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Lecture 2


THE argument, then, which I propose to lay before you, though its material is provided by our common-sense beliefs, is not an argument from common sense. It does not extend to theology those uncritical methods which we accept (most of us without protest) in the sphere of our everyday activities. Is it, then, you may be tempted to ask, some form of the yet more familiar argument from design? Is it more than Paley and the Bridgwater treatises brought up to date? And, if so, has not the vanity of all such endeavours been demonstrated in advance: from the side of sceptical philosophy by Hume; from the side of idealist philosophy by Kant and his successors; from the side of empirical philosophy by the nineteenth-century agnostics; from the side of science by the theory of Natural Selection? Do not the very catch-words of the argument—“contrivance,” “design,” “adaptation,” exercised by the “Architect of the Universe” fill us with a certain weariness? Do they not represent the very dregs of stale apologetics; the outworn residue of half-forgotten controversies?

For my own part, I do not think the argument from contrivance bad, but I do think it very limited: limited in respect of its premises; limited also in respect of its conclusions. It may, perhaps, be worth dwelling on some of these limitations, if only to make my own position clearer by contrast.

In the first place, it must be noted that, from a consideration of inanimate nature alone it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to infer design. The mere existence of natural laws is not, as it seems to me, a sufficient basis for the argument; we require also that these laws should combine to subserve an end. Were the universe, for example, like a huge impervious reservoir of some simple gas, where nothing rested but nothing changed, where amid all the hurry and bustle of colliding atoms no new thing was ever born, nor any old thing ever perished, we might find in it admirable illustrations of natural law, but no hints, so far as I can see, of purpose or design. Nor is the case really mended if, instead of thus artificially simplifying inanimate nature, we consider it in all its concrete complexity. Even cosmic evolution of the Spencerian type will scarcely help us. Herbert Spencer, as we know, regarded the world-story as a continuous progress from the simple to the complex, in which the emergence of the living out of the not-living is treated as a harmonious episode in one vast evolutionary drama. The plot opens in the first chapter with diffused nebulae; it culminates in the last with the social organisation of man. Unfortunately its central episode, the transition from the not-living to the living, was never explained by the author of the “Synthetic Philosophy”; and the lamentable gap must be filled in by each disciple according to his personal predilections. For the moment, however, we are concerned only with one part of the story, that which deals with the evolution of inanimate nature. Can this be regarded as displaying design? I hardly think so. Granting, for the sake of argument, the validity of the Spencerian physics, granting that the material Universe exhibits this general trend from the simple to the complex, from a loose diffusion of nebulous matter to the balanced movements of suns and satellites, does this of itself give any hint of purpose? Only, I believe, if we confound evolution with elaboration and elaboration with improvement, and read into it some suggestion of progress borrowed from biology or ethics, sociology or religion.

But we have not the slightest right to do this. Apart from life and thought, there is no reason to regard one form of material distribution as in any respect superior to another. A solar system may be more interesting than its parent nebula; it may be more beautiful. But if there be none to unravel its intricacies or admire its splendours, in what respect is it better? Its constituent atoms are more definitely grouped, the groups move in assignable orbits; but why should the process by which these results have been achieved be regarded as other than one of purposeless change superinduced upon meaningless uniformity? Why should this type of “evolution” have about it any suggestion of progress? And, if it has not, how can it indicate design?

Spencer himself was, of course, no advocate of “design” after the manner of Paley; and I only mention his cosmic speculations because their unavowed optimism—the optimism that is always apt to lurk in the word “evolution”—makes of them material peculiarly suitable for those who seek for marks of design in lifeless nature. But let us add two touches to Spencer's picture, and see how the argument then stands.

I have already commented on the great omission which mars the continuity of his world-story—the omission, I mean, of any account of the transition from the not-living to the living. I shall have again to refer to it, But there are, besides this, two other omissions, one at the beginning of his narrative, and the other at the end, whose significance in relation to “design” should receive a passing comment.

As I understand the matter, an intelligence sufficiently endowed—let us call him Laplace's calculator—might infer the past state of the material universe from the present by a process of rigorous deduction, on accepted physical principles. But, if he carried back his investigations into a period sufficiently remote, he would find a point at which certain fundamental processes reach a theoretical limit; and, though we must believe that this condition of things had antecedents, yet infinite powers of calculation, based upon infinite knowledge of the present, could not, it seems, tell us what they were.

