March 28, 2021

The watchmaker’s self-defeat.

What are the odds of a “one-solution-fits-all” being good? An argument against a god of teleology.

The watchmaker’s self-defeat.

Anyone who has tried on a “one-size-fits-all” garment knows that there is really no such thing. What it really is, is a “one-size-fits-all-poorly” garment, and fitting poorly is not fitting at all. Here I stipulate that a good fit is either a) a tailored fit, or b) a good fit by chance. There are probably more alternatives, but for the sake of argument and simplicity this is what I will work with here.

Now onto the teleological argument known as “the watchmaker argument” first put into that metaphor by William Paley. Teleology roughly means purpose in this case, and this argument is an argument for the universe being designed, and this in turn entailing a designer. The metaphor is as follows.

Imagine that you are walking on a nice path pondering why the universe is as it is. Suddenly, you stumble upon a watch. You inspect it, and almost instantly you notice its complexity: all the gears working together at such a precise level in order for the secondhand to move once every second, the minutehand once every minute, and the hourhand once every hour. This watch may have come to fulfil the purpose of being a watch in one of two ways, says Paley. Either a watchmaker designed and built it in order to fulfil the purpose of a watch. Or, it came to be by itself via random processes during a long period of time.

The watch is here a metaphor for the universe, and the watchmaker a metaphor for God, and the random processes a metaphor for the naturalistic universe of cause and effect. The conclusion is that it would be foolish to suggest that the watch was made by chance instead of a watchmaker. Accepting those odds that small when there is another explanation would be believing in “something too good to be true.” Needless to say, it is an intuitively convincing case for a designer. However, let us turn this form of argument onto holy scripture.

Imagine that you are walking on a nice path pondering why the universe is as it is. Suddenly, you stumble upon a book. You inspect it, and almost instantly you notice how it answers all the questions you had about the universe. It explains not only the origins of the universe, but morality, the meaning of life, and even the end of the universe. This book may have come to fulfil the purpose of answering everything in one of two ways. Either, it may have been written as account of the world, and as it turns out this account does indeed answer everything. Or, it was made with the purpose in mind to give an account which would always solve every single problem.

It is quite difficult to understand what this second example really means, so I will try to convey it in a metaphor. Imagine that “the question of everything”, a question which, if you answer it, you would know why everything is as it is, is a child’s puzzle. One of those puzzles where there are holes in different shapes. What we have to do is find the shape that fits into the proper hole. Now onto the critique: The problem with putting “God” into this hole is that the concept of “God” seems to have been designed to fit.

So, why is this a problem? The watch and the book are both designed, so what? The problem is this: The watch being created for the purpose of being a watch is no fallacy. However, creating an argument for the purpose of answering everything is a fallacy. Specifically, it is begging the question[1]. The holy script's term "God" is tailored to fit the question of everything.

Now the time has finally come to turn Paley’s conclusion against itself: would it not be foolish to accept this answer to everything that seems to fit so incredibly well, when the odds of finding such a complete solution are so small?

[1] 'Beg the question' is a phrase from formal logic—it's a 16th century translator's rendering of Aristotle's 'petitio principii'. A better translation would have been "assume the conclusion." Source: Miriam Webster.


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