Discoveroids Resurrect William Paley

They really have a limited repertoire 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).

As we’ve discussed before, their “scientific” arguments all boil down to two oldie-goldies: (1) William Paley’s watchmaker analogy — if something looks designed, then by golly it is designed; and (2) the God of the gaps — anything not yet fully understood is “best” explained by a supernatural agency.

They have other arguments, but they’re even less scientific than those two mainstays. Primarily, the rest of their propaganda effort consists of character attacks on Darwin. Beneath all the blather, of course, they rely on their supporters’ understanding that it’s really all about creationism.

The last time we picked apart one of their two main arguments was six weeks ago: Discovery Institute: Are They Thinking At All? That was about another sad attempt, probably by Casey, to claim that the appearance of design was the “positive case” for their theory of intelligent design. There wasn’t much left when we were done, but we figured the Discoveroids would come back again with another attempt, and we were right.

Today at the Discoveroid blog they’ve posted Do Biological Clocks Revive William Paley’s Design Argument? In this one — it’s probably written by Casey — they directly address Paley’s old argument and attempt to give it a gloss of modern respectability. It doesn’t work, of course, but it’s amusing to see them struggle. They have to, because Paley’s really all they’ve got.

What they’re doing here is attempting to make an analogy between Paley’s watch and the biological functions that occur within the cell — many of which are being studied but are not yet fully understood. With those knowledge “gaps” firmly in hand, they claim — and it’s a truly primitive claim — that their magical designer is the only logical explanation. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

A primary criticism of William Paley’s “watchmaker argument” for a designer is that organisms are vastly different from man-made machines. What then should we say about ongoing discoveries of mechanisms in living cells that not only keep time, but do it more elegantly than anything man has invented?

What should they say? They’ll say what they always say: The designer did it. But first they try to claim that they’re not making the same old argument that Paley did. Of course they obviously are, but they say they’re not. Here it comes:

It is commonly assumed that David Hume and Charles Darwin demolished Paley’s watchmaker argument. Intuitively appealing as it was, the idea that a “watch demands a watchmaker” is fatally flawed, or so 20th-century students were taught.

They’re distorting the whole thing. A watch does indeed demand a watchmaker, but that doesn’t mean a biosphere demands a biosphere-maker. Let’s keep reading:

Darwin, by contrast, provided a mechanism, uniting contingency with natural law, that could produce complex design without a designer. This rendered Paley’s watchmaker superfluous.

Yes, that’s right. But the Discoveroids can’t let Paley go. Let’s read on:

Nevertheless, Paley’s pithy story of finding a watch on a heath retains its quaint appeal. Paley’s watch is intuitively compelling to the non-scientist and understandable by children. It appears to comport with everyday experience. Darwinism, by comparison, is abstruse, requiring lengthy explication, as if its proponents need to explain away the obvious. That alone doesn’t make it wrong, just rhetorically more challenging; Darwinians are stuck in the role of Groucho Marx, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

Actually, it’s creationists who are always playing the role of Groucho, as they endlessly deny that there is any evidence supporting the theory of evolution. The Discoveroids modify that crude methodology slightly, by admitting that some evidence for evolution exists, but it’s inadequate, and their magical designer — blessed be he! — is a superior explanation.

Having glossed over the flaws in Paley’s argument, they now revive ol’ Paley by claiming that they’ve found a new kind of “watch” that actually justifies his discredited argument. Observe:

Meanwhile, however, new discoveries are conjuring up the ghost of Paley once again, suggesting his argument never really died. These discoveries involve biological clocks. That’s right: clocks.

We’re going to completely skip their awe-struck description of these biological mechanisms. All that you need to understand is that they’re substituting newly-discovered phenomena for Paley’s wheels and springs. Otherwise, there’s nothing new here. This is one of their powerful points:

Consider, for instance, if Paley had found a frog on a heath instead of a watch. Examining it with the tools of 21st-century biology, suppose he observed that it had structures, mechanisms, feedback loops, circuits, cogs and gears all related to timekeeping. Would this not undercut his critics’ assertions that living organisms differ substantially from machinery?

There’s a bit more to criticize about Paley’s original argument than the obvious distinction between a mechanism and an organism, but you already know that. If not, see David Hume’s rebuttal. And there’s more to the Discoveroids’ claim that Paley’s analogy now is stronger than ever — but it’s more of the same. Nevertheless, you may as well click over there and check it out, as we expect to be seeing more of this in the future. As we’ve said before, it’s all they’ve got.

