William Paley

Last updated

William Paley
William Paley by George Romney.jpg
Portrait by George Romney
Peterborough, England
Died25 May 1805 (1805-05-26) (aged 61)
Alma mater Christ's College, Cambridge
Known forContributions to moral philosophy, political philosophy, ethics and philosophy of religion
AwardsMembers' Prize, Cambridge, 1765
Scientific career
Fields Natural theology
Institutions Giggleswick Grammar School, Christ's College, Cambridge, Giggleswick Parish, Carlisle Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral, Durham Cathedral

William Paley (July 1743 – 25 May 1805) was an English clergyman, Christian apologist, philosopher, and utilitarian. He is best known for his natural theology exposition of the teleological argument for the existence of God in his work Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity , which made use of the watchmaker analogy.



Paley was born in Peterborough, England, and was educated at Giggleswick School, of which his father was headmaster, and at Christ's College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1763 as senior wrangler, became fellow in 1777, and in 1768 tutor of his college. [1] He lectured on Samuel Clarke, Joseph Butler and John Locke in his systematic course on moral philosophy, which subsequently formed the basis of his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy; and on the New Testament, his own copy of which is in the British Library. The sub controversy was then agitating the university, and Paley pushed an anonymous defence of a pamphlet in which the Master of Peterhouse and Bishop of Carlisle Edmund Law had advocated the retrenchment and simplification of the Thirty-nine Articles; he did not, however, sign the petition (called the "Feathers Tavern" petition, from the place where it was agreed) for a relaxation of the terms of subscription. He was also a strong supporter of the American colonies during the revolutionary war, partly because he thought it would lead to the destruction of slavery. He studied philosophy. [2]

In 1776 Paley was presented to the rectory of Musgrave in Westmorland, which was exchanged soon after for Appleby. He was subsequently made vicar of Dalston in 1780, near the bishop's palace at Rose Castle. In 1782 he became the Archdeacon of Carlisle. Paley was intimate with the Law family throughout his life, and the Bishop and his son John Law (who was later an Irish bishop) were instrumental during the decade after he left Cambridge in pressing him to publish his revised lectures and in negotiating with the publisher. In 1782 Edmund Law, otherwise the mildest of men, was most particular that Paley should add a book on political philosophy to the moral philosophy, which Paley was reluctant to write. The book was published in 1785 under the title of The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, and was made a part of the examinations at the University of Cambridge the next year. It passed through fifteen editions in the author's lifetime. Paley strenuously supported the abolition of the slave trade, and his attack on slavery in the book was instrumental in drawing greater public attention to the practice. In 1789, a speech he gave on the subject in Carlisle was published. [3]

The Principles was followed in 1790 by his first essay in the field of Christian apologetics, Horae Paulinae, or the Truth of the Scripture History of St Paul which compared the Paul's Epistles with the Acts of the Apostles, making use of "undesigned coincidences" to argue that these documents mutually supported each other's authenticity. Some have said this book was the most original of Paley's works. It was followed in 1794 by the celebrated View of the Evidences of Christianity, which was also added to the examinations at Cambridge, remaining on the syllabus until the 1920s. [4]

For his services in defence of the faith, with the publication of the Evidences, the Bishop of London gave him a stall in St Paul's; the Bishop of Lincoln made him subdean of that cathedral, and the Bishop of Durham conferred upon him the rectory of Bishopwearmouth. During the remainder of Paley's life, his time was divided between Bishopwearmouth and Lincoln, during which time he wrote Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, despite his increasingly debilitating illness. [5] He died on 25 May 1805 and is buried in Carlisle Cathedral with his two wives. [6] Among his grandsons were the architect Edward Graham Paley and the classical scholar Frederick Apthorp Paley.


Paley's Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy was one of the most influential philosophical texts in late Enlightenment Britain. It was cited in several parliamentary debates over the corn laws in Britain and in debates in the US Congress. The book remained a set textbook at Cambridge well into the Victorian era. Charles Darwin, as a student of theology, was required to read it when he did his undergraduate studies at Christ's College, but it was Paley's Natural Theology that most impressed Darwin even though it was not a set book for undergraduates. Portraits of Paley and Darwin face each other at Christ's College to this day. [7]

Title Page of William Paley's Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, 1802 William Paley Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Title Page 1802.jpg
Title Page of William Paley's Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, 1802

