Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity

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Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity; Collected from the Appearances of Nature
Title page
Title Page of first American edition
Author William Paley
Language English
Genre Christian apologetics, philosophy of religion
Publisher R. Faulder, London
John Morgan, Philadelphia
Publication date

Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity is an 1802 work of Christian apologetics and philosophy of religion by the English clergyman William Paley (July 1743 – 25 May 1805). The book expounds his arguments from natural theology, making a teleological argument for the existence of God, notably beginning with the watchmaker analogy.

The book was many times republished. It continues to be consulted both by creationists and by evolutionary biologists. Both Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins respected its arguments.


The main thrust of William Paley's argument in Natural Theology is that God's design of the whole creation can be seen in the general happiness, or well-being, that is evident in the physical and social order of things. This sets the book within the broad tradition of the Enlightenment's natural theology; and this explains why Paley based much of his thought on John Ray (1691), William Derham (1711) and Bernard Nieuwentyt (1750).[1]

Paley's argument is built mainly around anatomy and natural history. "For my part", he says, "I take my stand in human anatomy"; elsewhere he insists upon "the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent designing mind for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear". In making his argument, Paley employed a wide variety of metaphors and analogies.[2] Perhaps the most famous is his analogy between a watch and the world. Historians, philosophers and theologians often call this the Watchmaker analogy. Building on this mechanical analogy, Paley presents examples from planetary astronomy and argues that the regular movements of the solar system resemble the workings of a giant clock. To bolster his views he cites the work of his old friend John Law and the Dublin Astronomer Royal John Brinkley.[3]

The germ of the idea is to be found in ancient writers who used sundials and Ptolemaic epicycles to illustrate the divine order of the world. These types of examples can be seen in the work of the ancient philosopher Cicero, especially in his De natura deorum, ii. 87 and 97.[4] The watch analogy was widely used in the Enlightenment, by deists and Christians alike. Thus, Paley's use of the watch (and other mechanical objects like it) continued a long and fruitful tradition of analogical reasoning that was well received by those who read Natural Theology when it was published in 1802.


