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Lecture 3. Cosmical Adaptation and Divine Design: Teleological


MY last lecture involved the principle that man's moral experience of a cause that must be absolute or uncaused, because responsible for its effects, offers the relief which the causal craving that is at the root of all physically scientific inquiry ultimately needs. This relief comes through moral experience in a practical form, not in the unintelligible form of endless succession of natural causes. If a deliberate personal volition, for which one can be justly praised or blamed, must be caused absolutely and finally by the person who is morally responsible for it,—then this unique example of what causal satisfaction means may be taken as practically a type of the mysterious Power constantly at work at the heart of things, determining the physical order, upon faith in which daily life, as well as scientific inductions, proceeds. It is as active moral Reason that man may regard the Power that is latent in the natural sequences that are presented within his experience. Nature may be treated by man as, for virtually the revelation of this moral Power, even if “rational will” or “moral reason” represents the Infinite Being inadequately, as viewed at the divine centre.

Two rival ultimate postulates agnostic Naturalism and theistic Naturalism

There are at last two rival hypotheses regarding the universe—if one may call them hypotheses. There is the hypothesis of an unbeginning and unending physical succession of changes, metaphorically spoken as a “chain”—an infinite chain of non-moral natural sequences: there is also the moral hypothesis, which, without removing the infinite mystery of physical unbeginningness and unendingness, sees in the actual procedure of the manifested universe of things and persons, interpreted in science, the constant personal revelation of morally active Reason. It is true that both these hypotheses leave us at last enveloped in what is mysterious to the sensuous understanding: the infinity or mystery into which each retires at last makes an inevitable demand upon moral trust. In accepting either of them we must at last be acting in faith, instead of seeing the universe with tile perfect intellectual vision of omniscience; but it is with an imperfect intellectual vision in which omniscience finds its substitute in moral faith.


Yet if these two rival hypotheses seem to have this common weakness, it appears on comparing them that the final mystery of an infinite physical regress and progress of non-moral or wholly natural causes embraces no originative or satisfying cause at all, while the other hypothesis supplies what meet the causal craving, While it satisfies the spiritual constitution of man. On this ground alone, it would appear to be an man. On this ground alone, it would appear to be an obligation of reason finally to interpret the universe, not atheistically or agnostically, as the purely physical hypothesis does, but theistically, that is morally and spiritually, according to the second. The first leaves us in physical, because in moral, chaos: it professes physical faith in a universe in the movements of which it can have no moral trust. The second still presupposes physical trust, as proceeded upon in inductive science, but without adopting the negative assumptions of some speculative naturalists; for it finds that physical order and reliability postulate the moral order of perfect or divine providence. The atheist—in disclaiming as superfluous this perpetually creative moral Power immanent in all natural phenomena, the guarantee of the customary natural uniformity which he dogmatically assumes the absoluteness of—is virtually saying that the temporal evolution in physical nature has after all no spiritual meaning, moral or immoral; that all events happen without trustworthy reason, so that their future is incalculable; we cannot tell in what succession, because we must not presuppose a rational order. He is left without ground even for the faith that they will continue to happen according to the forecasts of physical science; or that in the future all may not become uninterpretable chaos; or that the changing universe may not subside into changelessness. The moral key to any practical interpretation of the universe, even physical, has been wantonly thrown away, under the pressure of an hypothesis that is physically not more comprehensible than the theistic; while, on account of its discord with moral reason, it leaves its with a universe emptied of what makes it as a natural evolution worthy of scientific trust.

The causal and the teleological conceptions of the universe distinguished.

The theistic or moral interpretation of natural causation, which sees divine Power pervading physical sequences, may be distinguished from the teleological conception of the universe, in the popular argument for God from final causes or contrivances. This conception arose of old out of certain obtrusive instances of adaptation in nature to humanly useful or beautiful ends, which the world presents. It now includes apparent adaptation in the cosmical evolution as a whole, when viewed as a natural process that has been continuously leading on towards the evolution of Man, with his spiritual or supernatural endowments. For the universe in which we find ourselves does seem to be a universe which, as illustrated by this planet of ours, has been slowly making for the gradual development of persons, or moral agents, as its ideal goal.

