By Jonathan Witt
The metaphor of cosmos as “watch” (a timepiece) captured the imagination of Enlightenment thinkers, confronted as they were with fresh insights into the laws governing motion both near and far. Despite the advance of science since the Enlightenment, the metaphor of cosmos as a watch persists. Indeed, we now know that the physical constants of nature are finely tuned to an almost unimaginable degree, so that, for instance, even slight changes in the force of gravity or electromagnetism would render the universe incapable of permitting life. In a crucial sense, then, the universe is watch-like, its physical constants resembling a precision instrument.
But trouble comes when metaphors are reified. The metaphor of cosmos as watch is an illuminating image. Even so, all metaphors break down if pressed far enough, and this one breaks down pretty quickly.
Think of the morally compromised gods of Mount Olympus meddling in the affairs of their various mortal offspring; or of Plato’s “the One” (what he also called “the Good” or “Father of that Captain and Cause”); or the holy God of the Bible, father and shepherd and husband of His people. With none of these conceptions of the deity is the world construed primarily as a precision instrument meant to function so perfectly its maker need never pay it any mind. Whenever the deity is construed as a personality, and not merely as a non-sentient organizing First Principle, He is depicted as interested in the world itself, as a creator who delights in the work of His hands.
In an interview for The Philadelphia Inquirer, biologist and leading Darwinist Kenneth Miller said, “The God of the intelligent-design movement is way too small . . . . In their view, he designed everything in the world and yet he repeatedly intervenes and violates the laws of his own creation. Their god is like a kid who is not a very good mechanic and has to keep lifting the hood and tinkering with the engine” (May 30, 2005, A01). Miller is a Roman Catholic, but notice how blithely he equates the designer’s ongoing involvement in creation with incompetence. Why? What if the creator prefers to stay involved? What if he doesn’t intend to wind up the watch of the cosmos and simply leave it to wind out everything from supernovas to sunflowers? What if he wishes to get his hands dirty making mud daubers?
What if the designer is more like a spirited dramatist than a fastidious watchmaker? Would we say to Shakespeare, “You keep writing and rewriting your plays! You have the unhappy imperfection of wanting to stage your creations with live actors, and even worse, of directing them! You repeatedly violate the laws of drama and poetry with your detestable and irrepressible urge to create something new-absolutely unable to leave well enough alone! Shame!”
Certainly, we could try to discuss the order of nature without considering the designer’s attitude toward his creation (that is, whether he is more a watchmaker, bridegroom, or dramatist). But the Darwinists have already smuggled this issue into the debate by assuming that, if there were a designer, he could only be a detached and hyper-tidy engineer. Having smuggled the assumption in, they then regard as beneath consideration any evidence of a designer who (as they put it) “meddles in his creation.”
Similarly, they dismiss the notion that an omnipotent and omniscient designer might fashion a creature that, considered narrowly, would seem to fall short of an ideal design. Here they not only make a theological claim but ignore key questions at once practical and aesthetic: How do concerns about ecological balance impinge upon a critique of animal structures? Or more poetically, how does each creature play a part in the overall drama of life? They fault the designer, for instance, for not giving pandas opposable thumbs. An omniscient and omnipotent designer would already have known about the superior opposable thumb, they argue, and would have been sure to give it to them. Since he did not, he obviously does not exist or, at least, is not directly involved in designing thumbs.
The irony is that the panda’s remarkably sturdy thumbs work beautifully for peeling bamboo. Must the cosmic designer’s primary concern for pandas be that they are the most dexterous bears divinely imaginable? From a purely practical standpoint, might opposable-thumbed über-pandas wreak havoc on their ecosystem? From a purely aesthetic standpoint, might not those charming pandas up in their bamboo trees with their unopposing but quite workable thumbs be just the sort of humorous supporting character this great cosmic drama needs to lighten things up a bit? If Shakespeare could introduce a comical gravedigger into the tragedy of Hamlet, why cannot God introduce whimsy into His work?
Pandas as comic relief? To spurn the notion as patently ridiculous, as beneath consideration, is merely to expose one’s utilitarian presuppositions. Why, after all, should the designer’s world read like a dreary high-school science textbook, its style humorless, homogenous, and suffocating under the dead weight of a supposedly detached, passive voice? Why should the designer’s world not entertain, amuse, and fascinate, as well as “work?” Why, in short, should we not expect it to have the richness of variety and tone we find in a work of art like Hamlet?
