“The watchmaker” argument is attributed to William Paley. Paley was born in 1743 and died in 1805. His father, also William Paley, was the headmaster at Giggleswick, a boarding school in North Yorkshire, England, where young William Paley was a scholar.
With a father as a headmaster, it’s not surprising that young William had a career ahead of him in academics. After his training at Giggleswick, he went off to Christ’s College, Cambridge. After he graduated, he served for about ten years as a lecturer and as a fellow at Christ College. Then Paley went on to hold various positions in the Anglican Church. He married, and after his first wife passed away, he later remarried. He had a number of children; one of his sons became an architect of some repute.
William Paley wrote three books, and the most famous was the last one he wrote. He published Natural Theology in 1802, just a few years before he died. Paley argued that the unity of nature that we see gives grounds for a single Creator. He wrote that we also see a complexity within nature, and the complexity that we observe gives grounds for an intelligent Creator, a designer. This is a version of what we call the teleological argument. The word teleological is based on a Greek word that means “end” or “design” or “purpose.” It’s a way of saying that the design we see in the universe points us to a designer.
William Paley framed this argument as a watch and a watchmaker. In the opening pages of Natural Theology he writes, “In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone.” He wouldn’t think much of that. He wouldn’t wonder, “Well, who put that stone there, and where did it come from?” It’s just a stone. But if he were to continue across the heath and come across a watch, then he would be intrigued. He would pick it up, look at it, and pop the back off the watch. Inside he would see the bushings and the gears in quite an arrangement. Paley makes the point that everything would have to be in a precise arrangement in order for the watch to work. In order for the watch to tell the exact time, it must be well-designed. A watch, Paley concludes, points us to a watchmaker.
Paley’s argument has had quite a legacy. In the 1820s a young student named Charles Darwin read Paley’s Natural Theology. Darwin would later record in his autobiography that he found Paley’s reasoning and argument compelling, and that he held to an intelligent designer because of Paley. But later, sadly, Darwin would move away from that position, and change his mind.
In more recent times Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist, wrote The Blind Watchmaker. In that book, Dawkins tries to argue that evolutionary processes are sort of a blind watchmaker. But he commits a logical fallacy by talking about a watchmaker in the title of the book itself; he gives some credence to Paley’s argument that what we see in the world is a finely designed, finely tuned watch that points us to a watchmaker.
At 218 years old, Paley’s Natural Theology still manages to prod our thinking. How can we explain what we experience and observe in this world apart from God? We can’t. William Paley reminds us of the watchmaker.