Does the natural world show design or simply reflect the wonder of God?

William Paley and natural theology.

Paley (1743-1805) was Archdeacon of Carlisle before moving to Bishopwearmouth near Sunderland. He was a fine scholar but mostly remembered disparagingly for his “watchmaker” argument. I suspect Paley chose a heath, more likely a northern heather moor, for his locality for the watch. His argument from design was very popular for many years, but its detailed argument was torpedoed by Darwin and natural selection. After that Design became more general than specific. It is not widely held today but the Fine tuning Argument is more in keeping with Paley than Intelligent Design


A gorgeous moorland in the Forest of Bowland

Imagine spotting a watch on that moor


Here is the famous first page of his book Natural Theology



IN crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e. g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. To reckon up a few of the plainest of these parts, and of their offices, all tending to one result:– We see a cylindrical box containing a coiled elastic spring, which, by its endeavour to relax itself, turns round the box. We next observe a flexible chain (artificially wrought for the sake of flexure), communicating the action of the spring from the box to the fusee. We then find a series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in, and apply to, each other, conducting the motion from the fusee to the balance, and from the balance to the pointer; and at the same time, by the size and shape of those wheels, so regulating that motion, as to terminate in causing an index, by an equable and measured progression, to pass over a given space in a given time. We take notice that the wheels are made of brass in order to keep them from rust; the springs of steel, no other metal being so elastic; that over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work, but in the room of which, if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not be seen without opening the case. This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood), the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

Note Paley’s engaging style as he enters into the experience of many crossing a heath, which were far more common in lowland Britain then e.g. Hampstead Heath.  Those, like me, who often walk across a trackless northern heath or moor will often have pitched their foot against a stone. Finding a watch is less common.


Paley developed his arguments over the next 27 chapters and dealt with the “mechanics” and functions of plants, animals and humans and how these point to a deity as the maker and Creator. His work inspired the writers of the Bridgewater Treatises of the 1830s, with the great geologist William Buckland as his most able exponent. This shows both the strength of Paley’s design arguments and weaknesses and shows the contrast between Paley’s design and Intelligent Design.  Buckland took as his example the megatherium from South America


How valuable are Paley’s arguments today?

An personal encounter with an atheist using Natural Theology

Some years ago I was at a conference on the history of geology in Switzerland. A Turkish geologist, who is an atheist was baffled at me being also a vicar. We got on well and he wanted to know why he should believe in God. I tried to move him on the sense of awe and wonder at the natural world. Below is a short article writing of my attempt.


Atheists can be wonderful at making Christians think about their faith.  At a recent conference I attended an atheist geologist challenged me to explain to him why he should believe in God. As he was good humoured and serious I attempted to respond. I said think of the numinous in the natural world. “What’s that”, he asked. I replied by talking of the beauty and wonder of the natural world – especially easy as we were in the Swiss Alps.

[Sorry no pictures of the Alpes but the two photos of Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales will have to do!]



I said think of the wonder – the numinous – and ask what is behind it all. There he baulked. He could see the wonder, but had difficulty to move to the numinous and then to God. This continued on a field trip to the Valais Alps, which appeared even more dramatic after heavy snow. Our last stop was at 11,000ft below the Matterhorn, where the rocks have been turned upside-down. My friend revelled in the geology and the beauty, so I asked, “Do you sense the numinous now?” He replied, “yes,” and then after a pause, “I don’t think so.” I think many people are like him, they see the beauty of the world, but cannot go that one step further and think of God the Creator. What we need to do that, whenever we see something beautiful in the natural world, whether a flower, mountains, seascape or a piece of rock 3,640 million years old, we should acknowledge God as the Creator.

Was my attempt a reasonable one? If not what should I have done?



13 thoughts on “Does the natural world show design or simply reflect the wonder of God?

  1. Paul Braterman

    ” that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.” Note,not only a designer, but a manufacturer.

    But I can, and do, adore Nature without thinking that my response implies a Creator


      1. Paul Braterman

        As you might again expect, I regard it, and much more of our rich emotional life, as the result of Darwinian selection. The numinous inspires exploration, and helps make life worth living (and as Darwin pointed out, experience must be rewarding enough for a creature to avoid falling into – yes he did use this word – depression). Secondarily, shared appreciation of the numinous binds communities and contributes to their success in the struggle against harsh conditions and against other groups.


  2. wkdawson

    Numinous is certainly one of the things that makes the notion of heaven and earth seem at least plausible.

    I think a key point is that you have to start with the premise that there is a God or at least something far more than just the universe (or universes) and the stuff such comprises. If there is that something more, then perhaps something more is required of us than the mere task of survival and propagation of the species and whatever love and hate may occupy that fleeting period of living.

    If, on the other hand, one sees the world as what-you-see-is-what-you-get, then it is admissible that our feelings are a mere by-product of evolution and therefore largely an irrelevant quirk of being human and the peculiar requirements for survival as a human. I am not sure that there is any way to actually know if our awe at beauty is something solely in our heads, or if it is a faint calling to us to look for that creator. For me, I have faith that it is the latter, but I cannot say it is wrong to think otherwise.

    I guess because it seems that God is not going to tell us the answer, we have to decide on our own. Either one could be drinking the Kool-Aid. On the other hand, I think if we really live a life as a disciple of Jesus, I don’t think we can do a lot of damage, and may do some good (by God’s grace). Religion or irreligion when it under a group or a tribe (without the heart), can be pernicious. This is the challenge Jesus aimed at the Pharisees; the activities of religion but not the heart. Perhaps regardless of religious or irreligious, we oscillate between something of a Pharisee in our views to a prodigal on the other.


