“The Cross-word of Creation”

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by Msgr. Ronald Knox

The fifth of the five classical arguments for the existence of God is taken from the existence of order in the natural world, and infers from that the existence of an eternal Mind which devised it. That is, on the whole, the stupid man’s argument, which makes it convenient for me to treat of it; also it is the argument which is most discussed nowadays, partly for the same reason, and partly because the scientific materialists are always discovering, every fifty years or so, that they have now found out a way of giving it its death-blow. Let me just state it first of all as St. Thomas gives it.

“We see that some things, which lack consciousness, namely natural bodies, work for an end; which appears from the fact that they work always or quite frequently in a uniform way, so as to achieve that which is best. Whence it is clear that they reach their end not by mere chance but by intention. But things which have no consciousness do not aim at an end unless they are directed by some one who has consciousness and intelligence, as an arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore there is some intelligent principle by which natural things are ordained to an end; and this we call God.” [1]

Now, that is really an argument from the existence of order or law in nature generally; it is not simply the popular argument from design. The argument from design is an attempt to prove the existence of God and the Goodness of God in one. It says, “How could such and such things happen unless a fatherly Providence had arranged that they should happen?” For example, about this time of the year you get those red berries on the hedges which I used to call hips and haws. And it was a belief instilled into my childhood that if you found a great many of them on the hedges in autumn it meant there was going to be a very cold winter. The ground would be so hard or so covered in snow that the poor little dicky-birds wouldn’t be able to get any nice worms to eat, so Providence had arranged that they should have berries instead. I have never been able to persuade myself that the facts were as stated; but if they are it is easy to see the force of the argument. “It can’t be just an accident that the berries are always there in abundance just when they are most wanted; you can only explain it by supposing that there is a beneficent Mind at work conspiring for the conservation of creatures.”

Of course that nursery argument gets more difficult when you are outside the nursery. It involves the assumption that you know what is best, and believe in God because you find him doing it. We saw our aunts throwing bread-crumbs out of the front window, and we pictured Providence as throwing hips and haws out of the front windows of heaven to secure the same self-evidently good end, namely the survival of the dicky-birds. It was only later we came to realize that if no birds were killed off by frosts, cats, and other natural means, the world would become uncomfortably crowded with birds and there would be less fruit in the garden. And that is, of course, the bother about the argument from design; you are up against the pessimist who says, “Yes, but I can’t see that what you call Providence is working to a good end.” As Lord Russell puts it with his usual trenchancy, “Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than Ku Klux Klan and the Fascist! And Mr Winston Churchill?” The bother is we don’t understand what God’s plan is; we aren’t meant to; we are only meant to see it in bits. And to that extent any argument based on the beneficence of Providence is difficult to bring home to people. But, of course, what has killed the argument from design from the man in the street’s point of view, and in such matters the man in the street does not greatly differ from the man in the quad, is the Darwinian theory of natural selection. We used to think how kind it was of Providence to have given the Polar bear a nice woolly coat before putting it down in the Arctic regions. The chimpanzee, for example, which has a delicate chest, would never have stood the rigours of an Arctic winter. Well, since Darwin popularized natural selection, we have a different explanation of all that. Either the Polar bear trekked northwards to find food, not minding the cold, whereas the chimpanzee stayed at home; or else there were originally chimpanzees at the North Pole, but later it turned cold there and killed off the chimpanzees while leaving the Polar bears. There’s no design about it; only just accident.

Well, of course, we all know that the last word hasn’t been said yet about the doctrine of natural selection. One thing is quite clear, and that is that it doesn’t explain all that it set out to explain; the scientists have quite given up supposing that it can. But the man in the street, and with him the man in the quad, have come to take this rather dated point of view so much for granted, that it is no longer any use talking to them about design. So what I want to put before you this morning is the argument from order and law in nature. And I don’t believe that St Thomas meant to use the argument from design when he gave his fifth proof. I don’t think what impressed St. Thomas was the fact that everything conspires together for a beneficent purpose; what impressed him was the fact that things conspire together at all. “We see things,” he says, “of different natures agreeing in one order, not occasionally or as if by chance, but always or in the greater number of instances.” We are not concerned to prove that the world was ordained by a loving Mind; all we are out to prove is that, for better or worse, it was ordained by a Mind, and there is no other explanation of it.

To see that argument in its crude form you have only to isolate some corner of nature as we know it, and reflect on the order which we observe there. We won’t talk about sunsets or the song of the nightingale, we won’t bring sentiment into the thing at all. But take, say, the geometrical patterns which frost makes on a window pane. A pattern, repeated again and again; a pattern, based on certain mathematical proportions; how did that get there? If you tried drawing those same patterns with your eyes shut, how often would you get them right? And if mere naked chance ruled the universe, why should nature produce patterns any more than you would drawing with your eyes shut? The delicate tracery of a leaf, the exact design into which sand falls on a brass plate, when a violin-bow is drawn along the edge how is it, unless there is a Mind to direct them, that inanimate things work themselves out according to a fixed scheme, not occasionally or as if by chance, but always or in the great majority of instances? Why, inanimate nature can actually beat our intelligent minds when it comes to putting the scheme into practice. We have in our heads the idea of a straight line, but we can’t draw a straight line. If you put a blade of grass and a razor blade under a microscope, the grass is really a straight line, and the razor is all waggly. Order, then, in nature, is something which our minds can appreciate; but our minds didn’t put it there; our minds find it there. And what put it there, except another Mind? A cross-word which a mind can solve took a mind to make it up. Order is the cipher by which Mind speaks to mind in the midst of chaos; that’s what we mean by the fifth proof.

