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 purposeful 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 purposeful 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.

The argument from design holds that because a certain thing performs a certain function, it must have been created purposefully to perform that function. Which is akin to saying that since horses have been used for racing, then there must be a supreme being who’s a racing fan. Or did He actually create them for pulling carts and indulging in kinky sex? The creationists are simply begging the question here; they assume that complexity and purpose can exist only as the result of willful intent as opposed to trial and error, and then they conclude that therefore the existence of complexity and purpose must prove the existence of willful intent.

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.









  1. Actually I think postulating that, since clockwork moves with such precision, the universe also, must have been similarly crafted by a kind of divine watch maker, is a pretty reasonable approach for any philosopher to take in order to personally infer the existence of a God or of a divine being behind everything we see and know in the physical world. Such a belief does fall apart when subjected to infinite regression, under which someone or something would have to create a God in order to get the whole thing going, etc. etc. etc. However, if causality is a guiding principle behind all physical changes, then one might also just as rationally conclude that a God, or a divine universal watch maker, must ultimately be its uncaused cause. After all, God by definition, is eternal and all powerful, so why should he she or it, need to be made by something, or someone else, to begin with? That being said, I think you are correct to conclude that a notion like that of a God, cannot rationally be proven. However, the existence of such a divine being cannot be rationally disproved either.

    My own belief is that important tenants of faith or holiness, or whatever one wants to call them, are all concepts that can be accepted without being endlessly subjected to rational proof. So when Jesus says, “I am the way the truth and the light,” or an eastern mystic says a divine Guru guides him or her to enlightenment, if we want to believe the same, then it’s up to us to just accept such statements on the basis of faith and allow them to become a working part of our everyday lives. Moreover, each person is free to accept or reject any ideas claimed to support the existence of a divine reality. Anything else makes God into a sort of slave master. To me Christ’s affirmation that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” clearly points to the fact that believing or not believing, is all up to us—free of any theological ticket to heaven or to hell.

    As far as the concept of irreducible complexity goes, I believe a group of “Christians,” who took a school district to court for refusing to devote an equal amount of time teaching students the supposedly scientific tenants of “intelligent design,” were ultimately defeated because they could not prove that any evolutionary changes are dependent on divine influences. A very small, but specialized portion of some simple organism, was discovered to have been caused through adaptation and natural selection after all, and the group ultimately lost when some of its internal memos were obtained, revealing that their goal was not to provide a fair science based alternative to evolution, but was really to introduce Christian teachings into public education—a clear violation of the separation of Church and State.

    Personally I think science should be taught in classrooms reserved for teaching science, and that science teachers should not be required to give up a large chunk of time to what is essentially, just another discussion of philosophy or theology. If one wants to teach such things then do so in a Church, or in some sort of philosophy class, instead of trying to discredit evolution or any of the many rational scientific discoveries made while using the scientific method. In any case, no one is preventing parents from teaching religious ideas to their children or not teaching them religious ideas. The Christian Persecution complex, as you call it, does not really exist outside the claims of certain repressive societies, and minds which want to create a society based on theocratic teachings. So they are really the ones engaging in unconstitutional and unethical behavior.

    Science cannot disprove the notion of a God, but it also cannot confirm any kind of Genesis timeline like the 7 days of creation, (including the belief that the 7th day takes on a special status and still may not be over)? Such obstinate rejections of science are really only attempts made by those who insist on literal truth in all matters biblical, and cling to this disproved and clearly false notion. The literal mountain of evidence proving the existence of our very, very old Earth (and even older universe) cannot be discredited or denied by those who try to define physical evidence in some way that even approximates the extensive geological record of our planet. However, when did Jesus say we must deny all science in order to believe his teachings? Isn’t that kind of silly theological dogma also something created by human beings in order to protect their erroneous preconceived beliefs?

    Anyway, most thinking, feeling, human beings I know, don’t believe we must be shackled to our religious beliefs in order to make them real, and they also don’t deny that sometimes accepting things on faith is a very intuitive and philosophically valid way, to understand the spiritual teachings of beings like Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, or Moses, etc. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” And eastern mystics say things like, “I have no scruple of change nor fear of death. I was never born nor have I parents.” So this kind of inference that something exists which is beyond the limitations of time and space is a very commonly held view of the world’s great religions and by loving people in general. I can either accept it or reject it, of my own free will, but I cannot prove it, or impose it on another human being against their will. In fact, even trying to do so would negate the validity of my own beliefs, because All too often, those who seek to shove their own faiths down the throats of others, really have shaky or tenuous faith in their own beliefs, and so must seek to impose them on others in order to validate and rationalize their own!

