Creationism, Design and the Watchmaker Fallacy


In 1802, British theologian William Paley imagined himself finding a watch on the ground while he was out for a stroll. That imaginary timepiece, though there was nothing intrinsically valuable or distinctive about it, ended up being probably the most celebrated and notorious ticker in the history of theology and philosophy. Because Paley conjured it up to make a point about what he perceived as the inescapable origin of the universe:

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.

It’s hard to believe that an educated and intelligent individual like Paley would ever even fall for, much less contrive, such a silly and self-refuting argument. But it has shown the kind of staying power that all bad ideas have. Even today, it’s often summoned out of its crypt to defend creationism — which its promoters now believe they can sneak under the radar disguised as “intelligent design”.

The “argument from design” has been making the rounds for centuries. (Robert Frost put a sinister and ironic twist on it in his sonnet titled “Design”.) Basically, the argument from design is the belief that the universe is so complex and intricate that it could not have developed without being guided by a supreme power. This seems derived from the premise that a supreme being would be able to design a universe more complex and intricate than any universe that could develop by “chance” (if you want to think of it in those terms).

The latter is in a sense a reasonable conclusion; assuming that there really is a supreme being, then by definition it would be able to perform feats that nothing else can — including “chance”. But even if we grant this to be true, it does not follow that the particular universe we live in would require a designer. We simply have no way of confirming that assumption.

A related argument practiced by creationists is first causeThe reasoning is that since everything in the universe has a cause, then we can trace all the causes back to a First Cause, i.e., God. But the very notion is a self-contradiction: on the one hand, everything has a cause, and yet on the other hand, there is something that presumably doesn’t. The concept of a first cause also posits a naively and drastically oversimplified model of how the universe functions — a linear construct in which A causes B and B causes C and so on. But the real universe does not operate in a straight line; it operates in an unfathomably complex web of mutual influence. To single out a “first cause” is not only impossible but pointless.

The problem with the claim that “God created the universe” isn’t that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s downright meaningless. As we mentioned before, “God” is term subject to a broad range of definition. And how exactly would the universe be “created”, anyway? Many people insist that the universe could not have just developed out of nothing, so it must have been created, somehow, out of… well, nothing. By a Creator who came from… well, nothing.

The creationist/ design/ first cause argument falls prey to a fallacy known as infinite regress; which is to say that if the existence of the universe proves the existence of a creator, then the existence of a creator must prove the existence of a creator of the creator, and so on and on and on. The decision to cut off the chain after the second link, as creationists do, is purely arbitrary.

As for Paley’s notorious watch metaphor, it’s a classic false equivalence. He is juxtaposing a thing that we know to be created with a thing that we don’t know to be created and concluding that because it’s possible to find characteristics they have in common, then both must be created. What he’s overlooking is that their differences are much more significant than their similarities — a problem he even stumped his own toe on by comparing the watch to a rock.

The essential property that is intended to make the analogy work is the property of irreducibility. Remove one of the tiny gears (each of which was specially crafted for a specific, identifiable purpose) from a watch and you significantly impair or terminate its functioning. That certainly is a strong indication that the watch was designed and manufactured rather than “just happened”.

The universe, however, is quite another matter. On every level from the most microcosmic to the most macrocosmic, the universe is in an unending state of flux, with elements constantly growing old, dying out, being replaced, or just being lost altogether. People lose teeth, hair and organs and life goes on. Indeed, not only do we have wisdom teeth, tonsils and appendices removed, but these organs appear to be useless at best. Countless entire species have become extinct. Stars go nova, obliterating everything in the neighborhood.

While each of these events might make a difference at some level, the universe takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Can the same be said for Paley’s watch?

Ultimately, if you choose to believe in creationism, you must do so on the basis of faith alone. There is no line of reasoning that will make it more logical than any alternative(s). This need not be a problem as long as you keep religion in its proper sphere of cognition. It is when we try to substitute dogma for science that we run into problems of cosmic proportions.

It may be okay to say that “God created the universe”, particularly since nobody will even know what that means. But that does not mean it’s okay to teach kids that the earth is 6000 years old. It isn’t, and it isn’t.








