William Paley, English churchman, theologian, moral philosopher, and apologist, is best known for his “watchmaker analogy,” a classic argument for the existence of God, the Creator. From its publication in 1802, Archdeacon Paley’s famous book, Natural Theology, influenced the Creation/evolu- tion debate, which became especially lively from Darwin’s era until the present. Few issues related to the study of time hold more significance.
Paley was born in Peterborough in 1743, the son of a vicar and schoolmaster. To prepare himself for the ministry, Paley enrolled in Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1758, from which he graduated and where he later became a fellow and tutor. (Nearly 70 years later, Charles Darwin also enrolled in Christ’s College, lived in rooms formerly occupied by Paley, and studied—and admired—the latter’s writings.) Ordained in 1767 and married in 1776, William Paley advanced through clerical ranks and held various appointments. In 1782, he became archdeacon in Carlisle. There he began the process of expanding his Cambridge lectures on apologetics and ethics for publication.
Though he published several other books, Paley’s fame rests on four works, all of which exerted considerable influence in his lifetime—and beyond. His first study, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785) became a standard textbook at Cambridge. He taught a form of ethical utilitarianism and opposed the slave trade. In 1790, Paley published his second book, Horae Paulinae, or the Truth of the Scripture History of St. Paul, a defense of the Bible’s historical nature. The third book, A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794), another study on Christian apologetics, sorted and updated important material from earlier authors and achieved wide acclaim. In contrast to Hume, he supported the historicity of biblical miracles.
He published a fourth volume in 1802 under the title Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Paley regarded this last book as the most important, a logical predecessor to the rest. Through an orderly arrangement and readable style, Paley—like his predecessors who advanced the cause of natural theology (e.g., John Ray, William Derham)— compiled a series of case studies to support the teleological argument for the existence of God, also known as the argument from design. In his Natural Theology, still in print after more than two centuries, Paley pointed primarily to complex parts and systems of human anatomy as arguments in favor of “intelligent design.” As a watch’s functioning components imply the existence of a watchmaker, he suggested, the biological realm reflects the work of a purposeful designer.
Critics point to various flaws in this famous analogy (e.g., it begs the question by assuming that the watchmaker must be the God of the Bible) and claim that Darwin’s conclusions have obviated the need for an external, divine artificer. Others still find Paley’s simple premise compelling. As the church reacted to intellectual challenges of that era (e.g., deism; Enlightenment writers such as Hume and Kant), Paley offered hope to readers who believed in a Creator with a personal interest in the universe.
Gerald L. Mattingly
See also Bible and Time; Creationism; Darwin, Charles;
God and Time; Gosse, Philip Henry; Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925; Teleology; Watchmaker, God as
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