Saturday, November 04, 2006

Pre-Darwinists (5) William Paley

William Paley
Paley's Natural Theology
Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker

William Paley (1743-1805) was an English clergyman and philosopher, best known for his watchmaker analogy in his book Natural Theology. Paley was far form the first to point to nature to prove the divine existence, neither was he even the first to use the watchmaker analogy; however, the Natural Theology has become the seminal work in the Intelligent Design versus evolution controversy, whether this controversy be considered a scientific controversy or not.

Charles Darwin was a convinced Paleyan as he embarked HMS Beagle in 1831, but when he left it, he had his doubts.

Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker, acknowledges the relevance of Paley's argumentation in the Natural Theology, its distinction between simple things like a stone and complex things like a watch and an organism.

William Dembski, in his books and his articles, frequently refers to Paley. Interestingly, Dembski claims that it was from reading The Blind Watchmaker that he got the idea that specification and complexity "was the key to eliminating chance and inferring design" (cf. Specification: The Pattern That Signifies Intelligence., p. 31).

Paley's Natural Theology

An obligatory part of the curriculum, when Charles Darwin studied theology at Cambridge was Paley's Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802). Quotes are from the electronic version of the 12th edition (1809) published by the University of Michigan Humanities Text Initiative.

The Natural Theology begins with this famous passage:

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 for ever: 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 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 different 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.

Any later work within Intelligent Design and origins is a mere footnote to this passage.

However, we may here notice a minor point; namely that Paley writes "nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer" concerning the answer that "it had lain there for ever" to the question about, how the stone had come to be, where it is. Just as a watch in a heath doesn't simply pop up, a stone doesn't either. Some stones are important in geology for tracing movements of glaciers, and, of course, radiometric dating of stones and rocks are of high importance, even for biology.

We'll ignore this, however, and return to Paley's argumentation:

To reckon up a few of the plainest of these parts, and of their offices, all tending to one result:-- We see a cylindrical box containing a coiled elastic spring, which, by its endeavour to relax itself, turns round the box. We next observe a flexible chain (artificially wrought for the sake of flexure), communicating the action of the spring from the box to the fusee. We then find a series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in, and apply to, each other, conducting the motion from the fusee to the balance, and from the balance to the pointer; and at the same time, by the size and shape of those wheels, so regulating that motion, as to terminate in causing an index, by an equable and measured progression, to pass over a given space in a given time. We take notice that the wheels are made of brass in order to keep them from rust; the springs of steel, no other metal being so elastic; that over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work, but in the room of which, if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not be seen without opening the case. This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood), the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

The keyword here is purpose, the parts of the watch are not chosen at random, but each has shape, size, and material chosen for an overall purpose, and, according to Paley, it is from this observation that we conclude that the watch must have had a maker.

Paley follows up with eight comments that can be summed up as follows

  1. Design can be detected based on recognized purpose alone. It is not needed to know, how an object is actually made, certainly not to be able to make it oneself, and neither is it needed to know, where or when the object was made, and most importantly: no assumptions about the nature of the maker are needed.

  2. Design can be detected, even if an object doesn't fulfil its purpose completely.

  3. Design can be detected in an object, even if there are a few parts whose contribution to the overall purpose is not understood, and even if there are part that do not appear to be needed for the overall purpose.

  4. A design conclusion is not invalidated by the argument that the designed object could be merely one out of several possible combinations of the same parts that could have formed naturally.

  5. A design conclusion is not invalidated by the argument that there exists in the parts "a principle of order" that put them into the form of the designed object.

  6. A design conclusion is not invalidated by the argument that the recognized purpose is not real, only a motive to induce the mind to think so.

  7. A design conclusion is not invalidated by the argument that the designed object is formed by a law of nature, since a law of nature is not an agent and therefore cannot act, only establish the order by which an agent acts.

  8. A design conclusion is not invalidated by the argument that the person making the conclusion doesn't know anything about the matter. As Paley writes: "He knows enough for his argument: he knows the utility of the end: he knows the subserviency and adaptation of the means to the end. These points being known, his ignorance of other points, his doubts concerning other points, affect not the certainty of his reasoning."

As is easy to see, comments 2-8 are really just elaborations on comment 1: Design can be detected based on recognized purpose alone.