Paley is also remembered for his contributions to the philosophy of religion, utilitarian ethics and Christian apologetics. In 1802, he published Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity , his last book. As he states in the preface, he saw the book as a preamble to his other philosophical and theological books; in fact, he suggests that Natural Theology should be read first, so as to build a systematic understanding of his arguments. The main thrust of his argument was that God's design of the whole creation could be seen in the general happiness, or well-being, that was evident in the physical and social order of things. Such a book fell within the broad tradition of natural theology works written during the Enlightenment; and this explains why Paley based much of his thought on John Ray (1691), William Derham (1711) and Bernard Nieuwentyt (1750). [8]

Paley's argument is built mainly around anatomy and natural history. "For my part", he says, "I take my stand in human anatomy"; elsewhere he insists upon "the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent designing mind for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear". In making his argument, Paley employed a wide variety of metaphors and analogies. [9] Perhaps the most famous is his analogy between a watch and the world. Historians, philosophers and theologians often call this the Watchmaker analogy. Building on this mechanical analogy, Paley presents examples from planetary astronomy and argues that the regular movements of the solar system resemble the workings of a giant clock. To bolster his views he cites the work of his old friend John Law and the Dublin Astronomer Royal John Brinkley. [10]

The germ of the idea is to be found in ancient writers who used sundials and Ptolemaic epicycles to illustrate the divine order of the world. These types of examples can be seen in the work of the ancient philosopher Cicero, especially in his De natura deorum , ii. 87 and 97. [11] The watch analogy was widely used in the Enlightenment, by deists and Christians alike. Thus, Paley's use of the watch (and other mechanical objects like it) continued a long and fruitful tradition of analogical reasoning that was well received by those who read Natural Theology when it was published in 1802.


Three churchmen: John Wesley, William Paley, and Beilby Porteus. A posthumous engraving. Three churchmen; John Wesley, William Paley, and Beilby Port Wellcome V0006791.jpg
Three churchmen: John Wesley, William Paley, and Beilby Porteus. A posthumous engraving.

Since Paley is often read in university courses that address the philosophy of religion, the timing of his design argument has sometimes perplexed modern philosophers. Earlier in the century David Hume had argued against notions of design with counter examples drawn from monstrosity, imperfect forms of testimony and probability (see watchmaker analogy). Hume's arguments, however, were not widely accepted by most of the reading public and they fell 'stillborn' (to use Hume's own assessment) from the press. [12] Despite Hume's unpopularity, Paley's published works and in manuscript letters show that he engaged directly with Hume from his time as an undergraduate to his last works. Paley's works were more influential than Hume's from the 1800s to the 1840s. Hume's arguments were only accepted gradually by the reading public, and his philosophical works sold poorly until agnostics like Thomas Huxley championed Hume's philosophy in the late 19th century.

Scientific norms have changed greatly since Paley's day, and are inclined to do less than justice to his arguments and ways of reasoning. But his style is lucid and he was willing to present transparently the evidence against his own case. The design argument has also been applied in other fields of scientific and philosophical inquiry, notably in regards to anthropic cosmological fine-tuning, [13] [14] fine-tuning for discoverability [15] and the origin of life. [16] His subject matter was central to Victorian anxieties, which might be one reason Natural Theology continued to appeal to the reading public, making his book a best seller for most of the 19th century, even after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Natural Theology and the Evidences of Christianity appealed to Victorian Evangelicals, although not so much to adherents of the Oxford Movement – and both found his utilitarianism objectionable. [17] Paley's views influenced (both positively and negatively) theologians, philosophers and scientists, then and since.

In addition to Moral and Political Philosophy and the Evidences, Charles Darwin read Natural Theology during his student years, and later stated in his autobiography that he was initially convinced by the argument. His views changed with time. By the 1820s and 1830s, well-known liberals like Thomas Wakley and other radical editors of The Lancet were using Paley's ageing examples to attack the establishment's control over medical and scientific education in Durham, London, Oxford and Cambridge. It also inspired the Earl of Bridgewater to commission the Bridgewater Treatises and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge to issue cheap reprints for the rising middle class. But whereas Paley's natural theology was disassembled or rebuilt by intellectuals like Wakley or the Bridgewater authors, the core of argument retained an ongoing popularity with the reading public and served as the basis of many catechisms and textbooks that were used in Britain and its colonies until World War II when, as argued by Matthew Daniel Eddy, the existential morass of World War I undermined the moral teleology that had underpinned natural theology since the Enlightenment. [18]

Today, Paley's name evokes both reverence and revulsion and his work is cited accordingly by authors seeking to frame their own views of design. Even Richard Dawkins, an opponent of the design argument, described himself as a neo-Paleyan in The Blind Watchmaker . Today, as in his own time (though for different reasons), Paley is a controversial figure, a lightning rod for both sides in the contemporary argument between creationism and evolutionary biology. His writings reflect the thought of his time, but as Dawkins observed, his was a strong and logical approach to evidence, whether human or natural. Perhaps this explains why the Oxford constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey had his pupils read the Evidences to teach them about legal reasoning. It is for such reasons that Paley's writings, Natural Theology included, stand as a notable body of work in the canon of Western thought.


