Paley’s Watchmaker and Arguing with Creationists

Paley’s Watchmaker and Arguing with Creationists August 9, 2018

Last night, I did something I promised I wouldn’t do again. I stayed up until past 2 o’clock in the morning arguing with creationists on Facebook. Originally, I just thought they were normal theists. I don’t know how I “know” him, but this one particular theist posted a status on Facebook that went like this:

Atheists commonly confess ignorance and base it on the claim that there is no evidence of God. The consequence of such a position is:

the lack of

objective moral values
meaning of life
lack of recognition of the real intrinsic value of human beings
what really matters in life ( to love God, and your next )
hope
understanding
inner peace
knowledge
security

and become a playball of their own

desires
wishes
will
inclinations
insecurity
hopelessness
meaninglessness
lacks values
certainty of anything
decisions
egoism
greed
lack of goals in life
frustration
bad decisions
lack of direction in life

the consequences are:

Increase of crimes
homicides
abortions
suicide
betrayals
robbery
separations
destructuration of families
telling lies
envy

false doctrines and various isms which undermine the value of life, like

nazism
communism

and the ultimate fate and consequence is

to die and be judged upon their own sins and mistakes and paying for their sins and rejection of God in Hell forever and ever.

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Now, I don’t usually rise to the bait but there was so very many claims in this OP that I just couldn’t resist. I’ve never seen so many unsubstantiated, listed claims made by someone that fall completely afoul of being rationally defended claims. And when someone plays to their audience and gets general agreement from everyone commenting on there, I have to do something. It’s in me.

The problem was, it was me on my own being hit by a scattergun of, at times, four separate theists posting mere assertions. Every time they made a claim, it was just an assertion without anything to back it up. Even though I called them out on this, it was left to me to try and defend the claims or refute them and this takes time and effort. In the end, I was just linking to many of the articles and books I’ve previously written. When people claim there are “crickets” because I can’t be bothered to answer, and yet I have linked to a 90,000 word book or one of my 2,701 articles, it irks me. I have been very bothered – they need to be bothered to read. The theistic claims really were naive claims from philosophy and apologetics 101. It was as if none of them had ever read a book by an atheist or a scientist. As a result, I ended up being fairly patronising by the end because I just couldn’t be bothered to entertain their unsophisticated claims.

I left the conversation by asking that they give me their best arguments and I would deal with on the blog. So here is the thread author’s best argument:

 [M]y best argument ? 1. It is known that complex machines and factories are intelligently designed
2. Biological cells are factories full of complex machines
3. Biological cells are intelligently designed…

To give this argument in full context, let me show you some of the memes he had previously posted that he seemed to think slam dunked my atheistic naturalism:

He also set it out as:

[I] actually would like just the first atheist to demonstrate me an example of self assembly of computers, hardware, software, a language using signs and codes like the alphabet, an instructional blueprint, complex machines, factory assembly lines, error check and repair systems, recycling methods, waste grinders and management, power generating plants, power turbines, and electric circuits randomly, by unguided, accidental events. That is, , the ONLY causal alternative, once intelligent planning, invention, design, and implementation are excluded, to explain the origin of biological Cells, which are literally miniaturized, ultracomplex, molecular, self-replicating factories.

This is, of course, William Paley’s watchmaker argument. He wasn’t the first to use it, but it is famously attributed to him in apologetics and counter-apologetics.

Let’s go to town on it. It’s annoying because these arguments have been trotted out 100,000 times before and have been refuted just as many times. It’s as if they can’t be bothered to engage with the criticisms. David Hume pretty much destroyed the teleological argument before Paley was even born in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

I shall  start with Richard Dawkins, who characterized biology as:

the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. (Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker, 1987, p. 1)

Then there is Darwin:

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection had been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. (Darwin, Charles, 1887. Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1, Francis Darwin (ed.), New York: D. Appleton. p. 279)

False Analogy

This is a teleological or design argument for the existence of God. The idea is that life, such as human beings, appears to be arranged in such complex ways as to be synonymous with something that humans design, such as a watch or the machines in the memes above. Human minds designed these machines and so it must be that some kind of mind similar to the human mind designed life, such as human beings.

Living things are arguably just too dissimilar from Paley’s watch. Wallace Matson lists the following dissimilarities between human artefacts and living organisms:  only living organisms are made of organic material, only artefacts show signs of artificial production, and only organisms reproduce.[1] 

I have seen another objection set out similar to what follows:

  1. A watch is complex
  2. A watch has a watchmaker
  3. The universe is also complex
  4. Therefore the universe has a watchmaker

But this logic can also be applied as follows:

  1. Leaves are complex cellulose structures
  2. Leaves grow on trees
  3. Money bills are also complex cellulose structures
  4. Therefore, bills of money grow on trees (which, according to the idiom, they don’t)

We could also say that the sun appears to move across the sky, revolving around the Earth. How things seem, however, is not necessarily how things are. And I think the watchmaker analogy falls into this problem too. In the same way that the sun doesn’t involve around the Earth, the watch isn’t in the same category as a rock or a tree or a human.

