(This post presumes some familiarity with Paley’s Watchmaker argument. Read the first paragraph here)
Mark Shea gives a very good defense of William Paley:
When I see a watch I *do* think “This was a product of Mind.” Why is that bad? How is that different from Thomas’ argument from Design? I don’t think it follows that because I see Mind especially manifest in some work of nature that Mind is not manifest in the rest of Nature. If I go into Leonardo’s workshop I will see, in addition to the Mona Lisa, a lot of junk laying around. I would not conclude that Leonardo had nothing to do with the rest of the workshop.
Living things seem to me to be especially transparent illustrations, not merely that Mind is at work in creating living thing, but that Mind lies behind everything. I don’t see that Paley is saying much more than that, which is why I’ve never understood the hostility to him.
I have always heard Paley’s argument presented as a rival to Darwinian Theory, and as I am a role-the-tape Darwinist, I am habituated to disagree with Paley, By a “role-the-tape” Darwinist mean that if someone rolled a tape of the last few million years, my bets would be on seeing various evolution scenarios generating various new species. We’d see something like temperatures rising in some jungle, making some chimps leave trees and develop upright posture, etc. To the extent that Paley’s argument is seen as incompatible with role-the-tape Darwinism, I still disagree with it. I’m not even necessarily with Dawin for verified sceintific reasons, but from a general understanding of nature. As one blogger pointed out, the only rival to role-the-tape Darwinism is “poof theory”, where things come to be with a great poof from nowhere. When put like this, we’re all Darwinians in one way or another. We all know nature doesn’t act this way. In fact, my guess is that the only reason Darwinian theory wasn’t discovered earlier was because the study of nature was stymied on the question of whether the world- that is the very same world we see around us today in all significant details- was eternal or not. But as soon as one realizes that new species arise in history, the easiest solution is to say they arise from other species.
At the same time, everyone can vaguely realize that Paley’s argument, or even all teleological arguments in general, isn’t the same kind of argument as the argument one finds in role the tape Darwinism. Design arguments generally say something like this:
1.) Art and nature follow like processes (an ordered progression of steps beginning with something and concluding to something. This is why we can study both nature and art.)
2.) So art and nature are processes with a common kind of beginning (taking a part from the above whole process).
3.) But the beginning of an artifact requires mind, so the beginning of a natural thing requires mind.
I would defend this argument as true, and I’m going back and forth now about whether this is Paley’s argument. I originally thought that Paley thought one inferred an artifact from its design, but as I read it again, he is saying that one simply sees design clearly in artifacts. I’m starting to think the argument works. But why does it not conflict with my imaginary movie of Darwinism unfolding? It’s clear to me that the argument is woking on a different level of explanation than the Darwinian argument, but can we flesh this out a bit?
But what kind of argument is a design argument? In fifty-cent words, what level of analysis does the design argument operate on, as distinguished from the Darwinian argument I favor? Based on the reason I gave for the first premise, it seems we are arguing from a premise concerning the possibility of natural science. But since no science answers questions about its own possibility, since sciences are not even competent to answer questions about their own possibility. In this sense, the argument cannot belong to natural science. At the same time, this argument is clearly about natural things, and comes to know something about them. And so the subject and the conclusion is firmly within the science of nature, but the means we are using to prove it are borrowed from somewhere else. This sort of borrowing from other sciences happens all the time in science, and in fact was the very reason for the success of what we now call science. Galileo and his contemporaries showed us a new way to more fully borrow from mathematics to explain the mobile things on earth (Astronomy and Music had always been physico- mathematical, but the method was not applied to motion as such before Galileo). In addition to this, modern science continued to borrow premises from other places: Newton’s axiom that “similar things have similar causes” which was essential to his science is not a premise that one proves in physics.
This mixed character of design arguments explains why scientists are in one way right and in another way wrong to claim that design arguments are not scientific. What we mean by natural science these days is science the study of nature that borrows primarily from mathematics, and the design argument is not scientific in this sense. But it does have the same subject as what we now call science, which is more decisive in determining what is scientific or not. Sciences are more determined by their subjects than by what they borrow to explain their subjects: the mathematical study of nature seeks to understand nature, not math. Neither can we limit the borrowing of science to merely mathematical principles, as we showed above with Newton’s axiom of like causes.
Since design arguments borrow axioms that are causes of natural science, their conclusions are not testable within the science. Again, the scientist is right to object that design is not a testable theory- for science itself is generated from the truth of the premise that the design argument is based on. It is untestable for the same reason that “nature does not multiply causes beyond necessity” is untestable. For that matter, physico-mathematical science can’t test the law of cosines, precisely because it is borrows sines and cosines from another science.