NOTES on William Paley (1743-1805): Natural Theology and the Argument from Design

William-Paley

William Paley (1743-1805) believed in natural theology. He believed that by using our reason and what we know about Nature, we can achieve knowledge about God. The Argument from Design — whose classic formulation is by Paley — is a good example of natural theology.

Paley based his version of the Argument from Design upon an analogy. In Paley’s example, you are walking on a heath and you stumble on a stone. If someone were to ask you why the stone was there, you could answer that the stone had always been there.

But suppose you discover a watch lying on the ground. In this case, you would not argue that the watch had always been there. But Paley asks why you couldn’t say this about the watch as well as about the stone.

Paley’s answer to his question, of course, is that since the watch is a complex machine — too complex to have been created by accident — you, of course, realize that a watchmaker had to make the watch. Obviously, the complexity of the watch implies that a watchmaker had to make it. The watch is much too complex to have just happened.

But what about the stone? The stone is a part of the World, and the World is enormously complex — much more complex than a watch. If the watch is much too complex to have just occurred, then the World is much too complex to have just occurred.

But more than complexity is involved here. The parts of the watch fit together in order to accomplish a purpose. When the watch is working correctly, it enables us to tell time. Similarly the parts of the World work together to accomplish a purpose. As a Christian, Paley believes that the World exists in order that people may live in it and become children of God.

Paley is using an analogy here. The watch implies the existence of a watchmaker, and the World implies the existence of a Worldmaker — Whom, of course, we call God. In addition, Paley is using the Principle of Sufficient Reason. According to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, there is an explanation or cause for everything. According to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, when something exists, we can ask for a reason sufficient to explain the existence of that thing. Design exists in the World, and we can ask for a reason sufficient to explain that design.

Eight Objections

Paley answers eight objections that could be made to the Argument from Design. Are we really justified in concluding that the existence of a watch implies the existence of a watchmaker? Analogously, are we really justified in concluding that the existence of a World implies the existence of a Worldmaker?

Objection 1: Suppose that we had never seen a watch being made and that we don’t understand how a watch functions. Would we still be justified in saying that a watchmaker existed?

Paley answers, yes. The design present in the watch is enough to convince us that there is a watchmaker even if we have never seen a watch being made.

Analogously, although we have never seen a Worldmaker making a World, the design present in the World is enough to convince us that there must a Worldmaker.

Objection 2: Suppose that the watch sometimes malfunctions. Would we still be justified in saying that a watchmaker existed?

Paley answers, yes. The design present in the watch is enough to convince us that there is a watchmaker even if we cannot explain the watch’s sometimes malfunctioning.

Analogously, although there is sometimes a lack of design in the World (birth defects, cancer, deaths due to hurricanes), the design that is present in the World is sufficient to convince us that there is a Worldmaker.

Objection 3: Suppose that we could not explain some of the parts of the watch, or suppose that some of the parts of the watch seemed unnecessary, as the watch was able to function without them. Would we still be justified in saying that a watchmaker existed?

Paley answers, yes. The design present in the watch is enough to convince us that there is a watchmaker even if we cannot explain some of the parts of the watch, or even if some of the parts of the watch seem unnecessary.

Analogously, although we cannot explain some things in the World (e.g., the presence of evil) and although some parts of the World seem unnecessary (the vast, empty expanses of the universe), the design that is present in the World is sufficient to convince us that there is a Worldmaker.

Objection 4: Suppose that we were told that the watch occurred because of chance, that it was just one of many possible combinations of its elements. Would we still be justified in saying that a watchmaker existed?

Paley answers, yes. The explanation that chance produced the watch is insufficient. The watch exhibits too much order to be produced by chance. A much better explanation is that the watch was made by a watchmaker.

Analogously, although someone may argue that the World was produced by chance, that explanation is insufficient. The World exhibits too much order to be produced by chance. A much better explanation is that the World was made by a Worldmaker.

Objection 5: Suppose that we are told that a principle of order produced the watch. Would we still be justified in saying that a watchmaker existed?

Paley answers, yes. We have never seen a principle of order make a watch. In addition, does it make sense to speak of a principle of order that is “distinct from the intelligence of the watchmaker”?

Analogously, although someone may argue that the World was produced by a principle of order, that explanation is insufficient. We have never seen a principle of order make a World. In addition, does it make sense to speak of a principle of order that is distinct from the intelligence of a Worldmaker?

