C‎ > ‎Chalmers, Thomas - 1780-1847‎ > ‎Volume 1‎ > ‎

Bk. 2. - Chap. 3 - "On the Strength of the Evidences for a God in the Phenomena of Visible and External Nature."


We include among the phenomena of external nature whatever can be exposed to the observation of human eyes — and therefore, the organization and mechanism of our own bodies. There is distinct and additional evidence for a God — and that too, we think, the strongest and most influential of any, grounded on a phenomenon purely mental, and so coming; under the dominion of consciousness alone. This we shall advert to afterwards — but meanwhile, we should like to offer a brief recapitulation of what we deem to be the strong points of the Theistical argument, as far as it has yet been proceeded in; that by means of a condensed view we may perceive distinctly wherein it is that the main force of the reasoning lies.


The first strong point of this argument is grounded on the distinction which we have already {Page No. 259.} endeavoured to make palpable between the laws of matter and the collocations of matter. In the reasoning for a God from the mere existence of matter, we certainly do not remark any strong point of argument whatever. And then, when this argument from the existence of matter is given up, there remains another obscure and indeterminable controversy about its properties, as to which of them may be essential, and which of them must have been communicated at the will and by the appointment of a devising and purposing and intelligent Being. Now so long as the argument tarries either at the existence or at the laws of matter, we do not think that we have yet come to any lucid or effective consideration upon the subject. We hold that at this part of the question the cause of Natural Theology has suffered from the confidence joined with the obscurity of those reasonings which have been made use of by its supporters; and that it were therefore a mighty service to the cause did we separate what in it is decisive and what in it is doubtful from each other.


They are the collocations, then, which form by far the most unequivocal tokens of a Divinity that the material world has to offer. We understand the term in a more comprehensive sense than that which is conveyed by its mere etymology. We mean not only that the parts of matter have been placed in right correspondence to each other; but that these parts, so placed, have been rightly sized and rightly shaped, for some obviously beneficial end of the combination in question — and moreover that forces of a right intensity and {Page No. 260.} direction have been made to meet together so as to be productive of some desirable result. The world is full of such collocations— and the strong circumstance is, that there is nothing in the yet ascertained laws of matter that could have given rise to them — insomuch that if at this moment any of them were destroyed, there appears nothing in these laws which could possibly replace them. It is true, that in astronomy, the argument founded on these, is all the less impressive, that it requires but the concurrence of few independent circumstances to complete the astronomical system. Such a concurrence however is indispensable — and in virtue of this it is, that the planetarium has been so exquisitely formed as never to deviate far from a mean state, but only to oscillate a little way on either side of it — else the system would have contained within itself the elements of its own destruction. It marks what the atheistical tendency is, that La Place should have ascribed this beautiful result to a law, and not to the collocations. He seems to have felt throughout his reasonings, wherein it was that the plausibility of atheism chiefly lay. But this also carries in it an intimation to us, wherein it is that the main strength lies of the argument for a Divinity. No doubt, the law is indispensable, and enters as one element into the calculation. But we have already noticed that the collocations are equally indispensable; and they enter as other elements into the calculation. So that if ever a time was when these collocations were not, if the present order of the heavens have had a commencement, — there seems nothing in {Page No. 261.} any of the discovered laws or forces of matter which could have originated them. They seem only referable to the fiat and finger of a God.


But the argument gathers prodigiously in strength, when we descend from the celestial to the terrestrial collocations of things; from the contingencies which meet together in the formation of an astronomical, to those which meet together in the formation of an anatomical system; from the simple mechanism of the heavens into which so few simplicities are required to enter, to those complex organic mechanisms Which require such a prodigiously varied and manifold combination. Could we but demonstrate a commencement for them, then the argument rises to almost the force of infinity for a God. And it seems impossible to escape from the belief of such a commencement, whatever opinion we may entertain as to the authority of the professed historical vouchers for the historical fact of a creation. If that authority be deferred to, then there is no practical need, at least, for any further reasoning on the subject. But if, on the other hand, it be set aside, as has been done by many on the strength of certain geological theories, then our argument is complete if in these very theories, there be the palpable proofs of a commencement to the present order of things. This is what we have endeavoured to demonstrate — not that we have any distrust in the authority of Moses as an historian — but that we hold it right to show as it were all the sides of our argument, and that all round it is impregnable — capable, therefore, of being shaped to every variety {Page No. 262.} of speculation, and of gaining proselytes to its high cause from the disciples of all the sciences.


