The Watchmaker Analogy/Argument.

This argument is one of the most popular, widely accepted and widely refuted arguments in theology.  William Paley popularized the argument in 1802, a mere 23 years after David Hume used it as an example of a bad argument and showed it to be an incredibly flawed analogy. 

Basically the argument is this – if you put the raw components of a watch into a bag/box/whatever and left them there, they would never become a watch without a watch-maker, therefore a flower had to have, by analogy, had a flower-maker and people had to have had a people-maker.  This is flawed for many reasons, one is that life is self-assembling by it’s nature and is by definition not analogous to man-made things in many ways.  I could argue for instance that a watch is complicated and comes off an assembly line therefore a flower, due to it’s complexity, must come off of an assembly line as well – obviously this is a flawed analogy.  Also Hume pointed out that we know by direct experience, not inference, that a watch has a maker since we can tour a watch factory or workshop and see them being built, and we have not had a comparable experience observing a universe-factory or workshop (that scene in Hitchiker’s Guide doesn’t count, lol).  He gives other arguments, but this is more than enough to show the argument is full of holes and is a bad analogy.  Many things in life are analogous to technological things, but many things are also different.

Anyway, rather than dealing with this refutation (I have never heard a response to it yet), they just camouflage the argument by using other man-made things for the analogy and hope no one will notice they’re repeating an argument that was refuted over two hundred and thirty years ago, decades before it was even popularized.  They say a tornado flying through a junkyard couldn’t make a jet plane, they say that a painting needs a painter and a builder needs a builder so you must have a maker too, etc.  My favorite so far is a parable about an oreo cookie in a glass of water.  Apparently some guy knew his chemestry and people would test him by putting various substances in water and he would try to identify them and explain how they came about naturally, so then one day a guy put an oreo cookie in the glass of water and that is supposed to prove christianity.

Yeah, I didn’t get it either.

About agnophilo

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35 Responses to The Watchmaker Analogy/Argument.

  1. SirNickDon says:

    In addition to being poor reasoning, Paley offers poor theology.  When a Christian accepts Paley’s view of God, they’re rejecting or subverting many aspects of the scriptural view of God.  So we can see Paley as a common opponent, like creationists.

  2. agnophilo says:

    @SirNickDon – All christians selectively ignore scripture.  Hell most christians ignore the old testament entirely and don’t even know about the apocrypha, that alone is over three quarters of scripture out the window.

  3. tgwiy says:

    So… is there a god maker too? 😛

  4. agnophilo says:

    @tgwiy – Well yeah, that’s another place it breaks down – but if I explained all the flaws in it we’d be here all day : )

  5. SirNickDon says:

    @agnophilo – Many Christians selectively ignore scripture.  Nobody, I imagine, can comprehensively take all scripture into account in forming a worldview, although the Catechism of the Catholic Church and some notable theologians have done some impressive work that incorporates the whole corpus.  I think most Christians who fail to take certain parts into account aren’t intentionally being selective, but simply aren’t as meticulous as others. 

  6. agnophilo says:

    @SirNickDon – No, I think they just either don’t read scripture and have it spoonfed to them (in which case they’re ignorant of it more than ignoring it) and the ones who do read it (including the spoon-feeders) rationalize and rationalize and rationalize.  Whereas an atheist can just say “Setting people on fire?  No thanks.”

  7. YouToMe says:

    I rec for the secular logic of it, but still believe as you know from my own understanding

  8. agnophilo says:

    @estadquietos – True dat – and I appreciate your rec : )  Thankee.

  9. FalconBridge says:

    What about the argument about god being a being greater than that which can be perceived?  I always had problems with that one philosophy class.

