Lucretius and an anti-theist argument from design

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with visual content!

I’m looking at Lucretius’ philosophical poem, On the Nature of the Universe, as I’m teaching it next semester. I noticed a twist on a standard argument for the existence of God: the argument from design. This is the argument that the universe is remarkably well designed so someone must have designed it. It’s also known as the ‘watchmaker analogy’, where the argument is that a watch must have been designed and made by a watchmaker, and this must be true of the universe which is much more elaborate than a watch and has very regular laws of nature. The ‘intelligent design’ argument is another name for it, though used as a rather thin disguise for attempting to teach Biblical creationism in schools, or at least undermine Darwinism in schools.

Lucretius does not exactly argue for atheism, which is why I used the more ambiguous term anti-theism, which could just mean rejecting any very claim to knowledge of, or experience of, God or gods.

Lucretius argues that the universe should be understood purely in terms of natural forces, with no place for supernatural intervention. His argument is that there are objects in the universe, in particular living beings. These beings clearly come from somewhere in a quite regular manner, they stay in one piece over time, they end life, or existence, in a very defined way, often very slowly. They do not jump in and out of existence, they do not jump suddenly from one stage of existence to another, they exist in a very solid way, they act in a law bound way. If gods, or any supernatural force, was acting on nature and producing it, we would expect all those things which do not happen to happen. We would expect sudden spontaneous lawless jumping in an out of existence, and so on.

Lucretius is saying that because the universe works in a predictable law governed way, which we could called designed, we don’t need God, gods or any supernatural entities or forces under any name or any description.

The other side to that is that Lucretius suggests that the in an infinite universe of chance, the universe we see will appear by accident at some point through the constant rearrangement of the atoms Lucretius believes make up nature. That could be taken as anticipating a multi-verse argument, in which our universe is just one of all the universes which exist through chance, Every possibility becomes real in some universe. Lucretius also anticipates arguments for evolution, and all arguments for self-regulating emergent systems in economics, biology, and anywhere else they might occur.

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