Watchmaker analogy

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The watchmaker analogy or watchmaker argument is a teleological argument. By way of an analogy, the argument states that design implies a designer. The analogy has played a prominent role in natural theology and the "argument from design," where it was used to support arguments for the existence of God and for the intelligent design of the universe. The most famous statement of the teleological argument using the watchmaker analogy was given by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology.[1]

The 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection put forward an explanation for complexity and adaptation, which reflects scientific consensus on the origins of biological diversity,[2] and provides a counter-argument to the watchmaker analogy: for example, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins referred to the analogy in his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker giving his explanation of evolution. In the 19th century, deists, who championed the watchmaker analogy, held that Darwin's theory fit with "the principle of uniformitarianism—the idea that all processes in the world occur now as they have in the past" and that deistic evolution "provided an explanatory framework for understanding species variation in a mechanical universe."[3]

In the United States, starting in the 1960s, creationists revived versions of the argument to dispute the concepts of evolution and natural selection, and there was renewed interest in the watchmaker argument.


The watchmaker analogy consists of the comparison of some natural phenomenon to a watch. Typically, the analogy is presented as a prelude to the teleological argument and is generally presented as:[citation needed]

  1. The complex inner workings of a watch necessitate an intelligent designer.
  2. As with a watch, the complexity of X (a particular organ or organism, the structure of the solar system, life, the universe, anything complex) necessitates a designer.

In this presentation, the watch analogy (step 1) does not function as a premise to an argument — rather it functions as a rhetorical device and a preamble. Its purpose is to establish the plausibility of the general premise: you can tell, simply by looking at something, whether or not it was the product of intelligent design. In most formulations of the argument, the characteristic that indicates intelligent design is left implicit. In some formulations, the characteristic is orderliness or complexity (which is a form of order). In other cases it is clearly being designed for a purpose, where clearly is usually left undefined.[citation needed]


Scientific Revolution[edit]

The scientific revolution "nurtured a growing awareness" that "there were universal laws of nature at work that ordered the movement of the world and its parts." James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong write that in "astronomy, the Copernican revolution regarding the heliocentrism of the solar system, Johannes Kepler's (1571-1630) three laws of planetary motion, and Isaac Newton's (1642-1727) law of universal gravitation—laws of gravitation and of motion, and notions of absolute space and time—all combined to establish the regularities of heavenly and earthly bodies." With this backdrop, "deists suggested the watchmaker analogy: just as watches are set in motion by watchmakers, after which they operate according to their pre-established mechanisms, so also was the world begun by the God as creator, after which it and all its parts have operated according to their pre-established natural laws. With these laws perfectly in place, events have unfolded according to the prescribed plan."[3] For Sir Isaac Newton, "the regular motion of the planets made it reasonable to believe in the continued existence of God."[4] Newton also upheld the idea that "like a watchmaker, God was forced to intervene in the universe and tinker with the mechanism from time to time to ensure that it continued operating in good working order."[5] Like Newton, René Descartes viewed "the cosmos as a great time machine operating according to fixed laws, a watch created and wound up by the great watchmaker."[6]

William Paley[edit]

Watches and timepieces have been used as examples of complicated technology in philosophical discussions throughout history. Cicero, Voltaire and René Descartes, for example, used timepieces in arguments regarding purpose. The watchmaker analogy, as described here, was used by Fontenelle in 1686,[7] but was most famously formulated by Paley.

William Paley (1743–1805) used the watchmaker analogy in his book Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature, published in 1802. In it, Paley wrote that if a pocket watch is found on a heath, it is most reasonable to assume that someone dropped it and that it was made by one or more watchmakers, and not by natural forces.

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 anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show 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 I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (...) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (...) 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 or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

—William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

Paley went on to argue that the complex structures of living things and the remarkable adaptations of plants and animals required an intelligent designer. He believed the natural world was the creation of God and showed the nature of the creator. According to Paley, God had carefully designed "even the most humble and insignificant organisms" and all of their minute features (such as the wings and antennae of earwigs). He believed therefore that God must care even more for humanity.

Paley recognised that there is great suffering in nature, and that nature appears to be indifferent to pain. His way of reconciling this with his belief in a benevolent God was to assume that life had more pleasure than pain. (See Problem of Evil).

As a side note, a charge of wholesale plagiarism from this book was brought against Paley in The Athenaeum for 1848, but the famous illustration of the watch was not peculiar to Nieuwentyt, and had been used by many others before either Paley or Nieuwentyt.