So much for the past. Now for the future. Here our calculator would be more successful. His prophecy, unlike his history, would not break helplessly against any impassable barrier. He could range at will over the illimitable future. But the prospect, though unbounded, would not be exhilarating. No faintest tinge of optimism would colour his anticipations. Everything that happened, good or bad, would subtract something from the lessening store of useful energy, till a time arrived when nothing could happen any more, and the universe, frozen into eternal repose, would for ever be as if it were not.

Do our ideas of material evolution, thus corrected and supplemented, lend themselves easily to the argument from design? I hardly think so. It is true that in retrospect we can ideally reach a limit which no calculations, based upon physical laws, will permit us to overpass, and that where (what in old-fashioned language were called) “secondary causes” fail us, a First Cause may plausibly be invoked; but, if we gaze forward instead of backward, the physical course of nature does not merely fail to indicate design, it seems loudly to proclaim its absence. A world where all energy suffers inevitable degradation, considered by itself, appears atheistic on the face of it: nor can even life consciousness or thought redeem it, if they, too, are doomed to perish when further transformations of energy become impossible.

It is not, therefore, on any general survey of material nature that, in the present state of our knowledge, we can base the argument from “design.” Nor is this the foundation on which those who use the argument have chiefly built. They have always sought for proofs of contrivance rather among the living than among the dead. In the intricate adjustment of different parts of an organism to the interests of the whole; in the adaptation of that whole to its environment, they found the evidence they required. Arrangements which so irresistibly suggested purpose could not (they thought) be reasonably attributed to chance.

This argument possessed immense force in what was, comparatively speaking, the infancy of biology. Has that force been lessened by the growth of knowledge? Yes and No. If we consider organic adaptations and adjustments in themselves, scientific discovery has increased a thousand-fold our sense of their exquisite nicety and their amazing complexity. I take it as certain that, had no such theory as Natural Selection been devised, nothing would have persuaded mankind that the organic world came into being unguided by intelligence. Chance, whatever chance may mean, would never have been accepted as a solution. Agnosticism would have been scouted as stupidity.

All this has been changed, as every one knows, by Darwin. But what exactly was it that, in this connection, Darwin did? He is justly regarded as the greatest among the founders of the doctrine of organic evolution; but there is nothing in the mere idea of organic evolution which is incongruous with design. On the contrary, it almost suggests guidance, it has all the appearance of a plan. Why, then, has Natural Selection been supposed to shake teleology to its foundation?

The reason, of course, is that though the fact of Selection does not make it harder to believe in design, it makes it easier to believe in accident; and, as design and accident are the two mutually exclusive alternatives between which the argument from design requires us to choose, this comes to the same thing. Before Darwin's great discovery those who denied the existence of a Contriver were hard put to it to explain the appearance of contrivance. Darwin, within certain limits and on certain suppositions, provided an explanation. He showed how the most complicated and purposeful organs, if only they were useful to the species, might gradually arise out of random variations, continuously weeded by an unthinking process of elimination. Assume the existence of living organisms, however simple, let them multiply enough and vary enough, let their variations be heritable, then, if sufficient time be granted, all the rest will follow. In these conditions, and out of this material, blind causation will adapt means to ends with a wealth of ingenuity which we not only cannot equal, but which we are barely beginning to comprehend.1

The theory of selection thus destroys much of the foundation on which, a hundred years ago, the argument from design was based. What does it leave untouched?

It leaves untouched all that can be inferred from the existence of the conditions which make organic evolution possible: matter which lives, multiplies, and varies; an environment which possesses the marvellously complex constitution required to make these processes possible. Selection may modify these conditions, but it cannot start them. It may modify the manner in which multiplication is secured; it may modify the lines which variations follow; it may enable organic species to adapt their powers to their environment, and (within narrow limits) their environment to their powers. But it cannot produce either the original environment or the original living matter. These must be due either to luck or to contrivance; and, if they be due to luck, the luck (we must own) is great. How great we cannot say. We cannot measure the improbability of a fortuitous arrangement of molecules producing not merely living matter, but living matter of the right kind, living matter on which selection can act. Here, indeed, Laplace's calculator might conceivably help us. But suppose him to have done so, suppose him to have measured the odds against the accidental emergence of the desired brand of protoplasm, how are we to compare this probability with its assumed alternative—intelligent design? Here, I think, even Laplace's calculator would fail us; for he is only at home in a material world governed by mechanical and physical laws. He has no principles which would enable him to make exhaustive inferences about a world in which other elements are included: and such a world is ours.