As David Schwartz writes:

But let’s think about this for a moment. If you look at a watch lying on the ground and think to yourself, “Oh, this must be designed,” what are you comparing the watch to in order to make that judgment? Would you compare it to the ground, the trees, the grass, the animals, or the sky perhaps? If the watch looks designed compared to its surroundings, the only logical conclusion we could draw is that its surroundings are not designed. If we were unable to differentiate the watch from its natural surroundings, then we would deem it to be a natural object no different from a rock or a tree.

If we say that life is designed, again, with what are we making the comparison? All that is non-life? OK, but then we would still have to say that all non-life is not designed. But suppose we say that the entire universe is designed. Well, we don’t have another universe to compare ours to, and as Hume points out, that’s exactly the problem. We only have experience with one universe, and unless we have the opportunity to examine other universes (if they exist, of course), we cannot say with any degree of certainty that our universe is designed, nor do we have any reason to believe it is in the first place.

So without even having to rely on complex and dense scientific arguments to refute the watchmaker analogy, we can easily see that the argument serves to refute itself.

False Analogy II

In a further example of how this is a false analogy, we need to understand that humans designing and making a watch is not at all like God designing and making anything. In Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Richerson and Boyd write (p. 50):

Isaac Newton famously remarked that he stood on the shoulders of giants. For most innovators in most places at most times in history, a different metaphor is close to the truth. Even the greatest human innovators are, in the great scheme of things, midgets standing on the shoulders of a vast amount of other midgets. The evolution of languages, artifacts, and institutions can be divided up into many small steps, and during each step the changes are relatively modest. No single innovator contributes more than a small portion of the total, as any single gene substitution contributes only marginally to a complex organic adaptation. The limited immitative capacities of other animals seem to prevent the cumulative evolution of complex cultural features.

What this means is that this watch could not be made in a vacuum. What we see is a cumulative addition to a simple structure, which might include the tools themselves and the cumulative ability to use tools and even the use of language, until we get to the watch itself. This, then, shows the argument to again be a false analogy.

As another commenter states:

Another thing to consider is that it’s not a very good analogy in the first place – the watch was made because of discovery and simpler designs that preceded it – the original watchmaker didn’t make the thing in a vacuum, and so, in a sense, evolved in its own way. That would also be obvious to the fellow who found it in a field. Why doesn’t the same logic apply to living creatures? Beyond that, complexity arises in natural systems all the time.

False Analogy III

I will defer here to David Hume’s criticism of the argument:

An analogical argument claims that because object X (a watch) is like object Y (the universe) in one respect, both are therefore probably alike in another, hidden, respect (their cause, having to be created by an intelligent designer). He points out that for an argument from analogy to be successful, the two things that are being compared have to have an adequate number of similarities that are relevant to the respect that are analogised. For example, a kitten and a lion may be very similar in many respects, but just because a lion makes a “roar”, it would not be correct to infer a kitten also “roars”: the similarities between the two objects being not similar enough and the degree of relevance to what sound they make being not relevant enough. Hume then argues that the universe and a watch also do not have enough relevant or close similarities to infer that they were both created the same way. For example, the universe is made of organic natural material, but the watch is made of artificial mechanic materials. He claims that in the same respect, the universe could be argued to be more analogous to something more organic such as a vegetable (in which we can observe for ourselves does not need a ‘designer’ or a ‘watchmaker’ to be created). Although he admits the analogy of a universe to a vegetable to seem ridiculous, he says that it is just as ridiculous to analogize the universe with a watch.[9]

As Used in a Legal Case

The watchmaker analogy was referenced in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. Michael Behe and his fellow intelligent design proponents lost the case.

As Wikipedia states:

Throughout the trial, Paley was mentioned several times.[17] The defense’s expert witness John Haught noted that both Intelligent Design and the watchmaker analogy are “reformulations” of the same theological argument.[18] On day 21 of the trial, Mr. Harvey walked Dr. Minnich through a modernized version of Paley’s argument, substituting a cell phone for the watch.[19] In his ruling, the judge stated that the use of the argument from design by intelligent design proponents “is merely a restatement of the Reverend William Paley’s argument applied at the cell level”[20] and that the argument from design is subjective.[21]

Enough said.

