Did David Hume Really Defeat William Paley's Watchmaker Argument?
by Rich Deem


Hume vs. Paley

Paley's famous watchmaker argument is often quoted by creationists, but summarily dismissed by naturalists as being invalid. Most often cited as a strong argument against Paley were ones put forward by David Hume. The nature of the arguments cited by Hume are seldom even mentioned - probably for good reason - they aren't really very convincing...

Rich Deem

William Paley, in his classic work, Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, argued that living beings resembled watches (as opposed to stones) and so, were probably designed. Here is his original argument:

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?

Did David Hume really supply arguments that adequately countered Paley's watchmaker argument?

Reproduction instead of creation

David Hume attacked the design argument in his work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, along a couple lines of reasoning. First, he claimed that the universe was more like an animal or a plant in that it could reproduce itself, rather than like a human-designed machine:

The world, says he, resembles the works of human contrivance; therefore its cause must also resemble that of the other. Here we may remark, that the operation of one very small part of nature, to wit man, upon another very small part, to wit that inanimate matter lying within his reach, is the rule by which Cleanthes judges of the origin of the whole; and he measures objects, so widely disproportioned, by the same individual standard. But to waive all objections drawn from this topic, I affirm, that there are other parts of the universe (besides the machines of human invention) which bear still a greater resemblance to the fabric of the world, and which, therefore, afford a better conjecture concerning the universal origin of this system. These parts are animals and vegetables. The world plainly resembles more an animal or a vegetable, than it does a watch or a knitting-loom. Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles the cause of the former. The cause of the former is generation or vegetation. The cause, therefore, of the world, we may infer to be something similar or analogous to generation or vegetation.1

How did Hume propose that the universe "reproduced" itself? Here is Hume's "cosmology":

In like manner as a tree sheds its seeds into the neighbouring fields, and produces other trees; so the great vegetable, the world, or this planetary system, produces within itself certain seeds, which, being scattered into the surrounding chaos, vegetate into new worlds. A comet, for instance, is the seed of a world; and after it has been fully ripened, by passing from sun to sun, and star to star, it is at last tossed into the unformed elements which every where surround this universe, and immediately sprouts up into a new system.

Obviously, Hume's explanation of how stellar systems come about would fail to convince even an elementary school student today. We might laugh at Hume's explanation, although we realize that he didn't possess the knowledge that we do today. So, did Hume get anything right? In fact, his unstated assumption is that the universe has always existed and produces "worlds" through some kind of seeding process. In fact, we know that the universe first began to exist 13.8 billion years ago,2 most likely as a result of the Big Bang creation event. All evidence suggests that Hume's assumption of an eternal universe are incorrect. In addition, all the galaxies in the universe are basically the same age - slightly younger than the age of the universe. New galaxy systems are not being produced in the universe. Planetary systems are younger than the universe, although they are not formed through any kind of seeding by comets. In fact, virtually all comets are the products of planetary formation as opposed to the cause of planetary systems.

Despite Hume's bad cosmology, is it possible that his objection might provide an alternative to Paley's design argument? In other words, it might be possible that the universe was formed through some kind of reproduction. Actually, a form of Hume's argument has been taken up by numerous atheists as a possible explanation to get around the idea that the universe was created. Most atheists affirm some kind of multiverse theory, which claims that the observable universe was produced as an offshoot of a much larger multiverse. The claim is that the universe appears to be like a watch, although, in reality, it is one of only a few watches produced among a multitude of stones. Although theoretically possible, there is no observational data to suggest that any kind of multiverse actually exists. In fact, the idea that we just see the visible part of the universe (assuming there is a part we don't see) is on quite shaky ground. Astronomy and cosmology are the only sciences in which we can directly observe the past. This is because light travels at a finite speed, which is slightly greater than the speed at which the universe is currently expanding. In other words, as we look to the far reaches of the universe, we are looking back in time. Hubble space telescope observations show that at extreme distances, we can see early galaxies forming, along with numerous galaxy collisions (since the universe was much smaller in the distant past). At these distances, fully-formed, mature galaxies do not exist. If we lived in a universe that contained both visible and invisible components (parts of the universe would be invisible because they would be traveling faster than the speed of light, so their light would never reach us), we would expect to see fully formed galaxies all the way to the edge of the visible universe. Another observational difficulty is that as we look deeper than those proto-galaxies, we see only the diffuse glow of the cosmic background radiation, which exhibits a higher temperature than that of the background radiation surrounding us, as a result of the higher initial temperatures from the Big Bang creation event. As a side note, in the future, these early proto-galaxies will disappear from our view, since the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating as the universe ages. Recent evidence suggests that this acceleration will continue to increase until the universe is eventually ripped apart until there are only individual elementary particles left (the "Big Rip"). So, although it is possible that the universe began through "reproduction," it is an argument that lacks scientific validity.