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

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13 responses to “Discoveroids Resurrect William Paley

  1. One is tempted to ask “to what depths will the DI stoop?”, but it is rather a bottomless pit…

    First of all, they describe several articles in which the authors use terms terms like batteries, cogs, circuits, mechanisms, gears, etc. in the attempt to communicate the roles various biological structures like proteins play in cells. Instead of regarding this as an attempt to explain complicated biological activities in terms people can relate to, and enhance understanding, the DI blogger naively (or intentionally) assumes that the writers of the articles actually view those structures to be little biological cogs, gears, etc. The blogger was clearly excited…“Another paper in Science from October 31, 2008 actually spoke of cogs and gears in biological clocks — of bacteria!”

    Either the blogger is stupid beyond belief for someone claiming a passing acquaintance with biology, or the blogger is completely dishonest and intentionally deceptive. My money is on the latter.

    Along the same lines, rather desperately, the blogger asks “If they work to keep time, if they operate like cogs and gears, who cares what they are made of?” Who cares? Well, anyone interested in how they came to be might care – it actually does make a difference if something arises through a natural biological process. I can grow a tree, or I can sculpt a tree – both might look the same, but they are most definitely not the same. Only an IDiot would fail to see the difference.

    Likewise the claim that for something to be common between fruit flies and mammals it would have been present in a common ancestor so far back in time that it would “beg the question of how it arose”. Surely the blogger knows that the last common ancestor of all animals lived between 600 and 700 million years ago, while the universal common ancestor dates back to perhaps 3.5 billion years ago, or more. That’s roughly three billion years of evolution to develop timekeeping functions – much more than necessary. No question is begged whatsoever – the blogger is simply being deceptive.

    That’s too long of a rant….

  2. will Fraser

    Curmie;After giving your thought provoking and incredibly well done piece on Paley’s argument considerable thought, and since the bottle i’ve found so helpful as I’ve considered some of those watchmaker observations you have shared (Why IS the rum always gone?)
    I’ve had an epiphany! What if Melenkovich Cycles that geoscientists link to climate change and the global ice budget, hence global sea level changes through geolgic time (which are reflected in global chronostratigraphic patterns in sedimentary basins ( seismic and sequence stratigraphy)), is really just the magical designer’s CLOCK!? OMG! If ICR reads this on your blog they’re going to have some major league creationism ammo.Morris is going to absolutely flip out (some more). I’m afraid the PreCambrian bunny has emerged despite the global conspiracy’s efforts to hide the truth( highlighting omitted.
    I’m switching to ,,,
    English Breakfast tea before my entire world crumbles. We’re doomed.

  3. NeonNoodle

    Actually the quote belongs to Chico Marx, not Groucho – although in all fairness he was disguised as Groucho at the time. You see, Chico (or Chicolini) must pass as Rufus T. Firefly (that is, Groucho) to retrieve the Freedonian war plans for neighboring dystopian state Sylvania, as per orders from Ambassador Trentino, under the very nose of Mrs. Teasdale – not to mention Pinky. There, I hope that’s all cleared up.

  4. will Fraser

    Thanks Neon. I’m feeling a little better.

  5. NeonNoodle

    Anytime, Will. Grandma always said there’s nothing like a little duck soup for whatever ails ya.

  6. docbill1351

    Some years ago Jon “Icon of Fat” Wells predicted that centrioles in cells that looked to him like little turbine blades, if you were tripping on LSD, had a bad squint and were a pathological liar, or, in other words a DI Fellow, were actually little turbine blades that pulled the cell apart during mitosis. Of course, as a DI Fellow his professional Oath of Misconduct prevented him from doing any actual research, but as it turns out someone did research on mitosis and centrioles which totally debunked Wells’ cerebral flatulence. However, undaunted, the intrepid, er, insipid Jon-Boy still to this very day continues to spin the Tale of the Little Turbine That Could.

  7. docbill1351

    And while I’m at it, how come Disco Tute articles are titled like bad science fair projects? They never state anything, it’s always a question. Does ID make me look like a fat head? Is Darwin dead? Is Imodium a remedy for Paley’s revenge?

    I’ve got an article I’d like to see. ID: LOL or WTF?

