Paley’s Watchmaker: An Evaluation

When considering the idea of a divine creator one might consider arguments made by analogy, as William Paley does in his work Natural Theology, as indications of such a creator’s existence. Paley constructs an argument by analogy by relating the universe to an intricate mechanical watch; because the complexity and order of a watch implies intelligent design, so too does the complexity and order of nature imply the existence of a immensely powerful creator who “understands its construction, and designed its use” (Paley). However, Paley’s conclusion that a perfect, all-powerful, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent creator is responsible for the natural world is undermined by both natural imperfections implying an imperfect creator and the purely natural premises leading him to a supernatural conclusion.

Paley claims that as a watch’s intricacy and apparent purpose imply the existence of a watchmaker, the intricacy of the natural world implies the existence of an intelligent designer. If the perfect creator that Paley alludes to was responsible for the universe, then his creations, too, should be perfect. The natural world, however, is imperfect and organisms evolve over time to correct the imperfections of their antecedents. Although natural processes such as evolution and adaptation do not explain nature’s origins nor do they disprove the existence of a creator who provides the origin of life on which evolutionary theory relies, they act to exemplify nature’s imperfections and thus refute Paley’s idea of a perfect and perfectly acting creator. Consider the traits different groups of the same species develop within their unique environments. As Darwin discovered in his studies, various species of birds developed both physical and behavioral traits on the Galapagos Islands in response to their environment that differed from those of birds of the same genus in other parts of the world; the birds had adapted to their environment over several generations to achieve higher rates of survival (pbs.org). These adaptations were necessary for the birds to survive in the Galapagos where their primary source of food was exploited by a variety of other species. The complex and advantageous physical and behavioral traits that birds and other organisms evolve were not intelligently designed, as Paley suggests, but rather products of natural processes through the trial and error of pre-existing traits. If Paley’s creator were perfect, all-knowing, and all-good, it follows that he would know what traits would be maximally useful for his creations and thus provide them with these traits for their own benefit, thus rendering evolution and other natural processes unnecessary. Yet these processes are necessary to increase the survivability of species, highlighting their biological imperfections and refuting Paley’s conclusion that a perfect and omnipotent creator is responsible for the universe as imperfect creations imply an imperfect creator (Archie). The existence of evil in the world raises similar objections to the idea of a perfect, perfectly moral creator.

Furthermore, Paley’s argument is rooted in similarities that he observes between a crafted machine and the natural world. Because Paley is confronted with a crafted mechanical watch which nature clearly could not produce on its own, then a watchmaker must exist. And as the analogy goes, just as a crafted watch is complex and orderly, so too does the complexity and order of the natural world necessitate a creator, according to Paley. However, Paley’s analogy concerns complexity and order observable in nature, yet presumes an unnatural omnipotent creator: “The uncontroversial nature of such inferences has often been appropriated as a foundation for analogous arguments concerning (things in) nature. But in cases involving design in (or of) nature itself inferences are more problematic, since the intelligence in question would presumably not be natural” (Ratzsch, Stanford University). The complexity and order of the natural world are just that – observable properties of nature. The premises on which Paley bases his conclusion are rooted in nature, yet his conclusion is the existence of a supernatural entity – the perfect, omnipotent creator. Although Paley is correct that nature is incalculably complex and orderly, it does not follow that the origin of either its complexity or its order is a product of supernatural agency given that his premises are entirely natural.

One might argue that natural processes, such as evolution and adaptation, do not refute Paley’s conclusion because they do not explain the origin of life. In a piece written for Time Magazine, author Amir Aczel asks, “Why is our universe so precisely tailor-made for the emergence of life? This question has never been answered satisfactorily, and I believe that it will never find a scientific solution.” Although the scientific laws and theories help explain parts of the natural world, they rely on the pre-existing complexity and order of nature. Evolution is not an explanation for life; it is a function of life and relies entirely on life’s origin. Neither do other natural processes such as adaptive radiation or natural selection explain the origin of the natural world and thus, one might argue, their existence does not adequately counter Paley or other teleological arguments. Similarly, some proponents of Paley argue that imperfections in natural organisms do not necessitate an imperfect creator. Considering the philosophical “problem of evil,” Alvin Plantinga, the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, argues in his book The Nature of Necessity that Paley’s creator crafted creatures of free will, whose moral imperfections are of their own cause. “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right,” Plantinga writes, “for if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil… The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness…” (166-167). Focusing on creatures’ moral imperfections, Plantinga argues that the existence of such imperfections does not refute the existence of a perfect, omnipotent creator. His argument follows that the creator had morally sufficient reasons for giving creatures free will but cannot force creatures to act in purely moral ways, alluding that some imperfections in the world are caused by the creatures themselves regardless of the creator’s perfection.

