Paley’s Watchmaker

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.
–William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

That’s how this teleological argument for the existence of God was most famously articulated. It’s also known as the argument from design. Like Pascal’s Wager, it’s one of those bits of theology that’s often repeated ad nauseum by laypersons, and usually ones who’ve never read the original citation above. And also like Pascal’s Wager, there are so many problems with it that it’s difficult to know where exactly to begin.

Paley wants to equate the natural world with the hypothetical watch left in the forest. He doesn’t draw the connection between the two. He just asserts that the two are similar in that they were both clearly designed. But whether or not they’re similar and therefore designed is exactly the question Paley’s trying to answer. So just claiming that they are is circular reasoning.

Furthermore, if the watch and the natural world were so similar then we wouldn’t even notice the watch in the first place. It wouldn’t stick out amongst the backdrop of the rest of the landscape which “might as well have been there forever.” If Paley’s assertion held water, we’d just be walking along and take no more notice of the watch than we do of a blade of grass or a bird because they would both have “every manifestation of design.”

But we do notice the watch. We can look at something which is obviously designed and know that it’s designed because we have at least some prior knowledge of watch design. Frankly, I know next to nothing about that subject, but I can at least look at a watch and recognize it as something we humans have made for a very long time. Even just going by the blog post so far we can know they’ve been manufactured for at least a few hundred years already.

You don’t even need Darwin and evolution to refute the watchmaker argument on these grounds. All that needs to be pointed out is something like this:

“A tree bestows order and organisation on that tree which springs from it, without knowing the order; an animal in the same manner on its offspring; a bird on its nest; and instances of this kind are even more frequent in the world than those of order, which arise from reason and contrivance. To say, that all this order in animals and vegetables proceeds ultimately from design, is begging the question; nor can that great point be ascertained otherwise than by proving, a priori, both that order is, from its nature, inseparably attached to thought; and that it can never of itself, or from original unknown principles, belong to matter.”
-David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1776)

So in crasser terms, there’s really no reason to even accept Paley’s assertion that every manifestation of design we rightfully notice in the watch also exists in the natural world. And even putting aside the self-refuting nature of his argument, the hypothetical watch he’s talking about didn’t really have a single watchmaker.

Sure, maybe a few centuries ago watches were designed and made one by one by a single individual in their workshop. But if the analogy to the Universe as a whole is to hold, that watchmaker would have had to have made their watch de novo. And this clearly could not be what happened.

Let’s take this a little more seriously and really think about this watchmaker who made the watch Paley discovered in the forest. At some point in his life, he decided to make watches for a living. Maybe his father taught him how, or maybe he took on an apprenticeship. But either way he learned from earlier watch designs and from others who had also made watches. A deity like the one Paley describes could not have any counterpoint to this passing on of skills unless it were watching other gods making other Universes and learning tricks of the Universe-making trade from them.

This watch which is made by a watchmaker is just one part of a long history of people who worked on devices meant to keep track of time. In earlier times, there was no second hand on a typical clock. Earlier than that, there was no minute hand. And even earlier still, no mechanics at all were used because all we had were sticks in the mud which then cast a shadow.

Watches, in other words, are the result of a gradual process where efficient parts are selected for and clumsy, inaccurate, and wasteful parts are selected against. And if you go back far enough in time, you get a point of origin which is perfectly explained by natural phenomenon.

So even if you give Paley a pass on the self-refuting part of his argument, it still fails again when it points directly to an unguided evolutionary explanation of the natural world and all its complexities and directly away from supernatural design.

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