Specified Functional Complexity and Evolution

As set out in the legal case above, we find that this the argument is broadly about evolution. In the same way that you wouldn’t create a watch from no prior knowledge, you can’t evolve a human being out of thin air. Evolution demands that each new species are built upon the foundations of all the species that came before it in the evolutionary line. Evolution can only use the tools that are already there.

I don’t really want to get into a big expose of evolution here. Suffice to say that I think many theists, particularly creationists, live in a bubble whereby they will only read books by apologists concerning the area of evolution. Therefore, they deny evolution without ever having read a book on evolution by an evolutionary biologist!

Let me defer to the IEP (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

Paley’s version of the argument, however, is generally thought to have been refuted by Charles Darwin’s competing explanation for complex organisms. In The Origin of the Species, Darwin argued that more complex biological organisms evolved gradually over millions of years from simpler organisms through a process of natural selection. As Julian Huxley describes the logic of this process:

The evolutionary process results immediately and automatically from the basic property of living matter—that of self-copying, but with occasional errors. Self-copying leads to multiplication and competition; the errors in self-copying are what we call mutations, and mutations will inevitably confer different degrees of biological advantage or disadvantage on their possessors. The consequence will be differential reproduction down the generations—in other words, natural selection (Huxley 1953, 4).

Over time, the replication of genetic material in an organism results in mutations that give rise to new traits in the organism’s offspring. Sometimes these new traits are so unfavorable to a being’s survival prospects that beings with the traits die off; but sometimes these new traits enable the possessors to survive conditions that kill off beings without them. If the trait is sufficiently favorable, only members of the species with the trait will survive. By this natural process, functionally complex organisms gradually evolve over millions of years from primordially simple organisms.

Contemporary biologist, Richard Dawkins (1986), uses a programming problem to show that the logic of the process renders the Darwinian explanation significantly more probable than the design explanation. Dawkins considers two ways in which one might program a computer to generate the following sequence of characters: METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL. The first program randomly producing a new 28-character sequence each time it is run; since the program starts over each time, it incorporates a “single-step selection process.” The probability of randomly generating the target sequence on any given try is 2728 (that is, 27 characters selected for each of the 28 positions in the sequence), which amounts to about 1 in (10,000 x 1,000,0006). While a computer running eternally would eventually produce the sequence, Dawkins estimates that it would take 1,000,0005years—which is 1,000,0003 years longer than the universe has existed. As is readily evident, a program that selects numbers by means of such a “single-step selection mechanism” has a very low probability of reaching the target.

The second program incorporates a “cumulative-step selection mechanism.” It begins by randomly generating a 28-character sequence of letters and spaces and then “breeds” from this sequence in the following way. For a specified period of time, it generates copies of itself; most of the copies perfectly replicate the sequence, but some copies have errors (or mutations). At the end of this period, it compares all of the sequences with the target sequence METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL and keeps the sequence that most closely resembles it. For example, a sequence that has an E in the second place more closely resembles a sequence that is exactly like the first except that it has a Q in the second place. It then begins breeding from this new sequence in exactly the same way. Unlike the first program which starts afresh with each try, the second program builds on previous steps, getting successively closer to the program as it breeds from the sequence closest to the target. This feature of the program increases the probability of reaching the sequence to such an extent that a computer running this program hit the target sequence after 43 generations, which took about half-an-hour.

The problem with Paley’s watchmaker argument, as Dawkins explains it, is that it falsely assumes that all of the other possible competing explanations are sufficiently improbable to warrant an inference of design. While this might be true of explanations that rely entirely on random single-step selection mechanisms, this is not true of Darwinian explanations. As is readily evident from Huxley’s description of the process, Darwinian evolution is a cumulative-step selection method that closely resembles in general structure the second computer program. The result is that the probability of evolving functionally complex organisms capable of surviving a wide variety of conditions is increased to such an extent that it exceeds the probability of the design explanation.

What had earlier appeared to be purpose (as in requiring intent) is now revealed as mere unintended but successful and preserved function.

There is still in confusion as to whether the theist is arguing about evolution or abiogenesis. Both of these areas are singularly massive and I simply cannot deal with them here. Again, I suggest reading books on evolution and keeping up-to-date with the latest theories of abiogenesis. In fact, I was reading about both only the other day in Sean Carroll’s fantastic The Big Picture (Buy it here). Just for those theists to read that book would be a phenomenal achievement.

Inductive Reasoning

As David Hume said, we have inductive experience to propose that when we see a watch it is indeed human-made. However, we have never had experience of the universe is being created and so we cannot compare this universe and its creation to any other scenario. We have no inductive data upon which to draw when looking at our own universe.