Observation of natural contrivances, the popular proof of the Divine Designer.

The fact that the temporal procession of phenomena is found to abound in notable contrivances, that have not been contrived by the intending will of man, or of any other supposable intelligent agents limited in power like men, is probably the consideration that finds most favour with ordinary minds, when they are moved to ask themselves, why they believe that the world owes its existence to Divine purpose or pre-destination, instead of being an incomprehensible accident. Nature is found full of adaptations, especially in its living organisms; and, inasmuch as visible adaptation is to common-sense the sign of designing mind, it may seem that if we are in the presence of natural adaptations of means to ends, we must be in the workshop of a divine mechanist. The striking adaptations presented in organisms need a cause: physical (so-called) “causes” are not known by us to be really causes; but even if they were, they are insufficient causes of constructions so elaborate and useful, or so beautiful, as many of those which emerge in the course of the natural evolution of things, inorganic and organic. In presence of this spectacle we are invited, as by Socrates and Cicero and Paley, to refer the constructions in nature to Divine Design. The curious natural constitution of the eye, or of the ear, we are told to observe, is so adapted to a useful purpose that this organ cannot be thought of as a purposeless accident of collocation in an irrational flux. Its curious correlation of means to ends was not brought about, we very well know, by a human “eye-maker,” while it is too elaborate to have been brought about by a chance or unregulated concurrence of atoms. We are obliged, by common-sense or something in our minds, Paley tells us, to refer organs and organisms like this to a superhuman eye-maker or ear-maker. Elaborate adaptation our mental constitution forbids us ever to regard as uncalculated.

Explanation of the wide acceptance of the teleological conception.

The ready popular recognition of the eye and innumerable other instances of superhuman adaptation as valid ground for theistic faith, may be partly explained by the way an elaborate and useful machine brings design home to the ordinary mind. In a world full of useful adaptations, one seems more easily than in other ways to find that God is working;—or at least that God must have been once at work, even if, now and during an indefinite past, the maintenance of organic constructions that at first came ready-made from the Divine artificer or creator has been intrusted to what are called “natural” causes. If the adaptations are now natural, they must have been at first supernatural, it is argued. God must, at some pre-historic time or other, have “interfered,” as we say, to “create” the organ which what is vaguely called “nature” now propagates. God seems in this way to be speaking to men out of the past, even if He has left only “nature” speaking to them at this hour,—speaking to them as one man may be said to speak to another man, through acts that are significant, because adapted as means to convey meaning from mind to mind. Just as a watch or other machine brings vividly before one the existence of its human maker, so the special organ called the eye, or the whole human body—the adaptions which so ingeniously fit organs to their environments, and fit the minds of men too to the physical universe in which they awake into consciousness—all these and millions of like instances of contrivance have been found to quicken at least intellectual sympathy and affinity with the Power that must have been at work before all it this could have become what it now is, and which it naturally continues to be. One is ready, too, when his attention is emphatically called to abounding examples of useful or beautiful adaptation, to feel as if God were no merely abstract Being, realisable only through metaphysical reasoning or speculation,—as if He were a living Person whose intelligent activity, at least in the past, is as manifest as the past intelligent activity of a human watchmaker is manifest to me in and through my watch, or as the inventive power of any sort of artist is revealed in and through the useful machine, or the picture of beauty, of which his design must have been the source. In contemplating means and ends in nature, I seem to trace this invisible Power, working consciously and of set purpose—calculating—making use of materials that possess latent capacities for being adapted, and made useful to men or other animated beings. The rude chaotic materials themselves, in virtue of inherent powers tacitly attributed to them, are supposed to admit of adaptations, and so help to bring about the ends which we now admire and benefit by in the ordinary course of nature. Thus in the numberless examples of well-calculated contrivance which the great machine the physical universe presents, and also in the existence of the great machine itself, an observer seems to find at least the relics of the Great Mechanist or Contriver;—with as much assurance, he is ready to say, that He must be an intelligent Being as he has of the intelligence of him to whom he spontaneously refers the adaptations in his watch, or of the author or the printer of a book, in which arbitrary verbal signs are adapted to convey meaning from one human mind to another.

