Paley’s Watchmaker Argument – Undefeated once Understood

Paley’s watch maker argument – an argument for the existence of God by the clearly apparent design in nature is one of the most powerful arguments for God’s existence. How do I know? One need merely take a look at all the skeptics who try (unsuccessfully) to refute it. From Youtube bloggers to high profile atheists like Richard Dawkins, doubters repeatedly try to show the argument invalid – and fail miserably. Why all the effort? Because it is so clear, so easy to understand, so obvious, that it is a powerful argument for the existence of God.

Though many objections are put forth, all fail spectacularly for usually the same small set of reasons: either because the skeptic doesn’t understand the argument and thus raises irrelevant objections – straw man arguments. (And of course defeating a straw man argument is irrelevant to the real, actual argument.  Apparently those who use straw men arguments hope the audience is not well versed enough in the real argument to spot it. So we’ll address that here – by briefly explaining the main argument.)

Or second, the attempted rebuttals fail because of the use of other logical fallacies. I’ll point them out as we come across them.

Part 1. The Teleological Argument Explained

The teleological argument – from the Greek word τελος (telos) meaning “end” or “goal” are arguments based on the observation that most of nature exhibits  a clearly apparent goal or design. The various pieces and parts were fashioned to achieve a particular end or goal, and thus they have an intelligent goal maker. This argument has been developed a number of ways:

  1. Aquinas’ fifth way in his Summa Theologiae, the section on proofs of God,  is a teleological argument. He points to an arrow consistently hitting a target. Arrows neither aim themselves, nor shoot themselves. The reason they tend to a goal (the target) is because they have been set in motion “under the direction of someone with awareness and with understanding.” [1]  In other words, they have a goal maker, or put another way an intelligence with a design in mind – to hit the target.

  2. William Dembski’s “specified complexity” is a teleological argument. He identifies how we can infer a designer – “if the effect is both complex and specified”[2] furthermore he notes, we must rule out automatic or natural processes, so we must also establish contingency, or as he puts it, to infer design, “we must establish three things: contingency, complexity and specification. [emphasis his] Contingency ensures that the object in question is not the result of an automatic and therefore unintelligent process…”[3] More on that later.

  3. Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity” is also a teleological argument. Behe explains the concept thus: “By irreducibly complex [emphasis his] I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.”[4]

  4. William Paley’s Watch maker argument
    The above are not the words Paley use. But Paley’s concepts of “purposeful design”[5] and  “contrivances”[6] anticipate these concepts, and thus his argument is clearly a teleological one – not an argument based on analogy. Notice the main features of the arguments above: each instance requires: 1. forethought and planning, 2. A target or goal in mind, 3. A sequence or action to achieve the target 4. An Intelligent agent to conceive of, and execute the entirety of the plan.  These components can be identified in the first three iterations of the teleological argument above, and I submit they are also implicit in Paley’s argument which include “purposeful design” and “contrivances.”  Indeed any object that requires forethought and planning to be produced is by definition an object that can only be produced by Intelligent Design.

Why is this important? Because it undercuts two arguments used to try to defeat Paley’s watchmaker argument.

Part 2. Obvious Failures in Attempts to overcome the Teleological Argument

Skeptics routinely give these two objections to the Paley’s argument:

Objection 1. The Argument fails because the analogy fails.
This objection misses the point and thus fails because Paley’s argument is not an argument based on analogy. He’s not making an analogy between the watch and the universe.  His argument is based on the identification of design. The use of a watch is just to help the reader understand why we can indentify that the watch is designed.  The universe is also clearly designed. The identification of design requires a designer. Thus in identifying that the universe is designed, it is clear the universe must have a designer.

Objection 2. The Argument fails because complexity doesn’t require a designer.
Another common objection is that complexity doesn’t require a designer. Which is true – complexity in and off itself does not require a designer. That is the essence of the argument of Michael Ruse to Ben Stein in “Expelled no Intelligence Allowed” – that life may have developed into the needed complexity on the back of crystals (1 minute video).  What Ruse and many others skeptics miss, is that the identification of design is contingent not only on just complexity, put as Dembski put it “specified complexity” [emphasis mine] or as Paley put it “purposeful design”. There must be an apparent reason for the complexity and a goal or purpose for the complexity.  There is clearly an apparent reason behind the complexity in a watch: its many “contrivances” allow it to keep time according to the specification of hours, minutes and seconds.  Not so with crystals.  They exhibit merely a complex ordering of matter, with no apparent goal or purpose.

