The Divine (or Blind) Watchmaker

William Paley, author of Natural Theology, a series of converging inferences on the existence of divine creation.

One of the reoccurring ideas in Of Woodbridge and Hedgely is that of clockwork, as is analogously applies to the solar system, evolutionary mechanics, and to the local ecosystem of the forest that exists between the two towns (and to the distortion of time during an acute romantic moment at the end of chapter five).

The antagonists tend to apply it in two manners:  1) as an argument that the universe/world/earth was intelligently designed, in homage to William Paley’s Natural Theology; and 2) as a foundation to their argument that evolution cannot explain the present state of the earth’s biology.  They argue that, regarding a pocket watch, if one component of the clockwork – say as spring, lever or gear – was to change shape (or perhaps metallurgic properties) that the watch would fail to function; and then such is analogically applied to the idea of evolution:  if one animal or plant were to change, this too could be detrimental to the entire system; and thus if there is no detriment being witnessed, then the concept of evolution is wrong.  Such is most eloquently expressed in chapter six of the novel, in the antagonist’s propaganda pamphlet, in which the author, Mr. Princep, writes:

‘…Should we be so bold as to disrupt supreme authority, as well as the simplest common sense, in venturing beyond the notion that the Lord without question has the capacity to create a cow, a hen or a hog in but one day, further insisting that he has done so? Whatever for would a brilliant creator of heaven and earth waste a thousand, or ten thousand, or a million years doing what he could do in a day? As to the supposed mechanism let us dispel it by considering the following: Firstly, that as all of creation may easily be compared to a supreme apparatus – let us say a great clock – constructed by our Lord, the Watchmaker – and this is not too burdensome to conceive when we observe the perfect motion of our heavenly bodies – it must thusly follow that each animal and plant tribe upon our earth are but tiny gears or instruments whom do play small but vital roles to the continuance of our Clock’s right motion. Therefore if but one part is corrupted, the entire machine becomes lost; and every right clockmaker or engineer knows that the resilience of their parts against such corrosion is vital to the longevity of that from which they are made; the weakest gear or assembly being the limiting factor. Would not then our heavenly Watchmaker to his fullest capacity ensure that the weakest gear in His great Clock, be it animal, plant, or other have an inextinguishable fortitude against corruption? To say otherwise is atheism…

This argument is deficient in that it is ignorant of the phenomenon of extinction, which was still a new concept in the early 19th century, derived from Cuvier’s examination of northern hemispheric mammoth bones,  but was ironically known to the protagonists, through parson Jonathan Moore’s science lectures.  The argument is also ignorant of the basic mechanics of evolution where species can ‘react’ to, or with the environment, sometimes fluidly, to become better equipped to survive its tribulations; a somewhat pertinent, though imperfect, analogy of this being that of an old, worn gear in a watch being replaced with better made one; its excellence naturally derived from the original piece’s experience.  And at one point in the novel this antagonistic argument is stifled by Mr. Winter’s dispelling of artificial rigidity of the earth system, when he rejects the parroting out of the talking point by an indoctrinated field worker:

‘An’ how many times must it be pounded, sirs – th’ world is but a clock made by Divinity, with gears that cannot become molest’d…’

‘Or else they do, causing the gears adjacent to do so as well, and then those tertiary members respectively having their turn; and so on throughout until by the appreciation of deep time an entirely new clock is born! Good afternoon, gentlemen’, piped up the lonely gentleman that had been keeping to himself in the corner as he rose to quit the room.  

‘Oh, oh! Damn my eyes – it ‘twas the Frenchman!’, cried one of the Hedgely’s as the man exited the inn.    

‘The Mr. Winter?’

‘Oh, he was in disguise without his Napoleon’s jacket!’  

‘He’s sure to go directly to Mr. Moore and we are all to be hung!’ 

