The Watchmaker and the Hurricane - by Iain Palin
The Watchmaker and the Hurricane are two flawed arguments commonly used against the scientifically-accepted model of evolution.
The Watchmaker Argument has a long history but its best known example, which gives it its name, was set out by William Paly in his 1802 book “Natural Theology”. Paley’s scenario states that if, while out walking, you find a watch among the more natural structures such as stones you would know that it was different from these other things and not a product of nature. Similarly, the complexities of living things show that they had a designer, and furthermore that that designer was the God of the Christian Bible. It is often deployed by people who basically say that the world around us, especially complex living organisms, could not have come about by “blind chance”, therefore their God created them and His existence is proved while notions such as evolution are disproved.
This argument is flawed in several ways.
First of all, it’s not actually an argument. Analogy is not a tool of logical thought: it is useful in illustration, in explication, even in speculation, but it is not part of logic. It certainly has its uses, but it has no validity in trying to prove something from what happens with something completely different. And watches and living creatures have a huge and fundamental difference: watches are not living creatures and not subject to the same laws of development. If you put a man’s watch and a woman’s watch together in a drawer, no matter how long you leave them you will never open it one day to find they have produced a brood of baby watches.
Second there is a Straw Man element in that “blind chance” is a reductive misrepresentation of what actually happens in the natural world and overlooks the scientific laws and processes governing development of living creatures. More on this below when we look at the Hurricane Argument.
Third it makes totally unjustified leaps, so that even if the existence of complex living creatures did prove the existence of an Intelligent Designer, this would just prove the existence of that Designer. Not that He/She/Whatever was God, or a god, or a single god, let alone the Christian or Biblical God. After all, to use the analogy argument more thoroughly – a watch is not created by a single individual, not in Paley’s time, not in ours. If the argument were valid it would be an argument for polytheism, or at least for a system of co-operating and perhaps hierarchical deities and demiurges working as a team. It could even be put forward as an argument against monotheism.
Fourthly, while not a dismissal of the argument, the fact that it is essentially “God of the gaps” theology (“We can’t explain this therefore God did it”) is a sign of weakness. Religious scholars are never happy to see it deployed for the obvious reason that if lack of understanding is a basis for faith then understanding will work against it. Advances in knowledge shrink and eliminate the gaps, and the God whose existence is justified by them is similarly shrunk and eliminated.
The Hurricane Argument is similar, claiming that “blind nature” could not possibly give rise to complex structures, therefore God, but it plays up the Straw Man (and displays ignorance of natural laws and biological processes) to a greater extent.
Again, it comes with different illustrations. A common one is “If a hurricane blows through a scrapyard, it won’t result in a full-formed 747” or (as I saw in a book by a respected Bahá'í author) “if hurricane blows through a pile of bricks it won’t result in a house”. It’s a restatement of the story about an infinite number of monkeys playing with typewriters and still not being able to come up with “Hamlet”. I could called it by a name referring to monkeys but that might have been seen as disrespectful.
The comments on the Watchmaker Argument apply, but the emphatic rebuttal is that people who think nature is operating “randomly” or by “blind chance” are woefully ignorant. While in the sequences of events relating to hurricanes (and monkeys) each event is discrete, random, and unconnected with what happens before or after it, living organisms and other complex systems are characterised by sequences of related events. Steps in the sequence can be related to those happening before and those happening after. It turns out that the precursors of complex proteins have a function that preserves them in the system, or at least a lack of deleterious effect that stops their elimination. Evolution changes structures from things that have some use to things that have more use, sometimes a very different use: the current form does not suddenly appear in its final form from a mess of useless or irrelevant structures. The human eye, to take an example beloved of Creationists, is not an example of something that proves a Designer since “half and eye would be useless”, quite the opposite. Its development can be traced through a whole sequence of developments, each of which gave some benefit to the organism concerned and allowed the development in due course of the next stage (and the time required for the whole sequence was less than you might think).
As a Bahá'í I believe in a personal God. But I also believe in the harmony of science and religion, and I marvel at the way His creation has developed over time through the natural laws I believe He established. Sadly, I also find myself wondering at the ability of human beings to adhere to preconceived ideas and deploy fallacious arguments (and, sometimes dishonest presentation) to support themselves in this and seek to persuade others to their view.