(Isaac Habrecht, 1589, based on the Cathedral Clock in Strasbourg)
[>>British Museum, London]
oil on canvas, c.1689-90
[>>National Portrait Gallery, London]
Reason and Nature were inseparable concepts during the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Important scientific advances impressed upon that age just how rational — that is, how understandable — nature really was. What before had struck humans as unfathomable mystery or confusion was slowly yielding to scientific explanation. Nor did this unlocking of nature’s mysteries lead scientists away from religion; rather, most scientists viewed it as lending support to the notion that God must have created this world — for how better could we explain the rational ordering found in nature? Only a rational mind could bring about such a rational world. The very fact that nature was understandable was strong evidence that it came from God, the very source of reason. John Locke wrote that “the works of Nature everywhere sufficiently evidence a Deity,” and his chemist friend at Oxford, Robert Boyle, claimed that “there is incomparably more art expressed in the structure of a dog’s foot than in that of the famous clock at Strasbourg.”
Boyle’s point is clear: the clock in the Strasbourg Cathedral was the most complicated piece of machinery of its day, with people traveling from all over Europe just to wonder at it — and yet this greatest of human inventions paled in comparison with the meanest of natural structures, such as a dog’s foot. Just as the human mind is the source of the rational ordering found in a clock, the divine mind must be the source of the rational ordering found in nature, whether it be the foot of a dog, the motion of the planets, or human beings themselves and their powerful minds.
So it was the rise of modern science that eclipsed earlier arguments for God’s existence, and moved to center stage a new proof: the argument from design. This proof argues from the design or order of the universe to the need for a rational creator. Given the apparent design in the world (how everything seems to fit together, like an intricate machine), it would seem that the world was in fact designed. Such order could not have come about simply by chance. And given the complexity of the design, only God could have been the designer. Or so it seemed at the time.