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William Paley, detail, Thoemmes

William Paley (detail)


since 01.01.06

Introduction to Philosophy

William Paley, "The Teleological Argument"

Abstract: William Paley's teleological or analogical watch-maker argument is sketched together with some objections to his reasoning.

  1. What are the similarities between Paley's watch argument and Thomas' Fifth Way—The Argument from Design?
  2. State Paley's argument for God's existence as clearly as possible.
  3. How does Paley answer the objection that the universe could have harmonized into order and pattern by chance?
  4. To what extent is Paley's argument an ad hominem attack against the skeptic?
  5. Explain whether laws of nature are discovered or whether they are invented.
  1. The Analogical Teleological Argument of Paley: "If I stumbled on a stone and asked how it came to be there, it would be difficult to show that the answer, it has lain there forever is absurd. Yet this is not true if the stone were to be a watch."
    1. According to Paley, the inference from the observation of the intricate design of the universe to the conclusion of a universe-maker who constructed and designed its use would be inevitable.
    2. The inference is as follows …
      1. watch : watch maker :: universe : universe maker
      2. He argues just as the function and complexity of a watch implies a watch-maker, so likewise the function and complexity of the universe implies the existence of a universe-maker.
      3. See the similar, but more thoroughly elaborated, design argument presented by Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Whereas Hume's argument is an argument from design, we shall see that Paley's argument is more of an argument to design.
    3. Paley thinks the following excuses (i.e., possible objections) are inadequate to disprove the watchmaker-argument.
      1. Objection: We never knew the artist capable of making a watch (re a universe) or we do not know how the work was accomplished.
        1. Paley's response: Just because we don't know who the artist might be, it doesn't follow that we cannot know that there is one.
        2. Counter-objection: The disanalogy between an artist and a universe-maker is substantial. Not only is the last term of the analogy, "the universe-maker," beyond the bounds of possible experience, but also the many persons involved in the construction of a watch—from the miners of the metals and gems, to the draftsmen, craftsmen, workers, and distributors— would seem to suggest many gods are involved in universe-making. The disanalogy that watchmaker has parents but the universe-maker does not have parents is also sometimes noted.
      2. Objection: The parts of the watch (re universe) do not work perfectly; the designer is not evident.
        1. Paley's response: It is not necessary to show that something is perfect in order to show that there is a design present.
        2. Counter-objection: Given natural disasters and nonmoral evil in the world, imperfect design would seem to indicate that the designer is neither all good nor all-powerful. The problem of evil would then become an important consideration in any inference to the characteristics of the universe-maker. Moreover, although initially the complexity of a watch is contrasted to the simplicity of a stone, there is nothing to which the complexity of the universe can be contrasted.
      3. Objection: Some parts of the watch (re the universe) seem to have no function and so would seemingly not be designed.
        1. Paley's response: Simply because we do not know the function of the parts does not imply that the parts have no function. He believes the design is evident from observing the rest of the watch (re the universe).
        2. Counter-objection: The argumentum ad ignorantiam works both ways; from the fact that something has not been proved, no conclusion can be drawn. Implicitly, as well, there is a disanalogy in composite functions of watch and universe. The purpose of a watch is evident, whereas the purpose of the universe is not.
      4. Objection: The watch (re universe) is only one possible form of many possible combinations and so is a chance event.
        1. Paley's response: The design cannot be a result of chance; no person in his senses could believe this.
        2. Counter-objection: (1) Paley's response is an ad hominem. (2) It is the nature of the human mind to impose order on things whether or not order is actually present.
          1. In order to understand a natural process, a preliminary or conventional order is often arbitrarily imposed.
          2. David Hume puts this point well in Cleanthes' phrase from Part 5 of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: Discoveries in science are only "the image of mind reflected on us from innumerable objects…"
          3. The appearance of the stars in the sky, seemingly disordered, can be organized in terms of patterns. What to much of the Western world is seen as the Big Dipper, the seven brightest stars of Ursa Major is also seen as a plough, a saucepan, a stretcher, a parrot, or a chariot. To ask, "What is the "real" or objective order of that pattern of stars?" is to misunderstand the nature of an asterism.
          4. E.g., in any finite sequence of random numbers, a rule or order can be invented by which those numbers can be generated.
          5. Additionally, in a deterministic world, chance events can be viewed as an epistemological problem deriving from the lack of precise measurements of initial conditions and, as well, the lack of knowledge of relevant conditions of a natural process. E.g., in a coin toss, if the exact shape of the coin, its mass, its exact center of gravity, the exact point of the application of the exact amount of force, together with the exact measurements of the landing zone, the barometric pressure, wind velocity, and so forth, were known, then the "heads" or "tails" outcome could be reliably predicted by the laws of dynamics.
      5. Objection: There is a law or principle that disposed the watch (re universe) to be in that form.
        1. Paley's response: The existence of a law presupposes a lawgiver with the power to enforce the law. A principle of order cannot cause or create (the existence of) the watch. (re the universe).
        2. Counter-objection: Paley confuses descriptive law with prescriptive law (i.e., the fallacy of equivocation).

