Of Watchmakers and Rockmakers

Posted: September 2, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

A few nights ago, I watched a debate (yes, this is how I spend my time) on the topic of which better explains reality, theism or atheism? As the latter doesn’t purport to explain anything beyond rejecting the former, one might as well have asked, ‘which tastes better on toast, jam or not jam?’

Still, despite not having a worldview to argue against, religious apologist Frank Turek came out declaring the nebulous atheistic one to be incorrect. How exactly you can prove nothing wrong is beyond me, but Turek’s strategy was apparently to first court the New Jersey audience with provincial in-jokes. Having done that, he argued thusly:  there was a big bang, this was caused by a creator and therefore virgin birth, resurrection, homophobia etc. I wonder if anybody else noticed a missing carriage in that train of thought.

Anyway, having used cosmology to prove the divinity of a two-millennia-old undead Jew, he farts out a charming, New Jersey spin on the Watchmaker argument. The original, William Paley version is this: if you stumble across something like a watch in the middle of a field, you’re not going to assume it just grew naturally – it must have had a creator. In much the same way, could the earth in all its complexity have come into being without a designer? What are the chances?

But then the earth isn’t a watch in the middle of a field. Yes, the earth does (and against remarkable odds) fulfil all the prerequisite conditions for life, but given the sheer number of planets that don’t it’s hardly surprising one got lucky. Richard Dawkins phrases it rather more eloquently than I:

“It has been estimated that there are between 1 billion and 30 billion planets in our galaxy, and about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Knocking a few noughts off for reasons of ordinary prudence, a billion billion is a conservative estimate of the number of planets available in the universe. Now, suppose the origin of life, the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA, really was quite a staggeringly improbable event. Suppose it was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets. Even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets – of which Earth, of course, is one.”

Of these innumerable dead planets that surround us, it is worth adding that many are not just unfit for life, but fiercely hostile to it. On the moon, for example, the temperature during the day is hot enough to boil water. Christopher Hitchens points out that even on our own planet, which by any measure is unusually friendly to life, 99% of all the species that ever existed are now extinct. Indeed, humanity itself was nearly snuffed out like a soggy birthday candle just 70,000 years ago by a single volcanic eruption.

Crappy designer, if you ask me.

For the Watchmaker analogy to work, our roving theologian would have to be traversing the face of a Daliesque planet made of broken watches, each in a state of such miserable disrepair that it’s unlikely it ever worked. On they would wander, oblivious to the very concept of a watchmaker until, on the furthest island of the remotest archipelago, they find a quietly ticking timepiece unceremoniously dumped amongst the others. Only at the sight of this could they then declare, “yes, there is a watchmaker!”

Yet bear in mind that our celestial watchmaker doesn’t claim credit for just his working design – the earth – but for every silent world around it. This leaves our pious rambler with the uncomfortable question of why a perfect designer needed so much practice before he got it right. Perhaps for the sake of consistency, they could stand in a barren crater on Mars then, struck with awe, say, “…and a rock has a rockmaker!”

This watchmaker argument is a silly one. Why do people still use it?


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