmaker, Watchmaker, make me a watch,
Time me some time,
Swatch me a Swatch 🎵
That was really bad. Sorry not sorry.
TODAY! IS! WILLIAM PALEY! who, in 1802, wrote an extended argument on the existence of God called “Natural Theology.” The basics of it, and my perception thereof, are as follows:
I find a stone in a field. The stone could’ve been there since the dawn of time, as far as I know. The stone is part of the natural world of the field, of the land, of the planet, of the universe.
But if I find a watch in a field, I can’t say that it could’ve been there forever; after all, it has a lot of parts working together that were clearly put together for a purpose. There’s an intention in it. There’s intention to it. The watch is not part of the natural world around me. The watch didn’t grow; it was designed and built. So, there must have been a Mysterious Someone Who Designed And Created the watch, and maybe even placed it in the field for me to find.
Furthermore, I don’t know how to make a watch, so the Mysterious Someone must have higher skills and deeper knowledge than I when it comes to making watches.
Therefore, says Paley, if we look at this universe we find ourselves in, we see that it is put together in unimaginable complexity; its individual parts have a purpose; so its whole has a purpose. Since it is designed with a purpose, it could not simply have appeared or grown naturally. Since it is unimaginably complex, it is not something we know how to duplicate. Thus, a Mysterious Someone Designed And Created the universe.
Paley’s argument is teleological. (I forgot to mention yesterday that Aquinas’s argument is cosmological [“discourse from the order of the world].) From Ancient Greek, “teleological” means:
τέλος (télos) = “purpose”
λόγος (lógos) = “word,” “speech,” “discourse”
–> teleology = the study of the design of things
Peter Rollins, our guide through this decentering, destabilizing, and often downright weird practice of Atheism for Lent, shares the following:
“The Teleological argument is often considered to be the weakest argument for the existence of God in terms of its philosophical force, but the strongest in terms of its intuitive persuasiveness.”
If I’m understanding our reading material correctly, the main reason Paley’s argument loses strength is Charles Darwin’s discovery of the natural laws of evolution. Darwin was a big fan of Paley and found the “watchmaker” argument particularly convincing — until Darwin took his (in?)famous vacay to the Galápagos and a bunch of birds disabused him of quite a few hitherto unassailable notions.
In his autobiography, Darwin writes:
“The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.”(emphasis added)
I remember the Mysterious Watchmaker from my university studies, and I remember reading this from Darwin, too. If you will recall, Gentle Reader, my alma mater is run by the Church of Christ denomination. For a lot of students and faculty in the late 1990s, “Darwin” was basically synonymous with “Satan.” A deceiver! A foul, cold man of science whose theories do nothing but corrupt innocent Christian minds! CLUTCH ALL THE PEARLS.
I didn’t think of Darwin that way, but I didn’t find him particularly convincing, either. Paley’s Watchmaker seemed far more persuasive and attractive than my alleged ape ancestors. Besides, wrapping my mind around the idea that what is now a human might have been some sort of ape 8 million years ago wasn’t exactly easy.
Let’s face it, even now, wrapping my mind around the concept “8 million years” isn’t exactly lacking challenge, either.
But I get what Darwin’s saying here. And I relate it back to the form of Al-Ghazali’s questions in yesterday’s reflection. Even with the watch, what makes us think there must be a Mysterious Someone behind it? And why do we assume what is true for a human-made item is also true for a product of nature?
Courtney of 20 Years Past would be horrified to hear Present Courtney say this, but I find Darwin supremely compelling at this point. One of the things he says in his autobiography is that the world is a generally Good and Happy place, because if it weren’t, humans and animals would be too depressed to have sex. He chooses way more sophisticate words than that, but I own no such pretensions (, she said, her nose decidedly in the air). 😆
But Darwin also notes that our universe is full of a lot of suffering, and he addresses the belief many people held then (and, I think, still hold now) that suffering exists so that we humans can grow into more moral people. He points out, though, that (non-human) animals experience huge amounts of suffering (pain, hunger, thirst, fear, injury, etc.), but they don’t make moral improvements.
I read something once that said “suffering exists so that we can learn to be compassionate.” I used to feel that this was a superpowerful explanation as to why “a loving God” would allow such suffering.; after all, God wants us to grow into people who are motivated by love the way Jesus was. I’m no longer sure that this feeling is beneficial. I no longer consider this a superpowerful argument. And one of the reasons is that I’m now a parent.
Yes, human parents allow their children to “suffer” — we don’t protect them from everything, we let them scrape their knees, we let them experience the non-maiming consequences of their choices, yadda yadda. But that, to me, isn’t suffering. That’s nature. That’s part of what it means to exist as a human in this universe.
CONTENT WARNING: In the following paragraphs, I’m going to mention some really bad stuff some humans do to other humans.
As a mother, I would never allow my daughter to SUFFER. I allow her to experience pain and difficulty, yes — because part of my function as her parent is to prepare her for a universe that will cause her pain and difficulty for the rest of her life.
But I would never allow her to SUFFER. I would never ALLOW her to suffer from cruelty…beatings…whippings…dismemberment…abuse…incest…rape…murder. And innumerable other horrors. Those things cause suffering, and they are not natural. If I have it in my power to protect her from that or anything like that, then fuck yes I will shield her with my very life. Does she need to grow into a more moral person? Of course. Are there non-suffering ways for her to grow into such a person? Hell yes. Is suffering the only way for her to grow into such a person? Hell NO.
And if “a loving God” exists, then that God must, by definition, be a better, more loving, more effective, more protective parent than I am. If such a God exists…and if that God possesses all Good Qualities And Characteristics as well as All Power…then God would not allow God’s “children” (humans) to experience suffering — not when “simple” pain, difficulty, and discomfort can accomplish the growth God wants to see in them.
“I let you be tortured and maimed so you’d become a better person.” Um, no. That no longer flies with me. I reject that categorically as manipulative and abusive.
“I hurt you because I love you.”
If that’s God, then God has about 117 billion individual apologies and restitutions to make.
Well, I seem to have digressed.