William Paley's Lost "Intelligent Design"

Shapiro, Adam R.
March 2009
History & Philosophy of the Life Sciences;2009, Vol. 31 Issue 1, p55
Academic Journal
William Paley's Natural Theology has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent decades with the continuing controversies over the teaching of evolution and the emergence of a new "intelligent design" movement. But while both the movement's supporters and detractors agree that Paley is an intellectual forefather of the present-day movement, this agreement is forged at the expense of historical accuracy. Paley's intelligent design has almost nothing in common with the present day movement and, in fact, suggests theological arguments against the type of reasoning used by the modern movement. Paley wrote in reaction to Hume and in response to the evolutionary theories of Buffon and Erasmus Darwin. In this light, the Natural Theology suggests a different reading than it is usually given. Paley's narrowly-argued theology relies upon the ability to detect the presence of "purpose" in nature without relying upon knowing what those purposes are. His empirically-argued theology leads him to a God who operates through natural law, not in its contravention, and his concern goes far beyond proving the existence of a deity to undertaking the theological project of determining the attributes and characteristics of the deity. Though not himself an evolutionist, Paley put forth a theological worldview consistent with evolution. In fact, given his arguments that the observation of great contrivance increases the testimony of nature to God's power, Paley's philosophy might be more consistent with a theistic Darwinian evolution than with special creation.


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