Chapter I. STATE of the Argument
The basic watchmaker analogy: if you find a watch, you suppose there's a watchmaker.
Chapter II. State of the Argument continued
Now the watch can reproduce itself. Paley argues that the watchmaker must have power, and specific intentions.
Chapter III. Application of the Argument
Paley says it's atheism not to agree with the watchmaker argument. He compares the eye to a telescope, and argues from the eye's construction.
Chapter IV Of the Succession of Plants and Animals
Paley argues from the properties of plant seeds and animal eggs.
Chapter V. Application of the Argument continued
The argument is extended to 'all the organized parts of the works of nature'. Paley considers whether chance alone could explain these, and concludes not.
Chapter VI. The Argument cumulative
No argument, writes Paley, other than 'the necessity of an intelligent Creator', can explain the eye (or any other example).
Chapter VII. Of the MECHANICAL and IMMECHANICAL Parts and Functions of Animals and Vegetables
Animals use muscles to move; even if we don't understand how they work, we can see they work mechanically, argues Paley, moving joints to and fro. Other organs such as the stomach work chemically to digest food.
Chapter VIII. Of MECHANICAL Arrangement in the human Frame,-Of the Bones
The bones and joints form a mechanical structure with features comparable to hinges, mortice and tenon and ball and socket joints, etc, to provide both support and suitable flexibility. He compares the spine to The Iron Bridge at Bishop Wearmouth.
Chapter IX. Of the Muscles
The muscles exactly relate to the joints, operating them mechanically like the wires and strings of a puppet. A complex case is the tongue. Sphincter muscles are admired also.
Chapter X. Of the Vessels of Animal Bodies
The blood and lymph vessels are considered, the valves of the heart, and the separate functions of arteries and veins. Paley argues that such functions as that of the epiglottis could not have formed gradually (as by evolution).
Chapter XI. Of the Animal Structure regarded as a Mass
Paley considers the bilateral symmetry of animals, and how well-packaged all the delicate organs are, resulting in both beauty and utility.
Red Crossbill skull and jaw anatomy from William Yarrell's A History of British Birds (1843); the Crossbill's beak is cited by Paley as being well-suited to its function.
Chapter XII. Comparative Anatomy
Paley considers the equivalents of human anatomy in other animals. Human clothing is compared to the fur, feathers, quills and scales of animals. The structure of the feather is admired. The teeth and jaws of carnivores, herbivores and omnivores are considered. Similarly, the adaptations of birds' bills in species like the crossbill, spoonbill and (long-billed) snipe are discussed.
Chapter XIII. Peculiar Organizations
Paley considers organs which seem to have no comparison, like the oil glands of birds and swim bladders of fishes.
Chapter XIV. Prospective Contrivances
Paley considers how some structures are seen to be prepared for future function, like the milk-teeth of a baby, ready formed inside the gums at birth. Similarly, the circulation of the foetus is supported by temporary short-circuits with the foramen ovale and the ductus arteriosus, as the lungs are not yet in use for breathing.
Chapter XV. Relations
Paley considers how the whole of a system is more than the sum of its parts. This is seen to be so both in a mechanical watch and in living systems.
Chapter XVI. Compensation
The 'defects' of one organ are remedied by the structure of another. The elephant has, Paley argues, a short neck because its head is so heavy, but in compensation it has a long trunk, enabling it to reach out. Similarly the spider has no wings to enable it to chase its flying prey, but has a web, and organs adapted (sic) to produce it, which compensates for the lack.
Chapter XVII. The Relation of animated Bodies to inanimate Nature
Organs such as the wings of birds and the fins of fish are expressly adapted to the surrounding 'elements' of air or water in which they operate.
Chapter XVIII. Instincts
Instincts enable newly-hatched young of salmon to find food, and later to migrate to the sea and finally back to their rivers to spawn.
Chapter XIX. Of Insects
"WE are not writing a system of natural history", begins Paley, apologising for not covering every class systematically. He mentions insects for some examples unique to them, as the antennae, elytra (scaly wing-cases), ovipositors (he calls them 'awls') for laying eggs deep in plants or wood, stings, the proboscis of bees, the light-producing organ of the glow-worm and so on.
Chapter XX. Of Plants
Admitting that plants generally have less obvious evidence of 'a designed and studied mechanism' than animals, still Paley adds some examples, as of the parts of the seed, the delicate germ being protected by a tough or spiny husk, and dispersed by wings or other appendages.
Chapter XXI. Of the Elements
Paley considers how the elements of water, air etc are exactly as needed.
Chapter XXII. Astronomy
Paley admits that astronomy is not the best proof of 'the agency of an intelligent Creator', but all the same it shows his magnificence.
Chapter XXIII. Personality of the Deity
All the above items show the 'contrivances' in existence, which Paley argues prove the personality of the Deity, arguing that only persons can contrive or design.
Chapter XXIV. Of the natural Attributes of the Deity
The attributes of God must, Paley argues, be 'adequate to the magnitude, extent, and multiplicity of his operations'.
Chapter XXV. Of the Unity of the Deity
Paley argues that the uniformity of plan seen in the universe indicates a single God.
Chapter XXVI. The Goodness of the Deity
God must be good, Paley argues, because in many cases the designs seen in nature are beneficial, and because animals perceive pleasure, beyond what would be strictly necessary. Pain is admitted to exist, but even such things as venomous bites of snakes exist to a good end, namely defence or the capture of prey. Pain too is mitigated, as in intervals between the acute pain of gout which are beneficial to sufferers. The appearance of chance, too, is necessary in the world.
Chapter XXVII. Conclusion
Paley concludes that natural theology offers many proofs of the goodness of God, though any one would be sufficient. The many proofs show that the conclusion is stable, and together they can make a suitable impression on those who study them.


Charles Darwin read Natural Theology during his student years, and later stated in his autobiography that he was initially convinced by the argument.

The evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould compared Paley to Voltaire's Doctor Pangloss, the man who could argue any case (however hopeless). Gould is struck that Paley can claim that even the agonising pain of gallstones or gout could indicate the goodness of a loving God, with the justification that it felt so good when the pain stopped. Gould makes it clear he finds Paley's argument incorrect scientifically, but states that he respects it as a coherent and well-defended philosophy. Gould particularly respects Paley's method of identifying alternative possibilities and then systematically refuting them. Gould notes that Paley envisages a Lamarckist kind of evolution and rebuts it with the observation that men have not lost their nipples through disuse. However, Gould writes, Paley did not manage to think of one more alternative, natural selection, which has no purpose at all but just kills off whatever works less well in every generation.[5]

Richard Dawkins, an opponent of the design argument, described himself as a neo-Paleyan in The Blind Watchmaker.


  1. ^ Eddy, Matthew Daniel and Knight, David M. (2006). "William Paley, Natural Theology". Introduction (Oxford University Press). 
  2. ^ Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2004). "The Science and Rhetoric of Paley's Natural Theology". LIterature and Theology 18: 1–22. doi:10.1093/litthe/18.1.1. 
  3. ^ Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2008). Natural Theology. Oxford University Press. pp. Appendix entry on Brinkley. 
  4. ^ Hallam, Henry (1847). Introduction to the Literature of Europe, Vol II. London: Murray. p. 385. 
  5. ^ Gould, Steven Jay (2007 (first published 1993)). Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History. Vintage. pp. 142–148. 


--- Darwin online: 12th edition
--- 1879 Sheldon edition

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