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6/10/09

From William Paley To Charles Darwin, With Brian Boyd on Purpose

Darwinism "seems simple, because you do not at first realize all that it involves. But when its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration." Back to Methuselah (1921), by George Bernard Shaw.

"In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had 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 which I had before given, that, for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. . . . [The precision and intricacy of its mechanism would have forced us to conclude] that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at sometime, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use." Natural Theology: or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802), by William Paley.

Notes from Purpose-Driven Life by Brian Boyd:

  • "Does evolution by natural selection rob life of purpose, as so many have feared? The answer is no. On the contrary, Charles Darwin has made it possible to understand how purpose, like life, builds from small beginnings, from the ground up. In a very real sense, evolution creates purpose."

  • "In On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin showed how new species could evolve through a process of blind variation and selective retention. He transformed at a stroke our understanding of natural design. Living things manifest complex design but can be produced by a mindless process, one that does no more than passively register, in terms of survival and reproduction, the advantages of particular variations."

  • "We think of purpose as something prior to decision and action: I want to raise my arm, and, unless I am paralyzed or restrained, I do. But in fact purpose emerges slowly, in the species and in the individual. My capacity to move my arm in as many ways as I can depends on things like the evolution of forelegs into arms early in the primate line, the evolution millions of years later of a rotating socket in the shoulder of great apes, to enable swinging in trees, and the further freeing up of arm movements after early hominids became fully bipedal. Babies flail their arms uncontrolledly and purposelessly for months before they can direct them in a particular way for a particular purpose."

    Paley’s example of the watch assumes a purpose we already understand: the intricate integration of material objects into instruments for telling the time.

  • "If we develop Darwin’s insight, we can see the emergence of purpose, as of life itself, by small degrees, not from above, but by small increments, from below. The first purpose was the organization of matter in ways complex enough to sustain and replicate itself—the establishment, in other words, of life, or in still other terms, of problems and solutions. With life emerged the first purpose, the first problem, to preserve at least the improbable complexity already reached, and to find new ways of resisting damage and loss."

  • "As life proliferated, variety offered new hedges against loss in the face of unpredictable circumstances, and even new ways of evolving variety, like sex. Still richer purposes emerged with emotions, intelligence, and cooperation, and most recently with creativity itself, pursued naturally, and unnaturally, through human invention, in art, and pursued unnaturally, through challenging what we have inherited, in science."

  • "Art at its best offers us the durability that became life’s first purpose, the variety that became its second, the appeal to the intelligence and the cooperative emotions that took so much longer to evolve, and the creativity that keeps adding new possibilities, including religion and science. We do not know a purpose guaranteed from outside life, but we can add as much as we can to the creativity of life. We do not know what other purposes life may eventually generate, but creativity offers us our best chance of reaching them." Found here.
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