William Paley uses watch analogy to argue existence of God, intelligent design of universe

Local Advertisement

The name William Paley is not commonly known. However, in my opinion he is right there with Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton. His style is similar to the style of Jesus. Jesus used birds, lilies, coins, and sheep to illustrate truths. Paley used a watch – a timepiece.

He was born in July in 1743 and died on May 29, 1805 at age 65. He was an English clergyman, a Christian apologist, a philosopher, and a utilitarian.  He is best known for his natural theology and his argument for the existence of God, rather than several gods. He made use of the watchmaker analogy.

He was born in Peterborough, England and was educated in Giggleswick School and at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1763. He became known for his lectures on Samuel Clarke, Joseph Butler and John Locke, and particularly on the New Testament.

Of great interest to American historians was his strong vocal and literary support for the American colonies during the Revolutionary War. Of particular note is that Paley and Edmond Law were good friends. In fact, Law pushed Paley in 1785 to write the classic book, Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy.

Local Advertisement

In the book, Paley strenuously supported the abolition of the slavery trade. He influenced the thinking of Englishmen regarding slavery.

It was at that time his writing became popular. In particular his book, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. By the way, Charles Darwin was a friend and supported Paley’s views.

Before I present the major reason for Paley’s prominence, it’s important to place Paley’s place in the pantheon of prominence.

Sir Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes “were among the leaders in the scientific revolution that upheld the physical laws that William Paley had uncovered, revealed the mechanical perfection of the workings of the universe to be akin to a watchmaker, wherein the watchmaker is God.”

As previously mentioned, Charles Darwin was a contemporary and he endorsed Paley. So did Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist. Particularly, he often praised Paley for his strong and logical belief in God as the supreme Designer. Even though Dawkins is an atheist and opposes creationism.

William Paley’s watchmaker analogy is basically a teleological argument. It is a Greek word meaning “end” for telos and a “logos” which means the study of, and in this case, it refers to science. It also has a sense of a moral obligation.

His argument played a prominent role in natural theology. Basically, it was the watchmaker analogy that was used, “To support argument for the existence of God and for the intelligent design of the universe in both Christianity and Deism.”

His analogy was couched in a story. In his unique account he described a person walking through a forest. He accidently finds a watch and wonders about its origin. Did it accidently come there because of its parts falling from the sky; they just appeared completely by chance and accident.

OR, was it dropped there; that it was the product of a designer. Someone had organized it, planned it all as an engineer would. In other words, it had a designer. The application was that as the universe is organized with certain laws, such as the law of gravity. All of space, earth, animals, plants and humans were the result of a designer, God.

The laws of gravitation and of motion (Newton and Kepler) combined to establish the regularities of heavenly and earthly bodies. Monotheists suggested, “Just as watches are set in motion by watchmakers, after which they operate according to their pre-established mechanisms, so also was the world begun by the God as the Creator, after which it – and all its parts have operated according to their pre-established natural laws.”

As a minister (Ret.) and a would-be theologian, I appreciate the William Paley analogy. I wish I had learned about the analogy seventy (70) years ago.

Amen. Selah. So be it.

Local Advertisement


  1. “By the way, Charles Darwin was a friend and supported Paley’s views.”
    William Paley (July 1743 – 25 May 1805)
    Charles Darwin (12 February, 1809 – 19 April, 1882)
    I really don’t think they were friends, what with Paley dying four years before Darwin was born. It may be that someone needs to do more research.

  2. Darwin was a friend of Paley’s? Amazing, considering Darwin was born 4 years after Paley’s death. Everything else in this essay is also balderdash and was refuted even before Paley was born.

  3. “Charles Darwin was a friend and supported Paley’s views.” Really, that’s amazing since Paley died 4 years before Darwin was born. BTW, Hume refuted Paley’s arguments 30 years before he wrote “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”. You need to do more research, this time don’t stop when you get an answer the confirms your views.

  4. Funny how Intelligent Design advocates haven’t updated their arguments since William Paley’s day.

  5. Paley’s argument from analogy has many flaws, which Google will reveal. Scottish philosopher David Hume demolished the teleological argument before Paley was even born!

  6. Unless Charles Darwin also invented a time machine, he was not a contemporary and friend of Paley. Charles Darwin was born in 1809, and Paley died in 1805. Charles Darwin had studied Paley’s “Natural Theology”, but his enthusiasm for Paley’s reasoning declined over time, and “The Origin of Species” can be read as an extended refutation of various of Paley’s premises.

    I do not believe your characterization of Dawkins’ commentary on Paley holds. I recommend you read Dawkins’ “The Blind Watchmaker”, which is explicitly based on countering Paley’s watchmaker analogy.

    There is a passage in Paley’s “Natural Theology” in which he clearly states several of the premises that later would be set down for the principle of natural selection, but Paley somehow manages not to take the point and simply dismisses that line of argument.

    Readers may be interested in a paper delving into distinguishing between ordinary and rarefied design inferences: http://www.talkdesign.org/faqs/theftovertoil/theftovertoil.html

  7. GW, Its too bad someone didn’t buy you a science book 70 years ago. If someone had, you’d know Paley’s watchmaker analogy has no foundation in actual science. It is however the frequent refuge of creationists, religious zealots, quacks and con men in their assaults on established sciences like evolution.
    Perhaps you should google Paley’s watchmaker analogy and find out what scientific credibility it actually has.
    Hint; its zero in the world of established university science departments, accredited science organizations and peer reviewed science journals of merit. Cheers/

  8. The teleological argument was refuted even before Paley was even born. For one thing, there is a world of difference between a clock and a living thing, so any analogy is worthless. Google is your friend.

  9. As I tried to point out the other day, most of this essay was directly copied from the Wikipedia, and other on-line sources.

  10. I’ve never seen a god show up and make a watch. Or a 747. Got any video of that? Every time I’ve witnessed something being designed and built (thousands of times, by this point), it was always by mortal, sentient, biological creatures who aren’t omniscient and omnipotent, are completely of the natural realm, and who pass on genes and characteristics to their offspring. Therefore, I can conclude that everything that is designed is NOT designed by a supernatural agent, but by good ol’ non-gods just like me.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here