William Paley (1743-1805) is a name which echoes through history. His Natural Theology continues to have a profound and lasting impact on the argument from biological design. His Evidences of Christianity challenges readers on a historical and exegetical level with arguments for the faith. Unfortunately, too few have thoughtfully interacted with his arguments. Here, we will first look at Paley’s views and life. Then, we will examine his major works and arguments. We will discover there is much to learn from this intellectual giant. Note that this post is necessarily brief, and that readers are greatly encouraged to go to the primary sources found below.
Brief Biographical Note*
Paley went to school at Christ’s College and Cambridge. At the latter, he was awarded multiple times for his scholarship. He eventually became the Senior Dean at Christ’s College and was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity from Cambridge. Bishop Barrington of Durham granted him the rectory of Bishop Wearmouth. His life was strewn with accomplishments.
He was a utilitarian with deep Christian convictions. Throughout his life, he remained controversial. His utilitarianism was condemned, as was his critique of the often extreme defenses of property ownership. His anti-slavery was unpopular alongside his support of the American Colonies in the Revolutionary War.
The powerful nature of Paley’s works is revealed in the fact that his major work on utilitarianism, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, became mandatory reading at Cambridge. His Natural Theology continues to be discussed in courses on philosophy of religion. The man was acclaimed by some within the church, who praised his defense of the faith despite others’ objections to his metaethical views.
His contributions to Christian apologetics are the focus of this piece, and we shall turn to them now.
Paley’s most famous work nowadays is undoubtedly Natural Theology. In this work, he makes his well-known case for the design argument. He utilizes the analogy of a watch. If one finds a watch on a beach, one knows instantly that someone made the watch. Paley applied this same notion to life; one sees the sheer complexity and life and can infer that it, like the watch, was designed.
Many have dismissed Paley’s work here, noting that at points he relies on scientific explanations which have been discredited, while at others his examples have been explained. Yet the genius of his work is found in broader principles, which moderns should note. First, he argued that simply never having observed design in action on a biological level does not preclude any possibility of arguing for that same design (Natural Theology, 8, cited below). Second, evidence of things “going wrong” within a design does not invalidate the design of an object in and of itself. Third, higher level natural laws which may lead to order does not explain away the order itself. Fourth, when something appears to be designed, the burden of proof is upon those who assert an object is not designed.
These points seem to me to hold true to this day. I am sure none of them are uncontroversial, but Paley places his defense of this points squarely within his analysis of those artifacts which he considers to be designed (i.e. the eye and ear). A full treatment of these points thus must turn to his own arguments, but for now I would provide the following brief defenses. Regarding the first, this point seems obvious. If I have never seen someone construct a car, that does not in any way mean that I cannot conclude that someone had to have made it. The second point should be well taken within the context of the debate between Intelligent Design and Darwinian forms of evolution. The point is that simply pointing out a flaw in a design does not mean an entire object is undesigned. The third item seems correct because if something exhibits order, and that order is shown to be based around an ordering principle, the very order in and of itself has not been explained; instead, it is only the mechanism for generating that order which is observed. Finally, the fourth point is likely to be the most controversial–after all, appearances may deceive. Yet it does seem to be the case that if, a priori, something appears designed, then to conclude that something is not designed one must have defeating evidence for this appearance.
A View of the Evidences of Christianity
Paley’s Evidences (commonly known as “Evidences of Christianity”) became almost instantly famous. The work generated a number of summaries and expositions by other authors who were delighted with its style and the arguments contained therein. It is easy to see why, once one has begun a read through this apologetic treatise. Paley presents a number of arguments in favor of the Christian worldview. These evidences are largely historical in nature and include the suffering of those who spread Christianity as evidence for its truth, extrabiblical evidence for the truth of the Gospels, the authenticity of our Gospel accounts due to the early practices and beliefs of Christians, undesigned coincidences, and many more. Paley also provides a dismantling of David Hume’s argument against miracles.