Part 3. Addressing specific errors in Critiques of Paley

I was asked to defend the assessment  I made  of a critique of Paley‘s argument by YouTube channel “Rationality Rules”, in which I claimed the video was a joke because it misunderstood the argument and used straw man arguments and logical flaws.  Specifically I was asked to defend:

1.) If the video is a “joke” then why does it seem to represent the argument accurately according to Christian presentations and others’? Please elaborate.
2.) What are his straw man objections?
3.) What are his (and mine) logical flaws?

So I’ve already answered #1 – it does not represent the argument accurately, but let me apply it to this video:
The critique asserts that “The Watchmaker analogy is a recurring argument for a designer which by way of analogy asserts that complexity requires a designer.” (Time mark 0:16)

So already we see a number of errors:

1. Paley presented an argument which contains an analogy.
The analogy is NOT the argument. The analogy is used for what analogies are typically used for, to help the reader understand a deeper point, the analogy in and of itself is NOT the argument. This is critical to understand because this error is the foundation of many other errors in the video.

2.  His understanding of the use of complexity is flawed.
As I noted above, complexity by itself does not require a designer. Rather  specified complexity – as Dembski put it, or “purposeful complexity”  as Paley put it which includes “contrivances” as he described, is what requires a designer. Yet the Video blogger never addresses this real argument, thus the glaring flaw, and the straw man argument.

So right off the bat we see this attempt to debunk Paley’s does not represent the argument accurately according to Christian presentations as elaborated above.

Moving on he keeps referring to the argument as an “analogy” which, as I’ve already pointed out is incorrect. The “analogy” is to help understand the argument. The argument is based on the identification of design.

He then goes on to state that the argument says that “Complexity Requires a designer (1:18)

Once again he’s missed the point.  As noted above, complexity is a component in identifying an intelligent designer, but it is not the only component. Those who try to refute this argument always seem to miss that point.

He then goes on to “formally” attempt to debunk the argument.
So let’s formally show him where he’s wrong.

3. False Analogy Fallacy (Mistake @ 1:35)
“First and foremost what single handedly debunks the watchmaker argument is that it’s a false analogy.”
As I’ve already pointed out.  The argument uses an analogy, but the argument itself is NOT the analogy.  Failure to understand this point means you simply don’t understand the argument.

He also conveniently makes a false comparisons to drive home his point, but I won’t bother to go into that error because his whole case is worthless since the basis of the Teleological argument is not based on an analogy.

4. False Cause Fallacy   (Mistake @ 2.44)
“… It commits a false cause fallacy. It does this by asserting complexity and order can only be caused by a designer”
At this point I’m wondering if he’s even read Paley’s argument because Paley does not make this assertion. Paley talks about “contrivances” with clearly designed goals and purposes – which results in complexity. But once again, Paley’s point is not on the complexity alone. It’s on all that has to happen to bring it about – the planning, purpose, the assembling of parts in a particular order to achieve a specific end.  All these speak to design and purpose, not merely to just complexity. Once again I must wonder if he has ever read Paley’s argument or is intentionally misrepresenting it – which is at best the fallacy of suppressed evidence and at worse the fallacy of lying.

I could take this point by point – e.g. his assertion that Paley confuses correlation with causation, also another false assertion that is unfounded. But as the main point has already been refuted, in the interest of brevity I will not bother with every sub-mistake under his main mistake.   

5. Ignores Natural Selection (Mistake @ 3:52)
“…It completely ignores evolution by natural selection”

For evolution to be even remotely feasible, it must explain 1. The origin of life (which it can’t) and 2. Answer where the necessary increase in information comes to do things like change body types. (Another thing it can’t do.)  Because Natural Selection is a process that REMOVES information, it doesn’t add it. As geneticist Dr. Marciej Giertych puts it: 

“Darwin assumed that the increase of information comes from natural selection. But natural selection reduces genetic information. And we know this from all the genetic operations studies that we have.”[7] video

The only thing in Neo-Darwinism that can add information is mutations – and they are almost always negative in impact (video). Thus they do not help in the selecting for survival.

He further claims “We know for a fact that nature can, does and has produced remarkably complex organisms without a conscious and intelligent behind them.”(4:14) We know no such thing. Here he’s just spouting Evolutionary dogma while begging the question. We know evolutionists know no such thing because they can’t even figure out where the abundance of species and body types originate that are found in the Cambrian Explosion.

