Rethinking Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy

William Paley’s famous watchmaker analogy is one of the principal intellectual pillars of the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute‘s creationist public relations and lobbying operation, the Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids, a/k/a the cdesign proponentsists).

You know how it goes — if something looks designed, then by golly it is designed. The Discoveroids also rely heavily on the God of the gaps — anything not yet fully understood is “best” explained by a supernatural agency. That’s certainly a biggie for them, but Paley’s analogy is their main argument in support of their “theory” of intelligent design.

We’ve written before about this fallacious philosophical foundation of the Discoveroids. See Discovery Institute: Are They Thinking At All?, and also Discoveroids Resurrect William Paley, and most recently Discovery Institute: Their Latest Fallacy — where they also rely on the fallacy of equivocation (the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning).

But with all their fallacies, the Discoveroids’ main “strength” is Paley’s analogy. You can read about it here: watchmaker analogy, and then you can read David Hume’s rebuttal here.

We don’t pretend to be able to improve on Hume, but given the constant reliance on Paley by the Discoveroids, we can’t resist offering some observations of our own.

When we stumble upon a genuinely designed artifact, like Paley’s watch, we see the unmistakable indications of human workmanship in the wheels, the screws, and the springs. We know that people make such things, so it’s reasonable to assume that someone made the watch. Fair enough, but how do we get from that to various biological phenomena? For example, how do we distinguish Paley’s watch from, say, a spider?

To begin with, people don’t make spiders. We have no reason to do so. It’s doubtful that anyone even breeds them. Inherent in all man-made objects is a purpose for the item — a human purpose. Timekeeping is such a purpose. But a spider serves no human purpose, so it’s unlikely that anyone would guess that someone was crazy enough to make one.

In one of our earlier posts, we quoted Casey saying:

Intelligent design is a scientific theory that holds some aspects of life and the universe are best explained by reference to an intelligent cause. Why? Because they contain the type of complexity and information that in our experience comes only from intelligence.

Notice anything missing? Sure you do — Casey never discusses the purpose of the alleged designs. For Casey, and for all of the Discoveroids, merely detecting complexity — which can be seen everywhere — is sufficient for them to invoke their designer as the cause. But what was the designer attempting to accomplish with his supposed design? What’s the purpose of Saturn’s rings? Of the Andromeda galaxy? Of the termite? These things have no human purpose. To imagine that the designer has his own incomprehensible purposes — or that he does such things to express his artistic impulses — is a bit of a stretch.

But let’s be fair here. We don’t have to limit our thinking to only human purposes. If we found something like a mechanical watch on Mars, and it was constructed to keep time according to the motion of that planet, we could reasonably infer that it was designed by someone — Martian or otherwise — to serve a useful purpose on Mars. We could conclude from such a device that there was an alien designer. But again — that’s because the design would be seen to fulfill a purpose for its designer. Thus, the Antikythera mechanism was intelligently designed, even if the designer is unknown.

Now ask yourself: What kind of designer would construct a flagellum for a bacterium? For what purpose? Is the designer an intelligent and benevolent bacterium who wants to help his immobile brethren? No human would concoct such a contrivance. So what justifies the inference of an intelligent designer for the flagellum? It’s complexity only, but that’s woefully insufficient — especially when evolution is an alternative explanation.

Inherent in Paley’s analogy is that the designed artifact is designed for the benefit of the designer. A biological system that benefits only that organism (who can’t be his own designer) therefore falls outside of Paley’s perspective. In other words, merely finding something that appears to be complicated is not sufficient to infer design.

Thus we present the Curmudgeon’s dictum: A design must be useful to the designer.

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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18 responses to “Rethinking Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy

  1. soviet_reunion


    I am certainly compelled by your argument that Paley’s analogy requires that a designed artifact must have some purpose to the designer. Certainly that is an excellent counter to that old argument.

    Still, I disagree with your ultimate dictum. It is easy to imagine examples of human designs that are not useful to us at all. It is not impossible to imagine a capricious God that designed the universe, and us, with no real purpose.

    I’d like to add that I am only playing devil’s—or creationist’s—advocate here.

  2. Charley Horse

    Well, people do collect spiders and they do have a useful purpose. They have my total respect, too.
    Albert Museum in London, Great Britain presented a real masterpiece of weaving skills and a new approach to old technologies. This cape, cloak or evening dress is made ​of threads produced by spiders from Madagascar. Spiders were collected by hand by specially trained people who then took their silk threads. The filaments are joined together and formed on a loom into cloth.

    I had a creepy neighbor who kept tarantulas…among a few other things.
    If I remember correctly, it’s been awhile, he bred and sold them.

  3. But the analogy also fails because they are using a watch. They KNOW what a watch is but lets play again but this time pick up a random piece of fungal growth with out them knowing what it is, OOooHHHHhhh how complicated!!!! it must be designed by some person!!!! Possibly as art????
    Yes fungal/algae/etc growth patterns do look very complicated (fractal actually) but they are not ‘designed’ by anyone.

  4. If I remember correctly, it’s been awhile, he bred and sold them.

    Tarantulas are also edible. They’re considered a delicacy in Cambodia.

  5. Charley Horse says: “Well, people do collect spiders and they do have a useful purpose.”

    Okay, but those people are known to do what they do. No one knows the designer, so unless we can see a clear benefit to him for his work, there’s no reason to assume that the designer exists and is also a wacko. If the Discoveroids want to go with that, then let ‘em.

