A creationist’s playbook: Natural Theology

9 05 2007

I started reading William Paley’s Natural Theology last night and I have to admit it was a bit painful; maybe it’s because I had a headache or maybe it was Paley’s comma-ridden and convoluted prose. Here’s an example;

Suppose, in the next place, that the person, who found the watch, should, after some time, discover, that, in addition to all the properties which he had hitherto observed in it, it possessed the unexpected property of producing, in the course of its movement, another watch like itself; (the thing is conceivable;) that it contained within it a mechanism, a system of parts, a mould for instance, or a complex adjustment of laths, files, and other tools, evidently and separately calculated for this purpose; let us enquire, what effect ought such a discovery to have upon his former conclusion?

I realize that this style is not unique to Paley and I do not wish to single him out, but I have to admit that it’s not the most pleasant prose I’ve ever read. That aside, I was stumbled across a few passages in the first few pages of the book that piqued my interest, one being a straw-man argument against atheists and another that stills rings true when compared to creationists of today (in fact, for my own book, I’d like to take some of Paley’s passages and compare them to the works of Demski, Wells, Behe, etc.; they’re strikingly similar).

After his famous “a watch needs a watchmaker” argument, Paley closes the 2nd chapter with a jab at atheists. He writes;

The conclusion which the first examination of the watch, of its works, construction, and movement suggested, was, that it must have had, for the cause and author of that construction, an artificer, who understood its mechanism, and designed its use. This conclusion is invincible. A second examination presents us with a new discovery. The watch is found, in the course of its movement, to produce another watch, similar to itself: and not only so, but we perceive in it a system of organization, separately calculated for that purpose. What effect would this discovery have, or ought it to have, upon our former inference? What, as hath already been said, but to increase, beyond measure, our admiration of the skill, which had been employed in the formation of such a machine? Or shall it, instead of this, all at once turn us around in the opposite conclusion, viz. that no art or skill whatever has been concerned in the business, although all other evidences of art and skill remain as they were, and this last and supreme piece of art be now added to the rest? Can this be maintained without absurdity? Yet this is atheism.

I suppose, then, that we have to redefine atheism as the disbelief that self-reproducing clocks had an Artificer. I do fully understand Paley’s analogy, but just as Ray Comfort tripped over himself by trying to use the “argument from design” with a Mona Lisa replica, so too does Paley have to ignore what a watch actually is and how we come to know about a watch in order to make his point. Why creationists waste so much time trying to make this argument, be it in the form of a 747 being assembled by a tornado or a watch found on the beach, I don’t know; the analogy breaks down when you look at it closer than at the superficial level of “This is complex, this is also complex.”

Moving back to the conclusion of chapter 1, Paley comes up with 8 points in which he attempts to prove that where there is complexity, there must therefore be a designer. In an attempt to seal himself (and advocates of his argument) off from criticism, Paley writes the following;

VIII. Neither, lastly, would our observer be driven out of his conclusion [of a designer], or from his confidence in its truth, by being told that he knew nothing at all about the matter. He knows enough for his argument. He knows the utility of the end: he knows the subserviency and adaptation of the means to the end. These points being known, his ignorance of other points, his doubts concerning other points, affect not to certainty of his reasoning. The consciousness of knowing little, need not beget a distrust of that which he does know.

Ah, the old stick-your-fingers-in-your-ears argument when it comes to conflicting observations. It is important to note, as is explained in the introduction, that Paley attempted to rely on more well-known and “sound” science for this book, therefore ignoring newer discoveries and perhaps this passage is in reference to that, as if Paley were saying “I don’t need to know the latest discoveries, what I know to be true remains constant even if I don’t have all the information.” Still, this is often the root of the problem when it comes to creationism; they’ll do backflips to protect an idea they “know” to be true, their ignorance of particular details or data being inconsequential. Granted, no one scientist has access to all knowledge or even all the accumulated data of their own field, but there is a distinct difference between saying “The data is consistent with this hypothesis/theory/law/etc.” and saying “The data must fit what I already know to be true.”

