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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Signature Assignment for Philosophy 1250

Steps of Argument Analysis

I chose to examine William Paley’s famous argument from design for the existence of god. This is a legitimate argument from analogy in which Paley attempts to prove that things which are designed must have a designer. In his argument he imagines a watch sitting in a field. He reasons, because the watch clearly serves a purpose in its construction and because that construction is so detailed and exact, the only reasonable conclusion is that the watch must have been intentionally designed by an artificer.

The main issue Paley is attempting to address is weather such a designer, namely god, exists. His argument is an exercise in natural religion which, in Paley’s day, meant religion that was supported by the natural sciences. Paley was trying to make a secular, scientific argument for god’s existence as opposed to an argument from authority or revelation.

The argument from design is an argument that attempts to show why the evidence supports one theory better than all others. The theory, or conclusion of this argument is that god must exist. The evidence used to support this theory comes in the form of things that require an explanation; things that appear to have been designed.

The argument proceeds by an analogy which draws a connection between something we know is designed (in this case a watch) and something that appears to have similarly been designed, namely nature. In Paley’s analogy, the watch is to nature as the watch maker is to god. Paley starts by describing the characteristics of the watch that lead to the conclusion that the watch must have been designed. The first of these characteristics is the watches purposefulness. When we study the watch and gain an understanding of its function, it becomes apparent that such an item serves a purpose, a reason for being. Such a purpose implies a purpose giver. The second characteristic of the watch that leads us to recognize its design is the fact that its purpose is achieved through its complexity, and its complexity could not conceivably have come about by accident.

At this point Paley has established that the watch must have a designer. He now attempts to draw an analogy between the watch and nature itself. He points out that nature is full of mechanical complexity not unlike the watch, although the complexity of nature is far greater than the complexity of manmade items. Furthermore, systems in nature appear to serve a purpose just as man made items do. Indeed, Paley claims, the only difference between manmade design and the design found in nature is that nature is far more complex than anything man could design.

Finally, we arrive at Paley’s conclusion. If nature is relevantly like the watch, which we know is designed by an intelligent artificer, then nature must also be intelligently designed. Paley’s last point about nature, that it is far more complex than can be comprehended by a human designer, leads us to the conclusion that only god could have designed nature. It is clear to see that, in order for nature to be designed, the designer must exist. Therefore, god exists.

Diagram of Paley’s Argument

Diagram of Paley's Argument

Responding with Fallacies

Paley tries to use an example of a watch to demonstrate the principle of design. He tells us that if we found a rock in a field we might assume it had been there forever, but if we found a watch in the same field we would not draw the same conclusion. But there is an error in Paley’s argument. He admits that rocks do not appear to be designed, but he fails to recognize that each part of a watch, taken separately, can be traced back to a rock. We know watches are designed only because we know humans produce them, but the same cannot be said for things in nature. In nature each apparently designed thing can be broken down to its basic elements, and these elements exhibit no more design than rocks do. Why do we assume that systems in nature are designed if the materials that they are made of are obviously not designed? Clearly design in nature is an illusion because the appearance of design disappears when we break things down to their basic elements.

The deeper problem is that Paley’s argument is based on a false analogy. In his analogy, the watch is meant to represent nature and the watch maker is meant to represent god. I have already pointed out the problems with the analogy between the watch and nature in the paragraph above, but there is also a large problem with analogy between the watchmaker and god. We know the watchmaker exists because we know there are some people whose job is to produce watches. It is not clear, however, that god exists. The problem is, in order for an analogy to be valid it simply can’t involve a supernatural being. It is possible to make an analogy that involves the supernatural, but such an analogy will never be truly valid because it contains an assumption that can not possibly be proven.

Paley’s argument is designed to prove god’s existence. He tells us that nature must have a designer and that god must be that designer, but what he does not consider is that god may not exist at all. I would grant that if god does exist he probably designed nature, because accepting god’s existence is much more of a stretch than the idea that god designed nature if he exists. But we must also realize that god probably does not exist, therefore, he probably did not have a hand in designing nature at all. Furthermore, if god does not exist we would expect evolution to be completely true. After all, evolution is the best theory we currently have for the apparent design of nature and, as such, it is the only real alternative to intelligent design. It is also the case that one honest look at the evidence for evolution will convince any reasonable person that the theory of evolution is indeed true. It is therefore reasonable to assume that there is only one world, the natural world and that god does not exist. If god does not exist, then there is simply no way he could have designed nature.

Lastly, we can not ignore the bias that William Paley had in favor of the existence of god. Paley was a very religious man as were many great thinkers during his generation. As a religious man, his mind was made up on the issue of god’s existence. It is only reasonable to disregard any argument that comes from so biased a source. Even though Paley was a great thinker, he argued backward from his conclusion and his argument is, therefore, not worth considering.

Identification of fallacies

I used six fallacies in the “responding with fallacies” argument. I will list them below along with an explanation for each.

  1. Composition Fallacy: In the first paragraph I made an argument that was based on a composition fallacy. I argued that systems in nature are not designed because the basic elements or materials that make up those systems are not designed.
  2. Self-Sealing Fallacy: In the second paragraph I argued that Paley’s analogy was not valid because any analogy that involves a supernatural being is not a “truly valid” analogy.
  3. Begging the Question: In the third paragraph I assumed that god does not exist even though that is the issue in question.
  4. Denying the Antecedent: In the third paragraph I made the following argument: If god exists, then he probably designed nature. But god probably does not exist. therefore, he probably did not have a hand in designing nature at all.
  5. Affirming the Consequent: In the third paragraph I made the following argument: If god does not exist, we would expect evolution to be completely true. One honest look at the evidence for evolution will convince any reasonable person that evolution is true. Therefore, there is only one world, the natural world, and god does not exist.
  6. Ad Hominem: In the fourth and last paragraph I argued that William Paley was extremely biased in favor of god’s existence and that his argument should be disregarded because of this bias.