Furthermore, some might argue that Paley’s supernatural conclusion can be adequately supported by strictly natural premises. Consider what some philosophers call “god of the gaps” arguments, or those that attempt to attribute phenomena or other gaps in scientific knowledge as proof of a creator’s existence. As Ratzsch wrote in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Design cases resting upon nature’s alleged inability to produce some relevant ‘natural’ phenomenon are generally assumed to explicitly or implicitly appeal to supernatural agency.” If the unaided laws of nature as shown by empirical evidence and scientific theory could not produce the immense complexity and order observable in nature, then an appeal to the intervention of a creator seems plausible, Ratzsch points out. Proponents of “god of the gaps” arguments might argue that the immense complexity and order, or “gaps,” evident in nature can only be explained by an all-powerful creator because we otherwise lack the scientific prowess to explain the “gaps” empirically. In this case, the origin of both life and the vastly immense cosmos are “gaps” in definitive scientific knowledge that lead some, such as Paley, to conclude that an omnipotent creator is the only possible explanation for unexplained properties of the natural world.

Overall, Paley draws an incredibly interesting comparison between the apparent design, purpose, and intricacy of nature and machine. Although natural processes such as evolution, adaptation, and natural selection do not disprove the existence of a creator, this however does not address Paley’s argument in its entirety. Paley claims that the complexity and order he perceives in a watch is analogous to that which he perceives in nature and because a watch relies on a creator for its complexity and order, so must the natural world. The fact that natural processes rely on life’s origin neither proves nor disproves Paley’s argument. These natural processes serve to explain aspects of natural complexity as well as exemplify the imperfections in nature that organisms evolve to overcome, which refutes Paley’s idea of a perfect, omnipotent creator. Thus, natural processes such as evolution and adaptation do not necessarily disprove the existence of a god, but counter Paley’s conclusion that the perceived complexity of nature necessitates the existence of a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good creator.

While Plantinga’s “free will defense” may certainly account for why organisms deviate morally from the creator’s perfection and omnibenevolence, it does not account for why imperfections in organisms’ biology, which necessitate evolution and other natural processes, exist. These biological imperfections as discussed above refute Paley’s notion of an ideal, perfect, and omnipotent creator, regardless of free will accounting for certain imperfections as Plantinga argues. Finally, although “god of the gaps” arguments can pose important scientific questions, they suffer from both philosophical and historical problems. Philosophically, “gap” arguments, “Deny, in effect, the [theist] view of science, which is that science is ‘thinking [the creator’s] thoughts after him’; it does this by suggesting that we can only see [the creator] in the areas of nature which we do not understand, rather than seeing him most clearly in those which we do understand” (theopedia.com). Furthermore, these arguments lack the foresight of future scientific discoveries, and as such often fail throughout antiquity, seemingly jumping from a phenomena being currently unexplained by science to being explained by divine intervention. The existence of a creator is certainly a possible explanation for the origin of the universe. Paley, however, fails to present an adequate case for the existence of his perfect, omnipotent creator and as such, “the generalization in question could establish at best a probability, and a fairly modest one at that” (Ratzsch, Stanford University).

