Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Advantage of Proofs for the Being of God
By William Paley (17431805)
From Natural Theology
IN all cases wherein the mind feels itself in danger of being confounded by variety, it is sure to rest upon a few strong points, or perhaps upon a single instance. Amongst a multitude of proofs it is one that does the business. If we observe in any argument that hardly any two minds fix upon the same instance, the diversity of choice shows the strength of the argument, because it shows the number and competition of the examples. There is no subject in which the tendency to dwell upon select or single topics is so usual, because there is no subject, of which, in its full extent, the latitude is so great, as that of natural history applied to the proof of an intelligent Creator. For my part, I take my stand in human anatomy; and the examples of mechanism I should be apt to draw out from the copious catalogue which it supplies are,the pivot on which the head turns, the ligament within the socket of the hip-joint, the pulley or trochlear muscles of the eye, the epiglottis, the bandages which tie down the tendons of the wrist and instep, the slit or perforated muscles at the hands and feet, the knitting of the intestines to the mesentery, the course of the chyle into the blood, and the constitution of the sexes as extended through the whole of the animal creation. To these instances the readers memory will go back, as they are generally set forth in their places; there is not one of the number which I do not think decisive; not one which is not strictly mechanical; nor have I read or heard of any solution of these appearances, which, in the smallest degree, shakes the conclusion that we build upon them.
But, of the greatest part of those, who, either in this book or any other, read arguments to prove the existence of a God, it will be said, that they leave off only where they began; that they were never ignorant of this great truth, never doubted of it; that it does not therefore appear, what is gained by researches from which no new opinion is learnt, and upon the subject of which no proofs were wanted. Now I answer, that, by investigation, the following points are always gained, in favour of doctrines even the most generally acknowledged (supposing them to be true), viz., stability and impression. Occasions will arise to try the firmness of our most habitual opinions. And upon these occasions it is a matter of incalculable use to feel our foundation; to find a support in argument, for what we had taken up upon authority. In the present case, the arguments upon which the conclusion rests, are exactly such, as a truth of universal concern ought to rest upon. They are sufficiently open to the views and capacities of the unlearned, at the same time that they acquire new strength and lustre from the discoveries of the learned. If they had been altogether abstruse and recondite, they would not have found their way to the understandings of the mass of mankind; if they had been merely popular, they might have wanted solidity.
Physicians tell us that there is a great deal of difference between taking a medicine, and the medicine getting into the constitution. A difference not unlike which obtains with respect to those great moral propositions which ought to form the directing principles of human conduct. It is one thing to assent to a proposition of this sort; another and a very different thing, to have properly imbibed its influence. I take the case to be this: perhaps almost every man living has a particular train of thought, into which his mind glides and falls, when at leisure from the impressions and ideas that occasionally excite it: perhaps, also, the train of thought here spoken of, more than any other thing, determines the character. It is of the utmost consequence, therefore, that this property of our constitution be well regulated. Now it is by frequent or continued meditation upon a subject, by placing a subject in different points of view, by induction of particulars, by variety of examples, by applying principles to the solution of phenomena, by dwelling upon proofs and consequences, that mental exercise is drawn into any particular channel. It is by these means, at least, that we have any power over it. The train of spontaneous thought, and the choice of that train, may be directed to different ends, and may appear to be more or less judiciously fixed, according to the purpose in respect of which we consider it: but, in a moral view, I shall not, I believe, be contradicted when I say, that, if one train of thinking be more desirable than another, it is that which regards the phenomena of nature with a constant reference to a supreme intelligent Author.