Universe doesn't look like a watch?

David Hume objected to the analogy that the universe looked like a watch, since he assumed that there was no evidence for design. However, this assumption was also based upon ignorance. Hume did not know that the universe is a finely crafted masterpiece, and that even minor changes to the laws of physics would result in a universe that didn't even contain matter! So, Hume's main argument turns out to be completely wrong.

Multiple deities?

Hume's other major objection to the God hypothesis is that one cannot determine from the nature of the universe that it was created by one god as opposed to many gods.

And what shadow of an argument, continued Philo, can you produce, from your hypothesis, to prove the unity of the Deity? A great number of men join in building a house or ship, in rearing a city, in framing a commonwealth; why may not several deities combine in contriving and framing a world? This is only so much greater similarity to human affairs. By sharing the work among several, we may so much further limit the attributes of each, and get rid of that extensive power and knowledge, which must be supposed in one deity, and which, according to you, can only serve to weaken the proof of his existence. And if such foolish, such vicious creatures as man, can yet often unite in framing and executing one plan, how much more those deities or demons, whom we may suppose several degrees more perfect!

However, if the universe and life on earth had been created by multiple deities, one would expect to see designs that were quite diverse. In fact, the naturalistic argument from common descent argues that all life is so similar that it must have a common creator (evolutionary descent with modification). So, it would seem that Hume's second argument is also contradicted by the evidence.

Other arguments

Hume also argued against the existence of a specific deity along other lines, including the argument from the presence of evil,3 and the argument that the deity would not necessarily have to be perfect.4 However, these arguments do not really impact Paley's argument from design, and are dealt with separately on this site.5

Conclusion Top of page

Although William Paley published his watchmaker argument many years after David Hume's death, his design arguments must have been going around intellectual circles for many years prior, since David Hume did address them in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which was published after his death. Most naturalists take for granted that Hume soundly defeated Paley's argument. However, modern science has shown that Hume's arguments were based upon ignorance, and were, in fact, wrong. These days, there are modern arguments against biological design that do involve valid scientific arguments, although it remains to be seen if they will prevail in the next few decades.6

References Top of page

  1. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.
  2. D. N. Spergel, R. Bean, O. Dor�, M. R. Nolta, C. L. Bennett, J. Dunkley, G. Hinshaw, N. Jarosik, E. Komatsu, L. Page, H. V. Peiris, L. Verde, M. Halpern, R. S. Hill, A. Kogut, M. Limon, S. S. Meyer, N. Odegard, G. S. Tucker, J. L. Weiland, E. Wollack, E. L. Wright. 2007. Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Three Year Results: Implications for Cosmology. Astrophysics arXiv:astro-ph/0603449v2.
  3. "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?" David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Part X.
  4. "Secondly, You have no reason, on your theory, for ascribing perfection to the Deity, even in his finite capacity, or for supposing him free from every error, mistake, or incoherence, in his undertakings. There are many inexplicable difficulties in the works of Nature, which, if we allow a perfect author to be proved a priori, are easily solved, and become only seeming difficulties, from the narrow capacity of man, who cannot trace infinite relations. But according to your method of reasoning, these difficulties become all real; and perhaps will be insisted on, as new instances of likeness to human art and contrivance. At least, you must acknowledge, that it is impossible for us to tell, from our limited views, whether this system contains any great faults, or deserves any considerable praise, if compared to other possible, and even real systems. Could a peasant, if the Aeneid were read to him, pronounce that poem to be absolutely faultless, or even assign to it its proper rank among the productions of human wit, he, who had never seen any other production?" David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Part V.
  5. See There is Too Much Evil and Suffering For God to Exist? and Examples of Bad Design Gone Bad, The Washing Machine from the Bad Place- A Lesson on Intelligent Design.
  6. See Evolution vs. Design: Is the Universe a Cosmic Accident or Does it Display Intelligent Design?

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Last Modified June 25, 2007


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