Examining Paley’s Watchmaker

William Paley published the following in 1802: “In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.” Known in short as the “Watchmaker” argument, the basic construction of this “proof” for the existence of God has become widely popularized and is still cause for discourse in philosophy classrooms to this day. As a Christian, I’m interested in establishing that my faith is not blind, but reasonable. However, Paley’s argument fails in significant ways, and while some might criticize this critique as friendly fire, it seems to me that only the best arguments should be left standing for belief in the Christian God. First I will lay out the very basic flow of Paley’s argument and then move to criticism.

The point Paley is making appears to be that: 1.) the complexity of the watch necessitates an intelligent designer. So 2.) the complexity of X (particular organism, or the universe) necessitates a designer. The first thing is to consider what’s at stake in the premise that complexity necessitates intelligent design. Here occurs the first logical fallacy in Paley’s argument. He wants to say that natural observation of the universe suggests a designer. But for Paley, this is not ambiguous, he wants to suggest a personal intelligent being as the designer–or atleast most of the people who employ his argument want to suggest such. Paley sees the complexity of living organisms and the Universe and so he asks himself, “Who put all this here?”  But this is question begging, because a designer does not imply a who, as evolutionary theory has shown us, design can be the result of a what. As soon as a person sees the world around them and asks who is responsible, they’ve already committed themselves to answering the question in a particular way. For this reason, Paley’s argument is as much a case for intelligent design as it is for natural selection.

Contemporary proponents of Paley’s argument seem to think that those who do not believe in intelligent design can only believe in a kind of luck. Richard Dawkins argues that life was the result of complex biological processes. He makes the case that evolutionists do not consider evolution to be lucky, but rather the result of billions of years of natural selection. While this may still not reach the degree of intended purpose that intelligent design brings forward, it at least seems to move beyond luck which removes yet more of the Watchmaker’s teeth.

Paley’s argument is chiefly bound up with an analogy. Watches are like complex organisms and the Universe. But even on this count, I think Paley has to be challenged. Watches are often made by multiple individuals or machines, and so they do not have a singular designer as Paley believes the Universe does. Also, Paley is able to observe the creation of a watch, but neither he nor anyone has observed the creation of a world. For the analogy to hold, one should be capable of listing all the reasons why watches are like the universe. If this difficulty can be overcome, it still leaves the obvious that while similar complexities may exist, claims about their similar origins can’t be made without presuppositions that Paley does not make clear in his argument. However, this is precisely not the question which Paley wants to address. He wants to prove the existence of God by proving something else about origins first–but his argument fails in this capacity.

I don’t think that Paley’s argument from analogy proves what he thought it did. If anything it leaves the door wide open for multiple theories about origins, and not just intelligent design. An argument by analogy is in itself not a sustainable argument without the back work. It’s also never evidence that something exists, just merely in favor of something existing.

At this point I’d like to speak briefly to the ways his argument is misused in contemporary debates about God’s existence. For me, and actually for most Christians, science and faith belong together. I would like to be called a creationist, and by that I mean that I believe the Christian Trinitarian God is responsible for the origin and sustaining of the Universe. In my view the Bible leaves things open ended for discussion about the processes which God uses to bring the universe into existence. At some point the Church of my generation may have to have our “Galileo moment”. The Earth really isn’t at the center of the universe, and the evidence continues to mount and say that observable life and nature really is the result of a very slow process which included the mutation, disappearance, and emergence of many species. Paley’s argument is used to contribute to the false dichotomy between faith and reason.

Paley’s argument is weak because of 1.) its poor analogy, 2.) its false characterization of theories besides intelligent design being about “luck”, and 3.) the way it begs the question of a who instead of a what as responsible for the Universe. Contemporary application of Paley’s argument is also contributing to the great chasm between faith and reason. Writing this paper as a Christian wasn’t difficult as some might assume. I would like to see many others with worldviews like my own embrace a reunion of faith and reason, much like Galileo had to convince his contemporaries of. At some point, ignoring the evidence becomes intellectually malicious. At the very least, Paley’s watchmaker is not the argument I want to stake my belief on, and there are certainly stronger cases for alternatives to evolution in the origins debate.

Works Cited:

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion, 2006. Specifically the chapter on “the Blind Watchmaker”.

Paley, William. Natural Theology, 1802.

Martin, Joel. What do Most Christian Think about Evolution?, July 15, 2010. Ret. 2/22/14