Paley’s teleological argument for the existence of God appears, to modern minds, much more “poetic” than logical. This perception of Paley’s teleological argument is due not only to advances of scientific knowledge but due to the counter-arguments posed by key philosophers, such as David Hume. Although Hume’s intricate ideas about human perception and rationality and the natural world are often complex and detailed, Paley’s reasoning and ideas are presented cleanly, emotionally, and with a simplicity of metaphor that is still convenient and compelling to observers today.
Before examining Hume’s highly credible objections to Paley’s teleological argument for the existence of God, an appraisal of the essential aspects of the teleological argument is necessary. Paley’s central metaphor in his argument is that of a watch. In his reasoning, the natural world can be regarded as having been designed just as a watch is known to have a definite maker. Anticipating the immediate objections to his metaphorical argument, Paley insists that the natural world (and universe) can truly be likened to a watch even if human beings do not understand its workings and mechanics as well as they understand those of an actual watch.
He presents the argument by suggesting that a person finds a watch and may not even know what it is. In other words, one can infer a maker from the mere fact of something having been made and discovered by someone other than its maker whether or not the person who discovers the watch (or the universe) has any concept of watches or universes. What is key is that a design is present and that a a maker if inferred.
To the possible objection that neither the known universe nor the earth itself demonstrate the perfection that might truly infer a designer, Paley remarks “It is not necessary that a machine be perfect, in order to show with what design it was made: still less necessary, where the only question is, whether it were made with any design at all” (Creed, and Boys Smith 39) and it is also unnecessary that the discoverer of the watch (or universe) have even a complete watch or a complete vision of the universe.
By Paley’s reasoning, “if there were a few parts of the watch, concerning which we could not discover, or had not yet discovered, in what manner they conduced to the general effect; or even some parts, concerning which we could not ascertain,” (Creed, and Boys Smith 39) the implication of a designer and therefore a God is still certain. Paley denies a creator-less growth of the universe or a non-maker watch by saying “would any man in his senses think the existence of the watch […
] that whatever he had found it in that this configuration might be the structure now exhibited, viz. of the works of a watch,” (Creed, and Boys Smith 40) and Paley concludes by saying any observer would be “surprised to hear that the mechanism of the watch was no proof of contrivance, only a motive to induce the mind to think so” (Creed, and Boys Smith 40) which in a slight way seems to anticipate Hume’s counter-argument, if weakly and without full completion.
What Paley goes on to say is that by establishing the fact that any watch has an obvious design to any observer, the direct inference of a designer is also established just as concretely. So, the teleological argument for the existence of God is, stated simply, that because design is evident in nature a designer is evident in nature and that designer is God. Paley’s assertions also include the belief that the mechanism of a watch will reveal aspects of its maker to an observer, so, too, the universe divulges aspects of God to human beings.
The idea that Paley’s argument is rational and logical is stressed throughout Paley’s writings, but the teleological argument for the existence of God, even in Paley’s logical and methodical approach ultimately becomes an emotional argument because Paley is actually saying: it feels like the universe must be designed and I assume that means there is a designer which is God. David Hume’s counter-argument to Paley’s teleological argument for the existence of God is much more steeped in logical processes as modern thinkers understand them.
Hume’s counter-argument also exposes fallacies and lapses in the analogous approach taken by Paley, where he hones in more closely on the metaphor of the watch and the — by Hume’s reasoning — unsupportable conclusions drawn by Paley. In Hume’s view, then, even the finding of a watch does not imply a maker because it is a capacity of human consciousness to impose order and rationality, rather than apprehend it in the natural world.
In simpler terms: it is a primitive urge to impose order on a chaotic world but that is simply an indication of the function of human consciousness. So it is possible to find a watch and not understand what it is and see that it has a designer but that designer is, as in literal fact and not mere metaphor, a human being and not a God. Works Cited Creed, John Martin, and John Sandwith Boys Smith. Religious Thought in the Eighteenth Century: Illustrated from Writers of the Period. Cambridge:, 1934. 36-46.