Blog

Paley’s Misinformed Watchmaker Analogy

Paley, in his 1802 book Natural Theology, provides his famous, elegant watchmaker analogy that argues for an intelligent designer of living things. The gist of the quote is that if one comes upon a stone, one might assume that it had always been there, formed by pure randomness, but if one stumbles on a watch, one would not make the same assumption. One would instead assume that there was an intelligent designer who purposefully created it. Quote below for those interested:

“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.”¹

Therefore, because a watch, in all its complexity, must have a designer, living creatures must also have one, with God filling the shoes of the watchmaker. Over the years, the analogy has been repeatedly used as an argument against evolution, though whether Paley would have denied evolution himself is up in the air as he died in 1805.

The analogy fails as an argument for an intelligent designer because though that specific watch may have been designed and created by one man, the watch as a concept was created by countless humans over many centuries. In fact, thinking about the watch from that perspective, the watchmaker analogy is actually a great analogy for evolution. In the same way that living creatures today originated from prokaryotes that became eukaryotes, mechanical watches originated from sundials and water clocks. There was not one top-down designer of the watch because the watch was invented by humanity as a whole. The same applies to the various components that make up the watch or the economy that provides the supply chain for the creation of watches. Nobody set out to design those systems; they naturally arose from the bottom up.

Watches are also just as prone to the forces of natural selection as living organisms. Water clocks and sundials were inferior to the mechanical watch as a method of telling time and became obsolete in the same way that a creature that cannot adapt to a changing environment will become extinct. Funny enough, in our time, even the mechanical watch is obsolete as a time-keeping device and is instead used much more often as a fashion statement or status symbol. Paley assumed that the purpose of the watch was to tell time but it is clear that watches, for the most part, do not serve such a purpose anymore. Did anybody design that change in the watch’s purpose? No, it was just an evolution in culture.

Of course, understanding Paley’s analogy as one in favor of evolution does not solve the most interesting question: the ultimate origin of life. If living creatures came from prokaryotes and prokaryotes came from a confluence of events after the Big Bang, then where did the Big Bang come from? If all of that was created by an intelligent designer, then who designed the designer?We’ll probably never know, but what we do know is that the watch did not come from one watchmaker.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchmaker_analogy