I’ve written a number of articles on why Evolution is impossible. Here’s one that deals with a topic we’ve been discussing – specified complexity – and why Neo-Darwinism – and Dawkins’ “Mt. Improbable” simply fail: “Mt Improbable and other impossible evolutionary dreams

In this section he also invokes a Circular Reasoning argument, claiming we have “millions of examples of nature creating complex life.” That’s his (false) conclusion.  We have no evidence of that, only evolutionary fairytales that  evolutionists tell us. In order for him to make that claim he must be able to state the origin of life, and demonstrate how nature did it from the beginning to end  – not with fuzzy evolutionary just-so stories, full of maybe’s and perhaps, and could be’s – but actual step by step scientific processes.  Failing that, it’s his belief, not science.  He’s just stating it’s true by fiat using the fallacy of an appeal to ignorance and hope you don’t know any better.

6. Special Pleading / Self Refuting (Mistake @ 5:00)
Here he invokes the common atheist “Who designed God?” argument by trying to “apply the argument to itself.”

First we note he starts with his misunderstanding of the usage of complexity that we noted above, then states that God (the designer) must be complex:

How does he know the designer is complex? To follow the example in the argument, we know the watch is complex by examination. What evidence do we have that God is complex?  How did he examine God? Because every atheist I speak to says there’s no evidence of God. So clearly he doesn’t know God is complex by examination.

So why does he think God is complex? He concludes that because the universe is complex, its designer must be complex – the way a watch or the universe is complex. First, to think of God in those terms is to fall to the error of Anthropomorphism – God is not complex in that manner – with many pieces and parts and complex workings the way a watch or the universe is.  God is immaterial and thus has no such parts. Second this objection assumes that in the group of complex things,  God is like the other complex things. Also false. This is the fallacy of Division.

So clearly this objection is already false, but let’s play along. How might we learn something about God? By looking at his creation – since we can’t examine him directly. And what can we learn from the creation?  We learn that God is timeless, eternal, and all powerful among other things.  How do we know this?  As already stated, from an examination  of the nature of creation. Creation, i.e.  The Universe consists of:

  • Time
    which is created – which means the creator must be beyond or outside of time since he existed “before” he created it;  Thus the creator is eternal

  • Material/Matter
    which is created – which means the creator must be other than material or immaterial

  • Space
    which is created – which means the creator must be “beyond” space or omnipresent

  • Information
    Which requires an intelligence to create –  which means the creator must possess all the necessary information to create the universe and all life – so omniscient

  • The Universe/Creation was created out of nothing
    – so the creator must be omnipotent

This is what we expect from the creator of life and the universe. Notice that a creator who was designed, and thus began to exist is incompatible with an eternal creator outside of time. An eternal God is also the Biblical depiction of God. (Ps 90.2). Thus examining the evidence as Paley did, one must conclude that God is eternal, and thus uncreated, and thus without beginning or end, and thus uncaused and un-designed.

Thus the conclusion from the teleological argument about God is not only does God who created the universe exist, but  based on the nature of that universe, he must be eternal, immaterial, omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent – just as the Bible depicts him.

Regarding Special Pleading
The video blogger goes on to defines special pleading as “an argument in which the speaker deliberately creates an exception to their argument without justifying why. And that is precisely what one must do to prevent the watchmaker argument from being completely self refuting.”

As noted above – the conclusion from the teleological argument is that God is eternal, and thus cannot begin to exist, and thus cannot be designed. So this argument falls along with the false contention of being self refuting.

7. Self contradicting (mistake @ 5:54)
Once again he puts up a straw man argument claiming the argument states that nature is both uncomplicated and random, and also complicated and ordered. The argument does not “give the universe two incompatible and contradicting qualities” it simply observes what is, then goes on to state how we know the difference between how the simple, and how the complicated come to exist. To deny that there exists items that are “uncomplicated and random” and other items that are “complicated and ordered” is to deny reality.  So he’s really quite deceptive here, making claims the argument does not make, but then, that’s what straw man arguments do.

8. It Doesn’t Imply a Designer, it Implies Many (mistake @ 6:19)
1.)  He should make up his mind. The whole point of his little video is to prove that the watchmaker doesn’t imply a designer. Now he says it does – but adds a caveat – it implies more than 1 designer by analogy – incorrectly using his mistaken understanding of an analogy as indicated above. So what he shows here is he’s not trying to refute Paley’s argument. He’s trying to refute the Judeo-Christian one, unique God. But he fails at that too.

