What is natural theology?

What is natural theology?

William Paley, author of Natural Theology

In the field of natural theology, the most significant respect in which Whewell’s approach differs from Paley’s is how Whewell leaves room to incorporate future advancements from the scientific community with his logic while Paley maintains an apparent disregard for the influence of scientific progression in his reasoning.

When comparing the two works, Paley’s writing is not very informative and leaves little room for growth or counter-arguments due to the plain, logical nature of his approach. His ideas and reasoning are sound, but prove to be dull and irrelevant in the big picture of evolving natural theology along with the scientific world. On the contrary, Whewell takes a unique approach that utilizes further scientific discovery to deepen the belief of the existence of a Creator. Because of this, his work and train of thought is more flexible and can continue to be applied in arguments for natural theology in the future even as science develops and attempts to disprove the existence of God. 

Although Paley’s argument is laid out in a clear, numbered manner, his central analogy of the watch and watch-maker symbolizing nature and its Creator, respectively, lacks the insight necessary to develop a durable viewpoint in natural theology. In terms of natural theology, he is claiming that since the complex works of nature exhibit the same marks of purposefulness in their design as a watch, it is natural to conclude that the world had an intelligent designer as well.

Thus, Paley’s first and foremost point is that anyone who finds any watch would infer from the watch’s deliberate design that it must have been made by an intelligent watch-maker. He claims that although all aspects of a watch-maker’s identity may remain unknown to us, it “raises no doubt in our minds of the existence and agency of such an artist” (Paley, 5). While Paley is correct, and it is obvious that a watch must have a maker, this doesn’t provide evidence for the maker being the divine Creator of nature that natural theology claims. 

Furthermore, if the watch in the analogy represents nature, then it is also crucial to understand the process of how nature was created. To explain the process of Creation, Paley uses another analogy of a stream of water that results in the production of corn. He claims that although in this example, “the force of the stream cannot be said to be the cause or author of the effect” of producing corn, the arrangement allows the corn to grow (Paley, 5).

His logic is that since the origin of the stream of water, which is part of the process through which the corn grows, can’t be identified, it is simply the original placement and arrangement of everything that allowed for the corn to grow. By using this analogy, Paley holds the notion that the process of creating nature and organisms doesn’t have to be identified because it was simply a result of “the arrangement,” or original Creation period. 

Whewell wrote extensively about the discovery of laws of nature and how each further finding would only reveal a small portion of the grand and intentional design of the Universe. Furthermore, Whewell observed that “nature acts by general laws” and that “occurrences of the world in which we find ourselves, result from causes which operate according to fixed and constant rules” (Whewell, 3). Whewell believes these laws and rules that govern the world are the Divine Ideas that humans inherited from the Creator in order to explore and use the Divine Ideas to gather knowledge about the world. He describes the goal to be that as humankind uncovers more of these truths through fields like science and philosophy, we will more clearly see the results of intentional design, proving it to be more and more difficult to deny the Creator’s existence. 

Paley seems to make no effort to prove a clear relationship between natural theology and potential natural explanations of the form and function that biological organisms display. This issue is elucidated when Darwin’s theory of evolution provides the gap in scientific knowledge of one of the most fundamental processes of life. Darwin’s breakthrough and Paley’s opinions seem to have no intersection as neither can benefit nor disprove much of the other’s work, which shows that Paley’s writing is largely unproductive. 

On the contrary, Whewell crafts his argument for natural theology in a way that scientific evidence, such as that used in Darwin’s theory, can be used to complement his work and only deepen the belief in a Creator. He writes under the impression that science itself does not directly lead to atheism, and in doing so, he is able to propose a philosophy of science that still upholds the values of Christianity and the principles of natural theology. 

For the cause of natural theology, Whewell’s approach is considerably better than Paley’s. Unless the logic from Whewell’s writing can be refuted, science will continue to work side by side with his perspective because of his respect for the vast amount of scientific knowledge yet to be understood. Instead of seemingly ignoring the topic of science like Paley, Whewell was fascinated by the laws of nature “satisfactorily connecting and explaining phenomena” and chose to leave room for future discoveries (Whewell, 263). In hindsight, Whewell holds a far more relevant theory for natural theology and for the form and function of biological organisms that can get the best of both the theologist and scientific communities.

Written by Jiming Xu


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What is natural theology?