4 Dangerous Beliefs About Guns (4)


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In previous installments, we looked at the dangerous beliefs that (a) the Second Amendment was intended to ensure that citizens can fight against their own government; (b) gun regulation is a hallmark of tyranny, and (c) armed citizens can defend themselves against oppressive governments. Now we’re going to examine the Big Enchilada, the biggest, most popular, most dangerous belief of them all, the one that feeds all the others.

Dangerous Belief # 4 : Guns Make Us Safer

As mentioned last time, gun culture beliefs (like the beliefs of just about any fanatical ideological faction) are based on presumption rather than fact. That’s true of the beliefs listed above, and it’s most emphatically true of this, the cornerstone belief, which gunsters take for such a self-evident and unquestionable maxim that it has been elevated to the status of sacred cow. I’ve actually heard some of them proclaim that if you doubt this Golden Truth, then the burden of proof is on you.

You’ve no doubt seen plenty of anecdotal evidence: stories about how a little old granny with a shotgun fends off a burglar/ rapist/ terrorist and sends him scrambling with a derriere full of buckshot, etc. But even when these incidents are all they’re presented to be (and not all are) it’s often hard to know (a) how they would have played out had no gun  been involved and (b) whether they even would have occurred at all had no gun been involved.

Gunsters, of course, are convinced they know the answers, particularly the first. Their presumption about defensive gun uses (DGUs) is that without a gun, the putative defender would have ended up dead or at least victimized. But bear in mind that the gun is the easy solution; and very often, the easy solution leaves much to be desired. Blowing out someone’s brains is not a good alternative to using your own.

Whatever the outcome of gun-involved encounters, there’s little doubt that some unspecified portion of them would not have occurred at all had not the alleged defender been armed. We get a clear indication from examining in detail the reports of specific DGUs that the alleged defenders had been indulging in what’s known as risk compensation. which is to say that whenever there is an increased level of security, we tend to compensate for it by increasing our level of recklessness.

In some activities (e.g., driving a vehicle) the added risk may be less than the risk reduction as a result of an added safety measure (e.g., seat belts). But when it comes to firearms, it appears that the added risk is greater, and perhaps much greater, than the risk reduction.  One study of  incidents in Philadelphia found that

(a)fter adjustment, individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 (P < .05) times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession. Among gun assaults where the victim had at least some chance to resist, this adjusted odds ratio increased to 5.45 (P < .05)

If these results are typical, it’s hard to see how guns possibly could make us safer.

But what if you just keep your guns at home? You know, to defend yourself from that horde of home invaders you hear about? Well, keeping one at home actually puts you at greater risk of being burglarized (if nothing else) , since guns are a favored commodity among burglars. It also, of course, increases the odds of suicide or accidental death or injury.

And what if you keep your weapons unloaded and locked up to prevent tragic mishaps? Then you’re going to make it harder to access and use them if confronted by a criminal. Plus, you’re still not going to keep determined thieves from stealing them. And you’re still not going to eliminate the possibility of misuse — the two boys in Jonesboro, Arkansas who went on a murderous rampage at their school did so with rifles that had been locked in a cabinet.

Still, it seems reasonable that there are some circumstances in which it is advisable for civilians to be armed. I’ve never owned a gun in my life, and have fired one perhaps half a dozen times; yet I probably wouldn’t want to be without one if I ever went hiking alone through Alaskan bear territory. But bears don’t shoot back, and the chances would be very slim that an innocent bystander would be shot; so in this case the potential benefits would outweigh the potential hazards. (Even so I’d try to be conscious of whether my being armed would be inspiring me to indulge in unnecessary risk.)

But while a gun, singular, may make a person, singular, safer under some circumstances, it does not follow that guns, plural, make people, plural, safer overall.  To justify such a conclusion, we’d have to establish that guns effect a net reduction in crime – that they are used to prevent crimes more often than to commit them. And contrary to what the gun culture consistently maintains, this has by no means been established. We just do not have, nor is it likely that we ever will have, a practical means to determine accurately how often guns are used defensively.