  8. I’m always amused by the argument that such-and-such is so much unlike what we know as designed that it must be designed:
    do it more elegantly than anything man has invented

    And, by the way, there is this passage from Paley (it’s after the first couple of pages, so nobody ever bothers reading that far):

    “One question may possibly have dwelt in the reader’s mind during the perusal of these observations, namely, Why should not the Deity have given to the animal the faculty of vision at once? Why this circuitous perception; the ministry of so many means; an element provided for the purpose; reflected from opaque substances, refracted through transparent ones; and both according to precise laws; then, a complex organ, an intricate and artificial apparatus, in order, by the operation of this element, and in conformity with the restrictions of these laws, to produce an image upon a membrane communicating with the brain? Wherefore all this? Why make the difficulty in order to surmount it? If to perceive objects by some other mode than that of touch, or objects which lay out of the reach of that sense, were the thing proposed; could not a simple volition of the Creator have communicated the capacity? Why resort to contrivance, where power is omnipotent? Contrivance, by its very definition and nature, is the refuge of imperfection. To have recourse to expedients, implies difficulty, impediment, restraint, defect of power. This question belongs to the other senses, as well as to sight; to the general functions of animal life, as nutrition, secretion, respiration; to the economy of vegetables; and indeed to almost all the operations of nature. The question, therefore, is of very wide extent; and amongst other answers which may be given to it; beside reasons of which probably we are ignorant, one answer is this: It is only by the display of contrivance, that the existence, the agency, the wisdom of the Deity, could be testified to his rational creatures.”
    From pages 38-40 of
    William Paley, Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearance of Nature (12th edition)
    taken from the online “The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online”

    I don’t know how Paley knew about that limitation on the power of God, that God could only achieve his goals by the display of contrivance. Why could not the existence, the agency, the wisdom of the Deity be testified without contrivance?
    And why, in the 200 years since Paley, has no one answered this rather obvious question?

  9. TomS says: “And, by the way, there is this passage from Paley …”

    Excellent. But I can easily answer Paley’s question (Why resort to contrivance, where power is omnipotent?). The answer is: To give biology teachers something to do to earn their pay. Otherwise, they’d all be preachers.

  10. Ceteris Paribus

    @TomS: re: contrivance
    The Paley passage almost sounds like a quote-mine similar to what the creationists like to do with Darwin’s works. But if Paley did not not provide his own answer in his following paragraphs, as in the style of Darwin, and no other author has answered Paley, it might be that his question was merely rhetorical. Possibly Paley’s intended audience was already familiar with the use of the word “contrivance” as a vernacular expression meaning some attribute of an organism that demonstrated a teleological “purpose” on the part a creator.

    IFor example, the 17th century Boyle is quoted as saying:

    “Like a rare clock…where all things are so skillfully contrived, that the engine being once set a-moving, all things proceed, according to the artificer’s first design…by virtue of the general and primitive contrivance of the whole engine. (27)”

    (Found in Templeton Foundation funded paper by Spencer and Alexander “Rescuing Darwin”. http://campaigndirector.moodia.com/Client/Theos/Files/RescuingDarwin.pdf }

    Alexander is director of the Faraday Institute, and if you google on ‘Faraday Instutute’ and ‘contrivance’ you will find several papers using the term in the teleological sense.

  11. Right-Said-Ed >”That’s too long of a rant…”

    … Or not long enough.

    >”Why resort to contrivance, where power is omnipotent?”

    Poor Paley. When the Discoveroids get wind of this, they will have to bury him again.

  12. @Ceteris Paribus:
    Your point of the meaning of “contrivance” is a good one.
    I would agree that Paley did bring up the question only to refute it. Note his statement at the end of the quotation giving one possible refutation. I didn’t intend to give the impression that Paley was arguing against design.
    No matter what Paley intended, I think that it raises an issue that is worth discussing: How does design by an omnipotent designer explain?

    BTW, I inadvertently left out a url of where one can read the text in full:

    http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=text&itemID=A142&keywords=contrivance&pageseq=45>

  13. Garnetstar

    Unlike the discoveroids, I can name the designer: it’s called C-H-E-M-I-S-T-R-Y. And it’s not a damn bit intelligent.

    Its laws dictate that reactions occur in specific sequences and at specific rates. Finis.

    No one has to direct when to nudge which molecules together, they do it themselves. And yes, Nature has always been a better chemist than we are (hey, it’s had a lot more time). But we’re catching up.