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Discussion 3 to Talk Back 90
The Watchmaker revisited

by: JT

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We all talk about Paley's watchmaker argument, but how many have actually read it as Paley wrote it?

For those who wish to do so, I have found two versions of his Natural Theology in which he goes into the argument at length.

It's a long book, over 500 pages in the full version. We'll start with the opening section, then I'll summarize the parts that apply to the watchmaker. (There's more to the book than that, particularly an exploration of the nature of the deity.).

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 any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: 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 any thing 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 the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose...

That's where we begin - a stone, and a watch. And the watch is clearly different from the stone because it has been made, whereas the stone (remember Paley's claims about the stone, we'll come back to them) could have been lying around forever.

Paley then goes on to suppose a watch which could make other watches.[1] He concludes that such an endeavour would require an even more skilled watchmaker.

Then he compares various elements of living organisms to machines.[2] leading to his conclusion that living organisms, being even more complex, require a maker.

Then the trajectory of the planets likewise points to a maker for the solar system.

But what about that stone upon the heath which Paley opened with? That stone which as part of the planet earth is part of the solar system. Did Paley's argument not start with establishing that the watch was different from the stone because the watch was made? It seems to me that in the end, as he is claiming that a maker made everything, the difference upon which he built his entire argument does not exist. Both the watch and the stone have a maker.

Essentially, because the watch has a maker and the stone doesn't, he "establishes" that the stone has a maker.

But the difference does exist. The stone on the heath, the solar system, and life are natural. The watch is indeed manufactured. The fact the watch was manufactured does not establish - indeed does not even suggest - that natural items were manufactured.


  1. Self-replicating machines! I wonder why Paley is not regarded as one of the pioneers of science fiction.
  2. Here we go down the path of assuming the desired conclusion. Consider the three items involved, a stone, a watch, and a living organism. An argument could easily be presented on all the ways the life-form was more like the stone than the watch. Alternatively an argument could easily be presented on all the ways the watch was more like the stone than the life-form. It all depends what you are trying to "prove" with this analogy. But analogies prove nothing.