William Paley’s Design Argument and Objections

William Paley (1743-1805) was an Anglican priest, apologist, and philosopher whose book Natural Theology (1802) offers a design argument worthy of reflection. Paley is arguably the main representative of this argument in the Western tradition, although it is by no means original to him and can be traced to pre-Socratic philosophers. 

Paley’s design argument has much contemporary relevance since its insights are often used by proponents of the “intelligent design” (ID) movement to contend against the theory of evolution. Just like Paley, ID proponents view biological complexity as evidence of intelligent design.

To make his point, Paley uses the example of a watch as being clear evidence of having a maker/designer,

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there: I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever; nor would it perhaps be very easy to shew the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given,—that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e. g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it” (1).

We are compelled when happening upon a watch resting on the ground to infer a designer of it. We would, Paley asserts, be dissatisfied with the answer that the watch had just always been there or had appeared by chance alone. Rather, the watch’s various parts were obviously designed or “framed and put together for a purpose”. The watch then must have a maker/designer,

“This mechanism being observed, (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood,) the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer: who comprehended its construction, and designed its use” (2).

Nature is far more complex than a watch and therefore must also have a designer: “for every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation” (3).

Paley’s argument is one from analogy. Just as we can infer a maker/designer of a watch, so we can infer a designer of biologically complex structures in nature. One of Paley’s preferred examples is the eye that he considered excellent evidence of design: “there is precisely the same proof that the eye was made for vision, as there is that the telescope was made for assisting it” (4). Biological structures like the eye, Paley argues, are far more complex than watches, which leads to the obvious conclusion that they must be designed. Paley’s argument can be presented as follows (5):

  1. Artifacts (such as a watch), with their means to ends configurations, are the products of (human) design,
  2. The works of nature, such as the human hand, resemble artifacts,
  3. Thus the works of nature are probably the products of design,
  4. Furthermore, the works of nature are much more in number and far greater in complexity,
  5. Therefore, the works of nature were probably the products of a grand designer – one much more powerful and intelligent than a human designer.

Objections

Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776) offered several responses to Paley’s argument in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). According to Hume, the analogy between the works of nature and human artifacts is weak (6). For instance, unlike watches, there is only one universe, hence there are no other universes to compare it to or judge it by.

Further, Hume does not think from a finite world we can infer an infinite designer. What we are left then with is a God that is less than the one posited by theistic religions. In addition, because there are defects in the world (e.g. evil in the world), the designer must also have these defects.

One can respond to Hume by agreeing that the watch/world analogy is imperfect but then argue that we still nonetheless witness evidence of purpose, order, and intention in the world and nature, and that it is reasonable to posit a designer in light of this (7).

Furthermore, Hume is correct that one does not get to the God of theistic religions from the evidence of design in nature. But we still nonetheless know that there is a designer. To get to the God of theism, a theist can use supplementary arguments to argue for warranted belief in God.

Perhaps the strongest argument confronting Paley’s design argument emerges from Darwinian evolution. In his Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) proposed the idea that living organisms developed from simpler to more complex forms gradually over time. This development of organisms involved naturalistic and non-purposive processes of natural selection and random variation. Evolution therefore explains biological complexity which means no intelligent designer needs to be posited. On Paley’s preferred example of the eye, many scientists have detailed how its various components are likely to have evolved (8).

There are responses offered by defenders of the design argument. Many are not convinced that a purely naturalistic, non-purposive process can account for all biological complexity in the world. Although this counterargument can come as a rejection of evolutionary theory, it need not necessarily be so as many proponents of the design argument view the evolutionary process as the method by which the designer brought about organisms and complexity.

References

1. Paley, William. 2018. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity; Collected from the Appearances of Nature. CrossReach Publications. p. 9. 

2. Paley, William. 2018. Ibid. p. 9. 

3. Paley, William. 2018. Ibid. p. 21.

4. Paley, William. 2018. Ibid. p. 21.

5. Meister, Chad. 2009. Introducing Philosophy of Religion. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 94.

6. Meister, Chad. 2009. Ibid. p. 94.

7. Meister, Chad. 2009. Ibid. p. 95.

8. Lamb, Trevor D., Arendt, Detlev., and Collin, Shaun P. 2009. “The evolution of phototransduction and eyes.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364(1531):2791-2793; for a list of academic articles on the evolution of the eye, see here.

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