William Paley. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Albany: D. & S. Whiting, 1803. Gift of Dr. Frederick E. Maser

 

     
 

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The Reverend William Paley (1743-1805) was the consummate authority on what constituted orthodoxy in the Church of England during the first part of the nineteenth century. Everyone who trained in the ministry at Cambridge, including Charles Darwin, was examined on Paley’s comprehensive theological works.  At the end of his life, Paley turned to natural history to show how science supports traditional Christian teachings. In Natural Theology, published in 1802, Paley presents a teleological argument for the existence of God. Perhaps the most famous element of his argument is the “watchmaker analogy”, which claims that design implies the existence of a designer. Paley asks his reader to imagine finding a watch lying in a field. The complexity of the design of the watch implies that there must have been a watchmaker at some point, even if he is not visible at the moment. According to this argument, the even greater complexity of the design of the natural world must imply a conscious Creator; therefore the purpose of studying nature is to reveal the hand of God in the detailed workings of living creatures. In the debate between science and religion that Darwin would help to ignite in the middle of the century, Paley’s book would be one of the fundamental texts for those opposed to evolution.


Darwin read Natural Theology while at Cambridge, and found it both engaging and convincing.  In his autobiography Darwin writes:


In order to pass the B.A. examination, it was, also, necessary to get up Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, and his Moral Philosophy. This was done in a thorough manner, and I am convinced that I could have written out the whole of the Evidences with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley. The logic of this book and as I may add of his Natural Theology gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the Academical Course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind. I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on trust I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.

 

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