The Watchmaker


William Paley (1743 – 1805), eighteenth-century scholar, author, and churchman, defended theism and Christianity against the skepticism of an “enlightened” culture. For example, in Horae Paulinae (1790), he argued for the historical accuracy of New Testament events. In A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794) he popularized common defenses of the Christian faith. Finally, in Natural Theology (1802) he made the case for the existence of a loving Creator on the basis of a carefully ordered universe.

The oft-quoted opening paragraph of Natural Theology (below) is a classic presentation of what philosophers refer to as the teleological argument. It goes like this: creation is ordered and complex. This order proves that creation has a telos, an “end,” a “purpose.” The existence of a creative, divine Being is the best explanation for this telos.

Paley made his argument by means of an analogy: just as the order of a watch implies a watchmaker, the order of the universe implies a creator God. While more sophisticated models and arguments, such as those formulated by the contemporary Intelligent Design movement, have improved on Paley’s work, his basic insight stands—that a dispassionate study of nature tends to reveal God’s handiwork.

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 which I had before given, that, for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it . . . This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood,) the inference, we think, is inevitable; that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at sometime, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.1


1 William Paley, Natural Theology: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (Boston: Lincoln, Edmunds & Co., 1833), 6-7.

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