[Tom Hart has generously shared with the readers of the Victorian Web the preceding materials from his ongoing project, Anti-Darwin: The Literary and Philosophical Opposition to Darwininism. He welcomes comments, which can be directed to him at tehart@aol.com.]

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What is wrong with Paley's argument? Take his method of getting at the attributes of God from existing objects. What is wrong with that argument?

An object conveys a very limited amount of information about itself. If we are perceptive, we may be able to deduce a certain amount of information amount the owner of an object. To continue with Paley's example of the watch, when Dr. Watson asks Sherlock Holmes to examine a watch, Holmes is able to deduce that the watch was made for Watson's father, that it passed to Watson's eldest brother, who was of "untidy habits," that he was an alcoholic who had alternate periods of poverty and prosperity, and that the brother had died. These, however, are marks that are left on the object after its manufacture, and they do not refer to the the maker of the object.

What information can be gleaned from a real watch? Take, for example, a wristwatch. The watch is an Omega, hence it is of Swiss manufacture. The crystal is made of sapphire, but it is clear, and not marked with the star of the gem, so it is probably of artificial manufacture. The hours are marked by raised tick marks, and the minutes, by flat tick marks. There is a calendar, which must be set by hand when the month is shorter than 31 days. The band is black and gold enamel. The back of the mechanism has an engraving of a city, and the words "DeVille" and "Quartz" engraved on it. The back of the case is held on by four screws that are about a millimeter or two in diameter.

I know that the watch was presumably made in Switzerland. That the mechanism is quartz, and therefore requires a battery. That the screws were put in by someone who may have used a jeweler's loupe and who possessed a degree of manual dexterity sufficient to be able to work with small objects. I can not, however, assert that the jeweler who assembled the watch was the designer, nor can I assert that the individual pieces were made by the same jeweler, or even the same manufacturer. Since the quartz movement is a piece of electronic equipment it may have been manufactured by someone else at a different company specializing in electronics. It could have been manufactured by Siemens, or even Nippon Electric Corporation, and supplied to Omega. I can not assert that the engraving on the back was done by the jeweler who put the screws in the case, nor can I even assert that it was engraved individually. The back of the case could have been stamped out by a machine, or the engraving put on after the blank case was made. The individual parts could have been made by different people, and then assembled by one jeweler.

There could, in any real object, be a separation from the designer and the artificer. Applied to religion this would lead to a variation of gnosticism in which one entity designed the world, and another, subordinate to the first, actually made it. There could be a multiplicity of designers and manufacturers. The watch could have a designer for the quartz movement, and a designer who integrates the movement into the overall mechanism of gears and other things that make up the watch. This would lead to polytheism in which one entity is responsible for the creation of part of the world, and another, or multiple others, responsible for the design and creation of others. It is also not necessary for the designer of the overall mechanism to be present. He could be dead, and others could be following his instructions in the form of blueprints or diagrams. None of this leads to a discovery of unity in the orignator of the watch.

When Paley discovers the unity of God from the similarity of "all large terrestrial animals," he conveniently ignores two things, the many differences between the various species, and the numerical preponderance of non-mammalian species. He also, very conveniently, ignores the geographical dominance of the marine environment. The differences, accepting Paley's kind of reasoning, could just as easily be accounted for by postulating a polytheistic creation in which one entity creates mammals, another cockroaches and insects, another sea life, and so on. The creation, in other words, can not be used to prove God's unity.

When Paley asserts the goodness of the Deity based on the beneficial nature of the arrangements in species, he takes something that exists, assigns it a value, and then projects that value back to the designer of the object. This first assumes that the arrangements of nature are beneficial, but this is not necessarily the case. Childbirth, in the human female, for instance, would be easier if the arrangement of the pelvis and the birth canal were different. Nor is the limited degree of rotation of the shoulder beneficial, or the arrangement of joints and tendons. The calcaneus, or heel, for example can be subject to minute tears that over time develop into a spur, or bony protrusion that causes pain. The patella, in another example, fits loosely over the joint where the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone) meet. It is attached by ligaments and tendons that can pull pieces of the cartilage off of the patella. The result, called chondromalacia, or runner's knee, is a painful condition that can inhibit knee flexion. Paley has taken something, the arrangement of organs, the development of the eye, and assigned it the value of "good." A person coming from the opposite side of the argument could take the same arrangements, the inappropriate relations of pelvis and birth canal, the deficiency of the eye, or its tendency to astigmatism, macula degeneration, presbyobia, and other things, and perceiving its inadequacy, give it the label "bad." Paley has taken his perceptions and valuations of the existing world and assigned them to the Deity.

Online resources

William Paley, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802)


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Last modified May 1995