Now the most essential stepping-stone of this argument is a doctrine that has become the almost universal creed of naturalists — that there is no spontaneous generation, at least in reference to the vast majority of known species; to which we superadd the equally admitted doctrine — that there is no transmutation of the species. It is now upwards of a century since the evidence of the former became so palpable, as to constitute it into an article of philosophical belief — and the advocates of Theism in that day, were not blind to the importance of it. We will find it, and deservedly, the subject of gratulation and triumph to Bentley and others. It goes to establish an impassable barrier between the physiological on the one hand, and the chemical or the mechanical on the other — insomuch that we have never distinctly made out of all the processes in chemistry, or of all the principles and powers in natural philosophy, that they even approximate to the formation of an organic being, at least of an organic being which has the property of self-transmission. Of almost all our living races it may be said that we do not perceive so much as a rudimental or abortive tendency to it — whereas, had there been an equivocal generation, and had our present animal and vegetable races originated in such a lucky combination as favoured their complete development, we should for one instance that succeeded have witnessed a thousand frustrated in the progress — all nature teeming, as it were with abortions innumerable; and for each {Page No. 263.} new species brought to perfection under our eyes, we should have beheld millions falling short at the incipient and at all the progressive stages of formation, with some embryo stifled in the bud, or some half-finished monster checked by various adverse elements and forces in its path to vitality. Now in the whole compass of observation, no such phenomena are to be found. We do not see any of the species with which we are at all familiar brought forward in this way — and wait in vain for such from the immatured buddings of animal and vegetable formation. Each actual variety through the great extent of the ascertained physiological kingdom is perfect in its way — and there is a distinct invariable line of transmission in which, but never out of which, we behold the production of each of them. Could we only demonstrate then a commencement for all or for any of these lines, we should be conducted to the period when there took place a most skilful, a most complete, a most varied collocation — and that, by means which nature, that great goddess of the infidel philosophy, as far as the eye of philosophy ever has explored, does not hold in any of her magazines. We should see, in striking exemplification, the collocations of matter taking place, and by other means than by any laws of matter which we at least are acquainted “with — and on comparing the manifold fitness of the collocations with the impotency of the laws, we should have the nearest experimental argument that can be given for the energy of a creative word, for the fiat and the forth-goings of a Deity.


The commencement, then, even of any of our {Page No. 264.} animal or vegetable races would seem to decide this question. Let us by any means be made to know of any of the existing generations, that historically it had a first and a definite origin; and this of itself would carry in it the demonstration of a God. But the proper argument in behalf of this or of any historical fact is historical evidence — and to overlook the strength of such evidence for a creation in the Jewish Scriptures were not merely unchristian but unphilosophical. Yet it is with the air, and apparently under the sanction of philosophy that this evidence has of late been contravened. The plausibilities of geological science or speculation have been brought to bear against it. Instead of looking to the narrative of scripture, we are called upon to look at the demonstration of certain lengthened processes which this science would substitute, and wherewith it would set aside the authority of Moses. Yet in these very processes do we behold, and in characters the most vivid and discernible, the footsteps of a Deity. In the attempt to escape from Christianity, geologists have been caught or involved, more surely in theism. Under all systems which ascribe to matter an indefinite antiquity, each successive economy in our world is supposed to contain within itself the elements of decay, or to be exposed to certain processes of violence and destruction. This vexed and agitated globe has been conceived of as the theatre of such revolutions, that though the earth itself in matter and substantive being has survived them, the frail organic creatures upon its surface could not have survived them. It matters not how {Page No. 265.} the alleged catastrophes have been brought about — whether by fire from the centre, or by ocean heaved from its old resting-place, and, in one mighty resistless tide, sweeping, as with the besom of destruction, those continents on which the animals of a former era had for thousands of ages held their unmolested habitation. It is enough if by one catastrophe whole species or genera have been extinguished; and if by an indefinite number of them throughout past eternity all the genera at one time m the world might now have disappeared. The question still is unresolved, what the origin, or whence the existence of our present races ? Not by spontaneous generation, we are taught by natural science, in one of its most authoritative lessons. Not as we know from another of its lessons, by the transmutation of old species into new ones. Not by any combination that we have ever observed of all the known powers and principles in creation — and thus are we enabled to refer those things in nature which of all others have most exquisite and manifold collocations — the most certainly to a definite origin, the most nearly to the finger of a Creator.