Natural adaptions make God visible, in the same way as the contrivances of a human artist make the artist visible.

If it be objected that I cannot see this Divine Contriver of any of the adaptations which natural theology refers to God, it may be replied that neither do I ever really see the human contrivers of any of the machines which I attribute to human plan or purpose—that is to say, if a human contriver means more than the visible and tangible bodily organism of a human being;—for this is needed to signify to me his invisible spiritual purposes, that must themselves be confined to his own private consciousness. But all recognise, in the case of man, that the visibly moved human organism is charged with invisible intelligent purposes, so that the man is not merely an unconscious automaton. Still the conscious intention of the human artificer is as invisible to the witness of the machine he has made as the Divine intending purpose in natural constructions is beyond the senses of all human beings. The conscious states of other living beings necessarily transcend the consciousness of all, except the one person whose conscious states they actually are.

The relation of cosmical adaptation to Man as a sentient and spiritual being.

Another circumstance, less obvious than the mere fact of adaptation as such, probably contributes to make the phenomena of natural adaptation touch the imagination of the mass of mankind forcibly, in the way of awakening the idea of Divine design and a Divine Designer. For natural adaptations all seem to converge upon Man. Withdraw men and sentient animals from the world, and what demand remains in it for useful and beautiful adaptation? The physical universe seems to be contrived in ways which adapt its natural sequences to animal life, but above all to the conscious life of human spirits or moral persons. The enormous amount of natural waste that goes on, the numerous natural malformations, and above all the appalling mixture of human and animal suffering discovered in the cosmical evolution, may indeed be set in objection. Of that afterwards. But these suspicious phenomena do not strip the natural revelation, through beneficial adaptations, of its necessary relation to beings that are sentient, and above all to human beings. It may be granted that this concentration of natural adaptations especially upon man is only what appears at man's own limited point of view, and also that it need not exclude innumerable ends higher than those which make for mail. But it is as obvious adaptations atleast to man that the phenomena come before human beings as charged with meaning and purpose.

David Hume's acknowledgment of the religious significance of the constructions presented in Nature.

Something more than can be fully detected by the logical criticism of the understanding seems to touch the imagination and the heart of man, in this contemplation of a universe full of adaptations to the lives of its spiritual inhabitants. The impression of a divine revelation which consists in superhuman constructions and contrivances is acknowledged by the most sceptical in certain moods. “The whole chorus of nature,” David Hume, in the person of Cleanthes, emphatically acknowledges,—“the whole chorus of nature raises a hymn in praise of its Creator. You alone,” Cleanthes remonstrates with Philo, “or almost alone, disturb the general harmony. You start abstruse doubts, cavils, objections; you ask me what is the cause of this supposed intelligent designing Cause? I answer that I know not, I care not; that concerns not me. I have found a Deity, and here I choose to stop my inquiry into causes. Let those go farther who are wiser and more enterprising.” In these words, nevertheless, Hume puts a wholly arbitrary arrest upon the regressive causal questioning—in lack of the morally rational arrest that we found presupposed in the necessary postulate of moral experience. This ground for arrest was outside the range of his vision and philosophy, finally determined as that was by the mechanical and empirical conception of “natural causes” that need to be themselves caused by what is external to themselves. Merely physical observation rather than moral reason or spiritual insight is the basis of Hume's conclusion, in his ‘Natural History of Religion,’ that “the whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent Author,” and that “no rational inquirer can, after with serious reflection, suspend his belief for a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine theism and religion.” And this “genuine theism” of Hume can be only that attenuated theism, which infers, from observed cosmical adaptations, the past, if not the present, existence of “an intelligent cause” of those adaptations—while still left in doubt about the omnipotence and perfect goodness of the physically inferred and after all only intelligent supreme Cause. According to physical analogy, he might say, intelligence other than human seems to have been somehow and at some time at work in Nature. But as to the good or bad character of this intelligent being, or the extent of his power, his empirical data leave him unable to determine anything: perfect or truly divine reason and goodness in the conclusion would be in excess of the only premises which his philosophy allowed him to use. And thus his so-called “god” is only one intelligent and perhaps deceiving cause added to the intelligent causes we are accustomed to find in our natural experience of human contrivers. He offers us a god that needs an ulterior cause of his own individual existence.

