Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Paley VIII

Picking up on my posts looking at William Paley's Natural Theology last featured in October 2006:

Paley continues rebutting objections to his design inference from watch to intelligent designer:

'Nor, fourthly, would any man in his senses think the existence of the watch, with its various machinery, accounted for, by being told that it was one out of possible cominations of material forms; that whatever had been found in the place where he found the watch, must have contained some internal configuration or other; and that this configuration might be the structure now exhibited, viz. of the works of a watch, as well as a different structure.'

With the bennefit of hindsight, we might say that Paley is pointing out that it is no objection to a design inference to point out that while the watch is indeed complex, as one arrangement of matter out of a large possible number of arrangements, this observation does nothing to support the conclusion of design, since if this arrangement had not existed some other arrangement would have existed and may well have been just as complicated. After all, a scrap heap may be just as complex an arrangement of matter as a watch - both are 1 possible arrangement of matter among many possible arrangements, and the scrap heap is not designed...

The reason this objection fails is because it ignores part of Paley's design detection criteria, which is not soley focused upon the quesiton of complexity, but which also requires that the complexity be irreducible (although Paley didn't use this term).

Alternatively, we can note that specified complexity is a reliable marker of design and that it is no objection to say that a scrap heap can be as complex as a watch when the watch but not the scrapheap is specified! Hence it seems that Paley once again made the right point, as made by modern intelligent design theory, albeit without using the same terminology (and without producing anything like the rigorous formulation of the criteria he used that is produced by William A. Dembski today).

To put Paley's point another way, suppose you see a poem written using scrabble tiles on a table and infer intelligent design. If someone objected to your inference by saying that any string of scrabble tiles of that length is equally improbable (1 string out of n number of possible strings) and that since the tiles had to form some string or other it might as well be the poem as one of the non-poem strings, you would rightly object that this argument did not undermine your inference, since your inference was not based purely upon the complexity exhibited by the scrabble string but upon the fact that it was both complex and specified (because while in our experience natural forces often produce complex, i.e. unlikely, results - just tip a bag of scrabble letters out onto a table top to see this - it is our uniform experience that whenever we see a complex pattern that fits an independently specifiable pattern and know from whence it came, it came from an intelligence. Poems have poets, music has composers, novels have novelists, buildings have architects, codes have code makers, and so on.)

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