There is another strong point in the argument; and which has been turned with great effect by theistical writers to the service of the cause. In reasoning on the perfect symmetry and commodiousness of the animal machine, there is a certain infidel evasion that has been made from the argument. It has been affirmed that most of the alleged fitnesses, in the construction of an organic being, are not only indispensable to comfort but {Page No. 266.} indispensable to life, so that the race could not have survived the want of them; and, that therefore, it is impossible from the nature of the thing that any of the opposite unfitnesses can ever be found in any of our existing specimens. At this rate it will be observed of the actual races, that they are regarded but as the fortunate relics, which, amid an infinity of chances, have realized all the necessary conditions for the upholding of vitality, and for the transmitting of it to successive generations. They are the lucky few, which, by the mathematical doctrine of probabilities, were certainly to be looked for, in a countless multitude of failures or abortions. Any mal-convenance which is incompatible with life cannot from the very nature of the case be presented to observation; and therefore cannot be appealed to by reasoners on the atheistical side of the argument. Now they complain of this as the loss of an advantage — whereas on the side of their antagonists there are so many random productions, they affirm, which in an infinity of combinations are not more than might have been expected, but a plausible and confident appeal to which will make the worse appear the better argument.


Our first reply to this has in some measure been anticipated. Any such embryo formations as we have supposed have never once been witnessed by us. Exterior to the established line of transmission, there is not even an incipient movement to be seen, in any department of nature, towards the production of animals or vegetables endowed with the faculty of afterwards transmitting {Page No. 267.} themselves. We see no example in all the multiform combinations of chemistry and mechanics, however aided by various and variously blended physical influences, of any half-formed mechanism of this sort passing onward to its completion, but arrested in its progress and thrown back again, because of some deficient sense or organ that is essential to vitality. The argument represents nature as teeming with abortions, whereas in the whole compass of nature, no such abortion, and not even the tendency to it has been found.


But our second reply we hold to be still more satisfactory. There can be conceived many thousands of mal-adjustments, each of which would be incompatible with comfort and not incompatible with life — yet none of which we ever see realized. The argument of the atheists presupposes of every adaptation in the animal frame, which we plead in proof of design, that it is essential to vitality — but it is not so. The nails, for example at the extremities of our fingers, and the position of which we ascribe to collocation but they to the blind direction of a physical law — may be conceived to have been otherwise situated, without any such hazard to the life of man as would have led to the extinction of the race. They might have been ranged in separate horny excrescences round the wrist, instead of being ranged as now at the places where they are most serviceable. In like manner the teeth might have been less conveniently posited than they are actually — or the cutting and grinding teeth might have changed places, instead of being fixed and arranged in the very wav that makes {Page No. 268.} them the most effective. We are quite sure that by going in detail over the human body, many thousands of changes could be pointed out, each entailing severe trouble and discomfort upon man, yet without hazard to the being of the individual or to the endurance of the species. How then is the actual optimism of the human frame to be accounted for ? Why is it that no alteration can be proposed either in shape or locality which would not deteriorate the mechanism ? There is, no doubt, a certain limit, beyond which if the changes were to proceed, they would prove incompatible with life, and so expunge the specimen altogether from observation — but how comes it, that between this limit and the actual state of every existing species we see nothing awkward, nothing misplaced, nothing that admits of being mended — without one of those inaptitudes or disproportions which either a blind nature, or a sportive and capricious chance, must have infallibly and in myriads given rise to ? Whence no idle excrescences in those complicated systems ? How comes each part to be in such exquisite harmony with the whole ? What but manifold experience could have taught the anatomist to ground such confident inferences on the uses of every thing that he discovers in the animal framework — and whence can it be, but from the actual design which presided over these formations, that, when reasoning on final causes, he is in the best possible track for the enlargement of his science ? Whence the certainty, the almost axiomatic certainty of the position, that there is nothing useless in the {Page No. 269.} anatomical structure ? And that, on the contrary, anatomists never reason more safely, than when they presume and reason on an universal usefulness. And this principle so far from misleading, which in a random economy of things it would infallibly have done, has often been the instrument of anatomical discovery. Could this have been the case under a mere system either of headlong forces, or of fortuitous combinations ? Would not the monstrous and the grotesque and the incongruous have ever and anon been obtruded upon our view — and when instead of this we behold such significancy in every part and in every function of the physiological system, does not this tell most significantly of a God ?


