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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Intelligent Design Advocate


According to a familiar accusation from critics of intelligent design, ID is nothing more than a recent invention of the Christian Right. This is, of course, nonsense. Ancient philosophers including Plato and Aristotle advocated early versions of ID theory. For more background, you may find it useful to download "The Roots of Intelligent Design" here. There is much more that could be said on the subject. For now, though, let's take a closer look at a particularly colorful example of a premature ID advocate of the 18th century, someone who, in this context, most people have overlooked: the enigmatic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

In Emile (1762), Rousseau's influential book about how we learn, readers get a glimpse of how a leading Enlightenment thinker recognized the legitimacy of inferring design in cosmology and the study of living organisms. Although Rousseau largely rejected Christianity, he found himself drawn by extensive evidence and intuition to infer the existence of a cosmic intelligent designer.

The core of Rousseau's musings about the design inference comes in book four of Emile, a treatise that was condemned in Paris (Catholics) and Geneva (Calvinist Protestants) for its theological heresy. Despite its departure from the historic Christian faith, Emile analyzes how human beings are able to learn about the intelligent design of certain features of the natural world. To find the passages I quote below, you may perform a text search within the version of Emile made available for free public access by Project Gutenberg, which is the version I have used.

The first causes of motion are not to be found in matter; matter receives and transmits motion, but does not produce it. The more I observe the action and reaction of the forces of nature playing on one another, the more I see that we must always go back from one effect to another, till we arrive at a first cause in some will; for to assume an infinite succession of causes is to assume that there is no first cause. In a word, no motion which is not caused by another motion can take place, except by a spontaneous, voluntary action; inanimate bodies have no action but motion, and there is no real action without will. This is my first principle. I believe, therefore, that there is a will which sets the universe in motion and gives life to nature. This is my first dogma, or the first article of my creed.
Rousseau draws from Newtonian physics and well know philosophical resources to develop an argument for a cosmic intelligent designer. In keeping with the Enlightenment views that Rousseau helped to cultivate, he avoids any dependence upon religious texts.

His argument goes like this. If we follow the causal chain of "action and reaction" back far enough we eventually come to a first cause, which must be an intelligent being -- an entity capable of "spontaneous, voluntary action." Newton himself espoused a similar design argument. An intelligent being, Rousseau argues, is capable of making the choices needed to initiate the material causal chains that have reached the present moment in time. An unending backward chain of unintelligent physical causes is not possible because such an infinite regress amounts to saying that the cosmos is uncaused, which is absurd. "No motion which is not caused by another motion can take place, except by a spontaneous, voluntary action," Rousseau observes. Thus a cosmic intelligent designer, a first cause, must exist.

Reflecting on his own experience as an embodied intelligent agent, Rousseau finds that this provides sufficient grounds for avoiding an impasse at the critical question of the mind-body problem: How does a non-material mind move molecules? He writes:

How does a will produce a physical and corporeal action? I cannot tell, but I perceive that it does so in myself; I will to do something and I do it; I will to move my body and it moves, but if an inanimate body, when at rest, should begin to move itself, the thing is incomprehensible and without precedent. The will is known to me in its action, not in its nature. I know this will as a cause of motion, but to conceive of matter as producing motion is clearly to conceive of an effect without a cause, which is not to conceive at all.
Rousseau realizes that to infer the existence of a design, one need not have a complete account of the characteristics of the designer. "The will is known to me in its action, not in its nature," he explains as he analyzes his own experience as an intelligent agent.

Rousseau also notes:

It is no more possible for me to conceive how my will moves my body than to conceive how my sensations affect my mind. I do not even know why one of these mysteries has seemed less inexplicable than the other. For my own part, whether I am active or passive, the means of union of the two substances seem to me absolutely incomprehensible. It is very strange that people make this very incomprehensibility a step towards the compounding of the two substances, as if operations so different in kind were more easily explained in one case than in two.
While wrestling with the mind-body problem, Rousseau argues for the futility of reducing minds to merely material things. We don't need to have a complete account of how non-material minds interact with material bodies in order to know about the existence of non-material minds that do, in fact, interact (somehow) with the material world. It is futile to attempt "compounding of the two substances" -- mind and matter.

He concludes with a pointed question:

The doctrine I have just laid down is indeed obscure; but at least it suggests a meaning and there is nothing in it repugnant to reason or experience; can we say as much of materialism?
I will have more to say about Rousseau's intelligent design theory in a future article.

Image credit: Wikicommons.

Cross-posted at Christian Post.