The bad-design versus good-design discussion is often framed by an engineer’s perspective, not an artist’s or mystic’s. When I noted this to philosopher Jay Richards a few years ago, he responded in a letter: “After all, why do we assume that God created the universe to be a watch, in which a self-winding mechanism makes it ‘better?’ Maybe the universe is like a piano, or a novel with the author as a character, or a garden for other beings with whom God wants to interact. It is amazing how a simple image can highjack a discussion for a century and a half.”
For evolutionists like Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins, reductionist thinking paves the way to all sorts of unwarranted conclusions. Gould preaches against the atomistic view that “wholes should be understood by decomposition into ‘basic’ units;” but then Gould himself practices such thinking. He and many other biologists assume not only that nature is a kind of watch but that each individual design is its own watch, its own machine, meant to be judged in relative isolation. They evaluate the panda’s thumb by how well it works as a thumb, not by how well it fits into the whole life of the panda, including its place in its own environment. At the aesthetic level, this assumes that the panda’s maker could not have been thinking (as artists do) of the whole work. It is the same mistake the Darwinists make again and again.
For instance, in The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins ignores the larger demands of vision in his critique of the mammalian eye, zeroing in on the eye’s so-called “backward wiring”:
Each photocell is, in effect, wired in backwards, with its wire sticking out on the side nearest the
light. . . . This means that the light, instead of being granted an unrestricted passage to the photocells, has to pass through a forest of connecting wires, presumably suffering at least some attenuation and distortion (actually probably not much but, still, it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!).
His analysis collapses under two mistakes. First, geneticist Michael Denton has clearly demonstrated that the backward wiring of the mammalian eye actually confers a distinct advantage by dramatically increasing the flow of oxygen to the eye. Dawkins the reductionist misses this because he analyzes organs in isolation when it suits his purpose.
Then there is Dawkins’s obsession with neatness, his assumption that any proper creator would idolize tidiness over all. But do we really want to substitute the exuberantly imaginative, even whimsical designer of our actual universe for a cosmic efficiency freak? Such a deity might serve nicely as the national god of the Nazis, matching Hitler stroke for stroke: Hitler in his disdain for humanity’s sprawling diversity; the tidy cosmic engineer in his distaste for an ecosystem choked and sullied by a grotesque menagerie of strange and supposedly substandard organs and organisms. Out with that great big prodigal Gothic cathedral we call the world; in with a modern and minimalist blueprint for a new and neater cosmos.
Interestingly, the god of the English canon, William Shakespeare, has received much the same criticism from the tidier eighteenth century neoclassical critics. This actor-turned-playwright lacked classical restraint, the argument went. Lewis Theobald perhaps initiated the century’s long criticism of Hamlet’s coarse speech when, in 1726, he commented on a particularly bawdy line spoken by Hamlet to Ophelia: “If ever the poet deserved whipping for low and indecent ribaldry, it was for this passage.” Never mind that Hamlet’s comment was not gratuitous but, instead, crucial to both plot and character development.
Around the same time, Charles Gildon regarded Shakespeare’s general habit of mingling the low with the high, the comic with the tragic as a “wholly monstrous, unnatural mixture.” With only a little more restraint, Edward Taylor (not to be confused with the American metaphysical poet of the same name) lamented, “How inattentive to propriety and order, how deficient in grouping, how fond of exposing disgusting as well as beautiful figures!”, how often he compels the audience “to grovel in dirt and ordure.”
As modern critic Herbert Spencer Robinson noted in his work on English Shakespearian criticism, even the admiration of the more sympathetic neoclassical critics was always “modified and tempered . . . by regrets that Shakespeare had elected, either through ignorance or by design, to embrace a method that discarded all classical rules.”
What do we make of such criticism today? Most find it damagingly narrow. Few wish to substitute for the works of the “myriad minded” Shakespeare the relatively impoverished fare left over after unsympathetic neoclassical critics tidied him up.
The relevance of the comparison should now be clear. The criticism of Shakespeare is akin to the Darwinist’s overly tidy treatment of vision or the panda’s thumb. In each case the critic analyzes the work narrowly, ignoring the larger context, be it ecological, aesthetic, or otherwise. Proponents of this line of argument value a hyper-constricted and abstract elegance over other and often more vital criteria like variety, imaginative exuberance, freedom, even moral complexity. In their attempt to master everything, they deny anything that exceeds their grasp. They lose the meaningful whole. If that is lucidity, it is also madness.
Now, the Darwinist might complain, “What is all this artistic, aesthetic balderdash? We are scientists, not poets or starry-eyed mystics. Leave the artists to their pattern-making and let us get back to our hard-nosed, empirical science.” Fine, but if they wish to avoid an argument about aesthetic principles, they should not assume within their arguments aesthetic principles that are at best highly debatable, and at worst contrary to the canons of art.
Published March 30, 2016