Objection 6: Suppose that we are told that the design that is present in the watch is “only a motive to induce the mind to think” the watch was made. Would we still be justified in saying that a watchmaker existed?

Paley answers, yes. To be told that the design that is present in the watch is “only a motive to induce the mind to think” the watch was made seems ridiculous.

Analogously, to be told that the design that is present in the World is “only a motive to induce the mind to think” the World was made seems ridiculous.

Objection 7: Suppose that we are told that the watch was created by “the laws of metallicnature.” Would we still be justified in saying that a watchmaker existed?

Paley answers, yes. To be told that the design that is present in the watch is only the result of “the laws of metallicnature” seems ridiculous.

Analogously, to be told that the design that is present in the World is only a result of the laws of Nature seems ridiculous.

Objection 8: Suppose that we are told that we lack understanding of watches. Would we still be justified in saying that a watchmaker existed?

Paley answers, yes. We know enough about the design found in watches to be able to say that a watchmaker exists.

Analogously, we know enough about the design found in the World to be able to say that a Worldmaker exists.

Paley’s Possible Response to the Theory of Evolution

First, let me say that evolution is a fact. This is something that no educated person today should doubt. There is some controversy about how evolution works; however, there is no controversy about whether evolution exists. It does.

Second, let me say that Paley was unaware of the theory of evolution. Charles Darwin wrote his great scientific works later. Paley died in 1805, and Darwin published his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selectionin 1859.

Let’s get on with Paley’s ideas. Paley, of course, was aware that animals have offspring. A pregnant animal gives birth to an animal of the same species. This is analogous to a watch giving birth to another watch. Of course, the watch and the animal both show evidence of design.

Well, suppose that a watch did produce another watch. Would this mean there was no watchmaker? Paley answers no, for five reasons:

Reason 1: Suppose that a watch did produce another watch. Our immediate reaction would be an even greater admiration for the watchmaker. The watchmaker not only made a watch, but he made a watch that was capable of producing another watch.

Analogously, the Worldmaker created beings that are capable of reproduction to live in His World. The fact of reproduction should make us admire the Worldmaker even more than the creation of Adam and Eve does. Therefore, the fact of evolution should make us admire the Worldmaker even more than we did before.

Reason 2: Suppose that a watch did produce another watch. We could say that in one sense the watch did make another watch; however, in a more important sense, the watch did not make another watch. Paley uses an example here. The stream of water by a mill can be said in one sense to grind corn; however, we would hardly say that the water created the mill in which the corn is ground.

Analogously, in one sense a pregnant mother produces a child. However, the pregnant mother did not invent sex and childbirth. In addition, the various species in the World did not invent evolution. Birth and evolution have to be explained, and an intelligent Worldmaker is the best explanation for them.

Reason 3: Suppose that a watch did produce another watch. Then it is probable that the watch that we found was produced by another watch. However, this fact does not affect the original argument. This fact does not explain the design that is found in the watches.

Analogously, suppose that a pregnant animal produces another animal. This fact does not explain the design that is found in the animals.

Reason 4: Suppose that the watch that we found was produced by another watch, and suppose that that watch was produced by another watch, and so on to infinity. This fact does not affect the original argument. This fact does not explain the design that is found in the watches.

Analogously, suppose that an animal we see was produced by another animal, which was produced by another animal, and so on to infinity. This fact does not affect the original argument. This fact does not explain the design that is found in the animals.

Reason 5: Suppose that a watch did produce another watch. We should say that the maker of the original watch is in reality the maker of all watches produced by that original watch and by the progeny of that watch. The watchmaker produced the first watch using one set of tools, and he then produced all the other watches using another set of tools.

Analogously, suppose that an animal did produce another animal. We should say that the maker of the original animal is in reality the maker of all animals produced by that original animal and by the progeny of that animal. The Worldmaker (of course, when the Worldmaker produced the World, He also produced all that is found in that World, including animals) produced the first animal using one set of tools, and he then produced all the other animals using another set of tools.

Conclusion

The Argument from Design is an argument whose conclusion is meant to be probable; it is not a proof of the existence of God. Let me conclude by saying that the reader should decide for him- or herself how strong the Argument from Design is.

Note: The quotations by William Paley that appear in this essay are from his Natural Theology.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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