  6. InvincibleIronyMan

    But we don’t look designed! When was the last time you saw an intelligent designer design and build a working machine made of meat capable of self-replication and looking for all the world like the end product of an evolutionary process?

  7. Salma Hayek.

  8. I think SC has a valid point. Design implies purpose, whether it be functional or artistic or whatever – there is a reason behind the act of designing.

    My own counter to the Paley argument is that a watch has no parents, and is not alive. Obviously a complex functional object which was not born and is not growing is designed and made by someone. Such an object is not natural.

    On the other hand, living organisms, no matter how complex and “functional”, are born by natural processes from other organisms, which arise from other organisms, and so on back in time. The processes responsible for the two objects, the living organism and the artifact, are completely different. You cannot observe a characteristic of one and conclude that it must be true of the other.

    It is a simple observation that nature and intelligence both produce things which are complex and functional. Paley, and his successors at the DI, are unable to comprehend this solely due to their religious beliefs, or, more cynically, due to their social agendas.

  9. Jim Thomerson

    Perhaps the precursor to intelligent design was “LGM theory”. The argument that phenomena are the result of actions by undetectable Little Green Men. As I understand it, ID does not discount the possibility that the designer(s) are such Little Green Men.

  10. Charles Deetz ;)

    The watchmaker is a good analogy for them, because, after reading this post and the comments, it is hard to point out the exact failing of the analogy in a short understandable way. Meanwhile, it is clear to everyone the difference between the creation of a watch and a living thing, and we are stuck answering most clearly by just shaking our heads.

  11. I once pointed out to a Creationist that watches evolved from large mechanical clocks, and that transitional forms could be found, and further, that “watch” and “clock” are two different species in the same family.

    He didn’t appreciate the irony.

  12. I once pointed out to a Creationist that watches evolved from large mechanical clocks, and that transitional forms could be found, and further, that “watch” and “clock” are two different species in the same family.

    Yes I often think that. You can take the analogy even further, back to the origin of “machines”. The first “machine” would have been the simplest tools, which were basically just rocks picked up off of the ground. Strangely, those rocks needed no designer. Then from the “creation” of the first machine, they underwent evolution with a form of “natural selection” – right up to machines that can land rovers on other planets.

  13. Good post! In response to the Devil’s Advocate comment “It is not impossible to imagine a capricious God that designed the universe, and us, with no real purpose.” I can also imagine an alien computer running amok, creating universes right and left (a la The Sorceror’s Apprentice), or a sorceror, or a powerful alien entity, or, or … which is the problem. On the immensely funny TV series “Ancient Aliens” they continuously point out bizarre facts from archeological history and then offer explanations always ending with “and could it be aliens?”

    Yes, it could be aliens, but it also could be Brownies, Pixies, Fairys, Boogums, Things That Go Bump in the NIght, etc. Making up invisible powerful entities to explain things is what the most primitive humans did … and we are still clinging to the old and familiar.

  14. You ask whether there is anything missing.

    What is missing is an explanation, a theory. Or even just a description of what happens when an intelligent design takes place – even one example.

    What we are given, in place of a theory of intelligent design is a statement that there is a theory of intelligent design that does a better job of explaining.

    But what is that theory?

    It would be like answering the question about why is there a smile on the Mona Lisa by saying that there is a smile because the painting was intelligently designed. We know that the painting was intelligently designed. We even know who did it, when and where he did it, and what materials and methods he used. (That’s a lot more than we are told about the “intelligent design” of the vertebrate eye, or any other feature of the world of life.) But for all of that, it doesn’t explain why there is a smile.

  15. When hurricane Andrew rolled through Homestead, it removed the sides from my grandmother’s mobile home but left a pedestal table with a glass vase untouched in the center of the room. It looked designed and quite artistic. Would that count as intelligent design as well, and if it does, what is its function and purpose?

  16. Design need not be complex, and we might not recognize the purpose. Lack of complexity and purpose do not mean it wasn’t designed, just that we cannot recognize it as such. If I go for a walk in the field and sit down on a rock to rest, could that be is the purpose for which the stone was designed? I guess to Creationist thinking this must be exactly the case – that everything was made to be the was it is.
    There is no means to determine that anything might not be designed, so it has little use if any use in science.

    >”Salma Hayek”


  17. The problem I’ve always had with the watchmaker analogy is, sure, looking at a watch it appears to be designed. However, it is an inanimate object. Put two watches together (heck, even put ALL the watches ever made together), and they will NEVER mate and create a new watch. It takes an intelligence to create and put together the pieces for each and every watch. You can’t tell me that once life was created, that an intelligent designer was needed for every subsequent creation of a new life.

  18. Your most recent post mentioned ID being “used” in archaeology, which reminded me that there are many tools whose purpose is unknown, or at least highly contested. The Acheulean handaxe, for example, has been suggested to be a discus or something used to show off skill or a cutter by various people. Although a consensus does seem to be converging on the latter, before we had gathered the evidence that it was used for slicing and dicing we could still identify that it was a tool which was designed.

    Does it not matter if the purpose is known, only that there is a potential function for the object? Or is it merely circumstantial and if a manufactured tool ticks all the other boxes which indicate design it doesn’t need to have an identifiable purpose?