I still have a long way to go before I finish the book, but I think it’s important to carefully study what was essentially the template for the modern intelligent design movement (although I have to wonder why the book is mostly used as an inspirational footnote when Paley’s arguments are relied upon so heavily; the first three chapters really do read like a creationist playbook). You can expect further bits and pieces as I come across them in the coming days, but I can only hope that this book is at least mildly less-painful than Gosse’s Omphalos.


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5 responses

9 05 2007
Luna_the_cat

Brain hurts now….

9 05 2007
laelaps

Indeed; I couldn’t endure much more past the beginning of Chapter III. I’m surprised my brain hasn’t shut down in revolt after all I’ve subjected it to lately.

10 05 2007
Neil

I picked up Paley once, and set it down quite quickly I’m afraid. Still, I think Natural Theology is an indispensible foil for The Origin in the story of Darwin’s revelation (pardon the term) of natural selection. Darwin’s systemic inquiry into the history of life is such a quantum leap beyond Paley’s “hmm, geez, I guess God done did make it like this…”

Paley holds the watch up and tells us we’ll never really understand God but we’d better get to prayin’. Darwin opens up the back and says…”Look at that! There’s energy stored in the spring that’s moving this cog, that turns that cog”

Another interesting thing about the ‘watchmaker’ argument is that when Cicero originally made the argument about sundials and waterclocks he wasn’t arguing from complexity (a sundial is just a stick in the ground after all) at all. But from intention… ‘this tool was made for a purpose, ergo any universe which contains tools made for a purpose must itself have been made with a purpose (part of which is to create creatures who can create tools with a purpose).’ Well, that’s an interesting, and kind of comforting idea, but of course essentially impossible to prove from our vantage point. There really is no logical rule that says the attributes of objects within a set must also pertain to the set as a whole.

As our understanding of the the human body became more mechanistic (Descartes, Harvey etc.) AND our mechanical technology became more intricate, the ‘watchmaker argument’ was perpetually jazzed up by introducing ever more complex examples of ‘design.’ And they’re still at it! I remember reading one recently that used a laptop. Don’t even get me started on tornadoes and 747s…
But as you note, the analogy still doesn’t hold up regardless of what complex gadget you use.

Wikipedia has an exceptional entry on ‘the watchmaker analogy’ that runs all the way through to Dover. I’m really interested in Hooke’s version but perhaps we’ll save that for later…

Thanks for letting me write another essay Brian!!

10 05 2007
laelaps

Geez, Neil; I should just give you a guest spot here, thanks for the insight! I especially loved this bit;

“Paley holds the watch up and tells us we’ll never really understand God but we’d better get to prayin’. Darwin opens up the back and says…’Look at that! There’s energy stored in the spring that’s moving this cog, that turns that cog'”

From what I understand Paley also attempted to argue that because we felt pleasure there must be a benevolent God; the logic goes that he could have made all the water seem like someone dumped stogie-ash in it and all the food be the same consistency and flavor as solidified ‘a’a lava, but didn’t, therefore God=good. I have yet to come across Paley’s argument on the subject (I didn’t pick the book up yesterday, and my brain thanks me for it) but I’m sure I’ll post on it when I get there.

I recently read the laptop example as well; I believe it was in Lee Strobel’s Case for a Creator, although I can’t remember who he was kissing up to, I mean, “interviewing”. What I found interesting was that there were some limits put on God’s designing power that suspiciously coincide what we’d expect from evolution, namely that you can only have some much space for respiratory organs (or in the laptop analogy, a video card, let’s say) because there needs to be room for other organs/structures essential to the life of the organism. Somehow the designer becomes limited by the rules they made up themselves, which doesn’t seem consistent with the point of “The designer could do anything in any way they wanted” or the notion of an all-powerful and transcendent God that’s often argued for.

What I really want to get my hands on is a copy of Gideon Mantell’s Medals of Creation, wherein he argues that fossils were essentially commemorative “medallions” struck to mark each creative age. You don’t hear too much about that one anymore…

20 06 2008

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