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William Paley (1743-1805)
|Died||25 May 1805
|Fields||Theology, philosophy, natural theology|
|Institutions||Giggleswick Grammar School, Christ's College (Cambridge University), Giggleswick Parish, Carlisle Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral, Durham Cathedral|
|Alma mater||Christ's College, Cambridge|
|Known for||Contributions to moral philosophy, political philosophy, ethics and philosophy of religion|
|Notable awards||Members' Prize, Cambridge, 1765|
William Paley (July 1743 – 25 May 1805) was an English Christian apologist, philosopher, and utilitarian. He is best known for his exposition of the teleological argument for the existence of God in his work Natural Theology, which made use of the watchmaker analogy (also see natural theology).
Paley was born in Peterborough, England, and was educated at Giggleswick School, of which his father was headmaster, and at Christ's College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1763 as senior wrangler, became fellow in 1766, and in 1768 tutor of his college. He lectured on Samuel Clarke, Joseph Butler and John Locke in his systematic course on moral philosophy, which subsequently formed the basis of his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy; and on the New Testament, his own copy of which is in the British Library. The subscription controversy was then agitating the university, and Paley pushed an anonymous defence of a pamphlet in which the Master of Peterhouse and Bishop of Carlisle Edmund Law had advocated the retrenchment and simplification of the Thirty-nine Articles; he did not, however, sign the petition (called the "Feathers Tavern" petition, from being drawn up at a meeting at the Feathers Tavern) for a relaxation of the terms of subscription. He was also a strong supporter of the American colonies during the revolutionary war, partly because he thought it would lead to the destruction of slavery. He studied philosophy.
In 1776 Paley was presented to the rectory of Musgrave in Westmorland, which was exchanged soon after for Appleby. He was subsequently made vicar of Dalston in 1780, near the bishop's palace at Rose Castle. In 1782 he became the Archdeacon of Carlisle. Paley was intimate with the Law family throughout his life, and the Bishop and his son John Law (who was later an Irish bishop) were instrumental during the decade after he left Cambridge in pressing him to publish his revised lectures and in negotiating with the publisher. In 1782 Edmund Law, otherwise the mildest of men, was most particular that Paley should add a book on political philosophy to the moral philosophy, which Paley was reluctant to write. The book was published in 1785 under the title of The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, and was made a part of the examinations at the University of Cambridge the next year. It passed through fifteen editions in the author's lifetime. Paley strenuously supported the abolition of the slave trade, and his attack on slavery in the book was instrumental in drawing greater public attention to the evil trade. In 1789, a speech he gave on the subject in Carlisle was published.
Some of his other political, social and economic ideas are remarkably advanced. He defends the right of the poor to steal, particularly if they are in need of food, and proposes a graduated income tax in order to limit excessive accumulations of wealth in few hands. He was also an advocate of enabling women to take up careers, rather than perpetually to depend on the property owned and inherited by male relations. He was well aware of the fact that women lower in the social scale worked: his argument was with the system that prevented talented and capable middle-class women from taking a role in the economy.
Paley's famous, and controversial, fable of the pigeons, which has a strong criticism of the system of property ownership and of the draconian means used to defend it, the Bloody Code, is found in Book III of Principles. John Law tried to get Paley to remove the passage because it would prevent him becoming a bishop, but Paley refused.
His political views are said to have debarred him from the highest positions in the Church, the King, George III, at one point saying, Pigeon Paley? Not sound, not sound. Even so, he was offered the Mastership of Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1789, by the Bishop of Ely, but he turned it down, being content with his life in Carlisle and not wishing to disrupt his children's education. John Law observed at this time that "Paley has missed a mitre".
The Principles was followed in 1790 by his first essay in the field of Christian apologetics, Horae Paulinae, or the Truth of the Scripture History of St Paul which compared the Paul's epistles with the Acts of the Apostles, making use of "undesigned coincidences" to argue that these documents mutually supported each other's authenticity. Some have said this book was the most original of Paley's works. It was followed in 1794 by the celebrated View of the Evidences of Christianity, which was also added to the examinations at Cambridge, remaining on the syllabus until the 1920s.