There is an infinity of examples to the same effect in the inferior creation. As one instance out of the many, we find wings attached to the animals, who, from the smallness or comparative lightness of their bodies, can obtain the benefit of them. Why not wings on horses and other large animals, who could shift well enough to live though they could not use their wings ? And here there occurs to us the remarkable instance of a congruity in the parts of animals, greatly subservient to their accommodation, yet experimentally proved in a familiar case to be not essential to life. We all know that the necks of quadrupeds, as is magnificently set forth in the camelopard, are in general commensurate with their fore legs. The same proportion is observed in birds especially those which feed upon grass. The obvious design of this collocation is that they may be enabled to {Page No. 270.} reach the ground conveniently with their bills. Now there is no exception to this rule by which the length of the neck keeps pace with that of the legs in land fowls — but there is an exception in the case of those water-fowls that feed on the produce of water bottoms — as the swan whose neck is much larger in proportion than its legs, and also the goose, both of which birds seek for their food in the slimy bottom of lakes or pools. Now it so happens of the goose that it can live upon land with its long neck and short legs — though the disproportion under which it labours gives an obvious awkwardness to its appearance and gait — besides, we have no doubt, subjecting it to a certain degree of inconvenience in feeding. Here then is one example of an incongruity consistent with life, and fully authorizing the question, why under a random or unintelligent economy of things, there is not an infinite multitude of such examples among living animals ? It will be perceived of this one example, that, while it both furnishes and illustrates the argument on which we now insist, it carries in it no exception to the wisdom of the Creator. The animal is amphibious. Its natural habitat is the margin of lakes. It may live on land, but it can live on water — and is furnished with its long neck for the sake of the additional food obtained from this latter element.


Before quitting this subject we may remark that the exception which takes place in the proportion between the necks and the legs is peculiar to those birds that are webfooted. Now is there aught, we would ask, in a disproportion between {Page No. 271.} necks and legs that is fitted by the mere operation of a blind and physical energy to produce these webs ? Or, can the adjustment of parts so remote and unconnected be ascribed to any thing but collocation ?


There is a very pleasing information recently given in a most entertaining book of travels by Mr. Waterton. It respects the sloth — an animal which creeps along the ground with every symptom of distress, as if it laboured under the pain and discomfort of some very grievous mal-adjustment. According to the narrative of this very adventurous traveller, he has cleared up this apparent exception to the order of perfect adaptation throughout the animal kingdom. The creature, it would appear, when on the ground, is out of its element. Its natural habitat is among the branches of trees, Which branches interlaced with each other afford a continuous path for hundreds of miles in the extensive forests of South America. Its feet, it would appear, were not made for pressing upon the earth, but for lapping into each other, so as to suspend the animal with its back undermost on those horizontal branches, along which it warps its way from one tree to another. When it regains its natural situation, it instantly recovers, it is said, its natural alacrity, and exchanges the agony it experienced, when in a state of violence, for the ease and enjoyment of one who feels himself at home. The frame and habitudes of the creature are thus found, as with all other animals, to be exactly suited to the place of its proper occupation — so as no longer to stand in the way of the general {Page No. 272.} doctrine, that each creature is perfect in its kind and all very good.


