In 1802, British philosopher William Paley put forth an idea that seemed to make a lot of sense, and indeed wound up becoming one of the key teleological arguments for the existence of God. In his own words:
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 I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.
Fifty-seven years later, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, which made Paley’s argument obsolete in that it offered a third way. Neither were living beings designed, nor did they come to exist randomly, but rather they evolved over millions of years through a combination of small random changes and the powerful filter of natural selection.
We frequently see, in the history of human inquiry, older ideas replaced by newer, better, more convincing ones. Plato’s spheres, for example, were beautiful and elegant, and made a lot of sense given what we knew 2,300 years ago. But then Copernicus came along, and then Galileo and Kepler, then Newton, etc., and we now know beyond any reasonable doubt that Plato was completely wrong. We don’t ridicule him for his incredibly far-off formulation of reality, though; rather, we hold him up as a paragon of human intelligence. His is a level of intellectual accomplishment to be aspired to. The rightness or wrongness of his idea is not important – what’s important is that he made such a coherent argument given the tools he had at his disposal. YOU try looking up at the sky night after night with no telescope, and not even a ballpoint pen or legal pad. See what kind of sense YOU can make out of it. It’s clear that Plato was brilliant, and the fact that he was so utterly wrong on this point doesn’t tarnish his legacy one iota. The theories of today’s geniuses will in all likelihood be shown to be lacking in the centuries to come, and that’s just how it ought to be. The entire history of science is essentially a series of great men and women, each a little bit less ridiculously wrong than their predecessors.
It strikes me that Paley’s argument is frequently portrayed in a similar light – that it was, at the time of its conception, really the best we could have hoped for given the tools we had at our disposal to study origins; that Darwin’s theory may have made the argument from design obsolete, but that Paley was to be admired nonetheless for formulating the design argument so pithily.
I’d like to argue, though, that Paley deserves no such consideration for his contribution to human knowledge. His is a worthless argument, no better than the sort of gibberish coming from contemporary Christian apologists, a non-argument that appeals to only the basest sort of “common sense”. Let’s return to the above excerpt. In it, Paley tells us that, were we to encounter a rock, it would not strike us as having been designed, but were we to encounter a watch, it would, unmistakeably, betray its conception and manufacture by an intelligent consciousness. He then challenges us not to find the same very obvious signs of design in living beings, and thus to deny the existence of a sentient creator.
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that “I mean, look at it!” is not a terribly good argument for anything, Paley’s words contain the seeds of their own destruction. The watch looks designed, yes. But saying so raises the important question: compared to what? That is, if we can distinguish whether something looks designed or not (and if that determination says something concrete about reality), then there must be things that don’t seem, and therefore aren’t designed. Otherwise, the distinction, “designed”, is meaningless, just at it would be meaningless to say that someone was tall if everyone were the same height. The watch looks designed, and we therefore infer a designer, but the stone does not look designed, and therefore, according to the logic of the argument, we don’t. The rock had no intelligent creator. It has “lain there forever”. It is not part of God’s creation. Paley may have thought he was offering up evidence for God’s existence, but if so, it’s a pretty insignificant God that he’s proven exists, one who did not create stones, lava, fire, soil, water, air, space, electrons, quantum foam, or anything else that does not boast of “design” – really, most of the natural world.
Apologists will be quick to point out that, with current technology and knowledge (and a little imagination!), we can find the evidence of design in anything, essentially that everything has its purpose and its place, including acid rain, wildfires, and swine flu – it’s all part of God’s plan. Let’s assume they’re right for a moment. If everything were designed, then an absolutely necessary condition of that premise would be that we have zero faculty for determining whether any one particular thing were designed, because there’d be no negative space, no binary opposite. Again, if everything were loud, there’d be no loud. If everything were hot, there’d be no hot. If there were any quality that everything had, that quality would be in no way detectable to us. So we’re left with a situation in which either: a) everything was designed by an all-powerful intelligent creator, in which case we wouldn’t know it (save by faith); or, b) some things were designed and others weren’t, and God is only responsible for the former.
There is, I suppose, one quality belonging to everything that exists that we can and do distinguish: the quality of existence itself. But that is a mere tautology. There are fewer things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The things we dream of that don’t exist, well, do not have the quality of existence, and are thus distinguishable from those that do. This is an obvious point, and adds nothing to my argument, but I wouldn’t put it past a cdesign proponentist to suggest this as a hole in my logic, so I decided to include it.
Paley had an excuse that contemporary apologists do not, namely that The Origin of Species hadn’t been published yet. Today, it takes a special kind of gall to make any sort of teleological argument, but in 1802, the “third way” referred to above had not been thought of yet (much less observed and documented), so Paley gets a little bit of a pass. But while evolutionary biology was not yet in the canon of human endeavor, logic was, and Paley showed himself to be poorly acquainted with it.