For his services in defence of the faith, with the publication of the Evidences, the Bishop of London gave him a stall in St Paul's; the Bishop of Lincoln made him subdean of that cathedral, and the Bishop of Durham conferred upon him the rectory of Bishopwearmouth. The income he drew from these positions alone would have made him one of the wealthiest clergymen in England, wealthier than many bishops and even some noblemen. But he also inherited several thousand pounds from his father-in-law, a commercial magnate, in the same year. This was quite a transformation from his poverty stricken life in Greenwich, of which time he once said he would have educated the bastards of a nobleman and married his cast-off mistress into the bargain. He wrote to his sister at this time that he thought the bishops had "all gone mad".
The world had indeed gone mad on Paley. The King now wondered why he never saw Paley at court (Paley persistently refused to attend, despite his former pupil Henry Majendie repeatedly asking him to meet the King) and "would not be without" a copy of the Evidences, of which he kept copies in all of his residences. During the remainder of Paley's life, his time was divided between Bishopwearmouth and Lincoln, during which time he wrote Natural Theology, despite his increasingly debilitating illness. He died on 25 May 1805.
Paley's Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy was one of the most influential philosophical texts in late Enlightenment Britain. It was cited in several parliamentary debates over the corn laws in Britain and in debates in the US Congress. The book remained a set textbook at Cambridge well into the Victorian era. Even Charles Darwin was required to read it when he studied at Christ's College. But it was Natural Theology that Darwin was most impressed with even if it was not a book undergraduates were required to read.
Paley is also remembered for his contributions to the philosophy of religion, utilitarian ethics and Christian apologetics. In 1802, he published Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, his last book. As he states in the preface, he saw the book as a preamble to his other philosophical and theological books; in fact, he suggests that Natural Theology should be read first, so as to build a systematic understanding of his arguments. The main thrust of his argument was that God's design of the whole creation could be seen in the general happiness, or well-being, that was evident in the physical and social order of things. Such a book fell within the broad tradition of natural theology works written during the Enlightenment; and this explains why Paley based much of his thought on John Ray (1691) and William Derham (1711) and Nieuwentyt (1750).
Although Paley devotes a chapter of Natural Theology to astronomy, written by his old friend John Law and the Dublin Astronomer Royal John Brinkley, they did not consider astronomy to provide sound evidence of "designedness". 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. Perhaps the most famous is his analogy between a watch and the world. Historians, philosophers and theologians often call this the Watchmaker analogy.
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 (see Hallam, Literature of Europe, ii. 385, note.). 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.
Since Paley is often read in university courses that address the philosophy of religion, the timing of his design argument has sometimes perplexed modern philosophers. Earlier in the century David Hume had argued against notions of design with counter examples drawn from monstrosity, imperfect forms of testimony and probability, and it has been assumed that Paley could not have read Hume. However, in both published works and in manuscript letters, you find that Paley was engaged directly with Hume from his time as an undergraduate to his last works. Hume's examples ring true with many 21st century readers, and they appealed to some of Paley's 18th-century contemporaries as well.
Paley adopted a number of Hume's points but rejected most (but not all) of those aspects of the arguments considered to be inconsistent with Christian theology. Notably, Paley and Hume both rejected Scottish moral sense theory, on the grounds that one could not know with certainty that there was such a thing as a moral sense. Both based their philosophical hermeneutic in probability theory. Notions of evidence and probability were different then, being based in legal thought rather than statistics. Hume was trained as a lawyer, and Paley was regarded by his peers, some of whom were prominent lawyers themselves, as having one of the most acute legal minds of his age. Hume's arguments were only accepted gradually by the reading public, and his philosophical works sold poorly until agnostics like T H Huxley championed Hume's philosophy in the 19th century.
Scientific norms have changed greatly since Paley's day, and are inclined to do less than justice to his arguments and ways of reasoning. But his style is lucid and was willing to present transparently the evidence against his own case. His subject matter was central to Victorian anxieties, which might be one reason Natural Theology continued to appeal to the reading public, making his book a best seller for most of the 19th century, even after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Natural Theology and the Evidences of Christianity appealed to Victorian Evangelicals, although not so much to adherents of the Oxford Movement - and both found his utilitarianism objectionable. Paley's views influenced (both positively and negatively) theologians, philosophers and scientists, then and since.
In addition to Moral and Political Philosophy and the Evidences, Charles Darwin read Natural Theology during his student years, and later stated in his autobiography that he was initially convinced by the argument. His views changed with time. By the 1820s and 1830s, well-known liberals like Thomas Wakley and other radical editors of The Lancet were using Paley's aging examples to attack the establishment's control over medical and scientific education in Durham, London, Oxford and Cambridge. It also inspired the Earl of Bridgewater to commission the Bridgewater Treatises and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge to issue cheap reprints for the rising middle class.