In order to taste the richness and power of the theistical argument, one would need to enter upon the details of it. For doing aught like adequate justice to the theme, we should go piecemeal over the face of this vast and voluminous creation; and show how in the exquisite textures of every leaf and every hair and every membrane, Nature throughout all her recesses was instinct with contrivance, and in the minute as well as the magnificent announced herself the workmanship of a Master’s hand. We cannot venture on the statistics of so wide and so exuberant a territory. The variety in which we should lose ourselves, the Psalmist hath expressively designed by the epithet of “manifold” — and this sets forth the significancy of that scriptural expression, “the manifold wisdom of God.” It is to us interminable. When told that we might expatiate for weeks together on the habitudes and economy of a single insect, we may guess how arduous the enterprise would be, to traverse the whole length and breadth of a land, so profusely overspread and so densely peopled with the tokens of a planning and presiding Deity. It {Page No. 273.} would be to compass all philosophy — it would be to describe the Encyclopedia of human knowledge; and, out of the spoils collected from every possible quarter of contemplation, to make an offering to Him of whom it has been eloquently said, that He sits enthroned on the riches of the universe. It would be to trace the footsteps of a Being, who, while He wields with giant strength the orbs of immensity, pencils every flower upon earth and hangs a thousand dew-drops around it — at one time walking in greatness among the wonders of the firmament, and at another, or rather at the same time, scattering beauty of all sorts in countless hues and inimitable touches around our lowly dwelling-places. He hath indeed lighted up most gloriously the canopy that is over our heads — He hath shed unbounded grace and decoration on the terrestrial platform beneath us. Yet these are only parts of his ways — for the whole of his Productiveness and Power who can comprehend ? This will be the occupation of Eternity — amid that diversity of operations at present so baffling, to scan the counsels of the God who worketh all in all.


Our limits do not permit so much as an entrance upon this field — let us therefore recommend the study of those authors who have ventured upon the enterprise, and have followed it up with a more or a less successful execution. Mixed up with the unsatisfactory metaphysics of that period, the reader will find a good deal of solid argumentation, in the Sermon preached about the beginning of the last century at the Boyle Lectureship — {Page No. 274.} though we confess that on this question, we have greater value for the works of Ray and Derham than for them all put together. Even these however have been now superseded by the masterly performance of Dr. Paley — a writer of whom it is not too much to say, that he has done more than any other individual who can be named to accommodate the defence both of the Natural and the Christian Theology to the general understanding of our times. He, in particular, has illustrated with great felicity and effect the argument for a God from those final causes which may be descried in the appearances of nature — and, although he has confined himself chiefly to one department, that is the anatomical, yet that being far the most prolific of this sort of evidence, he has altogether composed from it a most impressive pleading on the side of Theism. He attempts no eloquence; but there is aU the power of eloquence in his graphic representation of natural scenes and natural objects — just as a painter of the Flemish School may without any creative faculty of his own, but on the strength of his imitative faculties only, minister to the spectators of his art all those emotions both of the Sublime and Beautiful which the reality of visible things is fitted to awaken. And so without aught of the imaginative, or aught of the etherial about him — but in virtue of the just impression which external things make upon his mind, and of the admirable sense and truth wherewith he reflects them back again, does our author by acting merely the part of a faithful copyist, give a fuller sense of the richness and repleteness of this argument, than is {Page No. 275.} or can be effected by all the elaborations of an ambitious oratory. Of him it may be said, and with as emphatic justice as of any man who ever wrote, that there is no nonsense about him — and so, with all his conceptions most appropriate to the subject that he is treating, and these bodied forth in words each of which is instinct with significancy and most strikingly appropriate — we have altogether a performance neither vitiated in expression by one clause or epithet of verbiage, nor vitiated in substance by one impertinence of prurient or misplaced imagination. His predominant faculty is judgment — and therefore it is, that he is always sure to seize on the relevancies or strong points of an argument, which never suffer from his mode of rendering them, because, to use a familiar but expressive phrase, they are at all times exceedingly well put. His perfect freedom from all aim and all affectation is a mighty dis-encumbrance to him — he having evidently no other object, than to give forth in as clear and correct delineation as possible, those impressions which nature and truth had spontaneously made on his own just and vigorous understanding. So that, altogether, although we should say of the mind of Paley that it was of a decidedly prosaic or secular cast — although we should be at a loss to find out what is termed the poetry of his character, and doubt in fact whether any of the elements of poetry were there — although never to be found in the walk of sentiment or of metaphysics, or indeed in any high transcendental walk whatever whether of the reason or of the fancy — yet to him there most {Page No. 276.} unquestionably belonged a very high order of faculties. His most original work is the Horse Paulinae, yet even there he discovers more of the observational than the inventive; for after all, it was but a new track of observation which he opened up, and not a new species of argument which he devised that might immortalize its author, like the discovery of a before unknown calculus in the mathematics. All the mental exercises of Paley he within the limits of sense and of experience — nor would one ever think of awarding to him the meed of genius. Yet in the whole staple and substance of his thoughts there was something better than genius — the homebred product of a hale and well-conditioned intellect, that dealt in the ipsa corpora of truth, and studied use and not ornament in the drapery wherewith he invested it. We admit that he had neither the organ of high poetry nor of high metaphysics — and perhaps would have recoiled from both as from some unmeaning mysticism of which nothing could be made. Yet he had most efficient organs notwithstanding — and the Volumes he has given to the world, plain perspicuous and powerful, as was the habitude of his own understanding — fraught throughout with meaning, and lighted up not in the gorgeous colouring of fancy but in the clearness of truth’s own element — these Volumes form one of the most precious contributions which, for the last half century, have been added to the theological literature of our land.