This rules apply for recognizing a watch or similar object as designed, where we wouldn't really question a design concluson anyway. The big jump is of course to transfer the logic to apply to organisms.

And for this purpose, Paley begins chapter 2 with:

Suppose, in the next place, that the person who found the watch, should, after some time, discover that, in addition to all the properties which he had hitherto observed in it, it possessed the unexpected property of producing, in the course of its movement, another watch like itself (the thing is conceivable); that it contained within it a mechanism, a system of parts, a mould for instance, or a complex adjustment of lathes, files, and other tools, evidently and separately calculated for this purpose; let us inquire, what effect ought such a discovery to have upon his former conclusion.

This is followed by five comments that boil down to that this second discovery can only enhance the design conclusion, not weaken it. Even if the watch in question might be the direct product of another watch, there must still be a first watch that was designed.

To argue otherwise is, according to Paley, atheism. As he begins chapter 3:

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.

That is, if we accept Paley's design arguments concerning the watch, we cannot deny that there is design in nature.

Paley then proceeds with a comparison between an eye and a telescope:

I know no better method of introducing so large a subject, than that of comparing a single thing with a single thing; an eye, for example, with a telescope. As far as the examination of the instrument goes, there is precisely the same proof that the eye was made for vision, as there is that the telescope was made for assisting it. They are made upon the same principles; both being adjusted to the laws by which the transmission and refraction of rays of light are regulated. I speak not of the origin of the laws themselves; but such laws being fixed, the construction, in both cases, is adapted to them. For instance; these laws require, in order to produce the same effect, that the rays of light, in passing from water into the eye, should be refracted by a more convex surface, than when it passes out of air into the eye. Accordingly we find that the eye of a fish, in that part of it called the crystalline lens, is much rounder than the eye of terrestrial animals. What plainer manifestation of design can there be than this difference? What could a mathematical-instrument-maker have done more, to show his knowledge of his principle, his application of that knowledge, his suiting of his means to his end; I will not say to display the compass or excellence of his skill and art, for in these all comparison is indecorous, but to testify counsel, choice, consideration, purpose?

Paley provides more details about the eye, the ear, and so on; but we'll skip to chapter 12 about astronomy:

My opinion of Astronomy has always been, that it is not the best medium through which to prove the agency of an intelligent Creator; but that, this being proved, it shows, beyond all other sciences, the magnificence of his operations. The mind which is once convinced, it raises to sublimer views of the Deity than any other subject affords; but it is not so well adapted, as some other subjects are, to the purpose of argument. We are destitute of the means of examining the constitution of the heavenly bodies. The very simplicity of their appearance is against them. We see nothing, but bright points, luminous circles, or the phases of spheres reflecting the light which falls upon them. Now we deduce design from relation, aptitude, and correspondence of parts. Some degree therefore of complexity is necessary to render a subject fit for this species of argument. But the heavenly bodies do not, except perhaps in the instance of Saturn's ring, present themselves to our observation as compounded of parts at all. This, which may be a perfection in them, is a disadvantage to us, as inquirers after their nature. They do not come within our mechanics. And what we say of their forms, is true of their motions. Their motions are carried on without any sensible intermediate apparatus; whereby we are cut off from one principal ground of argumentation and analogy. We have nothing wherewith to compare them; no invention, no discovery, no operation or resource of art, which, in this respect, resembles them. Even those things which are made to imitate and represent them, such as orreries, planetaria, cœlestial globes, &c. bear no affinity to them, in the cause and principle by which their motions are actuated. I can assign for this difference a reason of utility, viz. a reason why, though the action of terrestrial bodies upon each other be, in almost all cases, through the intervention of solid or fluid substances, yet central attraction does not operate in this manner. It was necessary that the intervals between the planetary orbs should be devoid of any inert matter either fluid or solid, because such an intervening substance would, by its resistance, destroy those very motions, which attraction is employed to preserve. This may be a final cause of the difference; but still the difference destroys the analogy.

The interesting point here is, of course, that it is the simplicity of cœlestial mechanics that makes Paley reject astronomy as a medium to prove the agency of an intelligent creator, and that an earthly model cannot work by the same mechanics (gravity). Traditionally it was arguments from astronomy that supported the design argument, not references to plants and animals. The idea being that the heaven was perfect, while the earth was not. To be a fallen star, that is, to have fallen from heaven to earth, wasn't a good thing.

