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Chapman Cohen Deity And Design

Deity And Design

Chapman Cohen


THE ONE certain thing about the history of the human intellectis that it runs, from ignorance to knowledge. Man begins knowingnothing of his own nature or of the nature of the world in which heis living. He continues acquiring a little knowledge here andthere, with his vision broadening and his understanding deepeningas his knowledge increases. Had man commenced with but a very smallfraction of the knowledge he now possesses, the present state ofthe human mind would be very different from what it is. But themethod by which knowledge is acquired is of the slowest. It is byway of what is called trial and error. Blunders are made rapidly,to be corrected slowly; some of the most primitive errors are not,on a general scale, corrected even to-day. Man begins by believing,on what appears to be sound evidence, that the earth is flat, onlyto discover later that it is a sphere. He believes the sky to be asolid something and the heavenly bodies but a short distance away.His conclusions about himself are as fantastically wrong as thosehe makes about the world at large. He mistakes the nature of thediseases from which he suffers, and the causes of the things inwhich he delights. He is as ignorant of the nature of birth as heis of the cause of death. Thousands of generations pass before hetakes the first faltering steps along the road of verifiableknowledge, and hundreds of thousands of generations have notsufficed to wipe out from the human intellect the influence ofman’s primitive blunders.

Prominent among these primitive misunderstandings is thebelief that man is surrounded by hosts of mysterious ghostlyagencies that are afterwards given human form. These ghostly beingsform the raw material from which the gods of the various religionsare made, and they flourish best where knowledge is least. Of thisthere can be no question. Atheism, the absence of belief in gods,is a comparatively late phenomenon in history. It is the belief ingods that begins by being universal. And even among civilizedpeoples it is the least enlightened who are most certain about theexistence of the gods. The religions scientist or philosopher says:”I believe “; the ignorant believer says: ” I know.”

Now it would indeed be strange if primitive man was right onthe one thing concerning which exact knowledge is not to be gained,and wrong about all other things on which knowledge has eitherbeen, or bids fair to be, won. All civilized peoples reject theworld-theories that the savage first formulates. Is it crediblethat with regard to gods he was at once and unmistakably correct?

It is useless saying that we do not accept the gods of theprimitive world. In form, no; in essence, yes. The fact before usis that all ideas of gods can be traced to the earliest stages ofhuman history. We have changed the names of the gods and theircharacteristics; we even worship them in a way that is oftendifferent from the primitive way; but there is an unbroken line ofdescent linking the gods of the most primitive peoples to those ofmodern man. We reject the world of the savage; but we still, in ourchurches, mosques, synagogues and temples, perpetuate the theorieshe built upon that world.


In this pamphlet I am not concerned with all the so-calledevidences that are put forth to prove the existence of a God. I say”so called evidences,” because they are not grounds upon which thebelief in God rests; they are mere excuses why that belief shouldbe retained. Ninety per cent. of believers in God would notunderstand these “proofs.” Roman Catholic propagandists lately, asone of the advertisements of the Church, have been booming thearguments in favor of a God as stated by Thomas Aquinas. But theyusually preface their exposition — which is very oftenquestionable — by the warning that the subject is difficult tounderstand. In the case of Roman Catholics I think we might wellraise the percentage of those who do not understand the argumentsto ninety-five per cent. In any case these metaphysical,mathematical, and philosophic arguments do not furnish the groundsupon which anyone believes in God. They are, as I have just said,nothing more than excuses framed for the purpose of hanging on toit. The belief in God is here because it is part of our socialinheritance. We are born into an environment in which each newcomerfinds the belief in God established, backed up by powerfulinstitutions, with an army of trained advocates committed to itsdefence and to the destruction of everything that tends to weakenthe belief. And behind all are the countless generations duringwhich the belief in God lived on man’s ignorance and fear.

In spite of the alleged “proofs” of the existence of God,belief in him, or it, does not grow in strength or certainty. Theseproofs do not prevent the number of avowed disbelievers increasingto such an extent that, whereas after Christians proclaiming forseveral generations that Atheism — real Atheism — does not exist,the defenders of godism are now shrieking against the growingnumber of Atheists, and there is a call to the religious world toenter upon a crusade against Atheism. The stage in which heresymeant little more than all exchange of one god for another haspassed. It has become a case of acceptance or rejection of the ideaof God, and the growth is with those who reject.