  3. Ian

    I think you answered well Michael. To me consciousness comes into this. As I understand it, consciousness of humans hasn’t been explained by evolution, at least not to general agreement. So its natural for me to attribute our consciousness to God (made in God’s image, as in Genesis). Consciousness involves intuition and sentience, which are subjective experiences. This is how you sense the numinous when you see a butterfly or a mountain covered in snow, or vast geological layers in the Grand Canyon. The new atheists insist there is no God because science can’t prove there is. This is the realm of logic, and rather poor logic because science cannot disprove God either. God is outside of science. I prefer Blaise Pascal’s statement “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made know through Jesus Christ.” Pascal was an eminent scientist, and a unit of pressure, the pascal, is named after him. When that God-shaped vacuum is filled, its a subjective, numinous experience. Hopefully its followed by objective results such as helping a neighbor.


  4. Lonnie E. Schubert

    Well, Reverend, as Paul The Disagreeable shows well, the numinous is technically inexplicable but hardly ungraspable. We can rationalize it. It is evidence of the transcendent, but only circumstantially. One can explain it naturally, as Paul points out. (Also, significant genetic and personality traits matter to one’s ability to be open to the numinous. Some are more open than others.)

    What one cannot explain naturally is consciousness itself. One cannot explain rationality as a thing, not even as an action, using only natural, materialist arguments. We bump up against the why of it. It seems only rational to assert the naturalistic absolutes of all things temporal. In a sense, life, even we humans, are merely dissipative systems, emergent phenomena that more effectively use up the enthalpy of the universe, more efficiently unwinding it all, maximizing the entropy of the entire system.

    If we do that, if we take that stance, we are left hopeless. The only existence is a momentary quantum fluctuation with no point but using up space-time and its present condition of disequilibria. Our consciousness, our faith in rationality, cannot be explained naturally. It is solid evidence that there is a transcendent super-nature. Of course, transcendence is an extraordinary claim, and I don’t find a case for claiming mere consciousness and faith in rationality are extraordinary evidences. Somewhere in the system faith is required. Hell, faith in existence is required or we become nihilistic and suicidal, even homicidally so in some cases. (And doesn’t that provide us a naturalistic rationalization for faith?)

    In short, it seems irrational to me to deny faith as something real and worthwhile. To do so effectively denies rationality itself. I do not see the denial of rationality as rational. I, therefore, choose faith in the transcendent. You and I chose Christianity as the closest approach to the transcendent. Others chose other faiths. Some refuse any organized or recognized faith, some even adversarially so, some even evangelically so. (I’m thinking along the lines of Richard Dawkins, whom I consider an Evangelical Anti-Christian, with all the stereotypical faults of evangelical fundamentalists of any other religion.)

    I don’t find arguments beyond Micah 6:8 for belief in God. I do think it is fundamentally rational to suppose the transcendent, whether that be a deistic god, or even a simply conscious, becoming, divine essence. Call it what you will.

    I’ve found God to be personable. Thus, the other alternatives are too shallow for me. I’m rather sure, though, that even the most rudimentary acceptance of transcendence, even while refusing any acceptance of any god, is still worthwhile and a guard against ultimate nihilism.

    I assume you are familiar with Jordan Peterson.

    I think I’ll close with this quote from the most famous poet of today:
    “There are things we can do
    But from the things that work there are only two
    And from the two that we choose to do
    Peace will win
    And fear will lose
    There’s faith and there’s sleep
    We need to pick one please because
    Faith is to be awake
    And to be awake is for us to think
    And for us to think is to be alive
    And I will try with every rhyme
    To come across like I am dying
    To let you know you need to try to think”


    1. Paul Braterman

      Jordan Peterson? Snakes and lobsters!

      But I like my new epithet. Let me continue to earn it:

      We do know that physical causes affect our consciousness, otherwise why bother to get drunk? And we have no idea how the movement of atoms can be the same thing as conscious experience. But invoking a deity doesn’t help, unless tht deity is really very very busy giving my consciousness a constant newsfeed to match (I presume) what’s happening in my brain-body system.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. michaelroberts4004 Post author

      To label someone as Paul the disagreeable is not on. Paul is an atheist who often ROBUSTLY replies to me but always in a well-mannered way. As I have a blog which others can see I can expect to have comments which disagree with what I write.

      That is sufficient comment from me


      1. Lonnie E. Schubert

        I didn’t say Paul was unmannerly. I’ve always seen Paul reply respectfully. I’m using disagreeable to mean unsparing of feelings. I’ve never noticed his statements to be “tender”, shall we say. Robust is a good word. My internet-based impression of Paul is he is not the “agreeable” type personally. I meant no disparagement, merely description.


      2. Paul Braterman

        I am more than happy to be known as Paul the Disagreeable. I only regret that I can’t take it as my online handle now because in the obscure arenas I frequent my surname has recognition value

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Lonnie E. Schubert

    Addressing the reasonableness of your attempt, yes. You made a good faith effort to answer what seems a good faith question. He seems to have accepted it but found it insufficient. Bottom line for me is trusting the Judge.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lonnie E. Schubert

    Paul, it occurred to me you wouldn’t be offended. It wasn’t meant to be judgmental, merely descriptive (and lighthearted). I’m glad you like it.

    Are you aiming for the good? If so, what more can I ask? Neither of us know, and I’m determined to become a little less ignorant as I go along. I suppose you say the same. I am not satisfied with simplistic assertions about a busy deity. A simply anthropomorphic god is pathetic. JB Phillips is correct, even after reading him. The transcendent is beyond our reasoning, both because of the limitations of our minds and because of our constraint within the natural. There is more, Horatio.



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