Facts in political philosophy

by Chris Bertram on August 1, 2003

Just musing on the whole facts and principles issue, I was reminded of a text which Jeremy Waldron brought up on the very first occasion I heard the Cohen thesis discussed. It isn’t really relevant to the whole fact-insensitive principle stuff at all, but it is a reminder of the kind of “facts” our great precursors helped themselves to! Normally when people are arguing for design in nature, they go for things like the structure of the eye, but Kant had other “evidence” in mind in this wonderful passage from _Perpetual Peace_ :

bq. It is in itself wonderful that moss can still grow in the cold wastes around the Arctic Ocean; the _reindeer_ can scrape it out from beneath the snow, and can thus serve itself as nourishment or as a draft animal for the Ostiaks or Samoyeds. Similarly, the sandy salt deserts contain the _camel_, which seems as if it had been created for travelling over them in order that they might not be left unutilised. But evidence of design in nature emerges even more clearly when we realise that the shores of the Arctic Ocean are inhabited not only by fur-bearing animals, but also by seals, walrusses and whales, whose flesh provides food and whose fat provides warmth for the native inhabitants. Nature’s care also arouses admiration, however, by carrying driftwood to these treeless regions without anyone knowing exactly where it comes from. For if they did not have this material, the natives would not be able to construct either boats or weapons, on dwellings in which to live. ( _Kant: Political Writings_ ed. Reiss p. 110)



Scott Martens 08.01.03 at 6:11 pm

This sort of thinking is a pretty common thread through pre-Darwinian religious apologia. My grandfather had a series of sermons using this sort of example, and my uncle uses this sort of thing in preaching too. These “facts” were taken as incontrovertable proof of the existence of God.

I wonder if one reason evolution gets such resistance is because it deprives people of such aesthetically pleasing explanation of why God must exist.


back40 08.01.03 at 6:39 pm

There’s no deprivation, there are just new facts and relationships that through their subtlety, beauty and beneficent existence inspire awe, appreciation and somehow spark the deistic engrams in some minds. Current examples come from modern physicists and cosmologists and relate to properties of matter and energy that seem tuned to producing this lovely reality of which we are a part.

In that sense, Kant’s arguments are as fresh and relevant today as ever (though they seem almost camp) and will be as long as we continue to gain new and increasingly subtle understandings of deep reality. The argument from design hasn’t gone away, isn’t made only by dull minds with few facts and little knowledge, and has relevance to the core beliefs of a very large number of people. It is still worth refuting with care and precision.


Scott Martens 08.01.03 at 7:15 pm

Back – I don’t want to appear to claim that arguments from design are held by the ill-informed or stupid. My grandfather was a great many things, not all of which I liked, but he was neither stupid nor ignorant.

Rather, it is the constantly changing nature of arguments for design that suggest, I think, that they aren’t very good. What was incontrovertable evidence of design 200 years ago is now almost a tautology. If the means to live weren’t present in the far north, nothing would live there, and there is little mystery to why the things that do live there are so well adapted to it. There are people who propose that the same sort of logic should apply to the issues in cosmology that appear to favour explanation from design.

Besides, people understand and appreciate the balances of nature far mor easily than questions about cosmological constants.


David Duff 08.01.03 at 9:06 pm

Scott gently reprimands theists for “the constantly changing nature of arguements for design”. But what is the history of science but a ‘constantly changing nature of arguements’? Perhaps the most savage example of the survival of the fittest can be deduced from the carcasses of dead scientific theories that once claimed to explain so much.

It seems to me (as an agnostic and a non-scientist) that the theists always win the last trick in the debating game because there are so many fundamental mysteries defying explanation.
David Duff


W. E. Wade 08.01.03 at 9:26 pm

The last trick of the debate would then be the “God of the Gaps”, where a theistic belief that if science can not explain it now, then it can not be explained. The changing nature of the arguments of science is different from that of design, namely that the arguments of science explain more over time as opposed to the retreating shifts of design.

I was a teacher for a period whenI was not working as an engineer as I am now. One of the things I tried to impress on my science classes was that science is not the familiar territory of the known, but the method by which the frontier of the unknown was pushed back. If science were able to answer all of the questions of the universe, then science would be over, and all that would be left is the engineering.


Loren 08.01.03 at 9:42 pm

I suppose the weak anthropic principle provides a decent strategy of response to some (many?) of the more recent variants of the design conjecture: the universe looks fine-tuned for intelligent life because intelligent life could only evolve in a universe that was well-suited for the evolution of life. But aside from courting tautology, anthropic reasoning may come at a strange cost


Chris Bertram 08.01.03 at 10:47 pm

Arguments from design not very good? Let me report that I read Paley for the first time the other day (the passage about finding a watch) and I thought he was quite brilliant (though magnificently wrong, of course).


Realish 08.01.03 at 11:24 pm

Yeah, Paley’s argument is pretty good–particularly when there’s no other plausible explanation for the watch. But now that there is, what you have is not a deduction of the sort he hoped for, but competing inductions.

And really, if it comes down to natural laws operating over time, or a big watchmaker in the sky…

Interestingly, though, when I teach Intro to Philosophy and present the watchmaker argument, almost all students intuitively grasp and support it. When I raise the objection above, they are willing to change their minds, but reluctantly, and almost sadly. There is something about the argument(s) from design that really resonates with us.

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