Paley’s Revenge

William Paley presented an argument for intelligent design using the watch analogy. It went like this: Imagine you found a watch lying on the ground. You would conclude based on its complexity that it had an intelligent designer. Given that plants and animals are far more complex than watches, it is reasonable to conclude that they too had an intelligent designer.

Nowadays this is considered as the ultimate god-of-the-gaps argument. Because evolution was then a “gap” in scientific knowledge that has since been filled, so the story goes, this design argument has been answered.

This is a prime example of the dangers of basing philosophical positions on science. You just never know when the gaps will close. (Or when they will open, which is possible due to the provisional nature of science. People forget that part.) If you want to argue God’s existence, then, stay away from arguments based on “gaps”.

Let’s rephrase Paley’s analogy for our modern evolution-knowing times, just to see if we learn anything.

It is 2050 and Paley is the first explorer to visit Mars, when he sees a watch lying on the ground. He picks it up in bewilderment. But as he keeps exploring, he finds a lot more watches in a vast variety of types and styles. He gets a team in and they investigate in earnest. He finds the remains of long-dead watches buried deep in the rocks. Some of them have little resemblance to the watches on the surface. As he travels to other parts of the planet, he finds watches of different varieties again. Slowly he comes to an astonishing realisation: the watches are all descendants of a common ancestor, changing into other types of watches over time! Somehow the watches are able to just change by themselves with no watch designer, driven by competition of different watch types against each other. There is nothing to it except lots of time, the watches somehow “finding a way”.

“As if!”, cried a disbelieving world as they read Paley’s report. But as the evidence came in, it soon became undeniable. As astonishing as it was, it was true. Slowly but surely, the world swallowed it’s incredulity and moved on, a few diehards excepted. But there was still much work to be done as the details of what was happening were yet unknown.

Years went by. Generations passed. Watch-evolution, far from being novel, was now part of the scientific furniture when Paley’s great-great-grandchildren finally pieced together the internal mechanisms of the theory. They found that the watches were not simply changing of their own accord. Rather, the change was enabled by the replication system within each watch. This system had been there since the first watch and had barely changed. In effect, what was happening was not types of watches turning into each other, but one watch system expressing itself in a trillion different varieties.

I wonder what Paley would have made of that?

Life truly is more strange, subtle and wonderful than anyone could have imagined.

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