Paley, Watch This!

Thanks to Ross Raffin for this essay!

Other then the Argument from Cosmology, few phrases elicit more groans from atheists than the argument from complexity. The most common form originated two hundred years ago by William Paley. A watch is found in the desert, was it manufactured or did it appear out of thin air?

“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.”

Ignoring the strawman this erects against actual naturalistic thought and Evolutionary Theory, “we” may deconstruct Paley’s argument to its inductive base. That is precisely the problem; the argument is inductive.

Cause and effect, as Hume (who dismantled Paley’s argument in another manner) demonstated, is not a priori knowledge. The watch being made by a human falls under this very category. The statement can only be learned through experience.

What Paley failed to recognize is that his inductive argument is a double-edged sword. The argument from complexity, whether using a watch, coke can, or other complex object, can be used to argue for naturalism, theistic evolution, pantheism, or agnosticism.

While down a road, one comes across a dandelion. Dandelions contain millions of cells that are differentiated into tissues such as florets, bracts, rosettes, and globes (these represent only several parts of the head). They can reproduce sexually or when triploid reproduce asexually through apomixis. Needless to say, a dandelion has equal or greater complexity then either a Rolex or tin can.

Upon witnessing a dandelion, the first impression is not of a synthetic creation by man. However, it could not simply have appeared out of nowhere. Instead, the immense amount of complexity within a full-grown dandelion “stems” from natural growth via DNA. And where did the seed that bore this dandelion come from? Another plant, not another man. To follow Paley’s application of inductive arguments, the universe must have arisen through natural processes.

Further down the road a pitbull blocks the path. This is odd since the area has no native pitbulls. Few dispute that the pitbull is more complex then the watch. However, there is no way the pitbull arrived in this area by chance. It is well known that domestic dogs such as the pitbull are bred and owned by men. The pitbull itself, however, came into existence through natural processes. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that the universe came from natural processes but was placed here by a supreme intelligence.

Near the end of this metaphysical journey, over the horizon looms a gigantic object. This entity is so utterly complex that neither man nor natural processes can account for it. However, there is no way such complexity could appear by chance. If it exists, but was never made, then obviously it is God! Paley has shown that the universe, since it is so complex but does exist, is in fact the supreme being.

Finally, at the end of the road, on the edge of a flat world the sun rotates around, there exists a rock in the shape of a watch (granted, one that is only correct twice a day). Here there is complexity. However, we have no way of telling if it occurred through erosion or by the hand of man. The artificer, if he exists, is not around to confirm his authorship. Therefore it is impossible to know how the universe created because it could have come about through natural processes or supreme intelligence.

So which more closely resembles the universe? The watch, dandelion, pitbull, complex entity, or stone? Hume argued for the dandelion, Paley for the watch, and I simply adore pitbulls. Such inductive arguments, it seems, should in the future be applied with more caution.

The Enlightenment wounded the beast, but the killing blow has yet to land...