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Pre-Darwin, James Clerk Maxwell's Design Argument Foreshadowed Modern ID Theory

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It's been years since we looked into Maxwell's argument for design. In 2012, we posted one of his poems that devastated naturalism with satirical wit. Michael Flannery has written an excellent piece on Maxwell's design argument from the unity of nature, and discussed its relation to the modern ID movement. Professor Flannery focused primarily on refuting the misleading statements of historian Matthew Stanley, who had misrepresented the comparisons and contrasts between Maxwell and Behe.

We thought it would be instructive, then, to take a closer look in a couple of posts at Maxwell's design argument, not so much to present an argument from authority from this genius who helped usher in the modern age of electromagnetic technology, but to explore crucial developments of design philosophy in an age rapidly moving from theism to naturalism.

Maxwell, who was well versed in the evolutionary literature as well as in design arguments from antiquity to his day (including those of the natural theologians), was an independent thinker. He was not one to simply accept and re-propagate what others had said. His views, in fact, differed in some ways from those of his Christian colleagues. Though deeply religious himself, he pursued arguments that did not rely on religion, but could be discussed among all scientists, religious or not. And he advocated a philosophy that would stimulate further research.

Pre-Darwin Views

Maxwell's close friend Lewis Campbell wrote the definitive biography, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, in 1882, three years after the physicist's untimely death at age 48 in 1879. (Selections and page numbers from Campbell's biography are taken from the digital version by James C. Rautio.)

In the book, Campbell reproduces many of Maxwell's letters. Let's start with one from 1852 when Maxwell was a young student at Cambridge. He wrote to Campbell that he felt his Christian foundation provided the only world view that allowed anyone free and open inquiry into all aspects of philosophy and science. There were no dark alleys or bugbears, no sacred plots, that were to be off limits. Accordingly, he set out on a project to uncover every secret of truth he could:

Now, my great plan, which was conceived of old, and quickens and kicks periodically, and is continually making itself more obtrusive, is a plan of Search and Recovery, or Revision and Correction, or Inquisition and Execution, etc. The Rule of the Plan is to let nothing be wilfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Title, whether positive or negative. All fallow land is to be ploughed up, and a regular system of rotation followed. All creatures as agents or as patients are to be pressed into the service, which is never to be willingly suspended till nothing more remains to be done; i.e. till A.D.+ ∞. [Emphasis added.]

Here we see that Maxwell never considered his Christian faith a science stopper. Next year, in a period of "high pressure" at Cambridge, he wrote "A Student's Evening Hymn." In it, he shared his thoughts on created things as a path to knowledge.

  Through the creatures Thou hast made
Show the brightness of Thy glory,
  Be eternal Truth displayed
In their substance transitory,
Till green Earth and Ocean hoary,
  Massy rock and tender blade
Tell the same unending story --
  "We are Truth in Form arrayed."

Maxwell clearly expected the study of nature to reveal Truth: not just religious dogma, but truth in form arrayed -- i.e., accessible to every honest observer.

That same year (1853), now an honored member of the Select Essay Club (which Campbell calls "the crême de la crême of Cambridge intellects"), Maxwell wrote a number of essays to his fellow "Apostles" as they were known because of the club's 12-member limit. Of special interest for our purposes is one entitled "What is the Nature of Evidence of Design?"

Design! The very word...disturbs our quiet discussions about how things happen with restless questionings about the why of them all. We seem to have recklessly abandoned the railroad of phenomenology, and the black rocks of Ontology stiffen their serried brows and frown inevitable destruction. [All ellipses are in Campbell's original.]

Campbell notes that the essay has an alternative title, "Ought the Discovery of a Plurality of Intelligent Creators to weaken our Belief in an Ultimate First Cause?" to which a third title was added later in the author's hand -- "Does the Existence of Causal Chains prove an Astral Entity or a Cosmothetic Idealism?" By the alternative titles, we see that Maxwell expected the design question to be separable from the identity of the designer or designers, as do modern design theorists. We also see indications of his requirement for causal chains adequate to explain any phenomenon under investigation.

...The belief in design is a necessary consequence of the Laws of Thought acting on the phenomena of perception.

