William Paley and the Argument from Design

The argument from Design is an interesting beast to tame. There have been some who make that argument very appealing and, by way of persuasion, have made it the focal point of their argument for the existence of God. Few have crafted a Teleological argument as in-depth and creative as William Paley. His Watchmaker argument is still being discussed and debated centuries later. His volume Natural Theology exhibits this argument in full, and then some. Perhaps the whole title does more for the cause of explanation than does the shortened version; Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature.

Those not familiar with this particular volume may be well versed in his Watchmaker argument. Paley contends that if one were to find a watch in nature, a designer would have to  be inferred because of the complexity which is exhibited in the watch. Not only is the complexity called into play here but alongside that, Paley places order, organization, function, relationship of the parts to the whole, and apparent features of the designed watch.

Paley’s argument is as follows:

  1. Human artifacts are products of intelligent design.
  2. The universe resembles human artifacts.
  3. Therefore, the universe is a product of intelligent design.
  4. But the universe is complex and gigantic in comparison to human artifacts.
  5. Therefore, there probably is a powerful and vastly intelligent designer who created the universe.

To be sure Paley does not rest his case based on a simple analogy but goes on to explain almost every function of the human body in relation to it’s design. He goes on to explain in great detail various physical structures, not only that of humans, but of plants, animals, and the cosmos. He builds a comprehensive case for an Intelligent Designer which points to the God of the bible as the only viable option to explain the various contrivances (or designs) found in nature.

With the deep study that Paley has done in this volume one has to wonder if Henry Gray had this at his side when he penned his famous volume, Gray’s Anatomy. Coming only 56 years after Paley it’s hard not to imagine a scene where Gray is poring over the various functions of anatomy and physiology which Paley so eloquently put forth.

As a former track and field veteran, Paley makes a very compelling case of the basics of Kinetics. He not only describes in scientific terms the muscles and their functions, but explores their relation to other muscles and how each must move in order to create the desired effect, forward motion. I found these first few chapters beyond those of the Watchmaker to be most helpful.

I don’t know that I’d recommend this volume for everyone. Not everyone is going to be fascinated by the design of muscles and the various functions of the eye. For many in apologetic circles, though, this could be used alongside other compelling evidences from design. Not to be meant as a volume that stands on it’s own in arguing for the existence of God, still Natural Theology a great place to begin to flesh out the Argument from Design.

Paley, William. Natural Theology; Or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. London: Suzeteo, 2012. 282. Print.


One Reply to “William Paley and the Argument from Design”

  1. “If, then, we deny mind in nature, there is no reason for affirming mind in man. Indeed there is vastly more proof that the power which works in nature is intelligent than there is that men are intelligent.” Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910)


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