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).