          Prescriptive laws, or normative laws, imply a lawgiver, and prescriptive laws can be broken (e.g., ethical principles, highway speed limits, rules of behavior).

          Descriptive laws do not imply the existence of a "law-giver," and descriptive laws cannot be broken (since any such violation or exception would disprove or falsify the generality of law), (e.g., law of gravity, f = ma.) Descriptive laws, or natural laws, originate from the observation of regularities or from derivations of those regularities and are, in principle, falsifiable. Descriptive laws are said to be "constative."
        3. Paley also must acknowledge his "Lawgiver" does not perform miracles since miracles are violations of natural law and would be disconfirming instances of regularity of design. Nevertheless, Paley waffles on this point vaguely indicating miracles might be part of the design:

          "Although therefore the Deity, who possesses the power of winding and turning, as he pleases, the course of causes which issue from himself, do in fact interpose to alter or intercept effects, which without such interposition would have taken place; yet it is by no means incredible, that his Providence, which always rests upon final good, may have made a reserve with respect to the manifestation of his interference, a part of the very plan which he has appointed for our terrestrial existence, and a part conformable with, or, in some sort, required by, other parts of the same plan."
          [William Paley, Natural Theology, 12th ed. (London: J. Faulder, 1809), 524-525.]
        4. Contemporary science, of course, does give explanations for the development of complexity in the universe without resorting to a deus ex machina. Charles Darwin, for example, provided a good account for how biological processes evolved in complex interdependent forms without the need for a Deity's creative intervention as he remarks:

          "It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as ‘the plan of creation,’ ‘unity of design,’ &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only re-state a fact."
          [Charles Darwin, Origin of Species (New York: D. Appleton and Company), Vol. II, 295.]
        5. Richard Dawkins put a similar point this way in the The Blind Watchmaker:

          "Paley's argument is made with passionate sincerity and is informed by the best biological scholarship of the day, but it is wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong.… All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind force of physics … Natural selection, the blind unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has not purpose in mind. … If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker."
          [Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), 5.)
      6. Objection: The watch (re the universe) is no proof of contrivance; only motive induces the mind to think that it is.
        1. Paley's response: The design is evident to an impartial person.
        2. Pentagon Counter-objection: Again, it is the nature of mind to see relationships; as argued above, the mind often imposes order on things regardless of the presence of order. In the image on the right, is the pattern meant to represent a circle, a pentagon, a star, an automaker's symbol, or a Renaissance man? As Norwood Russell Hanson argued in Patterns of Discovery, our perception is theory-laden.

