Science & Faith
4/25/12 at 10:26 AM 5 Comments

Intelligent Design is not a Recent Invention of the Christian Right: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Part 2)

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In part one of our study of Jean-Jacques Rousseau we noted how he drew from Newtonian physics to develop an argument for a cosmic intelligent designer. If we follow the causal chain of “action and reaction” back far enough, he argued, we eventually come to a first cause, which must be an entity capable of “spontaneous, voluntary action.” Rousseau realized that one need not have a complete account of the characteristics of an intelligent designer to be able to infer the designer’s existence and activity. “The will is known to me in its action, not in its nature,” he proclaimed as he analyzed his own experience as an intelligent agent. Rousseau understood that he possessed a will that could make choices and initiate a ripple of effects within the physical world. And remember that Rousseau was a deist who had largely rejected Christianity by the time he published his thoughts on intelligent design in Emile (1762).

Watch made in 1758: View of its internal mechanisms

Rousseau compared his inference to cosmic design with the reasoning of someone observing a watch’s interior for the first time (prior to seeing the watch face that reveals its purpose of time-keeping). The coordinated parts of the watch must have some purpose, but such an observer is ignorant of it. To this end he wrote:

I judge of the order of the world, although I know nothing of its purpose, for to judge of this order it is enough for me to compare the parts one with another, to study their co-operation, their relations, and to observe their united action. I know not why the universe exists, but I see continually how it is changed; I never fail to perceive the close connection by which the entities of which it consists lend their aid one to another. I am like a man who sees the works of a watch for the first time; he is never weary of admiring the mechanism, though he does not know the use of the instrument and has never seen its face. I do not know what this is for, says he, but I see that each part of it is fitted to the rest, I admire the workman in the details of his work, and I am quite certain that all these wheels only work together in this fashion for some common end which I cannot perceive.

A few decades later William Paley made a similar watchmaker design inference famous within the study of living creatures. Darwin wrote Origin of Species (1859) in an attempt to refute Paley’s watchmaker designer.

Rousseau marveled at the well-coordinated parts of living organisms and how they are “organized” in a way that is similar to the arrangement of letters in a printed book. This insight, expressed in the passage below, is similar to information theory as it has been applied to biology since the mid-20th century (see Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell to explore this history further). So, life could not have originated by chance, Rousseau argued:

Let us compare the special ends, the means, the ordered relations of every kind, then let us listen to the inner voice of feeling; what healthy mind can reject its evidence? Unless the eyes are blinded by prejudices, can they fail to see that the visible order of the universe proclaims a supreme intelligence? What sophisms must be brought together before we fail to understand the harmony of existence and the wonderful co-operation of every part for the maintenance of the rest? Say what you will of combinations and probabilities; what do you gain by reducing me to silence if you cannot gain my consent? And how can you rob me of the spontaneous feeling which, in spite of myself, continually gives you the lie? If organised bodies had come together fortuitously in all sorts of ways before assuming settled forms, if stomachs are made without mouths, feet without heads, hands without arms, imperfect organs of every kind which died because they could not preserve their life, why do none of these imperfect attempts now meet our eyes; why has nature at length prescribed laws to herself which she did not at first recognise? I must not be surprised if that which is possible should happen, and if the improbability of the event is compensated for by the number of the attempts. I grant this; yet if any one told me that printed characters scattered broadcast had produced the Aeneid all complete, I would not condescend to take a single step to verify this falsehood. You will tell me I am forgetting the multitude of attempts. But how many such attempts must I assume to bring the combination within the bounds of probability? For my own part the only possible assumption is that the chances are infinity to one that the product is not the work of chance. In addition to this, chance combinations yield nothing but products of the same nature as the elements combined, so that life and organisation will not be produced by a flow of atoms, and a chemist when making his compounds will never give them thought and feeling in his crucible.

“The mere generation of living organic bodies is the despair of the human mind,” if we try to explain their origin without invoking intelligent agency, Rousseau concluded. He also wrote of “the insurmountable barrier raised by nature between the various species, so that they should not mix with one another.” The world and its living creatures display an amazing organization and harmony that resist being explained by the “blind mechanism of matter set in motion by chance!”

Rousseau continues:

In vain do those who deny the unity of intention manifested in the relations of all the parts of this great whole, in vain do they conceal their nonsense under abstractions, co-ordinations, general principles, symbolic expressions; whatever they do I find it impossible to conceive of a system of entities so firmly ordered unless I believe in an intelligence that orders them. It is not in my power to believe that passive and dead matter can have brought forth living and feeling beings, that blind chance has brought forth intelligent beings, that that which does not think has brought forth thinking beings.

Rousseau further reasoned that material particles couldn’t arrange themselves into intelligent creatures like us. Indeed, human beings possess a sophisticated form of intelligence that requires a cause that is also adequately intelligent. Here is how Rousseau expressed this:

I believe, therefore, that the world is governed by a wise and powerful will; I see it or rather I feel it, and it is a great thing to know this. But has this same world always existed, or has it been created? Is there one source of all things? Are there two or many? What is their nature? I know not; and what concern is it of mine? When these things become of importance to me I will try to learn them; till then I abjure these idle speculations, which may trouble my peace, but cannot affect my conduct nor be comprehended by my reason.