My Real Response to Paley’s Argument

Dear Paley, I have read your argument from design for the existence of god and would like to respond to it. I must tell you that I disagree with your conclusion, but before I do I would like to summarize your argument as fairly as I can and identify where I think we agree.

You draw a legitimate and insightful analogy between a watch, which we know to be designed, and the wonderous machines we find in nature. You point first to the differences between a watch, which any person would identify as a designed item, and a simple rock which is not obviously designed. You then proceed to identify the characteristics of the watch that causes it to appear so obviously designed to anyone who examines it closely enough to understand it. Firstly, the watch clearly has a purpose; a reason for existing. This purpose can be seen in the form of a specific function or set of functions, and the design of every part of the watch enables it to fulfil those functions.  Secondly, the watch is so detailed and so particular in its construction, that if even one part was different the watch would cease to fulfill its intended purpose. You point out that all this design work must have come from a designer who, through his intelligence, crafted the watch to fulfill its intended purpose.

You then expand this analogy to all of nature by showing that nature is relevantly similar to the watch. Nature is made up of many machines, all of which are constructed to fulfil particular functions. Furthermore, the machines we find in nature are incredibly complex and if any parts were to be changed these machines would not be able to fulfil their purposes. You then conclude by claiming, if it is inconceivable that the watch came about without a designer, then it must also be inconceivable that nature came into existence without a designer. The fact that nature is so much more complex than anything humans can create only makes it more likely that nature must have been intelligently designed. Finally, if your argument up to this point is true, it leads us to the undeniable conclusion that only god could have designed nature, and in order for god to design something he must exist. Therefore, god must exist.

I agree with you on a couple points. Firstly, I agree that there is design both in the watch and in nature. A bird’s wings are designed to fly, and the fins of a fish are clearly designed to swim through the water. The analogy between a watch and nature is a good one to explain what design is and why things in nature are designed. I also agree that blind chance could not have produced the watch, nor could it have produced the wonders of nature. Machines like the cells of plants and animals or the human eye are far too complex to appear out of nowhere.

Although I agree with much of your argument I disagree with one of your main premises. I do not agree that purpose implies a purpose giver or that design must come from an intelligent designer. You seem to assume that because our experience tells us all designed things (such as watches) have designers, that there is nothing else in the universe capable of producing designed things. I disagree with this assumption.

In order to explain the fantastic design we see in nature, we must first explain how all that design work got done without an intelligent designer pulling the levers. Before Darwin, the only candidate for a designer of nature was god. But Darwin identified something other than god that would be capable of producing all the design we see in nature, namely, the natural selection algorithm. Darwin showed how design could evolve over time without the foresight of an intelligent designer. Not only did Darwin identify a plausible naturalistic theory, he provided a theory that, in turn, provided testable predictions. Unlike the intelligent design theory, Darwinian evolution is falsifiable. No matter what science discovers, Intelligent design theory could never be falsified because there would always be a plausible explanation for any anomaly we would identify. It is important to note that evolution does not involve “blind chance”. Evolution proceeds step by step taking small chances along the way, rather like climbing a long ramp. For an eye to appear through blind chance would be like jumping to the top of a mountain in one leap. Evolution takes the long way, moving step by step up the backside of the mountain. Not only does evolution work, it makes intuitive sense once you understand the mechanism. Much of Paley’s argument appeals to our intuition about what it means for something to be designed. Darwin gave us a new way to think about design and his argument successfully rebuts the notion that all designed things must have been consciously designed by an artificer.


By no means did I invent the counter argument to Paley’s argument from design, But I definitely believe it is solid. The theory of evolution has stood the test of time, and there is not much room to doubt its truth. If god indeed exists, (which I do not believe) he would have had to create life on earth in such a way that evolution appears to be true. Alternatively, he may have used the evolutionary mechanism to create life as we know it, but this is an example of an unfalsifiable theory and it is unclear why god would choose to use a sloppy method like evolution as opposed to other more perfect methods that would presumably be available to an all-powerful being. I am, of course, open to new evidence that may cause me to change my mind. There are many possible ways that evolution may be disproven such as discovering the fossils of relatively new organisms like rabbits in sedimentary layers that predate their existence or discovering similar discrepancies in animal DNA. So far none of these discrepancies have been found. Overall, Paley’s argument makes intuitive sense until you understand the mechanism of natural selection and other processes used by the evolutionary algorithm.

Transcript of Paley’s Argument

“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 any thing 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 enquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the several parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. …

The conclusion which the first examination of the watch, of its works, construction, and movement, suggested, was, that it must have had, for the cause and author of that construction, an artificer, who understood its mechanism, and designed its use. This conclusion is invincible. A second examination presents us with a new discovery. The watch is found, in the course of its movement, to produce another watch, similar to itself: and not only so, but we perceive in it a system of organization, separately calculated for that purpose. What effect would this discovery have, or ought it to have, upon our former inference? What, as hath already been said, but to increase, beyond measure, our admiration of the skill, which had been employed in the formation of such a machine? Or shall it, instead of this, all at once turn us round to an opposite conclusion, viz. that no art or skill whatever has been concerned in the business, although all other evidences of art and skill remain as they were, and this last and supreme piece of art be now added to the rest? Can this be maintained without absurdity? Yet this is atheism.

This is atheism. for 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 and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. I mean that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtility, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety: yet, in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect productions of human ingenuity.”





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