I ended up reading Paley’s Natural Theology quite by accident but my appreciation (which both Darwin and Dawkins share(d)) for his work cannot be overstated. Not only do I think his teleological analogy known as the “watchmaker argument” is still valid, but I would also argue, as I hope I have been able to illustrate in my previous blogs, that it is even more convincing today. So it’s with all respect that I say that Paley actually weakened the earlier argument from design. He may have even planted the seed that would later influence the likes of Darwin and Dawkins to come to the opposite conclusion regarding the watchmaker analogy. Let me explain. Just as in the modern era Paley popularized his version of the watchmaker argument so Cicero had done in the ancient world. He had taken the thinking of earlier philosophers going back before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle but also including them and popularized it in Latin. He stated his version this way:
When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers? (Cicero, De Natura Deorum, ii. 34, M.T.CiceroDe Natura Deorum (the nature of the gods), book II, XXIV)
It is almost comical to consider how little the argument has changed for thousands of years but it speaks to the power of this analogy that it continues to be made in our day. Still, if you look closely at the way Cicero makes his argument in contrast to Paley you see there is a subtle difference. In Paley, the argument focuses on the watch itself whereas Cicero’s version is not limited to the “watch”, or in his case the sundial or water clock, but includes the artificer as well. Before going any further it's probably good to define “artificer”. Artificer is an archaic term used for a craftsman/inventor who emphasizes not only the object's purpose but its form as well. This is similar to the way modern cell phones are designed emphasizing not only technical sophistication but also design. So why did Paley drop part of the argument and what difference does it make?
My theory is that Paley was, like so many other thinkers of his day, deeply influenced by Newtonian physics. Newton had shown that the vast array of planets, stars and the entire universe itself function as a giant machine following specific laws of gravity, etc. This finding greatly influenced “the spirit of the age” and so when Paley saw the vast wonders in living things he focused on the mechanical aspects of biology. But as powerful a lens as this way of thinking has been in the past it has also turned out to be a poison pill. If life is mechanistic then, just as in physics, all you need to discover is the laws that governed it and then God would be obsolete. Paley and Newton would argue rightly that the laws themselves point to a lawgiver but the problem is different than this. Paley argued that aspects of biology like the eye were similar to human machines only vastly more complicated.
The truth is that this is true but not sufficient. The eye is vastly more sophisticated than any human invention (thus why I can say Paley’s version of the watchmaker is valid) but is not merely so, its difference is qualitative as well (why the classical argument is better). Dawkins states in The Blind Watchmaker that “a bat is a machine” and I doubt Paley would have disagreed. But if we take our mechanistic glasses off for a moment we see that this statement is fundamentally false. A bat is NOT a machine. There is a difference in quality between the most complex machine and the simplest living cell. You could update the watch argument by stating that the watch embodies something beyond its mechanics and that is “time” and then go on to say that in the same way organisms have “life”. But even that would come up short because the very mechanics in biology whether organs on a large scale or micro machines at the cellular level are not merely mechanical but “alive”. Life is not merely carried by bodies but is embodied.
I would take this point even further and state that not only is life qualitatively different from machines it is also fundamentally a mystery. Take the google definition of life for example “the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.” There are two parts to this definition, the first part basically states that life is not inorganic. If you stated this positively you would simply be saying “life is life”! The second part seems more compelling until you realize that it is not a definition at all but merely a description of what life does. Amazing discoveries have, and are being made in biology regarding how life works and I fully expect that these findings will add more to “wonder” about. They will also, as a result, strengthen the watchmaker analogy. But none of these will answer Cicero’s more fundamental question, what about the artificer?
This is a whole new can of worms and will require a separate post…