Natural Theology


Since Paley is often read in university courses that address the philosophy of religion, the timing of his design argument has sometimes perplexed modern philosophers. Earlier in the century David Hume had argued against notions of design with counter examples drawn from monstrosity, imperfect forms of testimony and probability. Hume's arguments, however, were not widely accepted by most of the reading public and they fell 'stillborn' (to use Hume's own assessment) from the press.[11] Despite Hume's unpopularity, Paley's published works and in manuscript letters show that he engaged directly with Hume from his time as an undergraduate to his last works. Paley's works were more influential than Hume's from the 1800s to the 1840s. Hume's arguments were only accepted gradually by the reading public, and his philosophical works sold poorly until agnostics like T H Huxley championed Hume's philosophy in the late 19th century.

Scientific norms have changed greatly since Paley's day, and are inclined to do less than justice to his arguments and ways of reasoning. But his style is lucid and he was willing to present transparently the evidence against his own case. His subject matter was central to Victorian anxieties, which might be one reason Natural Theology continued to appeal to the reading public, making his book a best seller for most of the 19th century, even after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Natural Theology and the Evidences of Christianity appealed to Victorian Evangelicals, although not so much to adherents of the Oxford Movement – and both found his utilitarianism objectionable.[12] Paley's views influenced (both positively and negatively) theologians, philosophers and scientists, then and since.

In addition to Moral and Political Philosophy and the Evidences, Charles Darwin read Natural Theology during his student years, and later stated in his autobiography that he was initially convinced by the argument. His views changed with time. By the 1820s and 1830s, well-known liberals like Thomas Wakley and other radical editors of The Lancet were using Paley's ageing examples to attack the establishment's control over medical and scientific education in Durham, London, Oxford and Cambridge. It also inspired the Earl of Bridgewater to commission the Bridgewater Treatises and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge to issue cheap reprints for the rising middle class. But whereas Paley's natural theology was disassembled or rebuilt by intellectuals like Wakley or the Bridgewater authors, the core of argument retained an ongoing popularity with the reading public and served as the basis of many catechisms and textbooks that were used in Britain and its colonies until World Word II when, as argued by Matthew Daniel Eddy, the existential morass of World War I undermined the moral teleology that had underpinned natural theology since the Enlightenment.[13]

Today, Paley's name evokes both reverence and revulsion and his work is cited accordingly by authors seeking to frame their own views of design. Even Richard Dawkins, an opponent of the design argument, described himself as a neo-Paleyan in The Blind Watchmaker. Today, as in his own time (though for different reasons), Paley is a controversial figure, a lightning rod for both sides in the contemporary argument between science and religion. His writings reflect the thought of his time, but as Dawkins observed, his was a strong and logical approach to evidence, whether human or natural. Perhaps this explains why the Oxford constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey had his pupils read the Evidences to teach them about legal reasoning. It is for such reasons that Paley's writings, Natural Theology included, stand as a notable body of work in the canon of Western thought.

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