Evolution or Design: Philosophy, Theology, and the Universe

David Hume expresses that humankind cannot know that the world was designed by God, an idea that was obviously novel in his time, when Judeo-Christian thinking continued to put emphasis on the creation myth that is found in the Old Testament’s book of Genesis. William Paley’s argument concerning design responds in a way suggesting that Hume did not grasp the point made by those who favour the concept of Divine creation of the universe. (in Davies, 2000, 253-259) For Paley, if the universe could be seen to have some sort of systematic design, as perhaps is suggested by laws of natural physics that are now known to us, then we cannot rule out that some kind of instigator was at work in establishing the universe’s different systems.

Hume used analogy to explain his position, narrating a discussion between Cleanthes and Demea, in response to the pious position of Philo. For instance, the presence of a house obviously points to the existence, at some point, of its having had an architect or builder. However, Hume continues with a comment that, “surely you will not affirm that the universe bears such a resemblance to a house, that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy is here, entire and perfect”. (in Davies, 2000, 261) Phil might attribute all creation to God, but God need not have made the universe, just because a house or a table, for that matter, has had its maker. Paley, on the other hand, uses the example of a watch that we can easily recognize as such, although we do not know who the maker was or, most significantly, how the watch was made, or how it operates. (in Davies, 2000, 254) Indeed, we do not need to know these things in order to understand what the watch is, its function, and how to use it to our advantage.

Hume valued natural laws but he saw their limitations in terms of just how much could be known by human beings, or how much people could really draw from these laws, for in discussing the universe, perhaps everything did not need to have a logical ‘cause and effect’, that the processes of the universe might be grander than anything the human mind could see or fully understand. In a sense, Paley seems to be agreeing, again, in referring to a watch, as he writes that not only do we not need to know how a watch was made or functions, but that we do not expect the watch to be perfect in its operation. Just because it may sometimes fail to indicate the time, or may lose important seconds, for instance, it does not just cease to be watch that can be understood with sufficient study, or the summary of another person. An uninformed person could begin to understand some feature of how a watch was made to tell the time but need not expect to understand it totally, or to see it as perfect, or to believe that it had any order of its own, beyond the workings that came to be understood. (in Davies, 2000, 254-255)

Hume wrote at a time when science was making great gains. He also had the wit to understand that, a very small part of, “this great system”, referring to the universe, had come to be understood through a very short time. In this area, he seems to match Paley in his reminder that we do not need to understand everything of how something works, or how it has originated, in order to see its result or function. Hume knew that the universe had been, “very imperfectly discovered”, and that it was therefore impossible to suggest with any certainty anything about the origins of it. (in Davies, 2000, 264) Hume also makes reference to the inability of the human mind to understand the Infinite, as he seems to have thought the universe was, that it might be boundless, and that the human mind was only capable of grasping what it could see or fathom. The idea that the universe was the result of divine creation he saw as very flawed for the divine might not be something that made things in the way of a person, or for that matter, could be altogether capable of making Creation but in ways that humans could not, or would never clearly understand. Perfection could not be ascribed to God, “even in his finite capacity” and at the same time, it was not enough to just state that God was, “free from every error, mistake, or incoherence in his undertakings”. (in Davies, 2000, 265)

If the story of Creation were known to be true, as it was once strongly presented in the Christian religion, this still would not imply that the laws of the universe were consistent, or knowable, or that the universe need have any symmetry as the human minds prefers to think in such terms, and is unhappy with what is random and disordered. In general, Hume seems to have noticed a tendency for people to discuss whether the universe was the work of one mind, in the Divine, or to move towards another extreme, of the universe as the result of several, quite incoherent influences. (in Davies, 2000, 269) Religious answers were for Hume no more satisfying than those of science and it was necessary for the thinking person to suspend judgment as, “our only reasonable resource”. (in Davies, 2000, 270) Paley’s argument seems to center on the unknowable as still being valid for consideration, including the possibility of divine creation, but this argument does not seem very convincing as he responds more or less to Hume’s criticisms with reactions of, ‘well, we don’t know that the universe wasn’t created’. Hume ends up seeming the more balanced in his demand that the individual learn to rather hang in the balance, accepting that he or she cannot know whether Design or random or other creation were true, in the beginning, or whether different processes of different kinds went into creating the natural world, over time. Of course, this is much harder for many people to do, given a wish for final answers, that allow some sense of symmetry or order.

The questions discussed by both Hume and Paley become more interesting when examined in the light of John L. Mackie, and then, Stephen T. Davis’s treatments. Mackie stresses that there is no conflict in accepting Evolution as the cause of the universe as we study it, for it has been religious consciousness in its version of Design by divine means that has been interpreted as an opposite, or as the pole against which all “scientific” arguments must be made. (in Shatz, 2001, 235) The theory of Darwin seems to provide more answers for Mackie and that were not available to Hume who, again, interpreted the question of Design as one that was either “for or against” creationism, as much as he recommended that the individual force himself or herself to suspend judgment on what might be true, ultimately. The human mind enjoys suggesting models of the solar system, or discussing the laws of gravity, even though it still cannot be known that there was any predetermination for what seems to be regular, or that which can be measured. Darwin’s theory, obviously, caused a complete upset in convenient myths of God’s methodical creation of the world and humankind.