Joseph Butler[edit]

William Paley taught the works of Joseph Butler and appears to have built on Butler’s 1736 design arguments of inferring a designer from evidence of design. E.g., Butler noted: “As the manifold Appearances of Design and of final Causes, in the Constitution of the World, prove it to be the Work of an intelligent Mind . . .The appearances of Design and of final Causes in the constitution of nature as really prove this acting agent to be an intelligent Designer. . . ten thousand thousand Instances of Design, cannot but prove a Designer.”.[8]


David Hume[edit]

Hume gave the classic criticism of the design argument in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. He argued that for the design argument to be feasible, it must be true that order and purpose are observed only when they result from design. But order is observed regularly, resulting from presumably mindless processes like snowflake or crystal generation. Design accounts for only a tiny part of our experience with order and "purpose". Furthermore, the design argument is based on an incomplete analogy: because of our experience with objects, we can recognize human-designed ones, comparing for example a pile of stones and a brick wall. But to point to a designed Universe, we would need to have an experience of a range of different universes. As we only experience one, the analogy cannot be applied. We must ask therefore if it is right to compare the world to a machine—as in Paley's watchmaker argument—when perhaps it would be better described as a giant inert animal. Even if the design argument is completely successful, it could not (in and of itself) establish a robust theism; one could easily reach the conclusion that the universe's configuration is the result of some morally ambiguous, possibly unintelligent agent or agents whose method bears only a remote similarity to human design. In this way it could be asked if the designer was God, or further still, who designed the designer? Hume also reasoned that if a well-ordered natural world requires a special designer, then God's mind (being so well ordered) also requires a special designer. And then this designer would likewise need a designer, and so on ad infinitum. We could respond by resting content with an inexplicably self-ordered divine mind but then why not rest content with an inexplicably self-ordered natural world?

Charles Darwin[edit]

Charles Darwin's theory provided another explanation for complex artifacts, one where a design is not necessary.

When Charles Darwin (1809–1882) completed his studies of theology at Christ's College, Cambridge in 1831, he read Paley's Natural Theology and believed that the work gave rational proof of the existence of God. This was because living beings showed complexity and were exquisitely fitted to their places in a happy world.

Subsequently, on the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin found that nature was not so beneficent, and the distribution of species did not support ideas of divine creation. In 1838, shortly after his return, Darwin conceived his theory that natural selection, rather than divine design, was the best explanation for gradual change in populations over many generations. He published this theory in On the Origin of Species in 1859, and in later editions noted responses he had received:

It can hardly be supposed that a false theory would explain, in so satisfactory a manner as does the theory of natural selection, the several large classes of facts above specified. It has recently been objected that this is an unsafe method of arguing; but it is a method used in judging of the common events of life, and has often been used by the greatest natural philosophers.... I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one. It is satisfactory, as showing how transient such impressions are, to remember that the greatest discovery ever made by man, namely, the law of the attraction of gravity, was also attacked by Leibnitz, "as subversive of natural, and inferentially of revealed, religion." A celebrated author and divine has written to me that "he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws."

—Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (1859)

Darwin reviewed the implications of this finding in his autobiography:

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.

—Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored.

The idea that nature was governed by laws was already common, and in 1833 William Whewell as a proponent of the natural theology that Paley had inspired had written that "with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws."[9] Darwin, who spoke of these "fixed laws" concurred with Whewell, writing in his second edition of On The Origin of Species:[10]

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

—Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (1860)

By the time Darwin published his theory, liberal theologians were already supporting such ideas, and by the late 19th century their modernist approach was predominant in theology. In science, evolution theory incorporating Darwin's natural selection became completely accepted.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins[edit]

Dawkins argues that the watch analogy conflates the difference between the complexity that arises from living organisms that are able to reproduce themselves (and as such may change to become more complex over time) and the complexity of inanimate objects, unable to pass on any reproductive changes (such as the multitude of parts manufactured in a watch). The comparison breaks down because of this important distinction.[11]

In a Horizon episode also entitled The Blind Watchmaker (after his book by the same name), Dawkins described Paley's argument as being "as mistaken as it is elegant". In both contexts he saw Paley as having made an incorrect proposal as to a certain problem's solution, but did not disrespect him for this. In his essay The big bang, Steven Pinker discussed Dawkins' coverage of Paley's argument, adding: "Biologists today do not disagree with Paley's laying out of the problem. They disagree only with his solution."

In his book, The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that life was the result of complex biological processes. Dawkins makes the argument that the comparison to the lucky construction of a watch is fallacious because proponents of evolution do not consider evolution "lucky"; rather than luck, the evolution of human life is the result of billions of years of natural selection. He therefore concludes that evolution is a fair contestant to replace God in the role of watchmaker.

