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The Watchmaker Analogy: A Self-Refuting Argument

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As I was taking a stroll through downtown Portland, Maine a few days ago, I was approached by three nicely dressed individuals, one of whom was carrying a comically large video camera straight out of the '80s. They claimed that they were filming a documentary for their Bible study group, and asked if they could interview me. I was caught somewhat off guard, and not wanting to appear rude, I agreed. Their first question was fairly typical for these kinds of interviews: "Are you a Christian?" I said that I was not. With a smile, my interviewer asked me why I wasn't a Christian. Now, I'm usually more than happy to throw down with street preachers, but seeing as it was a beautiful day and I was enjoying a nice walk, I just wasn't in the mood. So in the most non-confrontational manner I could muster, I explained how I am an atheist (or if you want to get specific, an "anti-theist") because there is no compelling evidence to believe that any theistic claim is true.

I should have known better than to use the "A" word.

My interviewer was quick to respond. "OK, but pretend you are walking down a path in a forest, and you come across..." he began.

I had to interrupt him. "Is this the watchmaker analogy you're getting at?" I asked. To this he replied, "Um... yeah."

For those who are unfamiliar with the watchmaker analogy, it is a teleological argument for the existence of a Creator (in this case, God). A teleological argument is otherwise known as an "argument from design," and asserts that there is an order to nature that is best explained by the presence of some kind of intelligent designer. The most current incarnation of this argument is, of course, Intelligent Design.

Anyway, the watchmaker argument, as formulated by the British Christian apologist William Paley in his book Natural Theology, goes like this:

"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."

The point that Paley was trying to make is that a watch implies a watchmaker, and that the world is like a watch, in that the world implies a worldmaker. Obviously, there are many flaws to this analogy (the world isn't even remotely comparable to a watch, for example), and in fact, Scottish philosopher David Hume pretty much demolished the teleological argument before Paley was even born in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Read it if you are looking for a wild time on a Saturday night.

In recent years the watchmaker analogy has evolved (ha ha) to include the notion of "irreducible complexity," a term coined by the prominent Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe. So now instead of having the mere presence of a watch (Behe is particularly fond of using a mousetrap as an example) imply a watchmaker, we are to conclude that the watch is far too complicated to have been created by natural processes, and that therefore the watch must have been designed by an intelligent agent. Thus life, like the watch, is too complicated to have arisen by natural causes.

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.

I explained all this, though quite abridged, to my interviewer, and this more or less ended our conversation. We parted ways amiably, with my interviewer wishing me a "blessed day," and with me wishing him a "rational day."

Now my purpose in bringing all this up is not to beat up on religion (or maybe it is... I haven't decided), but to point out that most, if not all, modern arguments for the existence of God(s) are rehashed arguments originating centuries ago, and when you boil them down to there basic logical structure, they are easily dismantled by counterarguments that are often just as old.

When searching for the truth, we do ourselves no favors by conjuring strange excuses on behalf of our beliefs in order to reconcile them with reality. What we should strive for is to arrive at our beliefs in an honest way -- a way that is mindful of the facts and adapts with change, and not one that bends to our wishes.

Have a rational day!