          Thomas Kuhn argues, "What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see. In the absence of such training there can only be, in William James' phrase, ‘a bloomin' buzzin' confusion.’"
          [Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 112.]
        3. shapes: circle, pentagon, star, auto symbol, Da Vinci\'s Renaissance Man This point is carried over into the Gestalt and the transactional definitions of "perception":
          1. First the Gestalt: "Perception results from an innate organizing process. The basic unit is a configuration which is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts and which determines the parts."
            [Benjamin B. Wolman, ed. Dictionary of Behavioral Science (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1973), 273.]
          2. Second from A. Ames: "The transactional approach states that perception is based on assumptions about the construction of reality. Each individual is believed to develop a restricted set of perceptions though his own unique transactions with the environment to handle the infinite variety of possible retinal images which he receives. Perception becomes a learned act of constructing reality to fit one's assumptions about it."
            [Wolman, 273.]
      7. Objection: The watch (re the universe) came about as a result of the laws of metallic nature.
        1. Paley's response: The presence of a law presupposes a lawgiver.
        2. Counter-objection: Once again, Paley confuses descriptive or natural law with prescriptive or edictive law. Prescriptive laws are issued by authority; descriptive laws are usually considered to be factual and universal claims.
        3. Q.v., see above related objections in Objection 5.
      8. Objection: One knows nothing at all about the matter.
        1. Paley's response: Certainly, by seeing the parts of the watch (re the universe), one can know the design.
        2. Counter-objection: Paley's response is another argumentum ad ignorantiam: from the fact that something is not proved, the truth of its contradictory does not follow. Finally, it's difficult to come to a definite conclusion about the complexity of the universe since we have nothing to compare it to—as in the case where the complexity of watch is compared by Paley to the simplicity of a stone. (And, of course, it's possible to view the stone as a much more complex entity than Paley supposes—see the abstract below from Russell J. Hemley's discussion concerning the complexity of minerals.)
    4. William Paley (1743-1805): Several historical points should be briefly mentioned before turning to the questions.
      1. Paley seemed unaware of the devastating criticism of teleological arguments for God's existence David Hume constructed over two decades earlier.
      2. Paley believed his oft-used texts in Christian apologetics and moral philosophy logically followed from the arguments he composed years later in his Natural Theology.
      3. Although Paley was accused of plagiarizing the watch argument from Bernard Nieuwentyt, a follower of Descartes, Paley is blameless. Paley not only cites the work of Nieuwentyt on several occasions, but also constructs a much more detailed version of the argument.
      4. The watch analogy was used by many different philosophers before and after the time of Paley. (Q.v., the "Watchmaker Analogy" from the Wikipedia cited below in "Further Reading.")
  2. Answers to the study questions from the reading are summarized below.
    1. Notes are arranged in response to the questions stated above in reference to "The Teleological Argument," an edited selection from Paley's Natural Theology: or evidences of the existence and attributes of the deity, collected from the appearances of nature as excerpted in Reading for Philosophical Inquiry.
      1. What are the similarities between Paley's watch argument and Thomas's Fifth Way—the Argument from Design?
        1. Both are considered teleological arguments for God's existence: they focus on the goals, purpose, and design of the universe.
        2. Both arguments focus on the complexity and intricacy of design with the assumption that this complexity is a product of intention or intelligence.
        3. Where the arguments differ is that Paley's argument is is not, strictly speaking, an argument from design. That is, Paley does not claim, as Thomas does, that evidence of intentional contrivance within nature implies that nature as a whole was intelligently created. Instead, Paley is maintaining an analogy between intentionally constructed human artifacts and presumed intentionally constructed natural processes.
      2. State Paley's argument for God's existence as clearly as possible.
        1. In contrast to a stone, a watch has an obvious complexity indicating purpose and function which, in turn, implies an intelligent creator.
        2. Natural processes are even more so than a watch incredibly interwoven and intricately contrived such that these processes also imply an intelligent creator.
        3. Every manifestation of design in the watch, Paley says, is part of, and is surpassed by, the works of nature.
        4. (It's probably worth pointing out the complexity in the composition of stones and rocks is surprisingly greatly underestimated by Paley. Consider this excerpt from an abstract of an article on the interdisciplinary nature of mineralogy:

