The Watchmaker argument


"What awe we have ought to be reserved for the richness of the ways in which simplicity can masquerade as complexity" -- P. W. Atkins (The Second Law, 2nd Edit., 1994)


For the uneducated man one of the most convincing of all "proofs" for the existance of a god is the watchmaker argument. It was presented by William Paley in Natural Theology, and the opening passage begins like this (Paley, 1802):
"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."
Further down Paley continues:
"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."
The argument is wrong for several reasons:

  1. Contradiction
  2. The argument first assumes that a watch is different from nature, which is uncomplicated and random. It then states that since the universe is so complicated, complex, and ordered it too must have a creator. Thus, the argument gives the universe two incompatible qualities.

  3. Shoemakers
  4. What if you went further down the beach and found a shoe. Would you assume that a watchmaker made that shoe? Of course not, you would assume a shoemaker. Therefore, according to the analogy, created life must have a lifemaker, the sun a sunmaker and snowflakes a snowmaker. This implies that there are several creators in the world, responsible for all kinds of creation.

  5. The watchmaker's father
  6. Just like all watches have watchmakers, so do all watchmakers have fathers. Therefore, with the watchmaker anology, god has a father. Who is the father of god? and who is the father of the father? etc... This leads to an endless series, and the only way to end the series is to say that the original god just is without an origin and a cause. What then stops us from making the same assumption of the universe or Ultimate Reality? Occam's razor should even encourage us to do so!

  7. Watches out of nothing?
  8. The things used by the watchmaker to make watches already exists, but the theists claim that their god created things ex nihilo, from nothing. So the analogy is false here too.

  9. The blind watchmaker
  10. Richard Dawkins expains this best with his own words in the book The Blind Watchmaker (1986)
    "Paley's argument is made with passionate sincerity and is informed by the best biological scholarship of the day, but it is wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong. The analogy between telescope and eye, between watch and living organism, is false. All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind force of physics, albeit deplored in a special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future porpose in his mind's eye. Natural selection, the blind unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker."

  11. False analogy
  12. The watchmaker is a false analogy because it assumes that because two objects share one common quality, they must have another quality in common.

    1. A watch is complex
    2. A watch has a watchmaker
    3. The universe is also complex
    4. Therefore the universe has a watchmaker

    The last step is wrong, because it concludes something that is not supported by the criteria. It is best clearified by another example:

    1. Leaves are complex cellulose structures
    2. Leaves grow on trees
    3. Money bills are also complex cellulose structures
    4. Therefore money grow on trees (wich, according to the idiom, they don't)

  13. Empiric argument
  14. But the theist may object, and say that all known complex objects we know of are created, so for empirical reasons, the universe must have a creator. It is logically a false analogy, but we can still use the empiric analogy that all complex objects are created.

    This argument is a circular argument. It assumes that the universe, black holes, stars, planets, snowflakes, life etc are created. Actually physics, chaos theory and evolutionary theory tell us how most complex things in the world could have evolved on their own, without any help from any "watchmaker".

    The theist may object again and say that this is a circular argument too. You have to assume a priori that theese things evolved naturally to believe they did. Philosophically that may be correct. Both theese empiric methods are built on more or less unproved premises. Therefore you can neither, empirically, say for absolutely sure that the universe evolved on it's own nor that it was created.

    Does this imply that both conclusions are equally correct? No, for the first Occam's Razor says that one should not assume an entity that is unproven and thus tells us not to assume a god. Therefore, the watchmaker argument does not stand for itself as a proof of any watchmaker. To prove that god did it you would need more than just apparent design.

    For the second the theist position has two additional criteria -- while assuming a god that remains unproved (remember it was a circular argument running foul to Occam's Razor), it also assumes that the scientific method is wrong. A scientific method that is verified everyday when we get dressed with mass produced clothes, when we cook our food, when we eat, when we use computers, telephones, cars, pharmaceutics etc. The theory that the scientific method is correct has not yet been falsified. When it comes to explaining things in the world we can say what the French astronomer Laplace said to Napoleon Bonaparte on the matter of god: "I have no need for that hypothesis".

Summary

The watchmaker argument is not a proof, it is an analogy. As most other analogies it is quite lame. It is contradictive, misses many important features, does not aid us in knowing who the watchmaker is, and most important does not stand alone as evidence of god, but must reliy on external evidence. Therefore the argument does not the least prove that the world was designed by a superhuman being. I cannot help ending with these rude, yet beautiful and poetic, words, which sum up P.W. Atkins wonderful book The Second Law (Atkins, 1994)
"We began with the steam engine... Nature reflects the steam engine, but in a much more elaborate way... We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all there is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe. Yet when we look around and see beauty, when we look within and experience conciousness, and when we participate in the delights of life, we know in our hearts that the heart of the Universe is richer by far. But that is sentiment, and is not what we should know in our minds. Science and the steam engine have a greater nobility. Together they reveal the awesome grandeur of the simplicity of complexity."

References

  1. P. W. Atkins, The Second Law, Scientific American Books, Inc., 2nd Edit, 1994
  2. Dan Barker, Losing Faith in Faith - From preacher to atheist
  3. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1986
  4. William Paley, Natural Theology - or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Apperances of Nature, 1802

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