For a Greek philosopher to assert that the world is material was legitimate enough. He was in search of a universal principle; and if he found it in matter we need neither wonder nor criticise. After all, matter lies round us on every side; we are immersed in it; we are largely dependent on it. It may well seem but a small step further, and a very natural one, to treat it as the essence of all that is.

But, as it seems to me, we now know too much about matter to be materialists. The philosophical difficulties in the way of accepting a materialistic world-system are notorious—at least to philosophers. But I am not speaking of them. I am thinking of the scientific difficulties, those that cannot but suggest themselves when we consider the breach of continuity involved in the appearance of life, and still more obviously of feeling, at particular points in the long procession of material causes and effects. The very essence of the physical order of things is that it creates nothing new. Change is never more than a redistribution of that which never changes. But sensibility belongs to the world of consciousness, not to the world of matter. It is a new creation, of which physical equations can give no account. Nay, rather, which falsifies such equations; which requires us to say that, before a certain date in the history of the universe, energy in one shape was converted into precisely the same amount of energy in another shape, and into nothing more; that matter in one position was transferred to another position without increase or diminution: but that, after this date, the transformations of energy and the movements of matter were sometimes accompanied by psychical “epiphenomena” which differ from them in kind, which are incommensurable with them in amount, and which no equations can represent.

Babbage, in order to show how occasional “miracles” might “naturally” break the continuity of the longest sequences, devised a machine which produced numbers according to a particular law for an indefinite period, then broke this uniformity by a single exception, and, thereafter, reverted for ever to its original principle of action. But Babbage's results, however startling, depended wholly on known mathematical and mechanical laws. Their irregularity was only apparent. To Laplace's calculator, they would have seemed not merely inevitable but obvious. It is quite otherwise with the appearance and disappearance of feeling, thought, will, consciousness in general, within the strictly determinal series of mechanical causes and effects. Here the anomaly is real: the breach of continuity inexplicable by any physical laws and indeed incompatible with them. I am not at this moment concerned either to deny or to assert that at the critical frontier where mind and matter meet, the even course of nature suffers violence. I am not suggesting, for example, that, if a given physiological state were exactly repeated, the psychical state formerly associated with it would not be repeated also. My point is different. It is that in a strictly determined physical system, depending on the laws of matter and energy alone, no room has been found, and no room can be found, for psychical states at all. They are novelties, whose intrusion into the material world cannot be denied, but whose presence and behaviour cannot be explained by the laws which that world obeys.

The difficulty is a very familiar one; and I cannot see that the progress either of science or philosophy has brought us nearer to its solution. But what (you may be disposed to ask) has it to do with the argument from design? At least this much:

Those who refuse to accept design do so because they think the world-story at least as intelligible without it as with it. This opinion is very commonly associated with a conception of the universe according to which the laws of matter and energy are sufficient to explain, not only all that is, but all that has been or that will be. If we thus know the sort of explanation which is sufficient to cover the facts, why (it is asked) should we travel further afield into the misty realms of theology or metaphysics?

But the explanation does not cover the facts, even when all has been conceded to the opponents of design that I, at least, am ready to concede. Grant that the inorganic world, considered in and for itself, does not suggest contrivance; grant that the contrivance which the organic world does undoubtedly suggest may in great part be counterfeit—there still remains a vast residue of fact quite recalcitrant to merely physical explanation. I will not argue whether in this residue we should or should not include life. It is enough that we must undoubtedly include feeling and all other phases of consciousness. We must include them, even if they be no more than the passive accompaniments of material change; still more must we include them if we speculatively accept (what I deem to be) the inevitable belief that they can, within limits, themselves initiate movement and guide energy. The choice, therefore, is not between two accounts of the universe, each of which may conceivably be sufficient. The mechanical account is not sufficient. It doubly fails to provide a satisfactory substitute for design. In the first place, it requires us to believe that the extraordinary combination of material conditions required for organic life is due to hazard. In the second place, it has to admit that these material conditions are insufficient, and have somehow to be supplemented. We must assume, that is to say, an infinitely improbable accident, and, when we have assumed it, we are still unprovided with an explanation. Nay, the case is even worse—for the laws by whose blind operation this infinitely improbable accident has been brought about are, by hypothesis, mechanical; and, though mechanical laws can account for rearrangements, they cannot account for creation; since, therefore, consciousness is more than rearrangement, its causes must be more than mechanical.