This is not the way in which proofs, real proofs, operate. Atheory may have to battle long for general or growing acceptance,but it grows provided it can produce evidence in its support. Ahypothesis is stated, challenged, discussed, and finally rejectedor accepted. On the question of the hypothesis of God the longer itis discussed the less it is believed. No wonder that the idealattitude of the completely religious should be “on the knee,” witheyes closed and mouths full of nothing but petitions and grosslyfulsome praise. That is also the reason why every religionsorganization in the world is so keen upon capturing the child. Thecry is: “If we lose the child we lose everything” — which isanother way of saying that if we cannot implant a belief in Godbefore the child is old enough to understand something of what itis being told, the belief may have to be given up altogether. Keepthe idea of God away from the child and it will grow up an Atheist.

If there is a God, the evidence for his existence must befound in this world. We cannot start with another world and workback to this one. That is why the argument from design in nature isreally fundamental to the belief in deity. It is implied in everyargument in favor of Theism, although nowadays, in its simplest andmost honest form, it is not so popular as it was. But to ordinarymen and women it is still the decisive piece of evidence in favorof the existence of a God. And when ordinary men and women cease tobelieve in God, the class of religious philosophers who spend theirtime seeing by what subtleties of thought and tricks of languagethey can make the belief in deity appear intellectually respectablewill cease to function.


But let it be observed that we are concerned with theexistence of God only. We are not concerned with whether he is goodor bad; whether his alleged designs are commendable or not. Oneoften finds people saying they cannot believe there is a Godbecause the works of nature are not cast in a benevolent mould.That has nothing to do with the essential issue, and proves onlythat Theists cannot claim a monopoly of defective logic. We areconcerned with weather nature, in whole, or in part, shows anyevidence of design.

My case is, first, the argument is fallacious in itsstructure; second, it assumes all that it sets out to prove, andbegs the whole question by the language employed; and, third, thecase against design in nature is, not merely that the evidence isinadequate, but that the evidence produced is completelyirrelevant. If the same kind of evidence were produced in a courtof law, there is not a judge in the country who would not dismissit as having nothing whatever to do with the question at issue. Ido not say that the argument from design, as stated, fails toconvince; I say that it is impossible to produce any kind ofevidence that could persuade an impartial mind to believe in it.

The argument from design professes to be one from analogy.John Stuart Mill, himself without a belief in God, thought theargument to be of a genuinely scientific character. The presentDean of St. Paul’s, Dr Matthews, says that “the argument fromdesign employs ideas which everyone possesses and thinks heunderstands; and, moreover, it seems evident to the simplestintelligence that if God exists he must be doing something, andtherefore must be pursuing some ends and carrying out somepurpose.” (The Purpose of God, p. 13.) And Immanuel Kant said theargument from design was the, oldest, the clearest and the bestadapted to ordinary human reason. But as Kant proceeded to smashthe argument into smithereens, it is evident that he had not veryflattering opinion of the quality of the reason displayed by theordinary man.

But what is professedly an argument from analogy turns out tooffer no analogy at all. A popular Non-conformist preacher, Dr.Leslie Weatherhead, whose book, Why do Men Suffer? might be takenas a fine text-book of religious foolishness, repeats the oldargument that if we were to find a number of letters so arrangedthat they formed words we should infer design in the arrangement.Agreed, but that is obviously because we know that letters andwords and the arrangement of words are due to the design of man.The argument here is from experience. We infer that a certainconjunction of signs are designed because we know beforehand thatsuch things are designed. But in the case of nature we have no suchexperience on which to build. We do not know that natural objectsare made, we know of no one who makes natural objects. More, thevery division of objects into natural and artificial is alladmission that natural objects are not, prima facie, products ofdesign at all. To constitute an analogy we need to have the sameknowledge that natural objects are manufactured as we have thatman’s works are manufactured. Design is not found in nature; it isassumed. As Kant says, reason admires a wonder created by itself.