Further it’s incorrect because:
2.)  The argument speaks to the designer of the universe. How many universes are there? Traditionally – and certainly in Paley’s day –  there is only one universe, which would then imply one designer.  In these days when physicists and cosmologists claim the existence of a multi-verse (to try escape the inescapable conclusion of fine tuning in the universe) – he might want to claim many designers for a multi-verse – but that’s a separate argument. But in doing so he concedes the existence of a designer. Again at this point, he’s not arguing against Paley, he’s arguing against the Judeo-Christian God.  At that point I need merely prove why there isn’t a multi-verse, since he’s already conceded a designer. On that see here or here.

9. Ex Nihilo  (Mistake @ 6:55)
Here he states “The watchmaker argument acts as if a watch maker creates a watch from nothing.”  No it doesn’t.  Ex Nihilo is a matter of Christian doctrine ( Gen 1.1-2),  but the watchmaker argument has nothing to say about where the watchmaker gets materials for the watch, nor how the creator created the universe. Once again he’s just showing his anti-Christian bias as he puts up another straw man argument directed at Christianity, not Paley’s argument.

10. Doesn’t Support Theism (Mistake @ 7:17)
Here he states, “The watch maker argument doesn’t support theism. Even if it were accepted to be a sound argument (‘which it’s not’ he puts on the screen), it would only prove that the universe had a universe designer.”  So once again, going down this path, he concedes God, but now he’s playing ignorant on what we mean by “God”.  Well I’ve already defined that in number 6 above. By God we mean the designer of the universe (which the argument does in fact prove) who is  eternal, immaterial, omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent.  That’s what the creation upon examination points to and that, by the way, is the  Biblical understanding of some of the characteristics of God.

11. Incompetent Design (Mistake @ 7:40)
Here he complains about “mistakes” and “sub-optimal design”.  Paley addresses this in his argument. First:  problems in the design does not negate the fact that we can still detect design.  If a house is half burned down, we can still detect it was once a house. If there are problems in a design we can still detect it was designed. 

But Second: what he’s really addressing is another point in Christian theology.  Here he talks about things like birth defects and pregnancy complications. Those things exist because of human sin, not because of the creator’s design.  So once again he has left the teleological argument and is showing his anti-Christian bias, stating this argument does not support the monotheistic God’s and “certainly not” the Abrahamic God. At most I will grant the argument does not identify the Abrahamic God – but that’s not the point of the argument. The point of the argument is to prove God exists – which it does.  Besides, the reason God sent Jesus was to reveal God. So the incarnation of Jesus reveals God in a way no rational argument can.  So in summary, the argument doesn’t identify God, but neither does it preclude the Abrahamic God.

The Problem of Evil
At the end of this section he goes into the Problem of Evil – another theological problem not addressed by the Teleological Argument.  For more on the problem of evil, which is addressed by the Moral Argument (not the teleological argument), see here.


That concludes his flawed arguments. One of his concluding statements is rather revealing:

“Though the watch maker argument is thoroughly flawed it is nevertheless what I personally consider to be one of the best arguments for a deity that has ever been.”

And now that you see all his fatal flaws in his attempts to refute it, and you see it thus remains un-refuted, we are left with:

“It is what I personally consider to be one of the best arguments for a deity that has ever been.” To that, I agree.

Duane Caldwell | November 30,  2019 | Printer friendly version

Related Article
Everyone should have one (The Watchmaker Analogy)


1.  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae – Volume 1 The Existence of God, Part One: Questions 1-13, Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1969, p.70

2. William Dembski, Intelligent Design – the Bridge Between Science & Theology, Downer’s Grove, IL:IVP Academic, 1999, p.47

3.  Dembski, Intelligent Design, p 128

4. Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box – The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, New York: Free Press, 1996, p. 39

5.  On Paley’s use of purposeful design:
“…when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e. g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day: that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.”

William Paley’s Intelligent Contrivance, Kestrels and Cerevisiae (blog), March 10, 2011,


6. On Paley’s use of “contrivances”
“Every indicator of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. I mean that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtilty, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety; yet in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect productions of human ingenuity (Paley 1867, 13).”

7. Marciej Giertych ref. from Expelled, No Intelligence Allowed, Documentary by Ben Stein, 2008

Featured Image
Paley’s Watchmaker argument – undefeated – composite by Duane Caldwell, featuring
Winner success concept © Mbolina |  used by permission

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Richard Baggarley
4 years ago

Thanks for another powerful refutation of evolutionist obfuscation.

No amount of clear, logical reasoning will convince those who do not want to believe.

By the way, I suspect the word “tuning” was accidentally omitted after the word “fine” in the phrase “to try escape the inescapable conclusion of fine in the universe”.