See also

Related Research Articles

David Hume Scottish philosopher, economist, historian and essayist

David Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, who is best known today for his highly influential system of philosophical empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism. Beginning with A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), Hume strove to create a naturalistic science of man that examined the psychological basis of human nature. Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, positing that all human knowledge derives solely from experience. This places him with Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and George Berkeley, as a British Empiricist.

Irreducible complexity Argument by proponents of intelligent design that certain biological systems are too complex to have evolved

Irreducible complexity (IC) involves the idea that certain biological systems cannot evolve by successive small modifications to pre-existing functional systems through natural selection. Irreducible complexity has become central to the creationist concept of intelligent design, but the scientific community, which regards intelligent design as pseudoscience, rejects the concept of irreducible complexity. Irreducible complexity is one of two main arguments used by intelligent-design proponents, alongside specified complexity.

Natural theology, once also termed physico-theology, is a type of theology that provides arguments for the existence of God based on reason and ordinary experience of nature.

The teleological or physico-theological argument, also known as the argument from design, or intelligent design argument is an argument for the existence of God or, more generally, for an intelligent creator based on perceived evidence of "intelligent design" in the natural world.

<i>The Blind Watchmaker</i> Book by Richard Dawkins

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design is a 1986 book by Richard Dawkins, in which the author presents an explanation of, and argument for, the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. He also presents arguments to refute certain criticisms made on his first book, The Selfish Gene. An unabridged audiobook edition was released in 2011, narrated by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward.

Scottish Enlightenment intellectual movement in 18th–19th century Scotland

The Scottish Enlightenment was the period in 18th- and early-19th-century Scotland characterised by an outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments. By the eighteenth century, Scotland had a network of parish schools in the Lowlands and four universities. The Enlightenment culture was based on close readings of new books, and intense discussions took place daily at such intellectual gathering places in Edinburgh as The Select Society and, later, The Poker Club, as well as within Scotland's ancient universities.

William Wollaston English philosopher

William Wollaston was a school teacher, Church of England priest, scholar of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, theologian, and a major Enlightenment era English philosopher. He is remembered today for one book, which he completed two years before his death: The Religion of Nature Delineated. He led a cloistered life, but in terms of eighteenth-century philosophy and the concept of natural religion, he is ranked with British Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke, Berkeley, and Hume.

William Whewell English philosopher & historian of science

Rev Dr William Whewell DD HFRSE was an English polymath, scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science. He was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. In his time as a student there, he achieved distinction in both poetry and mathematics.

"God of the gaps" is a theological perspective in which gaps in scientific knowledge are taken to be evidence or proof of God's existence. The term "gaps" was initially used by Christian theologians not to discredit theism but rather to point out the fallacy of relying on teleological arguments for God's existence.

Religious views of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin's views on religion have been the subject of much interest and dispute. His pivotal work in the development of modern biology and evolution theory played a prominent part in debates about religion and science at the time. In the early 20th century, his contributions became a focus of the creation–evolution controversy in the United States.

Transmutation of species 19th-century evolutionary ideas for the altering of one species into another that preceded Charles Darwins theory of natural selection

Transmutation of species and transformism are 19th-century evolutionary ideas for the altering of one species into another that preceded Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. The French Transformisme was a term used by Jean Baptiste Lamarck in 1809 for his theory, and other 19th century proponents of pre-Darwinian evolutionary ideas included Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Robert Grant, and Robert Chambers, the anonymous author of the book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Opposition in the scientific community to these early theories of evolution, led by influential scientists like the anatomists Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen and the geologist Charles Lyell, was intense. The debate over them was an important stage in the history of evolutionary thought and would influence the subsequent reaction to Darwin's theory.

Watchmaker analogy Teleological argument which states that a design implies a designer

The watchmaker analogy or watchmaker argument is a teleological argument which states, by way of an analogy, that a design implies a designer. The analogy has played a prominent role in natural theology and the "argument from design," where it was used to support arguments for the existence of God and for the intelligent design of the universe, in both Christianity and Deism.

<i>Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion</i> book

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is a philosophical work by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, first published in 1779. Through dialogue, three philosophers named Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes debate the nature of God's existence. Whether or not these names reference specific philosophers, ancient or otherwise, remains a topic of scholarly dispute. While all three agree that a god exists, they differ sharply in opinion on God's nature or attributes and how, or if, humankind can come to knowledge of a deity.