The gunsters will point to “statistics” of anywhere from 65,000 to 2.5 million annual DGUs in the U.S., as calculated by several widely divergent “studies” – most notably that of Dr. Gary Kleck, who came up with the high end figure. You don’t have to be a sociologist or a statistician yourself to spot the primary problem with these “studies”: they are all blatant examples of false advertising. They are packaged as studies showing how often DGUs occur, but they are all actually surveys of how often gun owners claim they occur.

Dr. Kleck may be a respected and respectable scientist in general, but his signature paper is very bad science indeed. He suggests that we should just take the word of the respondents in his project because he doesn’t believe they would lie – even though he’d eliminated many respondents from his tabulations precisely because it was obvious that they were lying!

So let’s get this straight. Gun enthusiasts tend to be very vocal about their perceived “right” to own a gun, and their perceived need for one. It would be fair to conclude, based on their comments, that many of them are absolutely itching for a chance to use their guns, or at least to give the impression that they have done so. And yet you don’t believe that those taking part in an anonymous survey are going to pad the truth just a little bit – even if inadvertently?

When it comes to actual DGU statistics, the best we can do is compile accounts verified by media or law enforcement.  There are several such compilations online, almost all of them maintained by staunch “gun rights” proponents who urge their constituents to contribute anecdotes. Yet despite their burning obsession with proving that guns are a basic food group, the best these folks can come up with is somewhere between 1000 and 2000 DGUs per year.

Is it possible that there are additional incidents that don’t get reported? Well, sure. Is it likely that there are enough of them to justify the fantastical totals that the NRA purports? Not by a long shot. (Dr. Kleck would have you believe that only about one in every 1200 to 2500 gets reported!) As we’ve stated before, most incidents that truly warrant armed intervention are also going to warrant police and/or media attention. And while gunsters insist that they are responsible, law-abiding citizens, they also want you to believe that in the vast majority of DGUs, the defender lets the criminal get away without taking appropriate measures to prevent him from striking elsewhere.

But let’s cut them some slack and say that, despite all evidence to the contrary, most DGUs are never reported anywhere. Let’s be even more generous and say that 90 percent don’t – no, hell, let’s be incredibly generous and say that 99 percent don’t. Only one out of a hundred is reported.  Let’s continue on our generosity binge and suppose that all of those that do occur, whether reported or not, are genuinely defensive; let’s assume that the defender was an innocent victim, and did absolutely nothing to provoke the incident, and that the use of armed force was necessary and indispensable. Even so, that would amount to, at the very most, some 200,000 DGUs

Meanwhile, guns are used to commit crimes at least 400,000 times per year in the U.S. This is not a generous guess. It’s not a presumption. It’s not a projection based on a skewed survey posing as a “study”. It’s a bona fide, hard statistic. So do guns really make us safer? Do the math.

The mentality of the American gun culture reflects what I call the Cocoanut Grove Syndrome — a scenario in which the response to a perceived threat does more harm than the threat itself. The Cocoanut Grove was a popular nightclub in Boston during the 1930s and 1940s.. Then one night in 1942, it was the scene of one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history, killing 492 people.

Thing is, most of them probably could have made it out, except that in the stampede toward the exit, they all crowded against the doors,  some of which opened inward, and as a result the doors were jammed. The victims’ own panic, in other words, was more deadly than the fire itself. Because of this tragedy,  new fire and building regulations were adopted nationwide, sparing many lives in the future – and in the process dealing a crushing blow to those who ardently believe that government interference invariably makes things worse.

A pyromaniac might smugly insist that fires don’t kill, people do; but it’s a pointless point. However you choose to apportion blame, the fire was certainly an integral element of the tragedy. Furthermore, fire regulations, like firearm regulations, are designed to be followed by people, not by their implements of destruction.

Like the panicked patrons at the Cocoanut Grove, gun fanatics perceive a real or imagined danger, namely, the threat of armed criminals,  and in their panic they believe that the solution is to rush the door — the door of the local gun dealer. Each looks after what appears to be his or her own interests, unmindful of the fact that selfish interests add up to mob action. Each is convinced that he or she will be the exception who successfully defeats the overwhelming odds of making it to safety through the packed masses. But that’s not quite how things have been turning out.