Reading Reflection Handout
William Paley, “The Watch and the Watchmaker” (1802)
Prepared by James Hazelton
Overview: In this reading, from Paley’s Natural Theology, or Evidences and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, we are introduced to what is known as the “argument from design.” In it, he states that upon reflection and investigation of the natural world, it becomes apparent that the wonders of nature are actually the work of a grand designer, God.
He begins with an analogy, in which he finds a watch laying on the ground. Upon inspection of the foreign object, he concludes from its internal complexity that it must have been designed. He speaks of how, upon disassembling the watch, he finds that the parts found within contribute necessarily to the function of the watch, each part being chosen because of its attributes to perform a certain function within the mechanism. He describes the coiled spring which provides power, the flexible chain and systems of gears to translate the motion to the face, which is covered with a piece of transparent glass which allows the time to be read. He concludes from the thorough investigation of the watch that the object is too complex, and its motions and workings too accurate to have not been designed by an intelligence, in this case, the watchmaker.
He begins the next section by anticipating and answering the objections which can be raised against his argument from design. His inference of a designer would not be weakened, he argues, if before finding one on the ground we had never seen or known of a watch, nor would the argument be harmed if the watch were found to be imperfect, or containing extraneous parts. The design would remain evident if this happened to be only one of many possible forms of watch mechanisms, or even if the observer learned that the watch components, under a certain “principle of order,” could assemble themselves into a working machine. Even if the workings and assembly of the watch could be explained by the “laws of metallic nature,” these laws would still presuppose an agent. Just as an architect can produce flawless plans, yet see them come to life in a building which is imperfect in reality, so too can designs of the intelligent forces such as Paley describes give rise to imperfect creations. The fact remains that they are still, at their core, designed.
He then moves from analogy to nature, comparing the apparent design of the watch to that of the eye. He reminds the reader that there are examples of design in nature which, “surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtlety, and curiosity of the mechanism.” He then gives examples of the human eye and compares its function to that of other animals, pointing out, for example, that birds’ eyes allow them to see objects both near and far with clarity, that the eyes of a fish are efficiently adapted for sight underwater, and those of an eel are tough enough to allow the animal to dig through sand and gravel. He also points out that for the sense of human sight to work as well as it does, there are several biological systems which have to work in tandem: the brow, the eyelids, the tear ducts, and that these are all examples of design.
Having stressed enough the design of the eye, Paley moves on to the broader argument. He asserts that nearly everything in nature possesses in itself, a complete body of evidence for the existence of an intelligent creator. If the eye were not considered in the argument, for instance, the ear alone would provide ample proof, and so on.
Not only, once we accept the appearance of design, do these examples prove that there must have been an intelligent creator, Paley claims that they also prove the “personality” of such a creator. This designer would have to be an entity entirely separate from that which we call nature. Because anything that can contrive and create with intelligence must have a “mind,” and such a thing must be a “Being, infinite, as well in essence as in power.”
Questions for Reflection:
- Considering Paley’s evidence of apparent design, does the overall force of the arguments change given the fact that Natural Theology preceded the discovery of evolution and adaptation by natural selection? In the light of modern scientific understanding, is the argument from design still valid?
- Every year, millions of lives are lost due to the efficiency with which disease caused by pathogens such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria, parasites, and cancer are able to spread throughout the body. Some claim that by criteria such as Paley’s, these examples can also point to deliberate design. If so, how does this fit with the idea or plans of a God who is “infinitely good” with respect to human life?
- Do you agree with T-Rex in his assertion that given enough scientific knowledge, explanations which are usually attributed to a God will become superfluous? Or do you side with Utahraptor’s Paley-esque refutation in the fifth panel?