The argument for divine design that is based only on observed adaptations, taken by itself, is inadequate.

The argument for divine design that is grounded on cosmical adaptations—long favoured in popular natural theology, roughly handled by Spinoza, criticised by Kant, discredited by some speculative naturalists of the present generation—is in danger of losing the weight that is really due to it, as an auxiliary to the theistic interpretation that we are led to put upon the universe by our moral or religions experience with its necessary postulates, and also by the craving which sends us in quest of an originating Cause of change. Presuppose perfect moral reason or goodness as eternally personal, as what is always and everywhere active, and this at the heart of existence; then, under this indispensable presupposition and motive, the innumerable adaptations presented in sensuous experience correspond with, confirm, and bring vividly home to the ordinary mind, the conception of Divine intending mind existing virtually at the root of all, notwithstanding the mixture of seeming malconstruction, misery, and sin in which the world abounds. But to infer the existence of a Being of perfect power, wisdom, and mercy, solely from specimens of otherwise unexplained contrivance that occur empirically in our observation of the external world, is to beg a conclusion already presumed; not one that has been logically gathered from observation of natural organisms. The divine conclusion is infinitely in excess of the empirical premisses: the largest collection of superhuman natural constructions can yield only a more or less probable finite inference: the finite can never be logically transformed into the infinite, which cannot be deduced from the finite as from a premiss. The empirical data perhaps suggest an intelligent contriver of the observed contrivances, analogous to the mind supposed in the human contriver of a machine, but wanting, so far as the observed facts can carry us, in what is uniquely divine.

In its common form it seems to make God the author of a difficulty in order that He may show His skill in overcoming it.

Other defects in the supposed deduction of perfect moral design and the perfect divine Designer, from empirically presented instances of cosmical contrivance, begin to suggest themselves, when tile empirical facts are taken to justify the infinite conclusion, instead of only helping to awaken the infinite presupposition, or faith in God, as the primary necessity of man's relation to the universe of reality. How, we may be asked, can the analogy of a human artist and his work of art apply to the Divine artist, whose power is supposed to be boundless, and who must therefore be the author of the very materials which, in his inferior relation of Designer, he is alleged to have adapted, with more or less difficulty, to his ends? Why should adaptation of resisting material be part of the work of the omnipotence, on which the material, with all its qualities and modes of behaviour, must, on the divine hypothesis, absolutely depend? This looks like supposing God to be the cause of a difficulty, only in order that He may afterwards show His skill and strength in the removal of it.

And to imply inconsistency with the universality of law or rational order.

Again. The introduction of the Divine Designer has been reclaimed against as an “interference” with the province which science must keep Secure for natural evolution—which, as natural, is dogmatically presumed to be undesigned: natural uncalculating evolution really deserves, we are told, all the glory of the useful and beautiful contrivances in which the inorganic world and its living organisms abound. Visible sequences in their customary evolution, it is argued, are all we have to do with, and it is worse than superfluous to invest them with the conception of purpose, Even although some natural effects present adjustments which, if their antecedent condition were a human hand, we might refer to man's organism as their physical cause, a wider experience of natural evolution shows that, in the absence of this physical cause, other physical causes seem spontaneously to transform themselves by degrees into those useful and beautiful mechanisms which, in their former ignorance, men referred to the creative “interference” of God. Our own experience of what nature, without this supposed capricious and incalculable divine interference, does gradually transform itself into, demonstrates that supernatural interposition is superfluous. Unaided natural evolution is found, in fact, to issue in contrivances; and the contrivances are inferred to be customary issues of wholly natural antecedent conditions, which need no conscious design or predestination outside themselves. To assume arbitrarily “the intervention of a designing force” is to withdrawinterest and attention from what alone is of practical importance in a man's intercourse with what around him—the visible causes that are presented to the observing faculty; for these, so far as men are themselves causes, they are able in some degree to adapt as means to their own ends. Visible causes alone, accordingly, are the causes on which our organic pleasures and pains immediately depend. Man has nothing to do with a “Power” of which natural science can say nothing, because it is outside all physical or sensuous experience.