It has been said that there is nothing more uncommon than common sense. It is the perfection of his common sense which makes Paley at once so {Page No. 277.} rare and so valuable a specimen of our nature. The characteristics of his mind make up a most interesting variety, and constitute him into what may be termed a literary phenomenon. One likes to behold the action and reaction of dissimilar minds — and therefore it were curious to have ascertained how he would have stood affected by the perusal of a volume of Kant, or by a volume of lake poetry. We figure that he would have liked Franklin; and that, coming down to our day, the strength of Cobbett would have had in it a redeeming quality to make even his coarseness palatable. He would have abhorred all German sentimentalism — and of the a priori argument of Clarke, he would have wanted the perception chiefly because he wanted patience for it. His appetite for truth and sense would make him intolerant of all which did not engage the discerning faculties of his soul — and from the sheer force and promptitude of his decided judgment, he would throw off instanter all that he felt to be uncongenial to it. The general solidity of his mind posted him as if by gravitation on the terra Jinna of experience, and restrained his flight into any region of transcendental speculation. Yet Coleridge makes obeisance to him — and differently moulded as these men were, this testimony from the distinguished metaphysician and poet does honour to both.


Having thus dwelt as long as our limits will admit, on the evidences of design in external nature — it is all important to remark, that on the one hand there might be innumerable most lucid indications of design in particular instances, while {Page No. 278.} on the other a mystery impenetrable may hang over the general design of creation. The lesson that there is a presiding intelligence, may shine most vividly forth in the details of the universe — and yet the drift, or what mo should term the policy of the universe, may be wrapt in profoundest secrecy from our view. The world may teem all over with the indications of contrivance — and yet the end which the contriver had in view, the moving cause which impelled him to the formation of the world, or the final destination that awaits it, may all baffle the comprehension of men, who nevertheless can read the inscription of a manifold and marvellous wisdom on every page in the volume of nature. So that on the one hand there may be overpowering light, while on the other there is hopeless and unconquerable darkness. In the workmanship of nature we behold an infinity of special adaptations to special objects, each of which bespeaks a sovereign mind that plans and purposes — yet there may the deepest obscurity hang over the question, what is the plan or purpose of this workmanship on the whole ? It is just as when looking to an individual man, we cannot but recognise the conceptions of an architect in the teeth, and the eyes, and the hands, and all the parts of manifest subserviency which belong to him — yet remain unable to solve the enigma of his being, or to fathom the general conception of the Divinity in thus ushering a creature to existence, that he may live in restless vanity, and die in despair. And what is true of an individual is true of a species or of a universe. Throughout, {Page No. 279.} and in its separate parts, it may be pregnant with the notices of a Divinity — yet in reference both to its creation and its government, to the principle in which it originated and the consummation in which it issues, there may be an overhanging mystery — and man, all clear and confident on the question that God is, may abide notwithstanding in deepest ignorance of His purposes and His ways.