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Reason, not Revelation: Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Watchmaker


As I wrote here in an earlier article, Jean-Jacques Rousseau drew upon Newtonian physics to develop an argument for a cosmic intelligent designer. Rousseau was a deist who, by the time he published his thoughts on intelligent design in Emile (1762), had largely rejected Christianity. I bring this up because of the historical interest but also to point out the absurdity of the criticism that portrays ID as a recent invention of the Christian Right.

Rousseau argued that if we follow the causal chain of "action and reaction" back far enough, we eventually come to a first cause, which must be an entity capable of "spontaneous, voluntary action." Rousseau realized that one need not have a complete account of the characteristics of an intelligent designer to be able to infer the designer's existence and activity. "The will is known to me in its action, not in its nature," he wrote in analyzing his own experience as an intelligent agent.

Rousseau understood that he possessed a will that could make choices and initiate a ripple of effects in the physical world. He compared his inference to cosmic design with the reasoning of someone observing a watch's interior for the first time, before seeing the watch face that reveals its purpose of time keeping. The coordinated parts of the watch must have some purpose, though the observer is ignorant of it. He wrote:

I judge of the order of the world, although I know nothing of its purpose, for to judge of this order it is enough for me to compare the parts one with another, to study their co-operation, their relations, and to observe their united action. I know not why the universe exists, but I see continually how it is changed; I never fail to perceive the close connection by which the entities of which it consists lend their aid one to another. I am like a man who sees the works of a watch for the first time; he is never weary of admiring the mechanism, though he does not know the use of the instrument and has never seen its face. I do not know what this is for, says he, but I see that each part of it is fitted to the rest, I admire the workman in the details of his work, and I am quite certain that all these wheels only work together in this fashion for some common end which I cannot perceive.
A few decades later, William Paley would make a similar inference, drawing on the analogy to a watchmaker's design. Darwin wrote the Origin of Species (1859) in an attempt to refute Paley's watchmaker.

Rousseau marveled at the well-coordinated parts of living organisms and how they are "organized" in a way that is similar to the arrangement of letters in a printed book. This insight, expressed in the passage below, brings to mind information theory as it has been applied in biology since the mid 20th century (see Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell for more background).

So life could not have originated by chance, as Rousseau argued:

Let us compare the special ends, the means, the ordered relations of every kind, then let us listen to the inner voice of feeling; what healthy mind can reject its evidence? Unless the eyes are blinded by prejudices, can they fail to see that the visible order of the universe proclaims a supreme intelligence? What sophisms must be brought together before we fail to understand the harmony of existence and the wonderful co-operation of every part for the maintenance of the rest? Say what you will of combinations and probabilities; what do you gain by reducing me to silence if you cannot gain my consent? And how can you rob me of the spontaneous feeling which, in spite of myself, continually gives you the lie? If organized bodies had come together fortuitously in all sorts of ways before assuming settled forms, if stomachs are made without mouths, feet without heads, hands without arms, imperfect organs of every kind which died because they could not preserve their life, why do none of these imperfect attempts now meet our eyes; why has nature at length prescribed laws to herself which she did not at first recognize? I must not be surprised if that which is possible should happen, and if the improbability of the event is compensated for by the number of the attempts. I grant this; yet if any one told me that printed characters scattered broadcast had produced the Aeneid all complete, I would not condescend to take a single step to verify this falsehood. You will tell me I am forgetting the multitude of attempts. But how many such attempts must I assume to bring the combination within the bounds of probability? For my own part the only possible assumption is that the chances are infinity to one that the product is not the work of chance. In addition to this, chance combinations yield nothing but products of the same nature as the elements combined, so that life and organization will not be produced by a flow of atoms, and a chemist when making his compounds will never give them thought and feeling in his crucible.
"The mere generation of living organic bodies is the despair of the human mind," if we try to explain their origin without invoking intelligent agency, Rousseau concluded. He also wrote of "the insurmountable barrier raised by nature between the various species, so that they should not mix with one another." The world and its living creatures display an amazing organization and harmony that resist being explained by the "blind mechanism of matter set in motion by chance!"

Rousseau continues:

In vain do those who deny the unity of intention manifested in the relations of all the parts of this great whole, in vain do they conceal their nonsense under abstractions, co-ordinations, general principles, symbolic expressions; whatever they do I find it impossible to conceive of a system of entities so firmly ordered unless I believe in an intelligence that orders them. It is not in my power to believe that passive and dead matter can have brought forth living and feeling beings, that blind chance has brought forth intelligent beings, that that which does not think has brought forth thinking beings.
Rousseau further reasoned that material particles could not arrange themselves into intelligent creatures such as ourselves. Indeed, human beings possess a sophisticated form of intelligence that requires a cause that is also adequately intelligent. Here is how Rousseau expressed the point:
I believe, therefore, that the world is governed by a wise and powerful will; I see it or rather I feel it, and it is a great thing to know this. But has this same world always existed, or has it been created? Is there one source of all things? Are there two or many? What is their nature? I know not; and what concern is it of mine? When these things become of importance to me I will try to learn them; till then I abjure these idle speculations, which may trouble my peace, but cannot affect my conduct nor be comprehended by my reason.
These are not the confessions of a Christian, much less a representative of the so-called Christian Right. Here is a deist who comforts himself with the apparent remoteness of the cosmic designer. His mind is able to "feel" (sense) the designer's existence based upon reasoning divorced from textual divine revelation.

Rousseau's personal life and other philosophical musings illustrate the distance he had travelled from religious tradition and morality. See, for example, Paul Johnson's essay on Rousseau in his book Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky (Harper & Row, 1990). Rousseau gave up all five of his infant children to an orphanage (he had produced these little ones with his mistress). The extremely high infant mortality rates at such institutions means that all of Rousseau's children likely died at an early age. Yet his book Emile became a celebrated Enlightenment treatise on how to educate children.

Any idea of a God who judges sin and calls us to self-sacrificial love is, he wrote, mere "idle speculations, which may trouble my peace, but cannot affect my conduct nor be comprehended by my reason." Rousseau elaborates:

Recollect that I am not preaching my own opinion but explaining it. Whether matter is eternal or created, whether its origin is passive or not, it is still certain that the whole is one, and that it proclaims a single intelligence....This being who wills and can perform his will, this being active through his own power, this being, whoever he may be, who moves the universe and orders all things, is what I call God. To this name I add the ideas of intelligence, power, will, which I have brought together, and that of kindness which is their necessary consequence; but for all this I know no more of the being to which I ascribe them. He hides himself alike from my senses and my understanding; the more I think of him, the more perplexed I am; I know full well that he exists, and that he exists of himself alone; I know that my existence depends on his, and that everything I know depends upon him also. I see God everywhere in his works; I feel him within myself; I behold him all around me; but if I try to ponder him himself, if I try to find out where he is, what he is, what is his substance, he escapes me and my troubled spirit finds nothing.
As an intelligent-design advocate who happens also to be a Christian, I agree with Rousseau that, without recourse to religious teachings, this is about as close as we can come in seeking to understand God, or the designer, or call him or it what you will.

Yet all this supports my main point. Contrary to what some critics of ID maintain, Rousseau's highly influential thought and life demonstrate that intelligent design is an idea that comes to us through the application of reason, not revelation.

Image credit: Wikicommons.

Cross-posted at Christian Post.