It seems to me that any and all of these arguments retain the force they had in Paley’s own day. Consider the argument from the suffering of Christians. Well of course those of other faiths are willing to even die for that which they believe is true. But Paley rightly pointed out a huge difference between those of other faiths dying for their beliefs and the early eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Christ dying for their own beliefs. Namely, these people would know for certain whether that which they believed were true. That is, they either saw the resurrected Christ or they did not. If they did not, then explaining their willingness to die for this profession of faith becomes extremely difficult. However, if they did actually see that which they declared, their willingness to suffer unto death for this belief makes perfect sense. Many miss this important distinction even to this day. The rest of Paley’s arguments found in the Evidences is filled with insights similar to this.
An argument which has largely been neglected within modern apologetic circles is that of “undesigned coincidences.” I have made an exposition of this argument already, and it should be noted that the best places to discover it are in the realm of historical apologetics. William Paley dedicated this work, Horae Paulinae, to discovering undesigned coincidences within the Pauline corpus alongside Paul’s history as written in Acts.
Now, the argument from undesigned coincidences takes quite a bit of work to properly outline. It is, in essence, a matter of looking through the Scriptures and finding how incidental details in one account fill in the blanks of another account. However, this description is so brief as to be simplistic. Paley himself acknowledged a number of the difficulties with describing undesigned coincidences in this way. Regarding the Pauline corpus, for example, it could be that someone invented letters from Paul but based them upon his history found in Acts. But the argument itself takes this into account and generally serves as a defeater for this notion by sheer weight of evidence. That is, the more coincidences are found, the more credulity is stretched if one wishes to assert forgery.
Paley buries the objections to undesigned coincidences in this fashion throughout the Horae Paulinae. The sheer volume of coincidences he finds, and the way they seem so clearly to be incidental, serves to dispel doubts about their genuine nature.
Here, we have surveyed Paley’s major works, but he was a prolific writer who published sermons and of course his (in)famous work on utlitarian ethics. The preeminence of Paley as a scholar and writer is unquestionable. It is time we acknowledge how much we have to learn from those who have come before us.
We have seen the diverse array of arguments which Paley offered in favor of Christianity. These ranged from biological design arguments to undesigned coincidences to historical arguments in favor of the Gospels. Paley was a masterful writer whose arguments continue to influence apologists and draw ire from atheists to this day. Although the arguments have not been unscathed, I have offered a few reasons to reconsider some which have long been dismissed or forgotten. Paley’s influence endures.
I would like to dedicate this post to Tim McGrew, who introduced me to the vast field of historical apologetics. Without his bubbling delight and enthusiasm in the field, I would never have known much–if anything–about people like Paley. It is my hope and prayer that you may also be persuaded to pursue historical apologetists/apologetics. Be sure to check the links for some good starting places.
Be sure to check out the links at the end of this post as well as the resources from Paley.
Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason.” I often ask questions for readers and give links related to interests on this site.
Library of Historical Apologetics– Here is where I got started, with Tim McGrew’s phenomenal collection of works. In particular, the “annotated bibliography” will set you up with some fine works. The site features a “spotlight” on the main page for various fantastic reads. Browse and download at will. Also check out their Facebook page.
On the Shoulders of Giants: Rediscovering the lost defenses of Christianity– I provide a number of links as well as an annotated list of historical apologetics works which are great jumping off points for learning more about the vast array of arguments which have largely been forgotten within the realm of apologetic argument. I consider this one of the most important posts on this site.
Forgotten Arguments for Christianity: Undesigned Coincidences- The argument stated– Here I outline the argument from undesigned coincidences and explain how it can be used within apologetics.
William Paley, Evidences of Christianity (this is a free link for the item on Kindle, note that it is also available for purchase in a hard copy). Also see here for a few links to PDF versions of the book.
—-, Natural Theology (Oxford World’s Classics) – This link is for the Kindle edition which I used for this post. I highly recommend this specific edition due to the helpful introduction and other information included in the text. It can be found for free here.
*I am indebted to the discussion of Paley’s life found in the introduction of the Oxford Classic’s edition of Paley’s Natural Theology, which I have cited above.
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