Paley’s Watch is Broken

broken watch

A person walking along a beach stumbles upon a watch lying in the sand. Without even knowing what it is this person recognizes that this object is complex and has a purpose and so this person will determine that the watch didn’t spring up by itself it must have a creator. Similarly the universe (or life on this planet) is complex and demonstrates purpose so must have a designer.

     That’s a variation of the Watchmaker Analogy, or the Watchmaker Fallacy depending on which side of the divide you’re on. In 1802 a Christian apologist named William Paley published a book called “Natural Theology” where he laid out his case for the existence of God as the only rational explanation for the existence of life on this planet. The Watchmaker Analogy is Paley’s most famous contribution to apologetics and has survived more than two hundred and ten years despite the fact that it is quite simply riddled with flaws and assumptions.

The idea that someone can determine whether something was designed by a designer simply by observing it is an outright assumption with no factual basis. In reality we recognize a watch as being designed because we are intimately familiar with watches. We know that they don’t occur naturally, we’re familiar with machinery and with the concept of metalwork. Also we know for certain that watchmakers exist. They are an actual verifiable group of people who can be definitively shown to produce watches. The same cannot be said of any universe creator.

We recognize design by its superficial complexity. By that I mean the obvious “unnatural” order that stamps our creations. For instance when you compare an office building to a mountain the artifice, the engineering, in short the design of the building is immediately apparent. This brings up another flaw of Paley’s argument. We recognize design by comparing it to naturally occurring phenomena. According to Paley’s own argument the very complexity of the watch points to its having been designed but one has to ask: complexity when compared to what? The rocks? The trees? The sky?  The watchmaker analogy is attempting to show that all things are designed by comparing the apparent complexity of human creation to the apparent simplicity of natural phenomena. It undercuts its own central thesis.

The Watchmaker Analogy states that complexity requires design and by expansion it declares the obvious truth that design requires a designer. Yet it ignores the simple fact that any designer with the power and ability to design all life on earth (let alone the entire cosmos) must be a being of surpassing complexity in and of itself.  By the logic of the analogy the creator itself would require a creator of its own, as would that creator and so on infinitely.

The analogy is often used to attempt to hold up a specific theology (Christianity, Islam, etc) yet it doesn’t actually make any  attempt to define who or what the designer may be. Even if you accept the Watchmaker in its entirety it doesn’t get you any closer to proving any particular theology. It can, at best, get you to deism. On it’s own Paley’s analogy is insufficient to draw any conclusions whatsoever about the designer. Within the bounds of the analogy there is actually no reason to assume it’s a single designer rather than a series of cooperating entities (for example). The Watchmaker supports equally the idea that reality was formed by an army of magical pixies as it does the idea of any all-powerful monotheistic god.

This analogy has survived as long as it has because it is a clear and concise phrasing of what seems, on its face, like a reasonable supposition. It survived unmolested for almost sixty years until it was completely destroyed by, ironically, a student of Paley’s works named Charles Darwin.  Darwin’s evolution by natural selection showed us (well most of us) that complexity does not in fact require design. It showed us that complexity can and in fact does result from gradual adaptation and mutation over long periods of time. It demonstrated that deity is not necessary and provided an actual answer without the endless regression that the god hypothesis always results in. Despite the efforts of generations of apologists, theists and religious “scientists” natural selection remains the best answer we have ever developed for the “how” of existence while The Watchmaker analogy has become a sound bite for those too invested in their preconceptions to take an honest look at the realities around them

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Posted on March 24, 2013, in Editorial, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. further toward my previous comment, why I still conclude that these points, while eternally valid, will never redolve. We are stuck in a circular arguement. The following is borrowed; & invariably will be (&can be) flipped to benfit one side or another; I submit it merely for your (personal) consideration …
    Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing, but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found. (Quoted)

    • I may not be interpreting this correctly but it seems to me that this is the long way of making the usual moderate relativist argument that all “truth” is subjective that reason is incapable of arriving at truth because truth is different for everyone. I disagree entirely with that idea.

      There are subjective truths of course but there is also objective reality or real Truth. I would define real truth as matters that remain unchanged regardless of which human variable you plug into it. For instance there is no hindu chemistry or Arab physics, there is only chemistry and physics. While there may be differing ideas inside any given discipline there is no schism between physicists, there is no “reformed physics” as an example.

      However even that gets away from the point. This article’s purpose was to examine the logic put forward in the analogy and point out why this logic fails. Have i failed to do so? If so in what way? If not then how has reason failed to enlighten the situation? The idea that reason cannot enlighten, or winnow falsehood from truth is flat out wrong. I would characterize that as an overly philosophical attempt at a sort “grand unified relativism” Not all assertions are valid simply because they’ve been asserted and we determine which is more valid is through reason, logic, and yes argumentation. Thanks for the comment.

  2. ^correction^ (will never resolve)

  3. I only offered the piece because it makes a point so much better then I’ve ever done. Your discussion is always enlightened & intriguing. What this says to me is that I will always lean toward arguements that make my point for me. I’d like to read a Billy Graham Essay proving an arguement for Atheist. That would be worth reading. Maybe Dawkins proves a point for faith.
    When every other piece of evidence is removed what’s left? If I want to prove my point, why wouldn’t I approach it from the other side & winnow away the facts. I can find arguements to back up my point all day, there’s nothing critical in adding to my mountain. It’s natural & easy to align myself with those facts that are comfortable to me. Personally I prefer to find out how the otherside thinks, the more I learn about being wrong; how I’m wrong, when I’m wrong, where I’ve gone wrong, the more teachable I become.

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