  10. mommachatter says:

    With all due respect for your opinion…can you answer a question for me…what does an athiest gain by convincing a Christian to become a  non believer? Please I do mean this in all respect.  It would help me understand a lot. ~ mom

  11. agnophilo says:

    @FalconBridge – Saint anselm’s argument – I’ve heard people actually use it.  When I read it in a philosophy book at a relatively young age I thought “that is insane”, and then showed it to two other people who it turned cross-eyed with the same “what the fuck?” factor.  He’s considered the “father of modern scholasticism”.  Maybe that’s why our education system blows, lol.@mommachatter – A free foot-long at participating subway locations.Seriously though, a) I’m not trying to convert anyone here, just blogging about this argument, and b) I can only speak for myself, but when I was younger I felt compelled to argue against religion because of all the harmful effects I perceived from it.  Now I tend to just argue against BS, such as this argument, lies about science etc, I suppose out of a hope that truth will out.

  12. wizexel22 says:

    Showing that the watchmaker analogy itself doesn’t account for actual knowledge isn’t important. All analogies break down to a degree. The point is, that an inference of design is a reasonable line of thought upon detecting design. It doesn’t mean that something must have been designed…but simply that the line of reasoning is justified.@SirNickDon – It may be poor theology…but why is the reasoning poor? Why can’t an inference of design be made? It may not be evidence….but it seems to me to be a very reasonable (and justifiable) line of thinking. 

  13. agnophilo says:

    @wizexel22 – You may find this (short) video interesting.  It illustrates the bias in the ID argument well I think.  And an inference of design is reasonable, but the conclusion that the “designer” must be a big guy in the sky who is just like us is not valid, and in an age where we understand processes like evolution and know that there are many things in nature we would not put there, the idea of a benevolent creator becomes far less impressive.  But do be fair, when people talk about an intelligent designer, they may say “intelligent designer” to the skeptic but they’re thinking yahweh or allah.  Even the people at the discovery institute said publicly that the god of the bible is the intelligent designer.

  14. @wizexel22 –  “The point is, that an inference of design is a reasonable line of thought upon detecting design.”Just as, in the court of Law, inference of murder trumps evidence for murder.

  15. YouToMe says:

    Hey! It was just your three year xanga anniversary. We did squat. So probably we should just..continue to do nothing. Lol.

  16. wizexel22 says:

    @agnophilo – I actually agree with most of that video. Its a reasonable video. However, the video is addressing a specific argument that I myself do not make. I’m only saying that the inference to design is a reasonable line of thought, and that a designer is a plausible possibility (and the guy in the video accepted this much as well). I leave it open that the “designer” can be a number of things (though what it can’t be is a Flying Spaghetti Monster) ….I’m even open to the idea that the entire universe is a computer program….possibly made by a “higher being”, perhaps alien, or perhaps even “created” by another human in our distant future with technological capabilities we can’t imagine “in our world”. (Not saying I believe it, just that it remains a faint possibility). I will say though that there is some level of a necessary bias towards a single transcendental “God”, as it remains the most plausible description of a “designer”. Further, to ask who created God or the computer programmer from the future or the universe in which that programmer exists is unnecessary. All I’m concerned with is reason and logic and with reason and logic, there needn’t be an explanation of an explanation for the first explanation to be true. @Celestial_Teapot – Except this isn’t a court of law. There are many things that are “true” in a court of law that might not necessarily be the case in reality. (ie you can absolutely without a shadow of doubt prove a negative in a court of law). The point is, were not talking about hard evidence here….but plausibility and what is an acceptable and reasonable line of thought. Given the evidence, the inference of design isn’t unreasonable at all and is justified by the evidence. (keep in mind this really has nothing to do with evolution….as the processes of evolution and the existence of a designer are not mutually exclusive.)

  17. @wizexel22 – Argh. Points taken. It was a poor analogy.The comment was ment to lazily and cleverly convey the point that hard evidence is much more preferable than philosophical inference. With the case of Evolution, we have clear evidence for the working mechanisms of evolution (mutation and natural selection) as well as evidence of common descent (fossil records, genetic records).A seperate point, here, is that argument by anaology is inherently logically flawed. Just because one phenomenon (conscience design) exhibits characteristic A (complexity) doesn’t necessarily or even reliably mean that instances of characteristic A means that phenomenon.

