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Somewhere, William Paley is smiling

This round stained glass window in Cathedral of Mechelen, Belgium, depicts God and is shown in November 2016.
This round stained glass window in Cathedral of Mechelen, Belgium, depicts God and is shown in November 2016.

No version of the “design argument” for God’s existence is more famous than a passage from the Rev. William Paley’s 1802 book “Natural Theology”:

“In crossing a heath suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone comes to be there: I might possibly answer, that, for anything 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 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 I had given before — that, for anything I knew, the watch might always have been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone?”

The universe, to Paley, was more like a watch than a mere stone. But he was scarcely the first to argue that nature suggests a designer.

The philosopher Plato (d. ca. 347 B.C.) proposed in his “Timaeus” that the cosmos was formed by an incomprehensibly intelligent “Demiurge.” In “On the Nature of the Gods,” Cicero (d. ca. 43 B.C.) contended that divine reason “pervades the whole of nature.” "When you see a sundial or a water-clock,” he wrote, sounding curiously Paley-like, “you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence?"

While a theology student at Cambridge University (1828-1831), Charles Darwin (d. 1882) was fascinated by William Paley’s work. “I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley’s 'Natural Theology,’” he recalled in an 1859 letter to John Lubbock. “I could almost formerly have said it by heart.”

But then Darwin’s own theory of evolution hit western thought like a freight train, seeming to eliminate any need for a designer — and Darwin himself apparently died a sometimes rather tortured and despondent agnostic.

As its title suggests, “The Blind Watchmaker,” a 1986 book written by the Oxford evolutionary biologist and “New Atheist” polemicist Richard Dawkins, is at least in part a response to Paley-style design arguments. “Biology,” Dawkins declared, “is the study of complicated things that have the appearance of having been designed with a purpose.”

That appearance, in Dawkins’ view, is mere illusion.

But the idea of divine design never quite died. Indeed, the unjustly lesser known co-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace (d. 1913), seems to have broken with Darwin over precisely this issue, insisting that certain features of the natural world could be explained only by invoking what he called an “Overruling Intelligence.”

Strikingly, suggestions of design or intention in nature have reappeared over the past few decades — and not only or even chiefly in explicitly religious circles or as part of the “Intelligent Design” movement, which focuses mostly on terrestrial biology. Many cosmologists and others have noted what James Gardner, in his 2003 book “Biocosm,” terms “the anthropic, or life-friendly, qualities of our cosmos — a spectacularly unlikely congeries of physical laws and constants that seem altogether too perfectly suited to the emergence and evolution of carbon-based life and intelligence to be the product of any conceivable random process.” “These clues,” he says, “indicate that the impression of design in nature is no mere illusion.”

“What (scientists) find,” wrote the late physicist Heinz Pagels, apparently an atheist, in his 1988 book “The Dreams of Reason,” “is that the architecture of the universe is indeed built according to invisible universal rules, what I call the cosmic code — the building code of the Demiurge. … Scientists in discovering this code are deciphering the Demiurge’s hidden message, the tricks he used in creating the universe. No human mind could have arranged for any message so flawlessly coherent, so strangely imaginative, and sometimes downright bizarre. It must be the work of an Alien Intelligence!”

Famously, the great astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle (d. 2001) discovered a mysterious quirk in the process by which stars produce the carbon that makes life possible. It seemed, to him, to have been designed. “Nothing,” he is reported to have said, “has shaken my atheism as much as this discovery.”

The English physicist Paul Davies — scarcely a Christian apologist — writes in his 1984 book “God and the New Physics” that “It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion.”