Yet all Natural Causation may be the expression of Divine Design.

A recent criticism of Lord Salisbury's British Association address illustrates these remarks. It is by Dr Weismann, the eminent naturalist, in a late number of the ‘Contemporary Review.’ I find in it the following remarkable sentence:—“The scientific man may not assume the existence of a designing force, as Lord Salisbury suggests; for by so doing he would surrender the presupposition of his research—the comprehensibility of nature.” Now, by the “comprehensibility of nature,” I suppose Dr Weismann to mean, the presupposition that changes in nature must be in all cases the issue or metamorphosis of ascertainable natural causes, whatever else they may be or may imply; and that the particular sorts of natural or dependent causes on which the different kinds of physical facts and events depend, and not the uncaused origin of the Whole, is all that physical science, at any rate, has to do with. The physical comprehensibility of nature is, in short, the final postulate and motive of science; in obedience to which it persists in inquiring only for the visible and tangible established signs of changes. These, under the ambiguous name of “causes,” form its exclusive concern. But that the “comprehensibility of nature,” so understood, should bar out the conception of the natural world being also a divine revelation of means adapted to calculable ends, useful or beautiful, looks like saying that the world must be finally incomprehensible, in order that it may be naturally or scientifically comprehended. That a perfectly reasonable “designing force” should “necessarily contradict” or “interfere with” the scientific presupposition of the fixed order of natural causes, is itself a prejudice, the groundlessness of which I suggested in last lecture. The scientific “comprehensibility” or interpretability of nature, instead of being inconsistent with the immanence of intending moral power and perfectly rational design, is really only one way of expressing this final truth as a practical fact. To show that a certain event is the new form of some antecedent phenomenon is not, properly speaking, to show its cause or origin: it only makes us ask further, What invests the antecedent phenomenon with its so-called power? Does not this question at last throw us back upon intending will as the only originating power that man encounters, involved as he finds it in his moral experience? May not the sort of causation for which a finite personal agent is morally responsible be taken as typical of the supreme Power; and may not that Power be conceived to act either with or without the visible causes, or physical signs, which alone concern the physical inquirer? If all natural causation may at last be reasonably this, then discovery of a natural cause, which is thus only the natural sign of a consequently expected event, is no disproof of the event being really or finally a physical revelation of divine intending Will. This thought indeed seems to be dimly present to Dr Weismann himself, when he adds in a concluding sentence, that “there is nothing to prevent our conceiving (if conception be the right word to use in such a context) of a Creator as lying behind or within the forces of Nature and being their ultimate cause.” Yet here and throughout his remarks, the ambiguous word “force,” in its unanalysed physical application, further obscures his meaning; which had been already confused by the dogma that “divine design” is necessarily “interference” with order in nature, or that it is, in his own words, an “intervention to supplement the forces of Nature just where they break down.” It cannot be “interference” or “superfluous intervention,” if intending Will is the only originative cause—all natural sequences and natural evolution being only its orderly, and therefore interpretable, or physically comprehensible, effects. Thus physical causes, not being themselves properly causes, are, per se, as uninterpretable as spoken or printed words are, when emptied of meaning and purpose, and taken as isolated sensuous phenomena of hearing or of sight. It all looks different when we find that physical nature may itself be regarded supernaturally, without ceasing to be nature for all the intellectual purposes of physical science, or for the secular utilities derived from its physical interpretation.

Adaptation may be gradually evolved, according to natural law, and yet be really manifestations of continuous divine agency.