Today, Paley's name evokes both reverence and revulsion and his work is cited accordingly by authors seeking to frame the history of human thought. Even Richard Dawkins, an opponent of the design argument, described himself as a neo-Paleyan in The Blind Watchmaker. Today, as in his own time (though for different reasons), Paley is a controversial figure, a lightning rod for both sides in the contemporary argument between science and religion. Consequently, it is difficult to read him with objectivity, as his writings reflect the thought of his time, but as Dawkins observed, his was a strong and logical approach to evidence, whether human or natural. The Oxford constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey had his pupils read the Evidences to teach them about legal reasoning. It is for such reasons that Paley's writings, Natural Theology included, stand as a notable body of work in the canon of Western thought.
Further reading 
- Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, Paternoster, Exeter UK/William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1984.
- Brooke, John H. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.
- Clarke, M.L., Paley: Evidences for the Man, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1974.
- Dodds, G. L. Paley, Wearside and Natural Theology, Sunderland, 2003.
- Eddy, Matthew D., 'The Science and Rhetoric of Paley's Natural Theology', Literature and Theology, 18 (2004), 1-22.
- Fyfe, A. 'Publishing and the classics: Paley's Natural Theology and the nineteenth-century scientific canon', Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 33 (2002), 729-51.
- Gascoigne, J., 'Rise and Fall of British Newtonian Natural Theology', Science in Context, 2 (1988), 219-256.
- Gillespie, N. C. 'Divine Design and the Industrial Revolution. William Paley's Abortive Reform of Natural Theology', Isis, 81 (1990), 214-229.
- Gilson, E., From Aristotle to Darwin and Back again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution, John Lyon (trans), Notre Dame University Press, London 1984.
- Hodder and Sloughton, Philosophy of Religion
- Knight, David. Science and Spirituality: The Volatile Connection, Routledge, London, 2004.
- LeMahieu, D.L. The Mind of William Paley, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1976.
- McAdoo, H. R., The Spirit of Anglicanism: A Survey of Anglican Theological Method in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1965).
- McGrath, A. E., A Scientific Theology: Volume I, Nature, Continuum, Edinburgh, 2001.
- Meadley, G. W. Memoirs of William Paley, to which is Added an Appendix, London, 1809.
- Ospovat, D. The Development of Darwin's Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology and Natural Selection, 1838-1859, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995.
- Paley, E. An Account of the Life and Writings of William Paley, , Farnborough: Gregg, 1970; originally, this was the first volume of The Works of William Paley, London, 1825.
- Paley, William, Natural Theology, with an introduction and notes by Matthew D. Eddy and David M. Knight, Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Pelikan, J. Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993.
- Philipp, W. 'Physicotheology in the Age of Enlightenment: Appearance and History', Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 57 (1967), 1233-1267.
- Porter, R. 'Creation and Credence', in Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin (eds), Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture, Sage Press, Beverly Hills, 1979.
- Raven, C. Natural Religion and Christian Theology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1953.
- Richards, R. J. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2002.
- Rose, J. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002.
- Rosen, Frederick, Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill (Routledge Studies in Ethics & Moral Theory), 2003. ISBN 0-415-22094-7
- Rousseau, G. S. and Roy Porter (eds), The Ferment of Knowledge – Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth Century Science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980.
- St Clair, W. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.
- Topham, J. R. 'Science, natural theology, and evangelicalism in the early nineteenth century: Thomas Chalmers and the evidence controversy', in D. N. Livingstone, D. G. Hart and M. A. Knoll, Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (Oxford: 1999), 142-174.
- Topham, J. R. 'Beyond the "Common Context": the Production and Reading of the Bridgewater Treatises', Isis, 89 (1998), 233-62.
- Viner, J. The Role of Providence in the Social Order, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1972.
- Von Sydow, M. 'Charles Darwin: A Christian undermining Christianity?', in David M. Knight and Matthew D. Eddy, Science and Beliefs: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005
- Works by William Paley at Project Gutenberg
- William Paley entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Paley, William (1809), Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (12th ed.), London: Printed for J. Faulder
- Excerpt from William Paley's 1802 book Natural Theology 
- Full text of William Paley's Natural Theology