The Theist cannot move a step in his endeavor to prove designin nature without being guilty of the plainest of logical blunders.It is illustrated in the very language employed. Thus, Dr. Matthewscites a Roman Catholic priest as saying, “The adaptation of meansto ends is an evident sign of an intelligent cause. Now natureoffers on every side instances of adaptations of means to ends,hence it follows that nature is the work of an intelligent cause.”Dr. Matthews does not like this way of putting the case, but hisown reasoning shows that he is objecting more to the argument beingstated plainly and concisely rather than to its substance. Nowadaysit is dangerous to make one’s religious reasoning so plain thateveryone can understand the language used.

Consider. Nature, we are told, shows endless adaptations ofmeans to ends. But nature shows nothing of the kind — or, atleast, that is the point to be proved, and it must not be taken forgranted. If nature is full of adaptation of means to ends, thenthere is nothing further about which to dispute. For adaptationmeans the conscious adjustment of things or conditions to a desiredconsummation. To adapt a thing is to make it fit to do this orthat, to serve this or that purpose. We adapt our conduct to theoccasion, our language to the person we are addressing, planks ofwood to the purpose we have in mind, and so forth. So, of course,if nature displays an adaptation of means to ends, then the casefor an adapter is established.

But nature shows nothing of the kind. What nature provides isprocesses and results. That and nothing more. The structure of ananimal and its relation to its environment, the outcome of achemical combination, the falling of rain, the elevation of amountain, these things, with all other natural phenomena, do notshow an adaptation of means to ends, they show simply a process andits result. Nature exhibits the universal phenomenon of causation,and that is all. Processes and results looked like adaptations ofmeans to ends so long as the, movements of nature were believed tobe the expression of the will of the gods. Bat when naturalphenomena are regarded as the inevitable product of the propertiesof existence, such terms as “means” and “ends” are at bestmisleading, and in actual practice often deliberately dishonest.The situation was well expressed by the late W.H. Mallock, —

“When we consider the movements of the starry heavens to- day, instead of feeling it to be wonderful that these are absolutely regular, we should feel it to be wonderful if they were ever anything else. We realize that the stars are not bodies which, unless they are made to move uniformly, would be floating in space motionless, or moving across it in random courses. We realize that they are bodies which, unless they moved uniformly, would not be bodies at all, and would exist neither in movement nor in rest. We realize that order, instead of being the marvel of the universe, is the indispensable condition of its existence — that it is a physical platitude, not a divine paradox.”

But there are still many who continue to marvel at the wisdom ofGod in so planning the universe that big rivers run by great towns,and that death comes at the end of life instead of in the middle ofit. Divest the pleas of such men as the Rev. Dr. Matthews of theirsemi-philosophic jargon, reduce his illustrations to homelysimiles, and he is marvelling at the wisdom of God who so plannedthings that the two extremities of a Piece of wood should come atthe ends instead of in the middle.

The trick is, after all, obvious. The Theist takes terms thatcan apply to sentient life alone, and applies them to the universeat large. He talks about means, that is, the deliberate planning toachieve certain ends, and then says that as there are means theremust be ends. Having, unperceived, placed the rabbit in the hat, heis able to bring it forth to the admiration of his audience. Theso-called adaptation of means to ends — property, the relation ofprocesses to results — is not something that can be picked outfrom phenomena as a whole as an illustration of divine wisdom; itis an expression of a universal truism. The product implies theprocess because it is the sum of the power of the factors expressedby it. It is a physical, a chemical, a biological platitude.


I have hitherto followed the lines marked out by the Theist inhis attempt to prove that there exists a “mind” behind naturalphenomena, and that the universe as we have it is, at leastgenerally, an evidence of a plan designed by this “mind.” I havealso pointed out that the only datum for such a conclusion is theuniverse we know. We must take that as a starting point. We can getneither behind it nor beyond it. We cannot start with God anddeduce the universe from his existence; we must start with theworld as we know it, and deduce God from the world. And we can onlydo this by likening the universe as a product that has come intoexistence as part of the design of God, much as a table or awireless-set comes into existence as part of the, planning of ahuman “mind.” But the conditions for doing this do not exist, andit is remarkable that in many cases critics of the design argumentshould so often have criticized it as though it were inconclusive.But the true line of criticism, the criticism that is absolutelyfatal to the design argument is that there is no logicalpossibility of deducing design from a study of natural phenomena.And there is no other direction in which we can look for proof. TheTheist has never yet managed to produce a case for design whichupon examination might not rightly be dismissed as irrelevant tothe point at issue.