In response to these claims, Nathan Schneider writes that "Paley died decades before The Origin of Species was published, and ever since his views have been so repeatedly set in opposition to Darwin's that Richard Dawkins titled one of his books on evolution The Blind Watchmaker. A closer look at Paley's own thinking reveals, however, a God who works through the laws of nature, not beyond them like the modern ID theorists' designer. Paley had no objection to species changing over time. It's only in today's highly polarized culture-war climate that we don't bother to notice that one of the forefathers of intelligent design theory might have been perfectly comfortable with evolution."[12]

Faulty analogy[edit]

Criticisms have found fault in the watch, or the alternative 'eye', analogy. Anthropologists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd argue that one human could not make a watch on their own and therefore a watch does not have a designer.[13] Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar, a book which purports to explain philosophy through jokes, also argues against the Watchmaker analogy.

Creationist revival[edit]

In the early 20th century the modernist theology of higher criticism was contested in the United States by Biblical literalists who campaigned successfully against the teaching of evolution and began calling themselves Creationists in the 1920s. When teaching of evolution was reintroduced into public schools in the 1960s they adopted what they called creation science which had a central concept of design in similar terms to Paley's argument. That idea was then relabelled intelligent design, which presents the same analogy as an argument against evolution by natural selection without explicitly stating that the "intelligent designer" was God. The argument from the complexity of biological organisms was now presented as the irreducible complexity argument,[14] the most notable proponent of which was Michael Behe and, leveraging off the verbiage of information theory, the specified complexity argument, the most notable proponent of which was William Dembski.

The watchmaker analogy was referenced in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. Throughout the trial, the Reverend William Paley was mentioned several times.[15] The defense's expert witness John Haught noted that both Intelligent Design and the watchmaker analogy are "reformulations" of the same theological argument.[16] On day 21 of the trial, Mr. Harvey walked Dr. Minnich through a modernized version of Paley's argument, substituting a cell phone for the watch.[17] In his ruling, the judge stated that the use of the argument from design by intelligent design proponents "is merely a restatement of the Reverend William Paley's argument applied at the cell level"[18] and that the argument from design is subjective.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ William Paley - William Carey University
  2. ^ "Such controversies as do exist concern the details of the mechanisms of evolution, not the validity of the over-arching theory of evolution, which is one of the best supported theories in all of science." Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition (1999) United States National Academy of Sciences
  3. ^ a b Smith, James K. A. (2010). Science and the Spirit. Indiana University Press. p. 54. ISBN 0253004667. 
  4. ^ Garrett, Brian (2007). What is this thing called Metaphysics?. Taylor & Francis. p. 12. ISBN 0203968441. 
  5. ^ Dugin, Alexander (2012). The Fourth Political Theory. Arktos. p. 87. ISBN 1907166564. 
  6. ^ McMahan, David L. (2008). The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press. p. 79. ISBN 0199884781. 
  7. ^ Durant, Will; Durant, Ariel (1935). Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Louis XIV (1963). Simon and Schuster. 
  8. ^ Joseph Butler. The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, 3rd Ed. London, MDCCXL (1740) pp 65, 158, 424. John and Paul Knapton. 
  9. ^ Darwin, C. R. 1859. On the Origin of Species. London: John Murray, p. ii.
    Whewell, William, 1833. Astronomy and general physics considered with reference to natural theology. W. Pickering, London, 356
  10. ^ Nagasawa, Yujin (2011). The Existence of God: A Philosophical Introduction. Taylor & Francis. p. 93. ISBN 1136737464. 
  11. ^ Richard Dawkins (1986). The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 43–76. ISBN 978-0-393-31570-7. Retrieved 15 September 2012. 
  12. ^ 10 Proofs That Will Change How You Think About God by Nathan Schneider. The Huffington Post. June 6, 2013
  13. ^ Richerson & Boyd 2005, p. 50
  14. ^ Scott EC, Matzke NJ (May 2007). "Biological design in science classrooms". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 104 (suppl. 1): 8669–76. Bibcode:2007PNAS..104.8669S. doi:10.1073/pnas.0701505104. PMC 1876445. PMID 17494747. 
  15. ^ Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District Day 1 PM session
  16. ^ Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District Day 5 PM session
  17. ^ Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District Day 21 AM session
  18. ^ Ruling, Whether ID Is Science, page 79 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District 2005
  19. ^ "It is readily apparent to the Court that the only attribute of design that biological systems appear to share with human artifacts is their complex appearance, i.e. if it looks complex or designed, it must have been designed. (23:73 (Behe)). This inference to design based upon the appearance of a "purposeful arrangement of parts" is a completely subjective proposition, determined in the eye of each beholder and his/her viewpoint concerning the complexity of a system." Ruling, Whether ID Is Science, page 81
  • Richerson, Peter J.; Boyd, Robert (2005). Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-71284-2. .

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