Glenn Branch's picture

Not Bishop Paley

I have a soft spot for William Paley, although his Natural Theology (1802) is regarded as helping to inspire the “intelligent design” movement. A few years ago, when NCSE was discussing the establishment of a spoof award to be conferred upon the most egregious creationist of the year, there was a suggestion that it be called the Paley, and I took strong exception. As I wrote in a review of a new edition of Paley’s Natural Theology, published in Sophia in 2008, “There is indeed a resemblance between Paley’s natural theology and today’s so-called intelligent design movement: both seek to infer the existence of a designer from the appearance of design in nature. But whereas Paley was not guilty of misrepresenting the established science of this day to extract his theological conclusions, the proponents of intelligent design are, as Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross thoroughly document in their Creationism’s Trojan Horse, not similarly operating in good faith.”

I’m not alone, either. In The Blind Watchmaker (1987)—named in homage to the analogy that Paley popularized in Natural Theology—Richard Dawkins counts himself a fan, writing that Natural Theology is “a book that I greatly admire...Paley’s argument is made with passionate sincerity and is informed by the best biological scholarship of the day,” although, of course, “it is wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong.” In his autobiography, Charles Darwin himself mentions having read Paley’s Natural Theology as well as his View of the Evidences of Christianity and Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy at Cambridge University: “The careful study of these works...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.” That ought to be adequate authority for the proposition that Paley ought to be treated with a modicum of respect.

And that modicum of respect includes, I submit, referring to him by the proper title. When Paley died in 1805, he was the Archdeacon of Carlisle, a post to which he ascended in 1782; it was the highest ecclesiastical position to which he attained. He was never elevated to the episcopate; he never had a see of his own; he never became a bishop. (I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.) And yet, reputable scholars writing in books published by respectable presses continue to refer to a mysterious personage, Bishop Paley. Five recent examples:

  • Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature (2012), p. 557, n. 11: “The title [of Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker] implicitly parodies Bishop Paley’s notion that organisms, like watches, could only have been created by an intelligent designer with a purpose in mind.”
  • Marvin H. Krieger, Doing Physics, 2nd edition (2012), p. 143: “...what Bishop Paley (1802) more or less assumed (and Hume had earlier mocked) in saying that the complexity and orderliness of the universe as we know it is a sign of God’s design...”
  • David N. Reznick, The Origin Then and Now (2010), p. 23: “While Bishop Paley argued that such intricate beauty was a product of design, Darwin showed that it was instead a product of natural selection that provided a mechanism to attract insect pollinators, efficiently transmit pollen to other flowers, and thus reproduce.” I might add that although the first mention of Paley in The Origin Then and Now correctly styles him as “Archdeacon William Paley” (p. 9), he is promoted to “Archbishop Paley” later (p. 239).
  • Alexander Rosenberg, Darwinian Reductionism (2008), p. 102: “To suppose otherwise is to accord to nature, or whatever it is that natural selection depends on, the very sort of mentality, purpose, or design that Bishop Paley hoped for and Charles Darwin expunged from nature.”
  • Richard C. Francis, Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions (2004), p. 166: “But evolutionary psychologists, the most unreconstructed teleologists to take the stage as scientists to date, do not seriously consider this possibility. They are the truest heirs of Bishop Paley.”

To these five, I may—and shall—add two examples that crossed my desk recently and thereby provoked my current complaint: the entry for “The Watchmaker Analogy” in 1001 Ideas that Changed the Way We Think (2013), edited by Robert Arp, which I mentioned in “Creationism and Evolution in 1001 Ideas,” and David Lindley’s Degrees Kelvin (2004, p. 213), in which I found the sentence, “He [Kelvin] would not relinquish the role of a Creator and suggested that Bishop Paley’s old argument from design had been too lightly abandoned.”

You might be wondering, of course, why Paley never became a bishop. The Life and Works of Paley, assembled by his son Edmund Paley, offers a possible explanation. Paley’s first book, Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), contained the following analogy, not calculated to flatter the propertied classes of Augustan Britain:

If you should see a flock of pigeons in a field of corn; and if (instead of each picking where and what it liked, taking just as much as it wanted, and no more) you should see ninety-nine of them gathering all they got, into a heap; reserving nothing for themselves, but the chaff and the refuse; keeping this heap for one, and that the weakest, perhaps worst, pigeon of the flock; sitting round, and looking on, all the winter, whilst this one was devouring, throwing about, and wasting it; and if a pigeon more hardy or hungry than the rest, touched a grain of the hoard, all the others instantly flying upon it, and tearing it to pieces; if you should see this, you would see nothing more than what is every day practised and established among men.

According to the Life and Works, Paley’s friend John Law, Bishop of Elphin, warned him, “that passage about the pigeons will not go down; it may prevent your being a bishop.” “Well,” Paley replied, “Bishop or no bishop, it shall stand.” But there’s also evidence that “Pigeon Paley” just wasn’t particularly interested in ecclesiastical advancement.

I honestly have no idea why people mistakenly promote Paley to the episcopate. At one point, I thought that maybe it was the prominence of Anglican bishops in various intellectual controversies since the Scientific Revolution—George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, who resisted materialism in the eighteenth century; Joseph Butler, Bishop of Durham, who opposed deism in the eighteenth century; John Colenso, Bishop of Natal, who challenged literalism in the nineteenth century; Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, who criticized evolution in the nineteenth century; and so on—that was responsible; maybe people, seeing so many bishops immersed in intellectual controversies, assume that any divine so involved must be a bishop. This is much like assuming that every officer in the Civil War was a general, though, so it seems hard to credit as a general explanation of what is a widespread phenomenon.

The promotion of Paley to the rank of bishop is not only widespread but longstanding. When I poked desultorily around Google Books, the earliest reference I saw to “Bishop Paley” was in volume 4, number 2, of the Mechanics’ Magazine and Register of Inventions and Improvements. (How come periodicals don’t have names like that any more?) The magazine ran a putatively stirring quotation as the epigraph to each issue, apparently, and the one for this particular issue was taken from the final chapter of Natural Theology: “if one train of thinking be more desirable than another, it is that which regards the phenomena of nature with a constant reference to a supreme intelligent author...The world from [t]henceforth becomes a temple, and life itself one continued act of adoration”—credited, lamentably, to “Bishop Paley.” The issue was published in 1834. Surely 180 years of error on such a simple point is enough!