In what way can we set about proving that a thing is a productof design? We cannot do this by showing that a process ends in aresult, because every process ends in a result, and in every casethe result is an expression of the process. If I throw a brick, itmatters not whether the brick hits a man on the head and kills him,or if it breaks a window, or merely falls to the,ground withouthurting anyone or anything. In each case the distance the bricktravels, the force of the impact on the head, the window, or theground, remains the same, and not the most exact knowledge of thesefactors would enable anyone to say whether the result following thethrowing of the brick was designed or not. Shakespeare is creditedwith having written a play called King Lear. But whetherShakespeare sat down with the deliberate intention of writing Lear,or whether the astral body of Bacon, or someone else, tookpossession of the body of Shakespeare during the writing of Lear,makes no difference whatever to the result. Again, an attendant ona sick man is handling a number of bottles, some of which containmedicine, others a deadly poison. Instead of giving his patient themedicine, the poison is administered and the patient dies. Aninquest is held, and whether the poison was given deliberately, or,as we say, by accident, there is the same sequence of cause andeffect, of process and result. So one might multiply theillustrations indefinitely. No one observing the sequences couldpossibly say whether any of these unmistakable results weredesigned or not. One cannot in any of these cases logically inferdesign. The material for such a decision is not present.

Yet in each of these cases named we could prove design byproducing evidence of intention. If when throwing the brick Iintended to kill the man, I am guilty of murder. If I intend topoison, I am also guilty of murder. If there existed in the mind ofShakespeare a conception of the plan of Lear before writing, and ifthe play carried out that intention, then the play was designed. Inevery case the essential fact, without a knowledge of which it isimpossible logically to assume design, is a knowledge of intention.We must know what was intended, and we must then compare the resultwith the intention, and note the measure of agreement that existsbetween the two. It is not enough to say that one man threw thebrick, and that, if it had not been thrown, the other would nothave been killed. It is not enough to say if the poison had notbeen given the patient would not have died. And it certainly is notenough to argue that the course of events can be traced from thetime the brick left the hands of the first man until it struck thesecond one. That, as I have said, remains true in any case. The lawis insistent that in such cases the intent must be established; andin this matter the law acts with scientific and philosophic Wisdom.

Now in all the cases mentioned, and they are, of course,merely “samples from bulk,” we look for design because we know thatmen do write plays. men do poison other men, and men do throwthings at each other, with the purpose of inflicting bodily injury.We are using what is known, as a means of tackling, for the timebeing, the unknown. But our knowledge of world-builders, oruniverse designers, is not on all-fours with the cases named. Weknow nothing whatever about them, and therefore cannot reason fromwhat is known to what is unknown in the hopes of including theunknown in the category of the known.

Second, assuming there to be a God, we have no means ofknowing what his intentions were when he made the world — assumingthat also. We cannot know what his intention was, and we contrastthat intention with the result. On the known facts, assuming God toexist, we have no means of deciding whether the world we have ispart of his design or not. He might have set about creating andintended something different. You Cannot, in short, start with aphysical, with a natural fact, and reach intention. Yet if we areto prove purpose we must begin with intention, and having aknowledge of that see how far the product agrees with the design.It is the marriage of a psychical fact with a physical one thatalone can demonstrate intention, or design. Mere agreement of the”end” with the “means” proves nothing at all. The end is the meansbrought to fruition. The fundamental objection to the argument fromdesign is that it is completely irrelevant.