Further. Adaptations may be slowly evolved according to natural laws, in a natural progress that may often look to us like regress, and notwithstanding they may be the natural revelation of God. If morally intending spirit is the only creative power that man's experience suggests to him; and if the causal or originative activity of this power is the reasonable implicate of faith in natural order, and also in the innumerable adaptations that appear in nature—it follows that continuous growth or evolution, not off-hard production, as of a watch or other mechanism by a human artist, is the true analogy to the manifestation of God that is actually presented in the persistent maintenance of worlds. Providential evolution of the universe—including occasional crises of natural disintegration—in an essentially supernatural process from an incalculable past, with its outcome in an incalculable future,—this rather than sudden creations, or interferences with the divine continuity of events in the providential evolution, becomes the theistic conception of contrivance in nature, under the modern dynamical conception of the physical universe. Creation is then Providence or divinely-determined natural progress. Evolution or metamorphosis is at once natural and divine,—the visible growth as it were of the universal divinely-directed organism, in which h mean organisms, naturally yet supernaturally, live and move and have their being. A universe charged throughout with natural adaptations may then be read as the expression of ever-active spiritual agency, otherwise recognised as living and acting Reason, revealed throughout the Whole. The more obvious examples form illustrations, for popular use, of pervading purpose in the physical drama presented to the senses, and come home to the ordinary mind in the way that characteristic actions and habits of a man strikingly reveal his inner life and purposes to onlookers.

Is the universe, with its seemingly artificial adaptations and constructions, really a natural growth; and if so, can it also be the revelation of supernatural purpose?

An ideal of the physical universe, as not a finished product but a continuous natural process, in unending duration, in analogy so far with the continuous life of a plant or an animal, is proposed by the sceptical Philo in Hume's ‘Dialogues’ as a more reasonable final conception of Nature than that which likens it to a machine made by a human mechanist at a given time. But Philo makes the tacit assumption that if cosmical adaptations are in fact successive outcomes of the natural order, under the law of “natural selection” let us suppose they cannot need immanent intending mind to direct them. The “course of nature” is credited with the seemingly artificial collocations: they are simply a part of the customary behaviour of Nature; as if Nature's conduct must ultimately be other than divine or morally trustworthy conduct. Take the following in one of the utterances of Philo:—“There are other parts of the universe besides the machines of human invention, which bear a greater resemblance than this to the fabric of the world, and which therefore afford a better conjecture concerning the universal origin of this system. These parts are animals and vegetables. The world plainly resembles an animal or a vegetable more than it does a watch or a knitting-loom. Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles the cause of the former than the latter. The cause of the former is generation or vegetation. The cause therefore of the world we may infer to be something similar or analogous to generation or vegetation.…In like manner as a tree sheds its seed into the neighbouring fields, and produces other trees, so the great vegetable, the world, naturally produces within itself certain seeds, which, being scattered into the surrounding chaos, vegetate into new worlds. Or if, for the sake of variety (for I see no other advantage), we should suppose the universe to be an animal: a comet is, as it were, the egg of this animal. An existing tree bestows order and organisation on the tree which springs from it, without itself knowing the order; an animal, in the same manner, on its offspring, without foreseeing what is done; and instances of this kind are even more frequent in the world than those of order which arise from conscious reason and contrivance, To say that all this order or adaptation in animals and vegetables proceeds ultimately from design is begging the question; nor can that great point be ascertained otherwise than by proving a priori both that order is from its nature inseparably connected with thought, and that it can never of itself, or from original unknown principles, belong to matter.” Now if merely natural sequence must be taken, as Philo takes it, for our last word about the events that fill up the history of the universe, I daresay the natural processes of vegetation and of the birth of animals may give a better final conception of the Whole than any others suggested by the natural processes which come within man's experience. But if all natural processes, per se, are only manifestations or effects, in themselves uninterpretable; if even the scientific interpretation of such effects, as examples of “laws,” itself depends upon moral and spiritual reason for the physical faith which makes it possible, and enables us with moral confidence to put even a physical interpretation upon changes; if, moreover, there is nothing in the theory of the physical interpretability of phenomena that is inconsistent with, or any way opposed to, a co-ordinate theistic interpretation of them; and if this deeper interpretation of their natural modes of behaviour, adaptations, and constructions, tends to satisfy man's genuine spiritual needs—if all this be so, why should natural causation, when its actual relations are ascertained by scientific inquiry, be regarded as necessarily empty of divine or moral purpose? Why must I infer that every fresh discovery of what is called a natural cause is a discovery that relieves its natural effects of connection with God, or makes them undivine?

