09 February 2007

Paley's Rock

William Paley's Watchmaker Analogy is held aloft by creationists everywhere as proof that the earth and everything on it was created by God, or at least, a higher power of some sort.

Critics of creationism are quick to refute the Watchmaker Analogy, and rightly so.

Let's just quickly re-cap on what Paley himself had to say about the whole matter, in his book Natural Theology:

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.

– William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)


Now this is all largely nonsense. Paley is suggesting, on the basis of his watch example that everything in this world is intelligently designed by someone or something to serve some sort of purpose.

Charles Darwin accepted this while studying theology at Cambridge and came to the conclusion that this argument held up.

He later, after sailing away on the Beagle to study nature and the distribution of species around the world, refuted this analogy quite explicitly in the Origin of the Species by explaining that the Law of Natural Selection was a better model for explaining the diversity of species around the world. In so doing he paved the way for Evolutionary Biology which took Darwin's findings one step further and developed into a field primarily concerned with examining the origins and evolution of species.

By far the most famous evolutionary biologist on the planet today is, of course, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins had a serious bash at the Watchmaker Analogy in his book The Blind Watchmaker and concluded that, as complex as evolution sounds to the layperson, it pales next to any creation argument. The very idea that everything is the subject of complex design implies an even more complex designer.

Which of course implies an even more complex designer for the first complex designer, a sort of "Turtles all the way down" scenario.

Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time explains this concept very well, by quoting a story that may or may not have involved Bertrand Russell:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.
At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise."
The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?"
"You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"

- Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (1988)


And this is good, because it is pretty clear from these arguments that evolution is easily the simplest explanation for life on this planet.

But it has occurred to me that Paley's argument falls on its face in a much simpler and much more embarrassing way.

Darwin and Dawkins, as well as countless scientists and creationists have been led astray by what was a magnificently well-placed red herring in the story.

The Watch.

How much time has been spent poring over the Watch?

How many mental pictures have been created in peoples heads - what the face looked like? Was the glass scratched? Was it a gold watch? Did it have a 2mm or a 5mm chain? If it was gold, how many carats would it have been?

The problem with Paley's example is not with the watch, though.

If we go back and accompany Paley on his hypothetical walk across the heath again, we'll see that he didn't just hypothetically come across a watch that day.

Paley also came across a stone, which he gave very short shrift to. His answer to what he thought of the stone appears to be complete disinterest:

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.


So why does he not subject the rock to the same level of scrutiny which he gave the watch?

Paley has no, repeat, no idea of how the stone came to be there, nor does he consider it to be important.

What is important, though, is that in dismissing the stone as being unimportant to his story, he is essentially applying a double standard to the stone compared to the watch.

He mentions it in passing, because it is important for comparison to the watch.

But Paley's comparison ends there.

It should not.

Why has everyone, Darwin and Dawkins included, appeared to have missed the bleeding obvious on this? Paley does not at any time discuss the "purpose", "contrivance" or the "design" of the rock at any stage.

Paley has had a free kick on this for over 200 years - so why don't we do what Paley did not, but should have done?

Paley lauds the watch as, "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;"

But a rock? We would need to know its "purpose".

The rest of the story serves no purpose unless someone can come up with way of assessing the rock in the same way that Paley evaluates the watch.

Its a great trick - introduce the rock and then dazzle us with implied bling - and for all we know, the watch that Paley finds on his walk might only have been a cheapie made in Sheffield.

And being the humans that we are, the flashy piece of chronometry has everyone's attention, whereas the drab rock - basalt perhaps, diamond, maybe - vanishes into the background.

The wonder of it all this is this: why hasn't anyone taken Paley apart for this?

It's really that simple folks.

Someone should call their blog Paley's Rock.

6 comments:

The Rev. Jenner J. Hull said...

Paley's Rock is an interesting conundrum, one I hadn't considered. You might want to copyright "Paley's Rock," by the way. It's kinda catchy...

I suppose Paley would say, "Well, of course, God put that rock there for me to pitch my foot on, so I'd ruminate on the rock and know it was proof of God's existence."

Of course, he'd be wrong but, when it comes to Nightmare Philosophy, a watch is as good as a rock is as good as a human is as good as a Creation...

Dikkii said...

G'day Reverend. You wrote:

You might want to copyright "Paley's Rock," by the way. It's kinda catchy...

That's what I thought, and done!!.

I have no idea what I'm going to do with it.

You also wrote:

Paley would say, "Well, of course, God put that rock there for me to pitch my foot on, so I'd ruminate on the rock and know it was proof of God's existence."

Ha ha.

Paley probably should have thought out the rock a little better than what he did - as it is, it really is a half-baked comparison piece.

It beats me as to why he even mentions it in the first place.

ted said...

Could it be that the rock yielded the raw materials required to make the watch?

Dikkii said...

Ted wrote:

Could it be that the rock yielded the raw materials required to make the watch?

Well, I wish that Paley had written that. But even with that snippet of information, he still needs to give us more.

ted said...

Well, it would depend on the size of the rock, what sort of rock it was, was it a mineral rich rock, etc.

But I'm not sure how much Paley understood about geology and/or metalurgy, if anything, so maybe that little detail simply escaped him. Besides, god, to me at least, seems to be nothing much more than a way to explain what you don't understand so he probably did pretty well there, considering his station in life...:)

Personally I prefer my sister in-law's method. When she couldn't answer her daughter's question, it was "Magic!". Same thing really, but without the dogma...:)

Dikkii said...

Magic.

Good work, Ted. I must remember that for when I have kids.