To me, then, it seems that the common-sense “argument from design” is still of value. But, if it carries us beyond mechanical materialism, it must be owned that it does not carry us very far towards a religious theology. It is inconsistent with Naturalism: it is inconsistent with Agnosticism. But its demands would be satisfied by the barest creed which acknowledged that the universe, or part of it, showed marks of intelligent purpose. And, though most persons willing to accept this impoverished form of Theism will certainly ask for more, this is not because they are swept forward by the inevitable logic of the argument, but because the argument has done something to clear a path which they were already anxious to pursue.


As the conclusions which I desire to establish are richer in contents than any which can be derived merely from marks of contrivance, so the method of arriving at them is essentially different. In the first place, it is based not upon considerations drawn from external nature, but from the mind and soul of man. Stress is laid, not upon contrivances, adjustments, and the happy adaptation of means to ends, but on the character of certain results attained. It is not an argument from design, but an argument from value. To emphasise the contrast, it might be called an argument to design. Value (we assert) is lost if design be absent. Value (you will ask) of what? Of our most valuable beliefs, (I answer) and of their associated emotions.

We are, no doubt, accustomed to connect the notion of value rather with things believed in, than with the beliefs of which they are the subjects. A fine symphony, an heroic deed, a good dinner, an assured livelihood, have admitted values. But what values can we attribute to beliefs and judgments, except in so far as they are aids and instruments for obtaining valuable objects?

This question, however, is based, as I think, upon an insufficient survey of the subject. We are in search of a world outlook. Creeds, therefore, are our concern. The inquiry with which these lectures are concerned is whether, among the beliefs which together constitute our general view of the universe, we should, or should not, include a belief in God. And to this question it is certainly relevant to inquire whether the elimination of such a belief might not involve a loss of value in other elements of our creed—a loss in which we are not prepared to acquiesce.

But how, you will ask, is this loss of value brought about? What is the connection between a belief in God and a belief concerning (say) beauty, or goodness, or natural law? Evidently the connection is not, in the ordinary sense, a logical one. Neither æsthetic, nor ethic, nor scientific judgments can be ‘deduced’ from Theism; nor can Theism be ‘deduced’ from them. We are not dealing with premises and conclusions bound together by a formal chain of inference. How, then, is our procedure to be described?

In order to make this clear, I must call your attention to a double aspect possessed by all beliefs alike, whatever be the subject-matter with which they deal. All beliefs have a position, actually or potentially, in a cognitive series; all beliefs, again, have a position, known or unknown, in a causal series. All beliefs, in so far as they belong to the first kind of series, are elements in one or more collections of interdependent propositions. They are conclusions, or premises, or both. All beliefs, in so far as they belong to the second kind of series, are elements in the temporal succession of interdependent events. They are causes, or effects, or both.

It has, further, to be noted that whereas reasons may, and usually do, figure among the proximate causes of belief, and thus play a part in both kinds of series, it is always possible to trace back the causal series to a point where every trace of rationality vanishes; where we are left face to face with conditions of beliefs—social, physiological, and physical—which, considered in themselves, are quite a-logical in their character.

It is on this last point that I particularly desire to insist. We are all very familiar with the equivocal origin of most human creeds. To he sure, we observe it chiefly in the case of other people. In our own case, we dwell by preference on those causes of our beliefs which are also reasons. But in our detached studies of the opinions we do not share, we easily perceive how insufficient are the arguments officially urged on their behalf, and how often even these insufficient arguments have only a nominal connection with the convictions of which they claim the legal paternity. We must, however, go yet one step further. We must realise that, on any merely naturalistic hypothesis, the rational elements in the causal series lie always on the surface. Penetrate but a short way down, and they are found no more. You might as easily detect life in the minerals wherein plants are rooted, as reason in the physiological and physical changes to which the source of our most carefully reasoned beliefs must, in the last resort, be traced.

