The Watchmaker Argument Still Ticking...
Updated: Mar 21
I am not entirely sure why I feel compelled to blog about the classic “watchmaker argument” for the existence of God. I do not sense that this argument speaks to our particular generation or that it is even the most compelling reason to believe. Still, I have from my earliest memories loved biology. As a young boy, I collected tadpoles and caterpillars, salamanders and snakes. And it was in these times of fascination with nature that I first experienced a sense of God. Perhaps it is for this reason that I was drawn to take a closer look at this argument that has had such an influence and history within the field of biology.
I first heard about “the watchmaker argument” in history class at university. It was discussed as a failed proof for the existence of God put forward most famously by William Paley. Versions of the argument had been around for ages (a point I will look at in a future blog) but his version is the most elaborate and well known. His argument simply stated is stated like this:
Suppose you were walking across a field, if you happened upon a stone you would not ask yourself how it got there but, if on the other hand, you stumbled upon a watch, you would assume that there was a watchmaker. Life itself is like the watch in its complexity but only infinitely more so. So if a watch demands a watchmaker how much more does life demand a creator? (See Paley Natural Theology Pg.1&2)
According to what I was taught Darwin refuted this argument by appealing to natural selection. If small incremental steps could explain life then a watchmaker or “god” was not required. As I looked into this claim it turned out that Darwin never refuted the argument, nor claimed to, so much as to cease to find it compelling with the “discovery” of natural selection. Dawkins claims to have modernized and elaborated Darwin’s criticism by adding to natural selection, random mutation. His refutation of the argument was published in the book “The Blind Watchmaker”.
I had no reason to doubt that the watchmaker argument had been disproved but I was curious “What was it that led to its defeat?” So I went to the source and read Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker to clarify this for me. This book has been credited with the definitive defeat of the watchmaker argument so it seemed the best place to start looking for the answer. I was surprised first of all to discover that Dawkins himself respected Paley. His book in fact models Paley’s approach combining his arguments with popular and accessible descriptions of biological facts. But while Dawkins appreciated his style he disagreed with his conclusions. He said of Paley’s argument that it “is made with passionate sincerity and is informed by the best biological scholarship of the day, but it is wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong”(Blind Watchmaker pg9).
The question left to answer then was how the argument was so “gloriously and utterly wrong”? Surprisingly, the answer is not to be found in Dawkins’ book. I studied Paley’s work and soon discovered that even if you were to assume that Dawkins and Darwin were right in suggesting that natural selection and random mutation were a sufficient cause for the order we see in the world, it did not follow that Paley’s argument was no longer valid. In fact, Paley had already considered the possibility that some natural law might “explain” life and noted “It is a perversion of language to assign any law, as the efficient, operative, cause of anything. A law presupposes an agent; for it is only the mode, according to which an agent proceeds: it implies a power; for it is the order, according to which that power acts. Without this agent, without this power, which is both distinct from itself, the law does nothing; it is nothing.” (NT Pg 24)
In other words, you cannot use the law to explain the existence of something because a “law” would merely shift the way in which an overarching intelligence worked. If any law of nature was established that led to the wonders of life it would display the genius of the lawmaker as clearly as if the creatures were created in an instant. It really mattered very little, if at all, to Paley how the watchmaker made the watch, the need for a watchmaker remained. This statement of Paley is ignored by Dawkins although he claims that “Natural selection is the blind watchmaker” (BW pg.29) a claim that will be looked at further in a future post.
Dawkins' other counter to the validity of the watchmaker argument was that life has the ability to reproduce whereas the watch or other physical objects do not, and so the analogy fails. A watch could not make itself because it was not capable of self-replication, where life had this ability and so could self-improve. Again even taking Dawkins’ reasoning at face value, Paley had a response for this long before it was ever raised by saying “The maker and contriver of one watch, when he inserted within it a mechanism suited to the production of another watch, was, in truth, the maker… of that other watch.” (NT pg. 51) So contrary to Dawkins' reasoning, Paley argues that self - replicating machines only add to the workmanship and complexity of the machine, and therefore the demand for an explanation is not negated but intensified.
As I come to the conclusion of this post it now becomes clear to me my motivation for writing. It is not to challenge Dawkins or even vindicate Paley, it is to give permission to wonder. To take a fresh look at the world around us and wonder, how did all this come about? Wonder to at the profound mystery, complexity, and beauty of life, not as a science stopper but as a motivator to dig ever deeper into this question. To be humbled, whatever our religious convictions may be, at the beauty and ingenuity of this universe we call home.