  18. wizexel22 says:

    @Celestial_Teapot – I totally agree. While I have my own criticisms of evolutionary theory and in particular of random mutation and natural selection as a sufficient mechanism…..we’ll leave that out of the picture for now, since its kind of a separate issue.I agree analogies are flawed….and I also am very open to the appearance of design being simply that….merely an appearance of design and nothing more. I’m simply defending one line of inference that I find reasonable….and the counter-inference just as reasonable as well. I’m also open to the possibility that should we find inexplicable design, it doesn’t preclude the possibility that a naturalistic explanation can’t be found in the future. But for now, all I’m saying is….”a design inference is reasonable”….that’s it. =)

  19. @wizexel22 – Okey dokey. I look forward to our future evolution discussions. (Can’t say the same for our other set of replies. =P)

  20. CaKaLusa says:

    that oreo theory just makes me hungry.

  21. agnophilo says:

    @Celestial_Teapot – To be fair reasonable and conclusive are two different things.  The concept of intelligent design is reasonable (though illogical imo), the political movement with it’s name is sleazy and full of shit though.@estadquietos – I’m lazy, so doing nothing seems like a good way to celebrate to me : )@wizexel22 – So then why not just say a magic invisible pencil made anything we don’t have an immediate explanation for?  Why not believe in zeus or thor if you don’t understand electricity?  It makes no sense to me to invoke an inexplicable, mysterious force to explain anything, it just creates a new mystery without solving the first one.  If we’re going to assume things that don’t need to be explained exist, why not just assume the universe doesn’t need to be explained?  Because unlike a god we actually know the universe exists – at least as much as we can know anything.  Also, do you consider a creative deity a “faint” possibility too?@CaKaLusa – Heh : )

  22. YouToMe says:


  23. agnophilo says:

    @estadquietos – Don’t let the bed bugs goudabitesville : P

  24. YouToMe says:

    Har har. ” you go, small girl!”Hahahaha

  25. mommachatter says:

    @agnophilo – Thank you for your reply.  I guess I am too dense to understand the argument so I will, like you, try to stay out of them. Thanks again. ~ mom

  26. agnophilo says:

    @estadquietos – : )  I am proud of that one.@estadquietos – : )

  27. agnophilo says:

    @mommachatter – Are you being sarcastic?

  28. mommachatter says:

    No, not at all…I’m sorry if it sounded that way.  There are just some things you don’t know enough about that you should stay out of it.  Many times I visit my friends sites but don’t comment since I don’t have anything relevant to add…

  29. agnophilo says:

    @mommachatter – What things do I not know enough about and should stay out of exactly?  If you were using “you” generally and just meant people, then you’re free to comment here whenever you like.

  30. Stanelle says:

    You live in a universe of one,..perhaps?

  31. agnophilo says:

    @Stanelle – No, I live in an extremely densely populated universe, crazy person.  I love how you block me, then respond to me (now that I can’t reply) and then go read and comment on my blog.Unlike you I don’t block people for disagreeing with me, even the troll loborn posts his insults freely here (and is ignored freely).

  32. mommachatter says:

    ” There are just some things you don’t know enough about that you should stay out of it.  Many times I visit my friends sites but don’t comment since I don’t have anything relevant to add…”I should have used the word one instead of you. Please, my friend, don’t hold me too accountable for such a rude error…The timestamp says I made that comment at 2.27 pm on the 27th.  By 4:00 that afternoon I was put into the hospital for unusually low blood pressured and I regret that I could not reassure you until now as i just got out of the hospital last Thursday.  Please I think you know I hold you in deepest respect because you have always answered my questions honestly and openly….It is I that should take care not to enter an argument that I don’t know anything about the subject…..and that covers a lot of territory.

  33. agnophilo says:

    @mommachatter – I wasn’t offended, just asking for clarification.  Even if you were criticizing me I would’ve just disagreed with you : )Sorry you’re having health problems though, hope everything is better.

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