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The Watchmaker Parable Revisited

Imagine you are enjoying an afternoon picnic in a high mountain meadow. Lush grasses stretch out from under your feet. Wildflowers add brilliant splashes of color to the scene. The distant mountain peaks still hold some snow. Most of last winter’s snowfall is still working its way out of the mountain springs and lakes into rivers flowing down to water the valleys.

While strolling through that meadow pondering such things, imagine looking down and there, in the midst of a clump of green grass, is a wristwatch. It has a numbered, twelve-hour face with windows revealing the inner mechanisms of the watch. The first thought you would likely have in such a situation is, “Someone has lost their watch in this meadow.” Another thought also would probably come to mind, “Someone very carefully and skillfully made this timepiece.”

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, you are right. It is the basic story famously told by Christian apologist William Paley in his book Natural Theology in 1802. Paley applied the “Watchmaker Parable” to the natural world. He described many things, such as the human eye, that he believed must have been purposely designed and made by God.


“Paley described many things, such as the human eye, that he believed must have been purposely designed and made by God.”


At the same time, many people are not persuaded by the watchmaker parable. When they look at the human eye, they believe they are seeing a wonderful example of something that has come into existence all by itself. The famous atheist Richard Dawkins articulated the classic case against the watchmaker parable in his influential book The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins’ claim is that according to evolution, such as Charles Darwin theorized, what looks like evidence of design in nature is only an illusion.

Dawkins agrees that it can seem obvious that such things are designed. After all, they function only if all their parts are in place and working properly. Since we humans are accustomed to making things, we are conditioned to see natural phenomena as also designed and made.

Still, Dawkins insists that in nature we are only seeing the results of an enduring series of accidental, gradual changes. Dawkins appeals to Darwin’s idea of natural selection. That is, over a long period, many generations occurred before the human eye as we know it finally existed. In these many generations, accidental changes occurred. Some of these were helpful for eyesight; many were not. The pre-eyes with unhelpful changes did not survive because they were not useful. The pre-eyes with helpful changes remained, becoming the inheritance of future generations. By the time the human eye arrived in full functioning power for sight, it consisted only of parts “fit” for the purpose of sight. Now, it is only after evolution accomplished the eye that it seems to have been designed. As a product of evolutionary accidents, design in the human eye is an illusion.


“Dawkins insists that in nature we are only seeing the results of an enduring series of accidental, gradual changes.”


Using these kinds of examples as evidence, the atheist claims that the entire universe is the result of the same processes. As an example, take the earth’s moon. It happens that the moon is precisely the right distance from the earth to helpfully effect ocean tides among other benefits to our planet. Yet, according to natural selection, it is only after many unhelpful accidents that the moon happened to fall into its current earth orbit.

So, Dawkins proposes to change the watchmaker parable. The watch Paley imagines finding during a meadow stroll can represent natural things such as eyes and moons—but only if we think in terms of a watchmaker that is blind. The idea is that over long periods of time, a series of fortunate and unfortunate accidents caused a watch to happen. These accidents explain the complex “watches” in the field we stumble upon and wonder about.

But there are some problems with Dawkins’s story. For one thing, natural selection cannot explain nonliving systems such as the moon’s relation to the earth. A Darwinian evolution of species depends upon many generations of variations through the process of reproduction. Stars and planets and water cycles do not reproduce like this. They cannot have the benefit of multitudes of generations of accidental trial-and-error.


“Natural selection cannot explain nonliving systems such as the moon’s relation to the earth.”


That is, we don’t arrive at where natural selection can begin influencing biological life until we already have a universe that came into existence. This means that the universe had to emerge with conditions carefully set to make life possible. Then we needed a statistically improbable planet also with life-permitting conditions. Even still, you wouldn’t have biological life until the first cell emerged—something whose emergence continues to baffle scientists anytime they calculate the odds. So, only when the impossible happens—a life-permitting universe, a life-permitting planet, and life itself—can we meaningfully begin to talk about natural selection in a Darwinian sense.

Another problem is that a blind watchmaker is still a watchmaker—an intelligent agent purposely trying to accomplish something. Dawkins wants his image to represent a universe without God. However, if there is a “watchmaker” at work in the universe, then there seems to be design after all. Within the framework of Dawkins’s story, there is still a designer taking advantage of accidents to accomplish a purpose. At the very least, Dawkins is presupposing a “telos,” a purpose toward which the accomplishments move us, even if accidentally.

Instead of a blind watchmaker, it would have been more appropriate for Dawkins to have described it as a “watch formation.” Perhaps, the revised story would be that after some period of earth history, it happened that conditions emerged for the formation of a variety of timekeeping machines. In some number of places on the earth, there came to be a diversity of minerals gathered together. Over another period of history, gradually, watches began to grow, like crystals, in these places.


“Dawkins is presupposing a ‘telos,’ a purpose toward which the accomplishments move us, even if accidentally.”


Now, imagine again your afternoon stroll in the high mountain meadow. You are wondering at the many colors surrounding you in that summer season. You consider the grand mountains formed by awesome, accidental forces of the cosmos. It astounds you that such diversity and beauty could evolve from a random explosion far away in the universe and in time.

Imagine topping a rise. Out before you, glistening in the light of the sun, is a field of wristwatches. One catches your eye. You see that it has a knob to wind the springs. You can see the gears arranged just so, meshing perfectly as they move in the rhythm of time. It’s amazing what nature is able to accomplish given enough time and natural selection, isn’t it?

Now, imagine that that watch, still ticking, informs you that it is 5:45 p.m. You realize you’d better hurry home for the supper that someone else has carefully and skillfully made.

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