Paley's Watchmaker Analogy: Valid or Invalid? Or Something Else?

Rather than distract the previous thread, I’d be interested to see (a) Paley’s Analogy critiqued on its own, and (b) to critique how the famous watchmaker argument is viewed by ID proponents and ID critics. (Is Paley be understood properly and treated fairly today?)


Analogies are not arguments. They are explanatory devices. Therefore, characterizing a mere analogy as an argument is an absurd exaggeration.


I totally agree.

Of course, because Paley’s analogy is so often used as an argument—especially in ID circles—it is often called “the watchmaker argument.” And I took for granted that your point would be among the first posted.

That said, I am hoping that Paley defender’s will weigh in. (Actually, I count myself as a “defender” in a limited way, especially if Paley is approached on his own terms and in the context of his time and purposes. It is my opinion that were Paley to visit us today, he would have no conflict with the Theory of Evolution. And, yes, I hope that controversial statement will provoke discussion.)


Paley’s watchmaker argument is best characterized as an inference to the best explanation than to an analogy.

And that helps to explain why it is a philosophical argument and not a scientific one.

Of course, as an analogy, it is only as good as an inference as the underlying assumptions—which are many.

(And, by the way, I’m a big fan of Bill Craig. Our academic careers intersected—although I’ve not had opportunity to talk with him in many years.)


Why, exactly? What objective criteria did you use to judge it as better than any other explanation?

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I find it useful to put the same form of argument into a different setting and see if the argument still works.

I find a watch in a field, and I know (or discover) a man who makes watches. That works fine.

I find an odd mechanical device in a field. I don’t know its purpose, or how it is made, BUT I may be able to infer these things. I then go and discover a man who makes these devices.

An Inuit Eskimo finds a pocket watch in a snowfield (circa 1845). This person has never seen anything like it, and may not even have a modern concept of time measured in regular units shorter than days. The Eskimo infers that animal spirits made the pocket watch.

We can break this analogy fairly easily, exposing where the assumptions are made. This basic approach works for other arguments too.


Therefore, Eskimos affirm Intelligent Design.


Therefore Eskimos affirm intelligent design of pocket watches.


Discussion provoked.

Make your case?

Only those Eskimos who believe that animal spirits are intelligent?

Inference to the best explanation is a mode of reasoning also known as abductive reasoning that is widely used in science. It has the following pattern:
D is a collection of data.
H explainsD.
No other hypothesis can explain D as well as H.
Therefore, H is probably true.

Note that Darwin extensively used abductive reasoning in The Origin of Species.

I agree that inference to the best explanation is a valid form of scientific reasoning. In that sense I don’t think there is any structural issues with the watchmaker argument. My problem with the argument is the claim that it is the best explanation for the attributes of living organisms. The watchmater argument, in all formulations I have seen it where it has been attempted to show it is a better explanation than evolution, it has either misrepresented how evolution works(it’s always tornado in a junkyard), and/or failed to provide the explanation part of the design explanation.

Design is only a good explanation if it has explanatory power, and it can only have explanatory power if we know the attributes of the designer and it’s methods and capabilities of design. Merely uttering or writing the sentence “it was designed” is not an explanation. It only becomes an explanation in the context of comphensible mechanisms by which the design is carried out. There is someone there with a physical body, taking objects and working and machining them into parts, putting them together in a particular order, using tools etc. etc.

“Wishing” or “willing” and then it becomes “so” is not an explanation. In fact we know from all experience that this is impotent. Merely thinking of what you want accomplishes nothing. It is no more capable of effectuating real-world change than being asleep and fantasizing or daydreaming but never actually doing anything.


After I find the watch, I look a little further along the beach and find a clam shell. What inference do I make from observing the clam shell? It’s quite an intricate mechanism in its own right, particularly if you look at it microscopically. Do I decide that clam shell was designed, as I did with the watch? Probably not, since I know about clams. The whole watch analogy depends on knowing how watches are made and can’t be transferred easily to clam shells. So Paley’s analogy breaks down exactly at the point he would like to apply it.


There is just a bit missing here. We need …

None of the other hypotheses considered can explain D as well as H

H might offer a better explanation than all the others, but there may still be room for improvement on H. This is sort of a restatement of the George Box quote, “All models are wrong, but some models are useful.”

It’s also useful to look at what is actually being explained. If there are no new questions answered (Who, When, Where, What, How) then it’s not really an explanation at all.

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I think the value of Paley’s illustration is that it correctly identifies the question (what is the source of this design?) and the magnitude of this question. Dawkins makes this point strongly in The Blind Watchmaker, and Dennett is saying something very similar even now. The watch analogy frames the question. It doesn’t answer the question.


I like how you framed this @sfmatheson. @TedDavis, do you agree with this framing?

What precisely do you mean by “magnitude”?

I agree, but would modify it.

The hypothesis doesn’t have to answer the questions, it has to make testable, empirical predictions about the answers to one or more of those questions. One can easily formulate ID hypotheses that do so, but those must have the potential for falsification, so no ID proponents will go there.

Gilbert is omitting the essence of science.

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Well, heh, there’s nothing “precise” about these themes, but what I mean is that the presence of design in the biological world is not just an interesting problem/question/condundrum. It’s a really big one. In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins engages in an ecstatic tour of echolocation, and his explicit purpose is to paint a picture of the awesomeness of design in biology, writing: “When it comes to feeling awe over living ‘watches’ I yield to nobody.” With Dennett, I say that ATP synthase and voltage-gated sodium channels and fish electric organs are examples of design, and not just cute little adaptations. (Dawkins, at least back then, wanted words like ‘designoid’ to signal design without intelligence, but I agree with Dennett that this is silly and unnecessary.) So anyway, the answer to your question is that a watch on a heath has the kind of shock value that ATP synthase should have, and that means that it requires an extraordinary and potent explanation.


@sfmatheson, I get what you are saying. You are saying that the origin of the clear and present appearance of design in life is one of the grand questions. The appearance of design demands some sort of explanation. To ignore this question is to be disengaged with one of the looming questions of our common reality.

Paley, you are saying, brings clarity to this question.

Dawkins accepts the challenge of Paley’s question, agreeing that it is legitimate and pressing. Evolution, he argues, adequately answers this question.

Perhaps Darwin did not disprove creation, but he gave the first plausible account of how the appearance of design in the diversity of life could arise, without out invoking God’s miraculous action. This ends up solving a fundamental challenge if one happens to be an atheist, even if it does not defeat Christian view of evolution.

Did I get that right?