Consider, for example, an extreme case—say a proposition of Euclid. Here we have a belief logically inferred from well-assured premises—so, at least, we were accustomed to suppose before mathematicians became so very fastidious in the matter of proof. Can we not say that in this case the elements of the two series are in a sense identical, that all the causes for our belief are also reasons for it? Certainly we are not moved by prejudice, or affection, or authority. It is neither self-interest nor party passion that induces us to believe, for example, that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles. Has our thought, then, in this case freed itself from the dominion of a-logical conditions? Is our belief the child of uncontaminated reason? I answer—No. Though the argument, qua argument, is doubtless independent of time, the argumentative process by which we are in fact convinced occurs in time, and, like all psychological processes, is somehow associated with physiological changes in the brain. These, again, are part of the general stream of physical happenings, which in themselves have nothing rational about them. Follow up this stream but a little further and every trace, not only of mind but of life, is completely lost; and we are left face to face with unthinking matter and its purposeless movements. Logical inference is thus no more than the reasoned termination of an unreasoning process. Scratch an argument, and you find a cause.

If this be admitted, the question at once arises whether we can treat the two kinds of series thus intimately connected as separable when we are estimating the values of the beliefs with which they are both associated. Is it permissible, is it even possible, to ignore the genesis of knowledge when we are considering its validity? Do not origins qualify values?

In many cases they notoriously do. A distinguished agnostic once observed that in these days Christianity was not refuted, it was explained. Doubtless the difference between the two operations was, in his view, a matter rather of form than of substance. That which was once explained needed, he thought, no further refutation. And certainly we are all made happy when a belief, which seems to us obviously absurd, is shown nevertheless to be natural in those who hold it.

But we must be careful. True beliefs are effects no less than false. In this respect magic and mathematics are on a level. Both demand scientific explanation; both are susceptible of it. Manifestly, then, we cannot admit that explanation may be treated as a kind of refutation. For, if so, the more successfully science carried out its explanatory task, the more completely would it shatter its own principles. This way lies universal scepticism. Thus would all intellectual values be utterly destroyed.

But we have not to do with intellectual values alone. There are beliefs (as I have already said) round which crystallise complex emotions, æsthetic and ethic, which play no small part in our highest life. Without the beliefs the emotions would dwindle; without the emotions the beliefs would lose their worth. Though they do not imply each other in the world of logic, they are mutually necessary in the world of values. Here, of course, there is no question of a contrast between the logical and the causal series. Emotions are always effects; they are never inferences. In their case, therefore, the relation of value to origin is not obscured by considerations like those which must occupy us in the case of mere beliefs; and we have to face in a simpler and more direct form the central problem of these lectures: the problem of the relation which origin bears to value. It is with this branch of my subject as it is raised by æsthetic and by ethic emotions that I shall be mainly occupied in the next two lectures. And as in the later part of my course I shall contend that it is destructive of rational values to root them in unreason, so I shall now contend that the emotional values associated with, and required by, our beliefs about beauty and virtue must have some more congruous source than the blind transformation of physical energy. If I am successful in my endeavour I shall have done something to show that “design” is demanded by all that we deem most valuable in life, by beauty, by morals, by scientific truth: and that it is design far deeper in purpose, far richer in significance, than any which could be inferred from the most ingenious and elaborate adjustments displayed by organic life.

  • 1.

    As I shall often have to mention “selection” in the course of these lectures, I must observe that it is no part of my business to weigh the comparative merits of competing evolutionary theories. It may be that the hypothesis of small random variations accumulated or eliminated according as they help or hinder survival, is, in the light of recent research, insufficient and unsatisfactory. From my point of view this is immaterial. I use the word “selection” as a convenient name for any non-rational process, acting through heredity, which successfully imitates contrivance. Darwin's theory, be it true or false, still provides, I suppose, the only suggestion as to how this feat may be accomplished, and his terminology may be used without danger of misunderstanding.

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