The Mystery of the infinite in the universe, taken sceptically, paralyses the apprehension of design within our narrow experience.

In truth it is the overwhelming idea of the infinity of the universe, when it arises under an empirical habit of thought, that seems to oppress Philo, and others who, like him, thick only empirically, with what, if they yield to it enough, must become a despairing sense of the uninterpretability of all that is presented in experience,—its uninterpretability even up to the extent to which physical interpreters profess to read its meanings into natural science. Philo takes hold of the Infinite, as it were, by its sceptical or agnostic handle, and so, instead of its mystery quickening reverential faith, the idea of infinity seems wholly to disintegrate human experience. The incomprehensibility of a wholly physical experience, with its final negations of Boundlessness and Eternity, into which the natural sequences refund themselves, are allowed to paralyse moral reason, and religious faith in the supremacy of perfect goodness, which otherwise enable man to keep his head, and wisely regulate his course, even in an experience which, when only physically regarded, at last surpasses human knowledge. With the loss of the absolute moral postulate of practical reason, the mysteries of the infinite in quantity—the infinite in space, in duration, and in physical causality—dissolve the divine analogy between cosmical adaptations in nature to those adaptations which we are accustomed to refer to human contrivers. And this disintegrative sense of mystery, if the sceptic is consistent, must not cease to operate when he contemplates what we call the contrivances of men. The men who surround us, notwithstanding the signs of design presented in their visible organic history, may also, like the universe, be only automatons: no man can enter into, or be conscious of, the invisible purpose which he nevertheless attributes to the human artificer whose organs are seen at work. The dark shadow of infinite mystery not only destroys the analogy so far as to forbid the theistic interpretation of the curiously adapted world; it not less forbids the spiritual interpretation of the visible adaptations in a watch, which refers them to the conscious design of a human watchmaker. More than this, it forbids all scientific interpretations of natural phenomena; because it implies that the universe, on account of its infinity, is too unique for us to make any affirmations about any of its events. It has, for man at least, lost its finally synthetic principle, and become a succession of meaningless sensuous impressions, and all this only because it has become in thought infinite in extent and duration and physical causation, and therefore to us incomprehensible.

Conscious design at work in another mind can be revealed to my mind only through a medium.

Conscious design at work in another mind is in all cases invisible. I see the material constructions, and I see the movements in a human organism that naturally lead to the statical products; but I can neither perceive nor be conscious of the mental activity that I suppose in their cause, and which, in the case of living human organisms, is referred by me to a conscious life and agency that is human, and more or less like my own. We are more at a loss how to represent to ourselves the invisible life-processes that animate other animals on this planet in their seeming adaptations of means to ends, and their works of art—bees in their mathematically regulated constructions, ants in their organised commonwealth, or dogs in an intelligent kindness that often seems to rival that of man. Yet when I find in them too continuous signs of policy, calculation, adaptation, resembling those which give expression to these invisible states or acts of Conscious life in myself, something in me obliges me to regard the phenomena as signs of another acting intelligence, or at least of what is, for all practical purposes, acting intelligence other than man's. In all cases the assurance of continuous orderly adaptation of means to ends, whether presented in human organisms and their movements, in the organisms and outward movements of animals, or in the universal evolution, obliges men to treat the manifestations as virtually a revelation of purpose. When overt actions which involve skill are performed through our organs, as they often are, without our voluntary agency, or individual intending will, we are obliged to refer them to another intending intelligence. “We are not conscious,” it has been remarked, “of the systole and diastole of the heart, or the motion of the diaphragm. It may not nevertheless be thence inferred that unknowing nature can act thus regularly, as well as ourselves. The true inference here is—that the self-thinking individual, or human person, is not the real author of those natural motions, and the adaptations which they present. And in fact no man blames himself if such organic motions, over which he has no control, go wrong, or values himself if they go right. The same may be said of the fingers of a musician, which some assert to be moved by habit only, which understands not. But it is evident that what is done by rule and calculation must proceed from something that understands the rule; therefore, if not from the mind of the musician himself, from some other active intelligence; the same perhaps which governs bees and spiders in their constructions, and moves the limbs of those who walk in their sleep.”