Yet it was the propagandist’s style of argument that allowed the religiously indoctrinated to so readily grab hold of the concept.  In chapter six, Mr. Princep explains his methods of argument:

‘Whilst I know not of any one piece of philosophical information that can comprehensively break their entire lot, we must however constantly strive to create the perception that such can be done, or has already been done. Indeed in a contradistinguishing fashion to one sole, all-smiting stroke, we, to the greatest effect, thus work in the realm gratuitous rhetoric, the like to a London barrister weaving a case by multiple strands, the greater of these appealing to an audience not necessarily on any logical ground, but in a manner rhetorical, political, emotive, or otherwise. To be sure, we will have our moments for a given strand: we may find a careless error in our adversary’s argument and work to turn such into a very great thing indeed. But the better part must be attractive enough, even in cases of broken reason, that it remains effective; in fact it’s probably most efficacious not to subject any strand to the focus on first principles or evidence. By this style of argument, several strands may buckle or break, but if the majority stay intact then we give ourselves the finest cause to be the victors. And for every strand our adversary produces, we need only continuously produce two against it to legitimize our stand against him’. 

This is also the method in which the modern climate denial propagandists (conservative think tanks, Fox News, &c.) get their audience stirred up.  And further down the page Mr. Princep states:

‘For the material that is relevant to your particular country towns sirs, sharp wit is not our instrument; rather the opposite: We must solicit the admiration of dullards that hold the way of the world, not in long drawn out passages, but in quick bites of ‘truths’ that are easily clapped onto: casual observances that work more times than not, even if but near half of those, yet which they will grasp onto most angrily on all occasion as a function of they being so readily understood, and by their holder’s frailty of mind in the presence of the unfamiliar, or that which is troublesome to smoke…’

‘An egg in the pudding is worth two in the bush, sir?’

‘To that effect, yes; our arguments must be the like to such. However the pamphlet itself is the better exemple: Do I not know my audience when I provide, “Why would God do in ten thousand years, what he could do in a day?”? I believe they very much delight in a sprightly little sting such as that’, returned Mr. Princep.

‘Oh, Mr. Princep – there you have it! You’ve knocked them all flat with but a handful of wit! I had read it of course in our publication, but not until this moment, when you’d pressed upon it, did I gather its full capacity!’, cried the preacher.

‘Y-yes sir, indeed’, their author returned in another fit of blinking.

Basically, Mr. Princep is arguing for the use of an easily remembered meme or talking point that sounds witty or clever, even though the notion is, more often than not, veritably false or misleading.  The concept of offering a Gish gallop of ‘strands’ of information to form a rhetorical argument was something I came across when reading the introduction to William Paley’s Natural Theology:

page xx, Introduction, Natural Theology
page xxi, Introduction, Natural Theology

And it may be incidentally noted, having now displayed part of this well done introduction, that Paley’s early 19th century work was getting the ball rolling on the denial of evolution by 1) misunderstanding its mechanics and then applying straw-man arguments against such.  [This is easy enough to do since all he had to work with at that point was Erasmus Darwin, possibly Lamarck (though I believe Lamarck’s theory was published after Natural Theology, if I’m not mistaken), and other immature hypotheses; The Origin of Species was still more than half a century away; whilst Jame’s Hutton’s chapter hinting at natural selection was tucked away in a book consisting of thousands of pages, the volume discouraging its reading.  And indeed, it’s hard to even give Paley this handicap, as one of the fundamental tenants in Darwin’s and Lamark’s evolutionary philosophy is that species evolve in reaction to evolutionary pressure:  Erasmus Darwin even lists three facets to this in the his chapter on generation in Zoonomia: mating advantages, advantages in food acquisition, and advantages in the dissuasion of predators];  2) by misapplying probabilistic reasoning; and 3) by his ignorance of the phenomenon of extinction.

I’ve showcased some of Paley’s fallacies in my novel, again using the antagonist propaganda pamphlet, The Balanced Scale, which quotes from him the following:

“…There is another answer which has the same effect as the resolving of things into chance; which would persuade us to believe that the eye, the animal to which it belongs, every other animal, every plant, indeed every organized body which we see are only so many out of the possible varieties and combinations of being, which the lapse of infinite ages has brought into existence; that the present world is the relic of that variety; millions of other bodily forms and other species having perished, being by the defect of their constitutions incapable of preservation, or of continuance by generation. Now there is no foundation whatever for this conjecture in anything which we observe in the works of nature; no such experiments are going on at present; no such energy operates as that which is here supposed, and which should be constantly pushing into existence new varieties of beings: Nor are there any appearances to support an opinion, that every possible combination of vegetable or animal structure has formerly been tried. Multitudes of conformations, both of vegetables and animals, may be conceived capable of existence and succession which yet do not exist. Perhaps almost as many forms of plants might have been found in the fields, as figures of plants can be delineated upon paper. A countless variety of animals might have existed which do not exist. Upon the supposition here stated, we should see unicorns and mermaids, sylphs and centaurs, the fancies of painters, and the fables of poets, realized by examples. Or if it be alleged that these may transgress the limits of possible life and propagation, we might at least have nations of human beings without nails upon their fingers, with more or fewer fingers and toes than ten, some with one eye, others with one ear, with one nostril, or without the sense of smelling at all…”

And of course everything that gets published in The Balanced Scale eventually gets parroted out by the uneducated Baptist field workers, no doubt in the same smug, Dunning-Kruger inspired cockiness that is to be found inside informal internet conversations, concerning climate change, &c.:

‘Rain an’ shine mates, an’ what be th’ newest on centaurs an’ fairies?’

‘Centaurs and fairies, sir?’, returned one of the Woodbridge’s, genuinely confounded.

‘An’ mermaids’.

The locals looked amongst themselves for answers that did not materialize, and when a consensus of ignorance was established they peered back at the Hedgely with pursed lips and furrowed brows that he may issue his point, for it was clear he was gaming them.

‘Does your parson not preach that man’s arisen directly from emmets an’ worms?’    

‘No sir, he does not!’

‘That from th’ Great First Seed all creatures are sprung?’

There he had them. They understood their opponent’s design, and consequently their faces hotly flushed beyond that of the effects of their grog and they began to lightly pant, for the last time transmutation became the subject of debate, noses were broken and eyes were blackened. Unmade they appeared, for some among them were not viscerally convinced by all of Mr. Darwin, and what cognitive impartiality they had mustered for the sake of Jonathan Moore had been wounded by their recent revelation that the parson personally included man in the fold of animals that had gradually formed from microscopic beings – a tough nut to crack for many in their community who had been told otherwise all their lives by the very man. Indeed it might have been their lack of enthusiasm in defending the poet-doctor’s ideas with their own that had brought the debate so rapidly to a scuffle during their last assembly.  

But let us now wrap back around to the concept of clockwork for the final leg of this posting and illuminate some of the protagonists’ thoughts – namely Mr. Winter’s – on the ecology of the local forest, and on the experience of romantic lust within it, with such in mind.   Upon walking through the forest in the first chapter of the novel – that which seeks to paint its setting – Mr. Winter comes to the following epiphany:

But the forest needed no such attention: the thirsty Willow arranged itself by water courses; the autumn leaves and the offerings of the birds, squirrels, and every other creature present manured the soil and enlivened it, that there were no areas fallow or need be so. Pestilence was held in check, Mr. Winter rationalized, as function of the rich variation of flora and fauna of the wood, for just as agrarian fields were less susceptible to disease as their contents became more varied season by season through the introduction of rotation, such manifested exponentially here, though he admitted that the mechanics of this were still partly a mystery. And acts of man, be they structures, paths, or otherwise, if left in want of attention would be reclaimed by the forest, similar to the body’s reaction to a minor cut or wound. It was as if the wood was a great perpetual clock having hundreds to thousands of working parts which were self-righting and self-tinkering, that all gave and received from each other purpose.

And in chapter five, we have his moment of passion, in which scientific notions on this clockwork are replaced with poetic ones:

Mr. Winter felt the passage of time become gnarled as if the great perpetual clock of the wood was gently amiss: some ten fathoms above, the wind did dart to and fro through their tree’s oldest branches, causing sharpened wisps of sound to cry ‘hurry’ to the already shortened day; but below there was no such haste: Droplets lazily fell from the lowest branches and quietly and flatly puttered upon the forest litter, and the gusts were never quite so quarrelsome as to be the cause of their reddened cheeks. He was vaguely aware of the harm he was then to accomplish, but more so he was paradoxically at ease, for this woman calmed him and kept him from suffering the work of the clock, that he was indifferent to the consequences of the next year, the next month, or the next day.    

And I believe that’s all the other great perpetual clock has for me this evening…