While working on an unrelated project, I came across two fascinating passages, the first by John Burroughs, the second by Richard Jefferies, both from the excellent Norton Book of Nature Writing. If nothing else, it is a reminder that people have been presenting sensible arguments against the design intuition for a very long time.
John Burroughs was a great nature writer and a student of Walt Whitman. Here is a passage from his essay “The Gospel of Nature.” After explaining his view that “Nature-love … has a distinctly religious value. It does not come to a man or woman who is wholly absorbed in selfish or worldly or material ends,” and that “I have certainly found ‘good in everything’ – in all natural processes and products – not the ‘good’ of Sunday-school books, but the good of natural law and order, the good of that system of things out of which we came and which is the source of our health and strength,” he explains:
I do not see design in Nature in the old teleological sense; but I see everything working to its own proper end, and that end is foretold in the means. Things are not designed; things are begotten. It is as if the final plan of a man’s house, after he had begun to build it, should be determined by the winds and the rains and the shape of the ground upon which it stands. The eye is begotten by those vibrations in the ether called light; the ear by those vibrations in the air called sound; the sense of smell by those emanations called odor. There are probably other vibrations and emanations that we have no senses for because our well-being does not demand them.
Later, he writes that nature study may put the student contrary to traditional religion, in that
Devoutness and holiness come of an attitude toward the universe that is in many ways incompatible with that implied by the pursuit of natural science. The joy of the Nature students like Darwin or any great naturalist is to know, to find out the reason of things and the meaning of things, to trace the footsteps of the creative energy; while the religious devotee is intent only upon losing himself in infinite being. True, there have been devout naturalists and men of science; but their devoutness did not date from their Nature studeis, but from their training, or from the times in which they lived. Theology and science, it must be said, will not mingle much better than oil and water, and your devout scientist and devout Nature student lives in two separate compartments of his being at different times.
Science, he feels, takes one too far from core truths of Nature. “Such study,” he writes, ” is too cold, to special, too mechanical; it is likely to rub the bloom off Nature. It lacks soul and emotion; it misses the accessories of the open air and its exhilarations, the sky, the clouds, the landscape, and the currents of life that pulse everywhere.
The second essay is “Absence of Design in Nature – The Prodigality of Nature and the Niggardliness of Man,” by Richard Jefferies, best known for his books presenting an unvarnished view of life in Victorian English farming villages.
In the parlour to which I have retired from the heat there is a chair and a table, and a picture on the wall: the chair was made for an object and a purpose, to sit in; the table for a purpose, to write on; the picture was painted for a purpose, to please the eye. But outside, in the meadow, in the hedge, on the hill, in the water; or, looking still farther, to the sun, the moon, and the stars, I see no such chair, or table, or picture.
Pondering deeply and for long upon the plants, the living things (myself, too, as a physical being): upon the elements, on the holy miracle, water; the holy miracle, sunlight; the earth , and the air, I come at last – and not without, for a while, sorrow – to the inevitable conclusion that there is no object, no end, no purpose, no design, and no plan; no anything, that is.
By a strong and continued effort, I compelled myself to see the world mentally: with my mind, as it were, abstracted; hold yourself, as it were, apart from it, and there is no object, and no plan; no law, and no rule.
From childhood we build up for ourselves an encyclopedia of the world, answering all questions: we turn to Day, and the reply is Light; to Night, and the reply is Darkness. It is difficult to burst through these fetters and to get beyond Day and Night: but in truth, there is no Day and Night; the sun always shines. It is our minds which supply the purpose, the end, the plan, the law, and the rule. For the practical matters of life, these are sufficient – they are like conventional agreements. …
When at last I had disabused my mind of the enormous imposture of a design, an object, and an end, a purpose or a system, I began to see dimly how much more grandeur, beauty and hope there is in a divine chaos – not chaos in the sense of disorder or confusion, but simply the absence of order – than there is in a universe made by patter. This draught-board universe my mind had laid out: this machine-made world and piece of mechanism; what a petty, despicable, micro-cosmus I had substituted for the reality.
Logically, that which has a a design or a purpose has a limit. The very idea of a design or a purpose has since grown repulsive to me, on account of its littleness. I do not venture, for a moment, even to attempt to supply a reason to take the place of the exploded plan. I simply deliberately deny, or, rather, I have now advanced to that stage that to my own mind even the admission of the subject to discussion is impossible. I look at the sunshine and feel that there is no contracted order: there is divine chaos, and, in it, limitless hope and possibilities.
Interestingly, Catholic monk Thomas Merton has also wondered “Can’t I just be in the woods without any special reason? Just being in the woods, at night, in the cabin, is something too excellent to be justified or explained! It just is.”