The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (SEP), sees this logical schema as follows:

Schema 2:

  1. Some things in nature (or nature itself, the cosmos) are design-like (exhibit a cognition-resonating, intention-shaped character R)
  2. Design-like properties (R) are not producible by (unguided) natural means—i.e., any phenomenon exhibiting such Rs must be a product of intentional design.

Before continuing about induction:

Induction essentially involves establishing that some principle holds within the realm of our knowledge/experience (the sample cases), and then, subject to certain constraints, generalizing the principle to encompass relevant areas beyond that realm (the test cases).[7] The attempt to establish the universality of a connection between having relevant Rs and being a product of mind on the basis of an observed consistent connection between having relevant Rs and being a product of mind within all (most) of the cases where both R was exhibited and we knew whether or not the phenomenon in question was a product of mind, would constitute an inductive generalization.

This approach would suffer from a variety of weaknesses (some of them related to Hume’s criticisms of Schema 1 arguments). The R-exhibiting things concerning which we knew whether or not they were designed would be almost without exception human artifacts, whereas the phenomena to which the generalization was being extended would be almost without exception things in a very different category—things in nature. And, of course, the generalization in question could establish at best a probability, and a fairly modest one at that.

 The Subjective, arbitrary Nature of Complexity

What is really complex? What is really simple? From our own experience, human brains are the most complex thing and known universe. But on the whole scale of complexity, where is that? We can imagine infinity and use it within a mathematical context. So if the human brain is the most complex thing we know, surely we can imagine something that is 10 times more complex, hundred times, Google Plex times more complex? Where, then, is the cut-off line as to what is complex enough to require design and what is simple enough not to? Why is it that on the whole scale of complexity life is deemed particularly complex? It could just as easily be described as exceptionally simple when we don’t have an objective scale of complexity!

Intent

What is a cut-off line for when something appears to have enough imagined intent to conclude that the design of it was intended? A photon of light travels in a straight line, which appears to be exceptionally useful. Does this not infer design? We live in a universe full of Rorschach patterns and we are a species who have of an evolved sense of patternicity and agenticity. It is no surprise that we look at the world around us and conclude design here and there and perhaps, to some, everywhere. To others, though, design is nowhere other than where existent animals employ it.

As the SEP continues, using the schema above:

There are two crucial upshots. First, notice that in general, the more empirically tractable the specific Rs, the less promising as marks of purpose and design they seem. For instance, if just bare complexity is cited, then although complexity is in many respects easily demonstrable, that complexity may not clearly speak of intent. On the other hand, although the exhibiting of genuine purpose and value might constitute persuasive and even compelling evidence of a designer, establishing that the empirical characteristics in question really do betoken genuine purpose and value—and not just, say, functionality—seems to many to be difficult if not impossible.

That last statement is worth dwelling on.

God Working within Nature

For those theists who believe that God works within nature, and there is a further problem it is obvious, then, that this design looks no different from nature.

For instance, over two centuries before Darwin, Francis Bacon wrote:

God … doth accomplish and fulfill his divine will [by ways] not immediate and direct, but by compass; not violating Nature, which is his own law upon the creation. (quoted in Whewell, William, 1834. Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, London: William Pickering. p. 358)

Indeed, many theistic thinkers have claimed that such unsupervised existence of an intial creation takes greater creative skill:

We cannot for a moment hesitate in pronouncing that that which, after its original adjustment, no superintendence was required, displayed far greater ingenuity than that which demanded, at every change in its law, the intervention of its contriver. (Babbage, Charles, 1838. Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: A Fragment, London: J. Murray. p.40)

This means that there will the full evidential account for anything that exists within nature, within the universe itself.

And so on

There are so many criticisms of the arguments, and the argument itself stretches into areas of fine tuning and physics and cosmology. I don’t have the time or particularly the patience to deconstruct the watchmaker argument to that degree here. I’ve already done so in other posts over the years. Take a good read of the SEP piece if you have time. However, I think the design argument in the form of Paley’s watchmaker is not a good one. It is pretty easily refuted and any passing knowledge of evolution is enough on its own to put it to bed. So, really, I would implore theists who adhere to such arguments to do a heck of a lot more reading on evolution. It is always frustrating that creationists immunise themselves against the facts of evolution. Indeed, one of them last night invoked the devil. I then produced my typical argument against the devil in that he must be the management executive of God, and I didn’t hear any comeback on the issue. Heads get buried in the sand until the theist argues on a different thread on a different day and the devil will come out again. Water off a duck’s back. That is truly frustrating thing about these arguments.

Anyway, this would never fit into a Facebook comment, so that’s why I prefer arguing here.


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