Another problem that Paley sees:

Our ignorance, moreover, of the sensitive natures, by which other planets are inhabited, necessarily keeps from us the knowledge of numberless utilities, relations, and subserviences, which we perceive upon our own globe.

That is, Paley assumes the existence of "sensitive natures" on other planets; but since we have no knowledge about them, we cannot use them in any design arguments.

For Paley, therefore, what is admirable in astronomy is the precision of astronomical predictions, and "all this is wonderful, whether we refer our admiration to the constancy of the heavenly motions themselves, or to the perspicacity and precision with which they have been noticed by mankind."

And furthermore:

Nor is this the whole, nor indeed the chief part of what astronomy teaches. By bringing reason to bear upon observation (the acutest reasoning upon the exactest observation), the astronomer has been able, out of the mystic dance,and the confusion (for such it is) under which the motions of the heavenly bodies present themselves to the eye of a mere gazer upon the skies, to elicit their order and their real paths.

That is, the most admirable is that the astronomer has been able to find order in the apparent chaos.

Therefore, the intelligent agency in the cœlestial world is to be seen in choice, determination, and regulation:

Our knowledge therefore of astronomy is admirable, though imperfect: and, amidst the confessed desiderata and desideranda, which impede our investigation of the wisdom of the Deity, in these the grandest of his works, there are to be found, in the phænomena, ascertained circumstances and laws, sufficient to indicate an intellectual agency in three of its principal operations, viz. in choosing, in determining, in regulating; in choosing, out of a boundless variety of suppositions which were equally possible, that which is beneficial; in determining, what, left to itself, had a thousand chances against conveniency, for one in its favour; in regulating subjects, as to quantity and degree, which, by their nature, were unlimited with respect to either.

Paley then continues with examples of this, such as the proof of choice that there is only one sun, and it is placed in the middle.

Basically, all this can be boiled down to that intelligence changes probabilities. If Paley had known anything about DNA, he could have used exactly the same argumentation there.

Charles Darwin, in The Origin of Species, chapter 6, "Difficulties on Theory", writes:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.

So, it's not that Darwin rejects Paleyan type argumentations - but the key phrase is changing conditions of life. What Paley assumes in his argumentation is that there is a designed, unchanging order to things; basically that everything stays the same, unless the creator intervenes. However, take away that assumption and see, what happens.

Later in the same chapter, Darwin writes:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.

This is a key paragraph, the first sentence of which has given rise to the irreducible complexity mania. Darwin's gradualism here is not only caused by a lack of a known source of variation, but also caused by arguments such as the one in the beginning of Natural Theology, where Paley stated that any change in size or order of parts would prevent either motion or imply a different motion.

Darwin even co-opts Paley to supply an argument (ibid.):

Natural selection will never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each. No organ will be formed, as Paley has remarked, for the purpose of causing pain or for doing an injury to its possessor. If a fair balance be struck between the good and evil caused by each part, each will be found on the whole advantageous. After the lapse of time, under changing conditions of life, if any part comes to be injurious, it will be modified; or if it be not so, the being will become extinct, as myriads have become extinct.

That is, for Darwin, extinction is not caused by an catastrophe, but by lack of adaption to a changed environment. Paley himself does not enter the subject of extinction.

Paley writes in Natural Theology, chapter 26, "The Goodness of the Deity":

The same argument may be proposed in different terms; thus: Contrivance proves design: and the predominant tendency of the contrivance indicates the disposition of the designer. The world abounds with contrivances: and all the contrivances which we are acquainted with, are directed to beneficial purposes. Evil, no doubt, exists; but is never, that we can perceive, the object of contrivance. Teeth are contrived to eat, not to ache; their aching now and then is incidental to the contrivance, perhaps inseparable from it: or even, if you will, let it be called a defect in the contrivance: but it is not the object of it.

Well, it may be questioned, if Darwin is using Paley's argumentation quite as intended. And if quite as intended, natural selection then becomes "[t]he Goodness of the Deity". Natural selection, as least as used by Darwin, is in analogy to artificial selection such as performed by breeders and cultivators. However, while Darwin operates with a creator, he doesn't believe the creator is concerned about the minutiae of creation. The problem being, if Paley is right, why are there then extinct species? It is, among other factors, this extinction that suggests that things work differently than claimed by Paley. In The Origin of Species, chapter 14, "Recapitulation and Conclusion", Darwin writes:

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.