These are not the confessions of a Christian. Here is a deist who desperately comforts himself by the apparent remoteness of the cosmic designer. His mind is able to “feel” (sense) the designer’s existence based upon reasoning divorced from textual divine revelation. Indeed, Christians are the first to point out that there is very little we can know about God apart from his self-disclosure in Scripture.

This drawing is opposite the title page of Emile (1762).

Rousseau’s personal life and philosophical musings clearly indicate a gaping distance between himself and Christian morality. See Paul Johnson’s essay on Rousseau in his book Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky (New York: Harper & Row, 1990). Among other things, Johnson documents how Rousseau gave up all five of his infant children to an orphanage (he had produced these little ones with his mistress). The extremely high infant mortality rates at such institutions means that likely all of Rousseau’s children died at an early age (the artwork to the right is not about killing infants by drowning them; Rousseau was more sophisticated than this). And yet, his book Emile became a celebrated Enlightenment treatise on how to educate children. Put in this strange light, Rousseau’s rationalization above takes on new meaning. Here is man who is running from the idea of a God who judges sin and calls us to exhibit self-sacrificial love like Jesus Christ. Such thoughts, Rousseau tells himself, are mere “idle speculations, which may trouble my peace, but cannot affect my conduct nor be comprehended by my reason.”

To state more precisely his intellectual distance from Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions, Rousseau writes:

Recollect that I am not preaching my own opinion but explaining it. Whether matter is eternal or created, whether its origin is passive or not, it is still certain that the whole is one, and that it proclaims a single intelligence…. This being who wills and can perform his will, this being active through his own power, this being, whoever he may be, who moves the universe and orders all things, is what I call God. To this name I add the ideas of intelligence, power, will, which I have brought together, and that of kindness which is their necessary consequence; but for all this I know no more of the being to which I ascribe them. He hides himself alike from my senses and my understanding; the more I think of him, the more perplexed I am; I know full well that he exists, and that he exists of himself alone; I know that my existence depends on his, and that everything I know depends upon him also. I see God everywhere in his works; I feel him within myself; I behold him all around me; but if I try to ponder him himself, if I try to find out where he is, what he is, what is his substance, he escapes me and my troubled spirit finds nothing.

As an intelligent design advocate who happens to be a Christian, I agree with Rousseau that this is about the best a human can do to know God apart from divine revelation. And yet, all this supports my main point: Rousseau’s highly influential thought and life further demonstrate that intelligent design theory is not a recent invention of the Christian right. For additional historic evidence download “The Roots of Intelligent Design” linked from this resource page of the Faith & Evolution website.

PS: Here are two comments posted to part one of this study (and my response).
"Wow. Rousseau. Way to stay current."
"Next article in this series: Having surgery using a 17th-century medical textbook."

My Response: I have offered historical evidence that refutes the common claim made today that ID (intelligent design) was invented a few decades ago by the Christian right. Such arguments appeared even in the Dover ID trial (Judge Jones was wrong about the history of ID--see the notes below about this). Rousseau's arguments for ID were sophisticated for his time, but of course we have gone much further since then. See the bibliography below for sources that establish the scientific inference to design on a much firmer empirical basis than was possible in the 18th century. In part because the evidence for ID is overwhelming, many despisers of ID today try to undermine the whole thing be saying: "ID is just religion dressed up as science, and only recently invented by the Christian right." Such arguments have not kept up with recent scholarship in the history and philosophy of science (which is my professional domain). My piece on Rousseau breaks new ground in scholarship about the history of idea about design. I'm glad to see that it provoked a response. Keep thinking.

Bibliography: ID Today (essential reading list)

  • I would start with Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell in order to get both the historical backdrop to ID and to examine the most recent arguments for ID.

Several readers of part one of my blog commented about Judge Jones and his Dover ID trial. See point #4 in this article, which demonstrates how Judge Jones wrongly claimed that intelligent design grew out of Christian fundamentalism. This section of John West's article begins:

According to Judge Jones, intelligent design is not just "religious," it is the outgrowth of twentieth-century American Christian "fundamentalism." He makes this claim notwithstanding the fact that the debate over design in nature reaches back to the ancient Greeks (as pointed out above), and that the debate remained an important dispute among scientists from Darwin onward. As explained in the FTE amicus brief:

Design was also an important part of the contemporary scientific debate at the time Darwin’s theory was developed. Indeed, the term “intelligent design” as an alternative to blind evolution was employed by Oxford scholar F.C.S. Schiller as early as 1897. Schiller wrote that “it will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of Evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.” Schiller, like modern design theorist Michael Behe, argued for intelligent design without rejecting all forms of evolution or even common descent.

It's important to stress that Judge Jones can't point to even a single doctrine unique to Christian fundamentalism that is incorporated by ID. Indeed, he effectively concedes that ID proponents distinguish their theory from fundamentalism by pointing out that it does NOT involve arguments based on "the Book of Genesis", "a young earth," or "a catastrophic Noaich flood." (p. 35) So where's the fundamentalism?

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