Robert Frost and the argument from design

Robert Frost, a poet whom many Americans encounter in high school English classes as the author of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” or whose piece, “The Road Not Taken,” gets misinterpreted on inspirational posters, was a perceptive thinker, someone who gave voice in many of his poems to opposing points of view, allowing each a chance at expression. The saying, “good fences make good neighbors,” is only one side of the discussion in “Mending Wall,” and the speaker of the poem expresses his doubts, though he does not insist that his neighbor is wrong and participates in the repair of the wall between their properties.

In other poems, Frost takes a conventionally held notion and explores its implications. One example of this is “Design,” published first in the collection A Further Range in 1936:

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,

On a white heal-all, holding up a moth

Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —

Assorted characters of death and blight

Mixed ready to begin the morning right,

Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,

And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,

The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?

What brought the kindred spider to that height,

Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

What but design of darkness to appall? —

If design govern in a thing so small.

I include this poem in my introduction to literature classes since many of my students have been raised in the traditions of fundamentalist Christianity. Frost raises a question in it that strikes at the heart of the claims made by those who believe the universe to be the result of their deity’s intentions — the supposed intelligent designer. In their view, one that goes back to the attempts at proving the existence of God in the Middle Ages and got its modern expression in William Paley’s watchmaker formulation, the cosmos is the product of a designer who set everything up according to some plan, assumed to be perfect, and supposedly proved by the presence of irreducibly complex elements — analogues of Paley’s watch.

The latter was not Frost’s concern, and I address such claims elsewhere. What “Design” forces us to face are the implications of a designer of the reality we inhabit, the whole of that reality, not merely some bowdlerized version.

Frost’s attitudes about the theory of evolution have been discussed by Robert Faggen and others, but here note the parallel to Darwin’s discomfort over the ichneumon wasp that paralizes catepillers to maintain fresh food for her children that will consume their host from the inside. While this particular example may not be known to many believers, the existence of carnivores cannot have escaped them.

And that is what “Design” addresses. The assumption about the supposed intelligent designer is that he — and yes, proponents of this concept do mean the Christian god, regardless of what they say in court cases accusing them of attempting to establish their religion in law — is benevolent, that he has arranged the best of all possible worlds. Frost insists that those who accept this claim look at the moral horrors in the world.

The standard answer among fundamentalists is to say that the Devil and sin solve the problem. A malevolent being introduced evil into the system, thereby corrupting everything that is touched. And according to this view, this state of affairs had to be tolerated if free will is to exist.

But that does not explain why spiders have to be allowed to eat moths. My choices to sin or to obey are not affected by the dietary habits of arachnids. While sin would likely have consequences for the innocent, the combined characteristics of sin and free will do not necessitate universal influence from single acts.

What if, however, the designer is not benevolent, entirely or in part? Frost was willing to entertain that question, and if he had wanted to, he could have cited the Bible itself as evidence. In the book of Job, God engages in a wager with Satan — the Accuser, in Hebrew, not the Christian Devil — regarding how much the latter can torture a particular human being before he breaks. And when God eventually comes down to confront Job — again, in the literal Hebrew telling him to pull on his pants and get ready to fight — the divine answer is that God has bigger things to do than to take care of the small details such as the life of one man. Then ending of the book in which Job gets new wealth and new children was probably tacked on at a later date, but if it is part of the original text, it makes God look even worse, someone who has a childish view of compensation for harms done.

One attempt at salvaging the goodness of God is found in Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People: Saving divine benevolence requires dropping the claim of an omniscient deity. That is more than many of today’s Christians are willing to do, and it leaves the problems of God’s complicity in Job unresolved, but a loving designer who is not capable of controlling every aspect of his designs — or who turns his designs loose in the universe and cannot manage them afterward — would answer Frost’s challenge.

Another answer is given by people who claim that God’s ultimate purpose is unknown to us. The case of the two sides of a tapestry gets raised here. We are supposedly viewing things from the back side, while the pattern reveals itself to those who look from the correct perspective. I doubt this would offer much comfort to the moth, and it feels like a claim of desperation when a human being makes it. It is, in fact, a faulty analogy, since the threads of a woven cloth are not the free moral agents of Christian doctrine. Now it may be that the designer is so far above us as to be untroubled by our personal demands to be treated with decency, but to maintain this solution, we are allowed to call said designer omnipotent, but we have to dispose of any notions of characterizing the designer as loving. I may knot or cut soulless threads as I please, but I am not entitled to do the same with such abandon to conscious beings — especially if I say that I love them.

Frost’s poem knocks the moral legs out from under the argument that the Christian God is proved by design in the world. Considering that argument’s failings in scientific terms, it is best acknowledged as having failed altogether and left to the history, rather than the current activity of philosophy and theology.

Notes

Frost, Robert. The Poetry of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1969. Print.

Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Anchor, 2004. Print.

This will be a chapter in my book, Insufficient Faith: Reason in Science and Religion. For more of my current writing, go here.

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