In Darwin’s day, the very idea of imperfect creation, let alone the suggestion that man did not stand far to the side of the animal kingdom, was seen as revolutionary. Perhaps we forget in the early 21st century, that educated people did not always accept their close biological relationship to apes. Evolution of the universe is entirely possible and clashes only with the pole of divine Design, but does not need to clash with that other pole discussed by Hume or Mackie, in other means of creation or the universe’s development that can be taken tentatively. As Mackie seems to have explained, a person who was a theist could find a kind of compromise in seeing the ‘creation of evolution’ in different processes or actions that set the universe in action, and this evolutionary idea of design could stretch to fit in the challenge posed by Darwin. (in Shatz, 2001, 236-237) Much philosophy of Design seems to refer to the conditions of the initial “set up” of the universe, whether shaped by the ‘hand of God’ or the result of conditions of chaos as in the big bang theory, as these both refer to an eventual order of developments or patterns that humankind can still study and learn to understand. Eventually, theistic arguments, in our time, must face up to new knowledge from nuclear physics or chemistry which can support or perhaps totally disprove thematic models of creation, of various kinds. (in Shatz, 2001, 236)

Upon turning to Stephen Davis’s criticism of how we tend to look at Evolution in relation to Design, some very old questions become very interesting, indeed. (in Shatz, 2001, 222-229) Where Mackie sheds more contemporary light on what is discussed by Hume or Paley, Davis moves quickly to how we have looked at Darwinian ideas of evolution quite narrowly, perhaps assuming that Darwin was right when, in fact, many models and theories might lead to the same sort of conclusion concerning gradual changes in the solar system, environment and species, that have gone into making the universe as we know it today, and as it will be known differently in the future. Davis explains that much that came after Darwin can be seen as instances of what he calls, “fine tuning”. (in Shatz, 2001, 223) When stating that current approaches are “probabilistic” as opposed to deductive, he shows how the foundations of how we criticize the idea of divine Creation are a bit flimsy. Much of what he writes from here, seems to refer to such pursuits as current ‘superstring’ theory in physics, as it moves forward at a terrific rate, with less emphasis placed on substantiating what is ventured by theorists.

Davis explains several ideas important to our current understanding of the non-theistic but natural origins of the universe, pointing out their sometimes uncanny ‘coincidences’. For example, so-called big bang theories do not really refer to random events because the force of an explosion of the kind would have to be at a particular rate and level to prevent too rapid expansion from over-balancing, “the gravitational attraction of the various bits of matter… no gases could have been formed, let alone the galaxies that the gases later became”. (2001, 224) If the rate of expansion had been too slow, the universe would have collapsed. In Davis’s view, it is very strange that if the big bang theory is anywhere near correct, that environmental force just happened to occur at the needed force and pressure.

Davis’s knowledge of science provides a break from what seems more like conjecture in the other philosophers’ views discussed in this paper. The reader learns that much of the now favoured theory of natural evolution from the ‘big bang’ demands isotropy too, in an even, smooth set of processes that just happened to take form, also. (2001, 225) Life forms emerged on that planet that just happened to be the correct distance from the sun, no closer and no further away from it. The universe seems to have had fine-tuning over time, roughly like the change-oriented ideas generated by Darwin and those to follow him, but none of these are satisfying of their own accord, as Davis is able to suggest.

Davis makes his strongest point in his conclusion, showing that current models boil down to two possibilities: either the universe was fine-tuned due to natural and random causes, or it became fine-tuned through the efforts of an, “intelligent designer”. (2001, 229) Those supporting theories of Design hold the latter to be stronger and as it also explains an endless human question of why was the universe created at all, that cannot be answered satisfactorily by scientific ideas alone referring to random events “mysteriously” followed by what seems to be the fine-tuning so mentioned in Davis’s argument.

In conclusion, Davis helps us to see that Hume really was not very far off the mark, as we read him many years later, in positing that a person must steer between the suggestions of both creationist and evolutionary models, that we cannot know at this point in time, the origin of the universe. Buy a dissertation on any other topic from our Ph.D. writers


  • Davis, Stephen T. “Fine-Tuning: The New Design Arguments”, in David Shatz. (ed) Philosophy and Faith – a Philosophy of Religion. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.
  • Hume, David. “We cannot know that the world is designed by God”, in Brian Davies. Philosophy of Religion – a Guide and Anthology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Mackey, John L. “Evolution: an Alternative to the Design Hypothesis”, in Shatz, Philosophy and Faith – a Philosophy of Religion.
  • Paley, William. “An especially famous argument”, in Davies, Philosophy of Religion – a Guide and Anthology.

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