    • I always enjoy your comments, Peter Johnson, and this one in particular is so thoughtful and well-written that I decided I should say so.

      Of course, I also love P.O.P.’s blog and should have said thank you for keeping it going a long time ago. I read it. I enjoy it. I appreciate it, and I sometimes quote it (with a link to the source, of course.) So thank you, P.O.P., for your efforts, especially your patience in dealing with some of the people who comment here.

      • Yes, it’s great this website is kept by such an extremely perceptive and gifted writer, as is the POP. Too bad most of us can’t see the simple and absurd contradictions in so much of what we hear and see around us, with the same ease and clarity!

  2. “The latter is in a sense a reasonable conclusion; assuming that there really is a supreme being…”

    Since the conclusion of the argument is “Therefore, God exists”, isn’t this an example of assuming the conclusion? Don’t all “arguments from design” commit this error?

    • Arguments from design can always be taken one step further, and so on, and so on. So, while it is logically erroneous to conclude that what is behind it all is a supernatural being, If we accept the assumed law of cause and effect, that leaves us with no other conclusion but to assume that nothing can exist without first being caused by something else. So while calling that original uncaused cause God, or spirit etc. may only be acceptable on the basis of intuition or faith, almost all the world’s religions use that kind of intuition or faith, to infer the existence of a Supreme being. Intuitively accepting such a conclusion is not such an over reach of logic if we ask ourselves whether everything we know truly is caused by something else. If so, then existence itself implies that some kind of eternal or uncaused cause must be behind it. If one says absolutely not, then one is in disagreement with the laws of cause and effect and must conclude that the laws of cause and effect themselves, are false—or at least not absolute.

      For me this all goes back to the idea that one can only base one’s beliefs in God on faith, in conjunction with feasible intuition. Faith is often described as reason to belief that which is unknown or unprovable with reason. So we are free to choose that path if we desire, since most of us would accept the idea that some forms of knowledge are truly based on intuition, and can produce reasonable assumptions. Einstein did not believe in a personal God but stated his belief that some sort of cosmic principle may be present in the universe. This is not a direct quote either, but I believe its a reasonable synopsis of his philosophy—Einstein explained that his understandings about the theory of relatively were based partly on intuition, and not completely on reason.

      • Bringing in Einstein as an example is helpful. Intuition can provide insight, but it is unreliable. Einstein’s statement that “God does not play dice with the universe” was his intuitive objection to quantum theory randomness. He lost on that one. Intuition is not reliable, no matter who is doing the intuiting.

        It’s also helpful to me that you equate intuition and faith. It seems, however, there is a factor that differentiates them. Einstein applied intuition, unreliable though it may be, to objective observations, i.e., the behavior of subatomic particles like electrons and photons. We don’t have any comparable basis for the existence of a “god”.

        Therefore, I’ll propose a new definition of faith: “Unreliable intuition about something we have no rational basis for believing exists.”

        Faith is an “over reach of logic” multiplied by eleventy-seven.

        Thanks for clarifying my understanding!

    • Yes, but if there is a cause to every effect in the Universe, that also means something must have started it all–even if that source is eternal, ubiquitous, and unknowable. There’s no way to objectively prove any of this, but logical inference implies an uncaused cause must exist–call it pure consciousness itself if you want, but unless we live in a steady state universe, what else explains how something can come from nothing?

  3. I accept your definition of faith with one extra clause–Faith is “often” an unreliable intuition about something we have no rational basis for believing–but i’ts not (always) unreliable. Intuition is also commonly used to solve everyday problems in ways that sometimes prove to be true. For example, we often make intuitive judgments about people we meet which turn out to be supported by biographical or psychological facts. Very often we may be wrong, but not always. Of course those judgments may be made as a result of unconscious or subconscious reasoning, but I think any of us who have had nightmares or weird dreams know that the subconscious is often not based entirely on reason either.

    Also my understanding of quantum physics which I believe includes the Idea of “string theory,” is that using intuition to add alternate dimensions to mathematical analysis, has produced a set of equations that all satisfy the theory of everything. Of course if I try to elucidate that theory I will be quickly be out of my league. But may I suggest that although the quantum world seems random and chaotic, that might only mean that we, as of yet, have not succeeded in discerning an orderly process somewhere within it that we do not yet understand. That’s just a theory but isn’t the application of intuition sometimes a common and useful factor in scientific investigation. And isn’t the difference between science and speculation that, science forces us not to jump to conclusions, unless they are based on empirical knowledge. Yet hasn’t science also discovered that often what we don’t understand now, eventually becomes understandable in the future?