That is, while Darwin accepts that the creator has set up natural laws, it is this same that makes him reject that production and extinction of species are due to divine edicts. The natural laws should be sufficient to bring about whatever purpose the creator might have had without additional micro-management.

Darwin continues:

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled. Judging from the past, we may safely infer that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity.

While The Origin of Species does not deal with humans, it is certainly possible that these sentences are meant to apply to humans as well. In the "Conclusion" of Natural Theology, Paley writes:

Again; if there be those who think, that the contractedness and debility of the human faculties in our present state, seem ill to accord with the high destinies which the expectations of religion point out to us, I would only ask them, whether any one, who saw a child two hours after its birth, could suppose that it would ever come to understand fluxions (Note: See Search's Light of Nature, passim.); or who then shall say, what farther amplification of intellectual powers, what accession of knowledge, what advance and improvement, the rational faculty, be its constitution what it will, may not admit of, when placed amidst new objects, and endowed with a sensorium adapted, as it undoubtedly will be, and as our present senses are, to the perception of those substances, and of those properties of things, with which our concern may lie.

For Paley, of course, this promise of a grand future is to come true by a divine act; certainly not by evolution. Darwin shares the hope of a grand future, but maybe he thought that the creator had set up laws that would make that future come true without direct intervention.

Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker

In 1986 Richard Dawkins published the first edition of The Blind Watchmaker. This title refers to Paley's analogy between a creator and an unseen watchmaker in Natural Theology with the extension that not only is the watchmaker unseen, he is even blind. In chapter 1, "Explaining the very improbable", Dawkins writes:

Paley's argument is made with passionate sincerity and is informed by the best biological scholarship of his day, but it is wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong. The analogy between telescope and eye, between watch and living organism, is false. All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind's eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.

Unlike Paley and Darwin, Dawkins is an atheist, so while for Darwin, natural selection is a mechanism established by the creator to serve a purpose, Dawkins reifies natural selection to become the creator itself. However, a creator with no purpose, no foresight, not even a mind, in which to have purpose or foresight.

Dawkins follows Paley closely in the distinction between uncomplex things, such as a stone, and complex things, such as a machine or an organism. However, he elevates machines to the status of living things for the sake of argument. Therefore he can write (ibid.):

With the exception of artificial machines, which we have already agreed to count as honorary living things, nonliving things don't work in this sense [actively to maintain disequilibrium]. They accept the forces that tend to bring them into equilibrium with their surroundings. Mont Blanc, to be sure, has existed for a long time, and probably will exist for a while yet, but it does not work to stay in existence. When rock comes to rest under the influence of gravity it just stays there. No work has to be done to keep it there. Mont Blanc exists, and it will go on existing until it wears away or an earthquake knocks it over. It doesn't take steps to repair wear and tear, or to right itself when it is knocked over, the way a living body does. It just obeys the ordinary laws of physics.

The "laws of physics" referred to here are the same as Darwin's natural laws, obeyed by as well organisms as by inorganic matter, since the former are composed of nothing but the latter; only organisms exhibit a higher level of complexity. Therefore, while Paley started out with recognizing purpose before going into the details of interaction of parts, Dawkins turns things the other way around:

Is this to deny that living things obey the laws of physics? Certainly not. There is no reason to think that the laws of physics are violated in living matter. There is nothing supernatural, no 'life force' to rival the fundamental forces of physics. It is just that if you try to use the laws of physics, in a naive way, to understand the behaviour of a whole living body, you will find that you don't get very far. The body is a complex thing with many constituent parts, and to understand its behaviour you must apply the laws of physics to its parts, not to the whole. The behaviour of the body as a whole will then emerge as a consequence of interactions of the parts.

In other words, while the scientific investigation may proceed from the whole to the parts, this is not a retracing of the mental processes of a creator, because what is perceived as an overall purpose only emerges "as a consequence of interactions of the parts". That is, Dawkins replaces Paley's top-down process with a bottom-up process.


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