Eric’s fascinating post quotes Posidonius:
If, then, the things achieved by nature are more excellent than those achieved by art, and if art produces nothing without making use of intelligence, nature also ought not to be considered destitute of intelligence.
What does it mean to attribute intelligence to “Nature”? Is it to posit a purposeful, instrumentally rational, and technically omni-adept Creator? Or is it merely an analogy that ultimately rests on something other than intelligence? According to Eric, Adam Smith took him the first way:
The idea of an universal mind, of a God of all, who originally formed the whole, and who governs the whole by general laws, directed to the conservation and prosperity of the whole, without regard to that of any private individual, was a notion to which they [i.e., the pusillanimously superstitious] were utterly strangers.
So for Smith, and for his hero, Posidonius, the excellence of nature points to a God who is never arbitrary or ad hoc (as the pusillanimous suppose), but always rational, always universal in her edicts.
But Eric also quotes the divine David Hume:
It was pretty late too before these [Greek natural philosophers] be thought themselves of having recourse to a mind or supreme intelligence, as the first cause of all.
I don’t know exactly who Hume had in mind, but Aristotle would be a good example of some one who asserted the analogy, but did not avail himself of a Creator (except as an ultimate cause of movement and change).
In general, art either imitates the works of nature or completes that which nature is unable to bring to completion. If, then, that which is in accordance with art is for something, clearly so is that which is in accordance with nature . . . If the swallow’s act in making its nest is both due to nature and for something, and the spider’s in making its web, and the plant’s in producing leaves for its fruit, and roots not up but down for nourishment, plainly this sort of cause is present in things which are and come to be due to nature. (tr. Charlton; emphasis added)
In this passage, and in others, Aristotle posits a kind of cause—the for something—that is present in both nature and art, but does not ground that cause in the intelligence of a Creator. What exactly is the “for something”? A full discussion would take us too far afield, but what Aristotle has in mind is a hierarchy of functions, such that the lower functions are realizations of the higher, in the way that means are realizations of ends. A plant must have fruit for reproductive purposes; the fruit must be protected, and so the plant makes leaves; the fruit must be nourished and so the plant has roots that grow downwards to where nutriment is found. For Aristotle, such realization (or means-end) hierarchies are just a fact of nature, and the natural philosopher must posit “final causes” to take note of these and properly understand the organization of living things. To do otherwise would be to treat leaves and roots as useful "coincidences."
Eric’s insightful division of superstition into the pusillanimous and the magnanimous tells us much about a certain strand of natural theology. But to me it is inspiring to note that (as Eric implies) Hume, following Aristotle (a half-millenium earlier than Posidonius), eschewed superstition altogether.