Monday, November 19, 2007


Rewinding the Watch

A book I'm reading now and finding both interesting and well written is Keith Thomson's Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature. It is a treatment of the arguments leading up to the clash between William Paley's view of natural history and the increasingly secular science that was crowned by Darwin's evolutionary theory. Much of it is familiar territory to a buff like me but it is well told and will be a good primer for the less obsessed.

One item I knew in general but which is better detailed by Thomson is the unoriginality of Paley's watch analogy:

Paley himself called the watch analogy 'not only popular but vulgar' and for contemporary readers it was so familiar an analogy that they would not have thought of attributing the idea exclusively to him. (Fifty years later, enough history had been forgotten that he was accused of plagiarism, the source of these suspicions no doubt lying in the fact that, in accord with the custom of the time, Paley did not supply footnoted references to his sources.) In fact, the watch analogy can be traced back a long way.

In Paley's time, the most immediate exponents of the watch analogy may have been Baron d'Holback (The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World, 1770) or Bernard Nieuwentyt (The Religious Philosopher, or the Right Use of Contemplating the Works of the Creator, 1709) who wrote of a man 'cast in a desert or solitary place, where few people are used to pass [coming upon] a Watch shewing the Hours, Minutes and Days of the month'. Hence the charge of plagiarism. Before Nieuwentyt's quite explicit use of the analogy, it occurs in a host of works, including Thomas Burnet's Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681) ... Burnet wrote: 'For a thing that consists of a multitude of pieces aptly joyn'd, we cannot but conceive to have had those pieces, at one time or another, put together. 'Twere hard to conceive an eternal Watch, whose pieces were never separate one from another, nor ever in any other form than that of a Watch.'
But the earliest is by Cicero, in his De Natura Deorum in 77 BCE:

When you look at a sun-dial or a water clock, you consider that it tells the time by art and not by chance; how then can it be consistent to suppose that the world, which includes both the works of art in question, the craftsmen who made them, and everything else besides, can be devoid of purpose and of reason.
While Thomson leads me to think that it may be unfair to Paley to compare ID creationists to him (as I have often done), it's true that his approach was unapologetically rhetorical. As such, it is hardly surprising that he'd gladly reuse an effective trope.


The quotation from Burnet reminds me of the concept of "irreducible complexity". I'll have to look into that.

By the way, the Wikipedia article "Watchmaker analogy" surveys the history of the analogy before Paley. One notable figure who used it was Voltaire.
The quotation from Burnet reminds me of the concept of "irreducible complexity".

Good point.

One notable figure who used it was Voltaire.

I vaguely remember that, now that you mention it, but I don't remember where I saw it (I'm pretty sure it wasn't Wikipedia).
Me, I have always wondered that had someone developed the theory of Natural Selection prior to Paley's time, if he would perhaps be a proponent of it. I think it is unfair to taint Paley as faulty, as even Hume ran up against such an obstacle as design in his quest to commit to atheism.
I think it is unfair to taint Paley as faulty ...

I agree. Paley was taking the very best science of his day (and he is generally credited with giving a good account of that science in Natural Theology) and reconciling his theology to it as best he could. How well he did it is a matter for theologians to discuss.

But he did not (at least systematically) misrepresent the science in order to do the reconciliation. Paley would be, I suspect, a Ken Miller-style "theistic evolutionist" if he was alive today.
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