Wallace Matson on Primitive Thinking and Design

Here [the argument from design] is not yet explicitly formulated, for the good reason that arguments are not constructed to prove beliefs that no one conceives of doubting. When primitive man, “having dined” (Rousseau), begins to think about the origins and guiding forces of nature conceived more or less as a whole, he does not “reach the conclusion” that nature is the product of manlike beings; he does not, that is, consider various alternatives and hit on this one as the most likely.

Rather, the conception of an impersonal force or agency does not occur to him – not because he is obtuse, but because, first, there are only a few cause-effect relationships known to him in which his experience encompasses both the cause and the effect: hunting, canoe making, pottery, sorcery, etc.; all or nearly all of these involve personal agency. Second, primitive thinking is conducted in social terms, for the idea of the individual contrasted and possibly opposed to the social unit has scarcely arisen – and in social terms, the question that is asked about any event that needs accounting for is not “What caused it?” but “Who is guilty?”

It would be misleading to describe primitive thought as conceiving of all causes as personal, for our notion of cause is simply not present. It is better to say that all primitive explanations consist in imputing guilt or responsibility.

Quoted from Critiques of God, ed. Peter Angeles (Promotheus Books: 1997) pp. 61-62


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