The belief in God is not therefore based on the perception ofdesign in nature. Belief in design in nature is based upon thebelief in God. Things are as they are whether there is a God ornot. Logically, to believe in design one must start with God. He,or it, is not a conclusion but a datum. You may begin by assuminga creator, and then say he did this or that; but you cannotlogically say that because certain things exist, therefore there isa God who made them. God is an assumption, not a conclusion. And itis an assumption that explains nothing. if I may quote from mybook, Theism, or Atheism: —

“To warrant a logical belief in design, in nature, three things are essential. First, one must assume that God exists. Second, one must take it for granted that one has a knowledge of the intention in the mind of the deity before the alleged design is brought into existence. Finally, one must be able to compare the result with the intention and demonstrate their agreement. But the impossibility of knowing the first two is apparent. And without the first two the third is of no value whatever. For we, have no means of reaching the first except through the third. And until we get to the first we cannot make use of the third. We are thus in a hopeless impasse. No examination of nature call lead back to God because we lack the necessary starting point. All the volumes that have been written and all the sermons that have been preached depicting the wisdom of organic structures are so much waste of time and breath. They prove nothing, and can prove nothing. They assume at the beginning all they require at the end. Their God is not something reached by way of inference, it is something assumed at the very outset.”


Finally, if there be a designing mind behind or in nature,then we have a right to expect unity. The products of the designshould, so to speak, dovetail into each other. A plan implies this.A gun so designed as to kill the one who fired it and the one atwhom it was aimed would be evidence only of the action of a lunaticor a criminal. When we say we find evidence of a design we at leastimply the presence of an element of unity. What do we find?

Taking the animal world as a whole, what strikes the observer,even the religious observer, is the fact of the antagonismsexisting in nature. These are so obvious that religions opinioninvented a devil in order to account for them. And one of thearguments used by religious people to justify the belief in afuture life is that God has created another world in which theinjustices and blunders of this life may be corrected.

For his case the Theist Requires co-operative action innature. That does exist among the social animals, but only asregards the individuals within the group, and even there in a veryimperfect form. But taking animal life, I do not know of anyinstance where it can truthfully be said that different species ofanimals are designed so as to help each other. It is probable thatsome exceptions to this might be found in the relations betweeninsects and flowers, but the animal world certainly provides none.The carnivora not only live on the herbivore, but they live, whenand where they can, on each other. And God, if we may use Theisticlanguage, prepares for this, by, on the one hand, so equipping theone that it may often seize its prey, and the other, that it mayoften escape. And when we speak of a creation that brings an animalinto greater harmony with its environment, it must not be forgottenthat the greater harmony, the perfection of the “adaptation” atwhich the Theist is lost in admiration, is often the condition ofthe destruction of other animals. If each were equally well adaptedone of the competing species would die out. If, therefore, we areto look for design in nature we can, at most, see only themanifestations of a mind that takes a delight in destroying on theone hand what has been built upon the other.

There, is also the myriads of parasites, as clear evidence ofdesign as an anything, that live by the infection and thedestruction of forms of life “higher” than their own. Of the numberof animals born only a very small proportion can ever hope to reachmaturity. If we reckon the number of spermatozoa that are “created”then the number of those that live are ridiculously small. Thenumber would be one in millions.

Is there any difference when we come to man? With profoundegotism the Theist argues that the process of evolution isjustified because it has produced him. But with both structure andfeeling there is the same suicidal fact before us. Of the humanstructure it would seem that for every step man has, taken awayfrom mere animal nature God has laid a trap and provided a penalty.If man will walk upright then he must be prepared for a greaterliability to hernia. If he will live in cities he must pay theprice in a greater liability to tuberculosis. If he will leave hisanimal brothers behind him, he must bear reminders of them in theshape of a useless coating of hair that helps to contract variousdiseases, A rudimentary second stomach that provides the occasionfor appendicitis, rudimentary “wisdom teeth” that give a chance formental disease. It has been calculated that man carries about withhim over one hundred rudimentary structures, each absorbing energyand giving nothing in return.

So one might go on. Nature taken from the point of view mostfavorable to the Theist gives us no picture of unified design. Putaside the impossibility of providing a logical case for theinferring of design in nature, it remains that the only conceptionwe can have of a designer is, as W.H. Mallock, a staunch RomanCatholic, has said, that of “a scatter-brained, semi-powerful,semi-impotent monster … kicking his heels in the sky, not perhapsbent on mischief, but indifferent to the fact that he is causingit.”


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