          " Mineralogy, for a long time defined as the study of naturally occurring crystalline compounds formed as a results of inorganic processes, is at a crossroads. The above definition is now seen as far too restrictive, and a wider definition includes new high pressure/temperature minerals not yet found on Earth, amorphous, nano-, and mesoscopic materials and their dimensionality-dependent properties, extraterrestrial rocks, biologically precipitated minerals, and the role of minerals in the evolution of life. At the interface to technology, mineralogy is providing a stimulus both in terms of the materials studied and the tools applied to their investigation."
          [Russell J. Hemley, Science (13 August 1999) Vol. 285, No. 5430, 1026.)]
      3. How does Paley answer the objection that the universe could have harmonized into order and pattern by chance?
        1. Paley states, "Nor … would any man in his senses think the existence of the watch, with its various machinery, accounted for, by being told that it was one out of possible combinations of material forms…"
        2. Thus, Paley claims the idea that the complexity of design in the universe could come about by chance is the notion of a foolish person.
      4. To what extent is Paley's argument an ad hominem attack on the skeptic?
        1. Paley bases his possible objections on what the ordinary person would be likely to believe (an ad populum aspect of the argument; as well, he uses the phrase of what "any man in his senses" could not believe suggesting only a fool could believe (the ad hominem aspect of the argument.)
        2. For anyone who might not agree with the point of view presented for Paley's ordinary "man," Paley characterizes the disagreeing view as invoking "a perversion of language" with respect to laws being causes, and if there are "doubts concerning other points" this, he thinks, such doubt begets a distrust of certainty of reasoning.
      5. Explain whether laws of nature are discovered or whether they are invented.
        1. As noted above, normally laws of nature are discovered through scientific investigation and are, in a sense, provisional. They describe observed regularities in nature presumably describing what "is" the case.
        2. Some explanatory hypotheses purporting to describe natural processes are invented constructions, but for such hypotheses to become a law, the hypotheses must be tested and confirmed.
    2. Related design-argument and objections material on this Website include the following.
      1. Thomas Aquinas, "The Argument from Design": Thomas Aquinas's argument from design and objections to that argument are outlined and discussed. Thomas argues the intricate complexity and order in the universe can only be explained through the existence of a Great Designer.
      2. David Hume, "Design Argument: Critique": David Hume's version of the design argument from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is presented and his objections to that argument are summarized. Hume devastating analysis details the disanalogies between the universe and the purported Deity.
Further Reading:
  • Design Argument: This entry in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas is historical summary of the argument from design by Frederick Ferré. Ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary versions of the argument are described.

  • "Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?" The John Templeton Foundation compiled essay answers to this question from the following contemporary notables:
    "Yes, If By …", Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University;
    "No, and Yes", Christop Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna;
    "Absolutely Not!" William D. Phillips, Nobel Laureate in physics;
    "Not Necessarily" Pervez Amirali Hoodby, Chair of Physics Department at Quaid-e-Azan University in Islamabad, Pakistan and author of Islam and Science;
    "Of Course Not" Mary Midgley, ethical philosopher and author of Evolution as a Religion;
    "No" Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University;
    "No, But It Should" Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great;
    "No" Keith Ward, Fellow of the British Academy and Priest in the Church of England;
    "Yes" Victor J. Stenger, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of Hawaii;
    "No, Not At All" Jerome Groopman, Professor of Medicine, Harvard University;
    "It Depends" Michael Shermer, Professor at Claremont Graduate University and publisher of Skeptic magazine;
    "Of Course Not" Kenneth R. Miller, Professor of Biology, Brown University, author of Finding Darwin's God; and
    "No, But Only If …"… Stuart Kauffman, Director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, University of Calgary.

  • Natural Theology: An electronic searchable encoding of the 12th edition of Paley's book (1809) is provided the University of Michigan Humanities Text Initiative.

  • The Watchmaker Argument: Fredrik Bendz summarizes a number of objections to Paley's argument—most relating to the fallacy of false analogy.

  • William Paley: This short anonymous summary of Paley's life is from the Internet Encyclopædia of Philosophy.

  • William Paley: A discussion of Paley's works from the classic 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. is worth reviewing in spite of a number of scanning errors.

  • William Paley: Another summary of Paley's life together with bibliography and additional links is provided in the Wikipedia.

  • Watchmaker Analogy: A history of the teleological argument based on the watch analogy is sketched with quotations from the original sources in this entry from the Wikipedia. Especially helpful on this site are several the objections to the argument from Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins, and cultural anthropology.
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"A purpose, an intention, a design strikes everywhere the most carefulness, the most stupid thinker, and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems, as at all times to reject it. That nature does nothing in vain, is a maxim established in all the schools, merely from the contemplation of the works of nature, without any religious purpose …"

David Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (William Blackwood, 1907), 165.

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