    Again I cannot logically use design to prove my own intuitions, but even subjective knowledge has its personal applications, which may become reckoned with objectivity in the future.

    Of course as with, (was it Nietzsche theory of universal re-occurrence)? if there is a finite amount of matter in the universe, when that limitation is applied to an eternal amount of time, each moment we experience, including this comment of mine, cannot help but completely reoccurred somewhere in that infinite time. Then again, if there is no finite amount of matter, time, or space (which “may” invoke up the notion of a God) then the universe may not ever repeat its configuration. And if time is infinite, the fact that we exist must be completely random–either way, the fact that we exist would not even be known to us unless our present universe had not evolved and included us. And, If we were not here to know we are here, does that mean the Universe would exist at all?

    I’m sure that you have already traveled these convoluted pathways of philosophical thought before. All I am saying is that the universe may be much more complex than logical thinking is capable of understanding, but even if it’s not, its my belief that we will never completely understand it. Even Richard Dawkins has stated that science may never completely lead to understanding everything in the universe, but that doesn’t mean it can’t understand anything, or most things–just that objectivity itself may never be completely infallible.

  4. Let me try and explain the ramblings in my previous comment;
    Using infinite regression will always result in further and further questions about the existence or the non-existence of a God, but must also ask what crested God, etc. etc. But using infinite regression to disprove the existence of a God, is equally as inconceivable for those tying to prove the existence of a God by postulating the existence of an uncaused cause in order to add proof for our own points of view.

    In either case the reasoning and mindset which either side believes, is entirely based on different assumptions about reality.

    If there is no uncaused cause, then how did we get here? contrarily if we accept causation then we must also explain who or what, caused God to exist, or from where we originally came from. But before we can be convinced that a God exists we must believe that if no action or result can occur without first being caused by something or someone, that doesn’t mean one has to get on the merry go round of infinite regression. In fact many faithful people define God as a force or power, that exists without causation or without needing to be created in the first place. For Buddhist that might simply be expressed as the existence of one—not two. For those who worship the Christian faith it might be found in Christ’s affirmation that, “before Abraham was, I am” But In reality none of this even need reason to be affirmed. A believer might simply accept the idea that something, someone, or some other some power, or that some universal principle, has always existed without being caused or created by anything else, and, for most of us that definition evokes the concept of a God.

    Acceptance based on faith need not be rational, and rational thinking itself will always lead to a place where conventional reasoning is contradicted and fraught with paradox. One might as well ask the question, “if cause and effect exist,” then how can there not be this an uncaused cause called God, as evidenced by the fact that such a belief implies a starting point for any occurrences or processes which exists–otherwise where do matter, energy, time or space come from? Each side looks at the other’s endless regression and interprets its meaning by looking at the a problem from a different starting point or basic assumption. Yet the conclusions of both depend on different takes about what the problem of eternal regression signifies. An atheist would tend to use logic rather than emotion or intuition, and therefore, might reject something that requires something else to create in the first place. And a believer might conclude that the way to accept an uncaused cause is just to accept it on faith–why not? if that is rationally inferred. Both ways of thinking use the notion of causality to affirm its own beliefs and if god is beyond time space, and logical reasoning in the first place, then why not just think of God as everything that is, was, or ever will be—or will never be? If the concept of God is by definition, is beyond rationality, it can be defined from an entirely different mindset. Ones own intuition and concepts about such an entity may be just as valid as that of another who insists on having rational proof. Each point of view accepts that endless regression has no starting point. and each side leans on conclusions about the nature of causality, but each side approaches that concept from a different point of view–one that is not dependent on the others definitions to make up one’s mind.

    WHEW! there I go again, trying to know the unknowable!

    Good night all you soap box philosophers out there, no one else knows it all either!

  5. Let me apologize for the above ramblings. They may contain some actual insight or truth, but I think I wrote it in the middle of the night with very little sleep from the night before, and therefore I suspect much of it makes little sense. However, I believe my other comments made a bit more sense, especially the ones that were more briefly stated.

  6. This post flops right from the start when the author fails to even state the argument from design correctly. His personal idea of it is dead wrong. Once the basic argument is twisted and distorted into a strawman, the rest follows suite.
    Shameful incompetence.

    • I’m all ears. Explain how you arrived at that conclusion. I’m very curious to know exactly how I misrepresented Paley’s argument by citing his EXACT words.

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