Philosopher’s Boxing Ring: Hume vs Paley

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Paley’s design argument argues for the existence of a wondrous God from the design elements of the universe. However, many years before Paley wrote his design argument, Hume wrote a series of criticisms against it. This essay will explore the debate between Paley and Hume and demonstrate why Paley’s design argument fails.

Paley’s Argument From Design

Paley starts by asking us to imagine what we would think if we came across the stone. He asserts that we would not need an explanation for how it got there. However, if it was a watch, then we would. Why is there a distinction between the stone and the rock? It is because it has elements of design; it has several parts made of a specific material to create a motion where they work together for a specific purpose. If these parts were any different, then the watch would not work. It is from these features that we conclude someone must have designed it. Paley then argues that these features are also seen within the natural world. Therefore, it can be concluded that the universe was designed. Paley then goes further and concludes that, because the universe is]wondrous, it must have been a wondrous designer, which we call God.

1. We don’t know much about watch making. 

It can be argued that the argument above works because we have some concept about how a watch is made. If we didn’t have this concept, then we wouldn’t be able to conclude that the watch was designed, even if it demonstrated such characteristics. This is the difference between the watch and the universe.Therefore, we cannot conclude that the universe was designed as we cannot assert what the features of design within a universe are. As a result, Paley’s argument fails because he cannot insist on the existence of God by supposed elements of “design” within the universe.

Paley considers this objection, but rejects it as, even though we don’t know how universes are made, we can still see elements of design. He uses the example of ancient objects. Although we weren’t there when they were made, we can still conclude someone designed them from the way they were put together. For example, an artefact was found of the Greek Island of Antikythera in 1902. The artefact had cogs, gears, dials and inscriptions which suggested there was a designer. Through reverse engineering scientists worked out that the artefact was something which was used in Babylon astronomy. The scientists were not there when this artefact was created, but still could see the elements of design. If this is the case, then it is not a stretch to assert that, even though we didn’t see the universe being made, we can still infer it has a designer. Therefore, it could be argued that Paley can still prove the existence of God from the elements of design within the universe.

However, Hume argues that Paley underestimates the criticism. We can infer design from ancient artefacts because they were formed under the same rules. The making of a watch is not too different from the Antikythera artefact. However, the making of the universe could be drastically different to how a watch is made. This is emphasised by Hume when he asserts that we can’t conclude from the formation of a hair how a man is formed. This means that we can’t use parts of the universe to conclude how the entire universe was formed. Therefore, Paley cannot conclude from the elements of design within the universe that there is a God that designed them as we do not have experience of how the universe was made. Therefore, Paley fails in his mission to prove the existence of God.

2. There are problems with the watch/ It does not demonstrate a perfect being/ Arguments from analogy are weak.

When we come across the watch, it is possible that parts of it may appear broken. This is the same for the universe. For some people, when they look at the world around us, they see suffering and assume that the world could not have been designed. This is promoted by Hume, who engages with the evidential problem of evil which suggests when faced with the problem of evil and suffering, it is a more likely hypothesis that God does not exist than does. Therefore, Paley’s argument fails because we cannot conclude that God exists from the elements of design within the universe because of the presence of evil, which a designer would not have put in.

However, Paley would argue that this doesn’t undermine his argument for two reasons. Firstly, it is based on the assumption that evil and suffering are errors within the universe. It could be argued that they play an important role within the universe. For instance, Hick would argue that evil and suffering develops us as people. Therefore, he would argue that evil and suffering are not mistakes with the universe, and so cannot be used to criticise the Paley’s design argument. However, this is not a sufficient argument, due to the randomness of suffering within the universe. As a result, evil and suffering can criticise Paley’s design argument and therefore, Paley’s design argument fails.

Secondly, Paley would argue that just because the universe may be broken doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a designer. If we look at a watch, the screen may be cracked or the hands may not move. However, we can still see elements of design and conclude there was a designer. In the same way, there may be faults with the universe, such as natural disasters and man-made evil. However, we can still see elements of design, such as the rotation of the planets. Therefore, Paley would argue that he can still prove the existence of God despite the problem of evil as elements of design within the universe still suggest a designer.

However, Paley fails to take into consideration the wider consequences of the problem of evil. If we assume that Paley’s argument can prove the existence of God, it is still not enough for believers and Paley. It needs to prove the God of the Bible. That is to say, a God who is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. If we were to suggest that God designed the world, then having flaws within it would suggest that God himself is flawed, and this will not do for religious believers. Therefore, not only does Paley’s account of the design argument fail to prove the existence of God, he also fails to prove that such a God would be the God of the Bible which is necessary for religious believers.

This demonstrates a wider problem with the design argument; the fact it is based on an analogy. In order for analogies to work, there needs to be great similarities between the two objects for an analogy to work. It is evident that there are extensive differences between a watch and a universe; there are hardly any similarities between the two. Even if there were, some philosophers still reject an argument from analogy as they would argue analogies only work if there is some way of verifying the conclusion independently of the analogy. As Paley’s argument is based on an analogy, then his argument is weak, and can’t prove the existence of God.

It is possible to argue that Paley’s argument doesn’t need to be based on an analogy. Without the watch, we can still assert that objects which are designed have specific features. If the universe has these features, then we can still conclude that there is evidence of design and that God designed the universe. However, this argument is not sufficient to overcome the problem of evil. As such, Paley’s argument fails to prove the existence of God.

3.The watch may have formed without a designer.

Despite the features of design within the universe, Hume still argues that it is possible that the world was formed through random process without a designer. For instance, the Epicurean Hypothesis asserts that if there are a finite series of particles in an infinite amount of time, then eventually this world would form. As a result, a designer is not required to explain the features of design within the universe and Paley’s argument is slightly weakened by this conclusion as the need for God is no longer necessary.

This argument isn’t as strong as Hume’s other arguments as it doesn’t directly attack Paley’s argument. Instead it offers a possible alternative. Also, the chances of the world being formed by random process is infinitely small. This means that a designer designing the universe is more likely than the universe being formed via random chance. Therefore, this criticism is not enough to refute Paley’s design argument. However, as we have seen, this is a tiny victory compared to the other major issues with Paley’s design argument.


Paley’s design argument is inadequate when faced with Hume’s criticisms. The crucial part to this is the fact Paley cannot prove the existence of the God of the Bible. This is because, even if Paley could overcome Hume’s other criticisms, it still would not be good enough as the argument doesn’t prove the existence of God in the way Paley wants it to. Therefore, Paley’s design argument fails. However, it should be noted just because Paley’s argument fails, the design argument does not but Swinburne’s
design argument is for another blog…

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