The Epicurean Hypothesis rejected

John Ray (1627-1705)

This short selection from Ray's 'The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation' (1768 edition) shows that the basic argument against random chance forming significant design in Nature goes back centuries. Intelligent Design requires an Intelligent Designer.

The second hypothesis is that of the Epicureans, who held, that there were two principles self-existent. First, Space or vacuity; Secondly, Matter, or body; both of infinite duration and extension. In this infinite space, or vacuity, which hath neither beginning, not end, nor middle, no limits, or extremes, innumerable minute bodies, into which the matter was divided, called atoms, because by reason of their perfect solidity they were really indivisible; for they hold no body capable of division, but what hath vacuities interspersed with matter, of various but a determinate number of figures, and equally ponderous, do perpendicularly descend, and by their fortuitous concourse make compound bodies, and at last the world itself. But now, because if all these atoms should descend plum down with equal velocity, as according to their doctrine they ought to do, being (as we said ) all perfectly solid and imporous, and the vacuum not resisting their motion, they would never the one overtake the other, but, like the drops of a shower, would always keep the same distances, and so there could be no concourse, or cohesion of them, and consequently nothing created; partly to avoid this destructive consequence, and partly to give some account of the freedom of will (which they did assert contrary to the Democritick fate) they did absurdly feign a declination of some of these principles, without any shadow or pretence of reason. The former of these motives you have set down by Lucretius, De Nat. Rerum, lib. 2. in these words:

Corpora cum deorsum rectum per inane feruntur

Ponderibus propriis, incerto tempore, forte,

Incertisque locis, spatio discedere paulum;

Tantum quod nomen mutatum dicere possis.

And again,

Quod nisi declinare solerent, omnia deorsum

Imbris uti guttae caderent per inane profundum,

Nec foret offensus natus, nec plaga creata

Principiis, ita nil unquam natura creasset.

Now seeds in downward motion must decline,

Tho’ vary little from th’ exactest line;

For did they still move strait, they needs must fall

Like drops of rain, dissolv’d and scatter’d all,

For ever tumbling thro’ the mighty space,

And never join to make one single mass.

The second motive they had to introduce this gratuitous declination of atoms, the same poet gives us in these verses, lib. 2.

—Si semper motus connectitur omnis,

Et vetere exoritur semper novus ordine certo;

Nec declinando faciunt primordia motus

Principium quoddam quod fati foedera rumpat,

Ex infinito ne causam causa sequatur;

Libera per terras unde haec animantibus, extat,

Unde haec est, inquam, fatis avolsa voluntas?

Besides, did all things move in direct line,

And still one motion to another join

In certain order, and no seeds decline,

And make a motion fit to dissipate

The well-wrought chains of causes and strong fate;

Whence comes that freedom living creatures find?

Whence comes the will so free, so unconfin’d,

Above the power of the fate?

The folly and unreasonableness of this ridiculous and ungrounded figment, I cannot better display and reprove than in the words of Cicero, in the beginning of his first book De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum. This declination (saith he) is altogether childishly feigned, and yet neither doth it at all solve the difficulty, or effect what they desire: for, first, They say the atoms decline, and yet assign no reason why. Now nothing is more shameful and unworthy a natural philosopher [turpius physico] than to assert any thing to be done without a cause, or to give no reason of it. Besides, this is contrary to their own hypothesis taken from sense, that all weights do naturally move perpendicularly downward. Secondly, Again supposing this were true, and that there were such a declination of atoms, yet will it not effect what they intend; for either they do all decline, and so there will be no more concourse than if they did perpendicularly descend, or some decline, and some fall plum down, which is ridiculously to assign distinct offices and tasks to the atoms, which are all of the same nature and solidity. Again, in his book De Fato, he smartly derides this fond conceit thus: What cause is there in nature which turns the atoms aside? or do they cast lots among themselves, which shall decline, which not? Or why do they decline the least interval that may be, and not a greater? Why not two or three minima as well as one? Optare hoc quidem est non disputare. For neither is the atom by any extrinsical impulse diverted from its natural course; neither can there be any cause imagined in the vacuity through which it is carried, why it should not move directly; neither is there any change made in the atom itself, that it should not retain the motion natural to it, by force of its weight or gravity.

As for the whole atomical hypothesis, either Epicurean or Democritick, I shall not, nor need I, spend time to confute it; this having been already solidly and sufficiently done by many learned men, but especially Dr. Cudworth, in his Intellectual System of the Universe, and the late Bishop of Worcester, Dr. Stillingfleet, in his Origines Sacrae. Only I cannot omit the Ciceronian confutation thereof, which I find in the place first quoted, and in his first and second books De Natura Deorum, because it may serve as a general introduction to the following particulars. Such a turbulent concourse of atoms could never, (saith he) hunc mundi ornatum efficere, compose so well-ordered and beautiful a structure as the world; which therefore both in Greek and Latin hath from thence [ab ornatu et munditie] obtained its name. And again, most fully and appositely in his second De Nat. Deorum: if the works of nature are better, more exact and perfect, than the works of art, and art effects nothing without reason, neither can the works of nature be thought to be effected without reason; for, is it not absurd and incongruous, that when thou beholdest a statue or curious picture, thou shouldst acknowledge that art was used to the making of it; or when thou seest the course of a ship upon the waters, thou shouldst not doubt but the motion of it is regulated and directed by reason and art; or when thou considerest a sundial, or clock, thou shouldst understand presently, that the hours are shewn by art, and not by chance; and yet imagine or believe, that the world, which comprehends all these arts and artificers, was made without counsel or reason? If one should carry into Scythia or Britain such a sphere as our friend Possidonius lately made, each of whose conversions did the same thing in the sun, and moon, and other five planets, which we see effected every night and day in the heavens, who among those barbarians would doubt that that sphere was composed by reason and art? A wonder then it must needs be, that there should be any man found so stupid and forsaken of reason, as to persuade himself, that this most beautiful and adorned world was, or could be produced by the fortuitous concourse of atoms. He that can prevail with himself to believe this, I do not see why he may not as well admit, that if there were made innumerable figures of the one and twenty letters, in gold, suppose, or any other metal, and these well shaken and mixed together, and thrown down from some high place to the ground, they, when they lighted upon the Earth, would be so disposed and ranked that a man might see and read in them Ennius’ Annals; whereas it were a great chance if he should find one verse thereof among them all: for, if this concourse of atoms could make a whole world, why may it not sometimes make, and why hath it not somewhere or other in the earth, made a temple, or a gallery, or a portico, or a house, or a city? which yet is so far from doing, and every man so far from believing, that should any one of us be cast, suppose, upon a desolate island, and find there a magnificent palace, artificially contrived according to the exactest rules of architecture, and curiously adorned and furnished, it would never once enter into his head, that this was done by an earthquake, or the fortuitous shuffling together of its component materials; or that it had stood there ever since the construction of the world, or first cohesion of atoms; but would presently conclude, that there had been some intelligent architect there, the effect of whose art and skill it was. Or should he find there but one single sheet of parchment or paper, an epistle or oration written, full of profound sense, expressed in proper and significant words, illustrated and adorned with elegant phrase; it were beyond the possibility of the wit of man to persuade him that this was done by the temerarious dashes of an unguided pen, or by the rude scattering of ink upon the paper, or by the lucky projection of so many letters at all adventures; but he would be convinced by the evidence of the thing at first sight, that there had been not only some man, but some scholar there.