In this statement we see a hint of the Argument from Reason elaborated on by Balfour, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Plantinga. The next paragraph draws allusions to Paley's watchmaker argument:

...The essentials then for true evidence of design are -- (1) A phenomenon having significance to us; (2) Two ascertained chains of physical causes contingently connected, and both having the same apparent terminations, viz., the phenomenon itself and some presupposed personality....If the discovery of a watch awakens my torpid intelligence I perceive a significant end which the watch subserves. It goes, and, considering its locality, it is going well.... My young and growing reason points out two sets of phenomena... (a) the elasticity of springs, etc. etc., and (b) the astronomical facts which render the mean solar day the unit of civil time combined with those social habits which require a cognisance of the time of day.

As stated, this much of Paley's argument fits Behe's concept of irreducible complexity without venturing beyond to argue, as Paley did, for the God of the Bible. The design inference is warranted by observation that the parts all serve the common function, the "significant end which the watch subserves." His reference to a "presupposed personality" harks to the universal design intuition Doug Axe writes about in Undeniable. Yet to this point Maxwell leaves the identity of the personality undefined, using scientific reasoning alone.

...It is the business of science to investigate these causal chains. If they are found not to be independent but to meet in some ascertained point, we must transfer the evidence of design from the ultimate fact to the existence of the chain. Thus, suppose we ascertained that watches are now made by machinery...the machinery including the watch forms one more complicated and therefore more evident instance of design."

This statement clearly calls on science to investigate cases of intelligent design. That's the business of science, he says, to "investigate ... causal chains" when interrelated parts suggest a designing intelligence has been at work. Maxwell still keeps to the empirical evidence before him, not specifying the nature of the designing intelligence. But if the object was made by a machine, clearly the machine provides even stronger evidence for design, exhibiting as it does higher complexity.

...The only subordinate centres of causation which I have seen formally investigated are men and animals; the latter even are often overlooked. But every well-ascertained law points to some central cause, and at once constitutes that centre a being in the general sense of the word. Whether that being be personal is a question which may be determined by induction. The less difficult question whether the being be intelligent is more practicable, and should be kept in view in the investigation of organised beings.

Once again, restricting himself to the notion of intelligence as a cause, he states that science can determine if the cause is intelligent whether or not it can determine if it is personal. We omit a few sentences that are speculative in nature, such as whether animals can be "centres of causation" and whether that idea could lead to theological errors. Returning to the subject of causation, he offers some warnings about invalid design inferences.

...Three fallacies -- (1) Putting the final cause in the place of a physical connection, as when Bernoulli saw the propriety of making the curves of isochronous oscillations and of shortest time of descent both cycloids; (2) The erroneous assertion of a physical relation, as when Bacon supplemented the statement of Socrates about the eyebrows by saying that pilosity is incident to moist places; (3) (and worst) applying an argument from final causes to wrongly asserted phenomena: -- 'Because water is incompressible, it cannot transmit sound, and therefore fishes have no ears.' Every fact here stated is erroneous.

It is unfortunate Campbell didn't provide the entire essay, but this is pretty sharp thinking for a 22-year-old. Maxwell was already well versed in classic literature and philosophy as well as the trends of his own era. His stature as a scientist was established, having recently won Second Wrangler in the infamous Mathematical Tripos, and co-equal winner of the Smith's Prize.

Another essay from this period informative of Maxwell's maturing design philosophy dates from February, 1856, entitled "Are There Real Analogies in Nature?" In this lengthy essay, Maxwell finds a design inference from contingency. A specific value out of a vast array implies an intelligent act, he says:

There is nothing more essential to the right understanding of things than a perception of the relations of number. Now the very first notion of number implies a previous act of intelligence. Before we can count any number of things, we must pick them out of the universe, and give each of them a fictitious unity by definition. Until we have done this, the universe of sense is neither one nor many, but indefinite. But yet, do what we will, Nature seems to have a certain horror of partition....

In his conclusion, Maxwell has premonitions of Behe's irreducible complexity and Meyer's analogy of causes:

Perhaps the next most remarkable analogy is between the principle, law, or plan according to which all things are made suitably to what they have to do, and the intention which a man has of making machines which will work. The doctrine of final causes, although productive of barrenness in its exclusive form, has certainly been a great help to enquirers into nature; and if we only maintain the existence of the analogy, and allow observation to determine its form, we cannot be led far from the truth.

In subsequent years Maxwell would move his professorship from Cambridge to Aberdeen (1856), win the Adam's Prize for his model of Saturn's rings (1857), and would marry Katherine Dewar in 1858. But then the world changed. The Origin of Species was published in November 1859. The Darwinian Revolution had begun!

Tomorrow: Maxwell's post-Darwin views.

Photo: James Clerk Maxwell Monument, Edinburgh, by Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.