Nancey Murphy is an American philosopher and theologian who is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA. She received the B.A. from Creighton University in 1973, the Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley in 1980, and the Th.D. from the Graduate Theological Union (theology) in 1987.

<i>Dawkins God</i> book by Alister McGrath

Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life is a book by Alister McGrath, a theologian who is currently Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University. The book, published in 2004, with a second edition in 2015, aims to refute claims about religion made by another well-known professor at Oxford, Richard Dawkins. McGrath's book does not seek to demonstrate how Dawkins’ claims differ from Christianity, rather, it argues that Dawkins' arguments fall far short of the logical and evidence-based reasoning that Dawkins himself espouses.

Thomas Rawson Birks British priest and academic

Thomas Rawson Birks was an English theologian and controversialist, who figured in the debate to try to resolve theology and science. He rose to be Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His discussions led to much controversy: in one book he proposed that stars cannot have planets as this would reduce the importance of Christ's appearance on this planet.

John Law DD (1745–1810) was an English mathematician and clergyman who began his career as a Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, and went on to become chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Church of Ireland bishop of Clonfert and Kilmacduagh (1782–1787), Killala and Achonry (1787–1795), and finally of Elphin (1795–1810).

Scottish common sense realism realist school of philosophy

Scottish Common Sense Realism, also known as the Scottish School of Common Sense, is a realist school of philosophy that originated in the ideas of Scottish philosophers Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson, James Beattie, and Dugald Stewart during the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment. Reid emphasized man's innate ability to perceive common ideas and that this process is inherent in and interdependent with judgement. Common sense, therefore, is the foundation of philosophical inquiry. Though best remembered for its opposition to the pervasive philosophy of David Hume, Scottish Common Sense philosophy is influential and evident in the works of Thomas Jefferson and late 18th-century American politics.

<i>Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity</i> book by William Paley

Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity is an 1802 work of Christian apologetics and philosophy of religion by the English clergyman William Paley (1743–1805). The book expounds his arguments from natural theology, making a teleological argument for the existence of God, notably beginning with the watchmaker analogy.

Teleology in biology The use of language of goal-directedness in the context of evolutionary adaptation

Teleology in biology is the use of the language of goal-directedness in accounts of evolutionary adaptation, which some biologists and philosophers of science find problematic. The term teleonomy has also been proposed. Before Darwin, organisms were seen as existing because God had designed and created them; their features such as eyes were taken by natural theology to have been made to enable them to carry out their functions, such as seeing. Evolutionary biologists often use similar teleological formulations that invoke purpose, but these imply natural selection rather than actual goals, whether conscious or not. Dissenting biologists and religious thinkers held that evolution itself was somehow goal-directed (orthogenesis), and in vitalist versions, driven by a purposeful life force. Since such views are now discredited, with evolution working by natural selection acting on inherited variation, the use of teleology in biology has attracted criticism, and attempts have been made to teach students to avoid teleological language.


  1. "Paley, William (PLY758W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  2. Crimmins, James E. (2004). "William Paley (1743–1805)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  3. Paley, Edmund (1825). The Works of William Paley, Vol 1. London.
  4. Paley, William (1790). Horae Paulinae, or the Truth of the Scripture History of St Paul. London.
  5. Stephen, Leslie (1895). Dictionary of National Biography. New York: MacMillan. p. Paley entry.
  6. Eley, C. King (2006). "Bell's Cathedrals: The Cathedral Church of Carlisle". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 14 April 2014.
  7. Wyhe, John van (27 May 2014). Charles Darwin in Cambridge: The Most Joyful Years. World Scientific. p. 120. ISBN   9789814583992.
  8. Eddy, Matthew Daniel and David M. Knight (2006). 'Introduction', in William Paley, Natural Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  9. Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2004). "The Science and Rhetoric of Paley's Natural Theology". Literature and Theology. 18: 1–22. doi:10.1093/litthe/18.1.1.
  10. Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2008). Natural Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. Appendix entry on Brinkley.
  11. Hallam, Henry (1847). Introduction to the Literature of Europe, Vol II. London: Murray. p. 385.
  12. Fieser, James, ed. (2005). Early Responses to Hume's Life and Reputation Vols 1 and 2. Continuum.
  13. Fyfe, Aileen (2002). "Publishing and the classics: Paley's Natural Theology and the nineteenth-century scientific canon" (PDF). Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science. 33 (4): 729–751. doi:10.1016/s0039-3681(02)00032-8.
  14. Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2013). "Nineteenth Century Natural Theology". Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology: 101–117.


Further reading