William Paley and the “Argument from Design”

William Paley begins his “Argument from Design” by enumerating key differences between two obviously dissimilar objects—a stone and a watch. For the sake of meaningful contrast, Paley emphasizes three distinguishing properties lacked by the former and possessed by the latter. In this paper I will introduce these properties and explain how Paley uses one of them to argue that the watch necessitates an intelligent designer. From there I will explain how he ultimately formulates his argument for the existence of God. Paley observes the first distinguishing feature of the watch to be its possession of complex, moveable parts. He lists some of these parts—a cylindrical box, an elastic spring, a flexible chain, a series of wheels, an index, and a glass face—and explains how they work in concert to provide the watch with motion. Paley also observes that there is something special about the motion of the parts themselves; the “equable measured progression,” or regularity, of which the index moves about the watch face also signifies a major distinction between the watch and the stone. These differences indeed give the watch a special distinction; however, it is the concept of functionality that serves as the crux for Paley’s “Argument from Design”. The watch completes a task which can be monitored and assessed for effectiveness. In the case of the stone, there is no functionality to access. Thusly, the watch has the property of teleology whereas the stone does not. Paley builds the remainder of his argument from this premise.The “Argument from Design” is comprehended best when split into two phases. In Phase I of his argument, Paley asserts—via syllogism—that an object, such as a watch, must entail an intelligent designer. To do this he employs an inference to the best explanation, or a “best-fit” reason assigned to the seemingly inexplicable phenomenon. Phase II is an argument by analogy, or an argument made by assuming that because two things share similar qualities, they likely share other qualities as well. Here, Paley seeks to prove that because a watch and the Universe share notable common characteristics, they also share the characteristic of having an intelligent designer. He expands this theory to infer that the creator of the Universe is God.Let us look more closely at Phase I of Paley’s argument. By utilizing a somewhat simple syllogism, Paley is able to link the possession of teleology to an intelligent designer. His chain of reasoning consists of two crucial premises—1) that functionality implies purposefulness and 2) that this purposefulness in turn leads to an intelligent designer. From these statements, Paley is able to deduce that functionality must point to some sort of intelligent designer. I will now expand on each of these premises and elucidate their respective concepts. The complex parts and orderly nature of the watch are integral elements of its function. Because the watch has a specific use, we are able to in turn assess its functionality: it either works or it doesn’t. In saying that something does or does not “work,” we are implying that some sort of goal has or has not been met. This goal is the purpose of the watch’s construction. Paley points out that if the individual parts of a watch were assembled in any other way, the object would lose overall usefulness. The specificity in which parts must be assembled leads us to assume that the watch likely did not arise accidentally. The fact that the watch indeed has a purpose implies that there must be someone or something behind that purpose, for you cannot have intent without intentions. It does no good to inquire about the specific history of a stone because it lacks a well-defined purpose. The watch however, entails an aim of some sort. Therefore, asking how a watch came to be is not frivolous because we can assert that the watch indeed has a purpose, and therefore an intelligent designer. In contending that a watch demands an intelligent designer of some form, Paley has completed the first phase of his argument. In Phase II, Paley introduces us to an analogy, and then expands on this analogy to argue the existence of God. A simplified form of his analogy is as follows: watch is to a watchmaker is as Universe is to God. This analogy has invoked much criticism. For critics say that even if Paley’s argument proves the existence of an intelligent designer behind the Universe, it fails to prove that this ultimate creator is God. Nevertheless, Paley does give some reasoning as to why he is able to make the leap from creator of the Universe to God. In his argument, Paley invites us to imagine a watch possessing the ability to self-replicate. He then states that given this property our “admiration for contrivance and the skill of the contriver” would increase. It can be inferred from this reasoning that Paley would argue that as the complexity, functionality and purposefulness of an object increases, so does the overall skill of its creator. This logic shows us how Paley completes his analogy. In buying into “The Argument from Design,” proponents of Paley would agree that objects which are complex, functional, and purposeful require an intelligent designer. They may then argue that the Universe represents the greatest possible form of complexity, functionality and purposefulness. Therefore, they would conclude that the Universe requires the greatest possible form of intelligent designer. This designer is God. Paley supports his affirmation of God’s existence by conceding that the world we live in may indeed have irregularities and imperfections; however, this fact does not preclude the existence of a creator. Furthermore, Paley asserts that intelligent designers should not be judged solely on their “blemishes,” but also on their “plurality of successes.” The evidence of the vastly complex and teleological nature of our world, Paley infers, is reason enough to attribute the creation of the Universe to God.