[Tom Hart has generously shared with the readers of the Victorian Web the preceding materials from his ongoing project, "Anti-Darwin: The Literary and Philosophical Opposition to Darwininism." He welcomes comments, which can be directed to him at tehart@aol.com.]

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W illiam Paley is perhaps the best known of the late-eighteenthth and early-nineteenth-century divines who engaged in the pursuit of and the development of "natural theology." The project of the natural theologians, as noted, involved moving from the observable and created to the unobservable and uncreated, i.e., God. Now it should be noted at the outset that even assuming the existence of God can be proven, and hence His attributes described, the project does not do anything to further the belief in Christianity, which still remains the subject of revelation. Rather than examining Paley's theology in detail it should be necessary only to examine his proof of the existence of God, and some of his discussion of the attributes of God.

Paley begins his theology by postulating that if he is walking in country and stumbles against a stone that there is no objection to supposing that the stone had been there ever since the beginning of time. Paley then changes the object to a watch:

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 anything I knoew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone?...For this reason, and for no other, viz,. that, when we come to inspect the watch we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are famed put together for a purpose....[Description of watch omitted.] This mechanism being observed... the inference, we think, is inevitalbe, that the watch must have had a maker....who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

Paley gives numerous instances of the design of the various animal species, which will be passed over, but he then goes on to a discussion of the attributes of the deity. He asserts that "No animal, for instance, can have contrived its own limbs and senses; can have been the author to itself of the design with which they were constructed." This will be expressly controverted by Darwinian doctrine, which shows how an animal, or more accurately a species, can be "author to itself." It is Paley's basic assertion that contrivance shows the presence of a designing intelligence.The Deity's attributes, once His existence has been proved, "must be adequate to the magnitude, extent, and multiplicity of his operations." He finds proof of the unity of the Deity in "the uniformity of plan observable in the universe." He also notes the resemblance of "all large terrestrial animals" in their structure.

The goodness of the Deity is proved by two things. The first of these is the beneficial nature of the contrivances designed by Him. The second is the fact that pleasure has been added to animal sensations. Paley does not go on to give extended proofs of the other attributes of God, such as beauty, omnipresence, and so on.

What is wrong with Paley's argument?

Online resources

William Paley, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802)


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Last modified 27 February 2002