Why Russell was Wrong V: Let’s forget about Paley

CrystalBall

Here, we get to Russell’s treatment of Darwinism. To be clear, I am discussing philosophy and theology–not science (as much as I adore science). I’ll not be speaking about the Evolution debate, which receives far more attention than I think due it. Instead I’ll focus on philosophical mistakes I’ve seen made in this debate.

Here, Russell criticizes Paley’s famous “Watchmaker” argument (which states that Creationism is true on the grounds that living things appear as designed as a watch does):

It is an easy argument to parody. You all know Voltaire’s remark, that obviously the nose was designed to be such as to fit spectacles. That sort of parody has turned out to be not nearly so wide of the mark as it might have seemed in the eighteenth century, because since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation.

I’m often left wondering what so many of the disciples of Russell (Dawkins most of all) would do without Paley. Few arguments from design run counter to Darwin’s theory, and so don’t tend to validate the false “science or religion” dichotomy that drives their rhetoric.

To his credit, Russell does not fall into this trap. Many seem to think that, so long as a discovery of science can be made to counter a theistic argument, we can imply that future discoveries will do the same (so we needn’t waste our time with other arguments). At least, this seems to be the reason why Darwin’s name is so frequently mentioned on topics like cosmology.

For me, the most significant thing about Darwin in the context of a debate on God’s existence is the fact that opponents of theism have a hard time producing a more recent idea which runs counter to (their concept of) theism.

This seems rather like the Galileo argument, where a single person, who lived quite some time ago, is seen as proof of a larger pattern. This is doubly true when one studies closely enough to see that there is nothing about Darwin’s theories which can get the one to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist (nor anything about Galileo’s trial which reveals that “science” was being persecuted, but that is another topic).

If the practice of science in the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that it does not progress along a predictable course. To infer that science will ultimately establish atheism because of a single, questionable, example (as, say, Richard Dawkins does) is a hasty generalization fallacy, a non-sequitur, and a simple category error. Really, I’ve encountered few positions which pack logical fallacies as tightly as this one.

But, more simply, this is to pretend both that science is philosophy and that we know our future better than Paley knew his.

And this is what Paley did right: rather than try to predict what will be discovered some day, he worked with the information he had. It is sheer intellectual laziness to say that one isn’t going to accept a position until all the facts are in (as many seem to be doing as of late); all the facts will never be in.

I believe that we should trust science. What we should not trust, however, is some concept of what science will one day discover. This is doubly true in answering a question which is, manifestly, not a scientific one.

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2 responses to “Why Russell was Wrong V: Let’s forget about Paley

  • Webeers

    I hope you continue in this vein. Russell and his more vitriol step-children raise the same objections that so often have been answered in the past, sometimes centuries past. They seem unaware of a vast body of knowledge that exists on many of these subjects and further more, seem unwilling to explore it. Rather, they seem more interested in repeating talking points much more like a political activist. Malice tends to make one want to win the argument rather than seek truth.

  • Debilis

    Yes, I’ve had the same impression of them. In fact, I heard that Christopher Hitchens, when people started giving him answers for his challenges, thought that apologetics was a brand-new idea conceived in response to New Atheism.

    But thanks for the note. It is definitely encouraging, and I do plan to continue. I hope that we can get back to considering truth and away from the political activism mentality you mention (that reference is very apt).

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