Designed by the Watchmaker
William Paley’s famous argument from design
William Paley (1743–1805) was an English archdeacon and theologian known mainly for a book he wrote. The book is Natural Theology: or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearance of Nature1 (he is less well known for his fervent opposition to slave trade and denunciation of slavery in an earlier book2). It was very influential in the first half of the nineteenth century. In this book, Paley draws proof for the existence of a Creator from the design apparent in natural phenomena, and particularly in the human body.3
We here summarize William Paley’s argument from design, as contained in the book’s first two chapters, attempting to preserve his thoughts intact. Quotes indicate wording taken exactly from Paley.4
The argument (from chapter 1)
If a man finds a watch when crossing a heath, he will think somewhat differently than if he had found a stone. The watch shows clear evidence of design because of the way the components are put together to achieve a purpose.
“The inference we think, is inevitable,” says Paley, “that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed at some time and at some place or other, an artificer [craftsman] or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction and designed its use.”
Paley makes the following powerful points (numbers in parentheses follow Paley’s own numbering system):
- The person’s conclusion holds even if he had never seen a watch made. (11)
- Nor is his conclusion weakened if the watch is imperfect. (1.2)
- Nor would it introduce any uncertainty into the argument if he did not understand the functionality of all aspects of the watch. (1.3)
- Nor would ‘any man in his senses’ consider the watch accounted for simply by observing that it was ‘one out of possible combinations of material forms’. (1.4)
- Nor would he be satisfied with the assertion that there existed a ‘principle of order which had disposed the parts of the watch into their present form and situation’. (1.5)
- ‘He would be surprised to hear that the mechanism of the watch was no proof of contrivance, only a motive to induce the mind to think so’. (1.6)
- And no less surprised to be told that the watch was nothing more than the ‘result of the laws of metallic nature’. (1.7)
- Neither would he be dissuaded from his conclusion ‘by being told that he knew nothing at all about the matter’. (1.8)
The argument further developed (from chapter 2)
Suppose that the person who found the watch on the heath also discovered that it had the property of producing ‘another watch like itself’. “What effect ought such a discovery to have upon his former conclusion?”
- ‘The first effect would be to increase his admiration of the contrivance, and his conviction of the consummate skill of the contriver’. (2.1)
- While in some sense the first watch is the ‘maker of the watch’, he would realize that it is neither the ‘cause’ nor the ‘author’ of it. (2.2)
- Perhaps the artificer did not construct the watch that he found, but he will still conclude “that an artificer had been originally employed and concerned in the production”. “The argument from design remains as it was.” “There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance without a contriver; order without choice”, or “arrangement without anything capable of arranging.” (2.3)
- He will not resolve the difficulty by supposing an unlimited number of generations. ‘If the difficulty were diminished’ the further he went back, he could ‘exhaust the difficulty’—but no tendency is perceived to diminish the difficulty. (2.4)
- Our observer would reflect that the maker of the watch before him was in reality the maker of every watch produced from it. (2.5)
Does the discovery that the watch can produce watches identical to itself cause the observer to desert his original conclusion that the watch must have had an artificer and designer? ‘Can this be maintained without absurdity? Yet this is atheism’.
Has Paley’s argument been refuted? It has certainly become unpopular, and is today ridiculed by many. But it has never been refuted. The argument is every bit as valid today as in 1802.
With our awareness of technology, it should be clear to everybody that functional systems are always the result of design. Just consider some of the features in motor cars. One unit, the engine, contains separate cavities for cooling water, oil, and working gases. It would definitely not function if these fluids were not restricted to their respective enclosures. There are inlet and exhaust valves provided to allow gases to pass exactly as required to permit the engine to function. Not only that, but there is a mechanism to make them open at the correct time, and also an ignition system to generate a spark just at the right time.
We see design too, in the choice of materials; copper or aluminium where good heat conduction is required, cast iron for rigidity, and perhaps synthetic rubber where flexibility is needed. Rubber tubes, and tyres, are further evidence of design, intended to give a comfortable ride.
Systems found in living things are no less complex than the design features we are familiar with in mankind. So the evidence of design is even stronger for living creatures.
Design in nature
Paley devoted 18 chapters of his treatise to design in nature—two-thirds of the chapters. Some of his examples could be improved on today, with our vastly expanded knowledge of molecular biology. Other examples were excellent in his day and have been valid ever since. Paley dealt with the vertebrate eye in Chapters 6 and 14. Paley also mentioned the feather in Chapter 12 and the tongue of the woodpecker in Chapter 13. These are all excellent evidences of design even today.
|The Contents of Paley’s Natural Theology|
|Chapters 1 and 2||The argument from design stated|
|Chapters 3 to 20||Examples of design in living things|
|Chapters 21 and 22||Evidence of design in inanimate things|
|Chapters 23 to 26||Evidence of the attributes of the Deity|
To conclude, we can do no better than to quote from Paley’s conclusion.
“But, of the greatest part of those, who, either in this book or any other, read arguments to prove the existence of God, it will be said, that they leave off only where they began; that they were never ignorant of this great truth, never doubted of it; that it does not therefore appear, what is gained by researches from which no new opinion is learnt, and upon the subject of which no proofs were wanted.”
“The existence and character of the Deity, is, in every view, the most interesting of all human speculations. In none, however, is it more so, than as it facilitates the belief of the fundamental articles of Revelation. It is a step to have it proved, that there must be something in the world more than what we see. It is a further step to know, that, amongst the invisible things of nature, there must be an intelligent mind, concerned in its production, order, and support.”
References and notes
- Paley, W., Natural Theology, 1802. Republished in 1970 by Gregg International Publishers Ltd. Return to text.
- Paley, W., The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, 1785.
- Paley is reasoning on very sure ground here. Nobody can deny the evidence for a Creator found in nature, as stated in Romans 1:18–20. Return to text.
- Reprinted with the permission of Gregg International. Return to text.