In order to appreciate the strength of that argument, it is instructive to notice how the more intelligent opponents of Christianity labour to destroy it, and how ineffectively. Lord Russell, for example, in his tract called Why I am not a Christian, actually tries to play off against us the principle of indeterminacy. He says:

“Where you can actually get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you find that they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from mere chance. . . . That makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was. [2]”

He refers, of course, to all that Heisenberg business which was popularized by Sir James Jeans some years ago; the idea that when you get down to the tiniest components of the atom you find that they don’t work, apparently, by any law; they each act as they choose, so to speak, and it is only the law of averages that puts things right. “Very well then,” says Lord Russell, “where’s your law and order in nature now? It’s all anarchy, governed by statistics.” That was some years ago; since then, Sir Arthur Eddington has been exploiting this same principle of indeterminacy in the interests of religion; he uses it, for example, to defend free will. Accordingly you find Lord Russell in his book, The Scientific Outlook, arguing feverishly on exactly the opposite side,

“The principle of Indeterminacy does nothing whatever to show that the course of nature is not determined. . . . The principle of Indeterminacy has to do with measurement, not with causation. . . . There is nothing whatever in the principle of Indeterminacy to show that any physical event is uncaused.” [3]

Just so; I have no doubt he is quite right; the fact that we cannot predict the behaviour of the atom does not mean that the behaviour of the atom is arbitrary. Only, what a pity Lord Russell did not remember that in the Battersea Town Hall, on Sunday, March 6, 1927, at a meeting summoned under the auspices of the South London “branch of the National Secular Society,” [cf. 2] he himself used this same principle of indeterminacy to show that the argument from order in nature was no longer any use!

I always find it so hard to imagine how people can look at the order of creation around them and content their minds with the supposition that it got there by chance. Nothing but dead matter to start with, and then mysteriously arising amidst that dead matter living things, with the power of organic growth; and then amidst those living things, mysteriously again, conscious things, capable of feeling and of moving from place to place; and then amidst those conscious things, still more mysteriously, a self-conscious being, Man, with his mind capable of turning back upon itself and becoming its own object. The whole of creation leading up gradually to higher and higher stages of existence, with Mind as the last stage of all and yet somehow Mind must have been there from the first, or how, from the first, did cosmos emerge from chaos; how, from the first, could creation have contained the germs of Mind, unless Mind had put them there? What do they make of it all, the materialists?

Oh, they say, that’s all right; it’s just a sort of accident, a sort of outside chance; after all, sooner or later these outside chances are bound to come off. Look at all the millions of worlds there are; is it very surprising that just a few of them, perhaps two or three, should have had the kind of climate which makes life possible? And since that happened, it was more or less bound to happen that in one of these at least the possibility should be actually realized, and life, followed by conscious life, followed by self-conscious life, should appear. I’ve never been able to find that argument very impressive; it starts all right, but it seems to flicker in the middle. I mean, it’s quite easy to see that with millions of worlds about you are likely to get one or two, and one or two only, with the kind of climate we have, on which, therefore, life is possible. But it’s one thing to say the odds are on there being one or two bodies, like Mars and ourselves, on which life is possible; it’s quite another thing to say the odds are on life actually coming to exist, here or in Mars or anywhere. As I wrote in a book somewhere, “if the police were to discover a human body in Lord Russell’s Saratoga trunk, he would not be able to satisfy them with the explanation that, among all the innumerable articles of luggage in the world, it is only natural that there should be some few which are large enough to contain a body. They would want to know how it got there.” How did life arise just out of a particular lot of atoms happening to get jumbled together? If so, there is our second coincidence; those particular atoms happen to get jumbled up on a planet with a climate which happens to support life; and that life happens to survive. And later on, by a fresh accident, some of these plants happen to develop sensation, and these sensitive plants happen to survive and become animals; and then certain animals happen to develop the habit of reflective thought, and those particular animals happen to survive, and turn into men altogether there is rather too much coincidence there. Accident is all right as an explanation at first, but there comes a point at which the thing begins to look like carelessness.

And, of course, even if you could prove that life (for example) arises automatically out of some particular arrangement of atoms we haven’t proved it, and we are no nearer proving it than we ever were the question would still remain to be asked, what power it was which ordained that such an arrangement of atoms should result in the birth of a quite new order of existence; “that out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.” [4] It’s no good telling us that the forces of nature did that; nature is only an abstraction, and the forces of nature are only abstractions; abstractions can’t impose their will on real things. You must believe, sooner or later, in a Mind which brought mind into existence out of matter, unless you are going to sit down before the hopeless metaphysical contradiction of saying that matter somehow managed to develop itself into mind.

I’m afraid I’ve wandered about a good deal, and perhaps tried to take in too much in my argument. But I did want you to see that the argument from order in the universe is not, necessarily at any rate, the same as the argument from design. It’s not necessary for us to prove that we are living in the best of all possible worlds; it doesn’t matter (for the purposes of our present argument) whether the laws we find in nature are beneficent or harmful in their operation; the point is that order exists in the Universe, and that it is logically impossible to conceive of order existing without a Mind. And if we denied the existence of that Mind, and went on thinking about it hard, it wouldn’t be very long, I fancy, before most of us would go out of our own.

Originally printed in: “In Soft Garments: A Collection of Oxford Conferences”


Author: Ruminator

Roman Catholic priest of the Ordinariate. Selections or essays from others, with or without comment, is not necessarily an endorsement.

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