We may recognise adaptations without being able to comprehend fully the Power to which they are referred.

The immanence of design in a curious natural construction may be affirmed, although we may be unable to pass even in imagination into the conscious life of the designer. Although the universe is to us practically the manifestation of sufficiently comprehensible examples of means adapted to human ends, it would be presumptuous to infer from this alone that the intelligence so manifested must itself reason and calculate in successive conscious states or living acts, as in the conscious experience of men. We cannot do this even in the case of those beings we call “inferior animals,” who are so great a mystery to us, but infinitely less in the case of the Universal Designer. Yet so far as man is able to look into reality, he sees in natural adaptations what he may with moral confidence act upon, as signs of what he can think of only as consciously calculating mind; but this without having a right to assert that he can adequately realise what, for want of more expressive language, he calls eternal or infinite “Mind.”

Natural law itself implies adaptation to interpreting intelligence.

I have spoken of adaptations in nature as fit to be distinguished from law or regularity in the sequences of nature. Yet looked at more deeply, it may appear that not only do faith in physical law, and faith in divine construction or adaptation, rise somehow out of the practical constitution of man, relieving him of the sceptical paralysis that would be otherwise induced by the appalling sense of mysterious infinity;—the two faiths even appear to coincide at last. For all natural uniformity—law in nature—may be regarded as adaptation of the temporal process to the moral and intellectual constitution of man. If we could suppose ourselves living consciously in a physical chaos, instead of living in what faith recognises as a physical cosmos; and if in this supposed conscious life we could be endowed with our present moral and religious constitution—with moral reason in its highest human development,—we should still, it would seem, be obliged to suppose that the chaos around us must somehow, and at some time, have its final outcome in a reasonable world; but besides this greatly increased strain upon our moral faith, we should lose the educational and other practical advantages of living now in a world so adapted to us that we gradually learn how to regulate our conduct, in reasonable expectation of changes which the sustained order in nature enables us to anticipate as probable.

The final purpose of Matter and its physical adaptations, in relation to man.

The divine constitution of physical order, with its natural evolution of organic adaptations, may scorn a roundabout method for accomplishing what infinite Power might be supposed to accomplish in man extra-naturally or by sudden miracle. What is the purpose of an organism so curiously constructed as the eye, one may ask, if men could have existed, able to experience mentally the conscious state called “seeing things,” without, eyes; or what the need for the complex structure of our bodily organisms, if we could have the mental life we pass through between birth and death without bodies, or as unembodied conscious spirits? If those elaborate bodily constructions do not originate the conscious life with which they are found connected, what are they adapted for? and must their organic adaptations not be looked at as superfluous in what is essentially a spiritual world? This raises a question about Matter, and about miraculous as distinguished from natural revelation of God, the consideration of which enters at a later stage in our course of argument.


The lesson of the present lecture is, that design is a conception in harmony with, and even involved in, natural evolution, and that whether Nature is contemplated as a whole, or in its particular organisms and events. Designed order in the whole involves design in each part, as much as universal gravitation is illustrated even in the fall of an apple to the earth. The universality of adaptation—the application of the idea of providence to all natural changes—seems as possible as the universality of the ideas of gravitation or of evolution within the sphere of their applications, Nothing is too great or too little for natural law, and therefore for providential purpose. Universal Providence is in this sense necessarily special. The very idea of natural law is teleological.