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intelligent design

Paley is most widely known today as the philosopher who made the clearest case for the argument from design - that is, that there is an appearance of order in the world which is best explained by the existence of an ordering mind, rather than by randomness. Paley’s presentation of the case became the locus classicus throughout the Victorian era, shaping the scientific and religious discourse at a profound level.  As is well known, Darwin found Paley’s writing the clearest and most valuable reading that he did at Cambridge (they were both members of Christ’s College, though several generations apart), and perhaps a bit like Marx claimed to have done with Hegel, Darwin gradually turned Paley on his head.  (Small wonder then, that Richard Dawkins describes himself as a “neo-paleyan” in The Blind Watchmaker.)  The fascination with natural history in Victorian Britain and North America was supported in great measure by Paley’s Natural Theology.  Increasingly, the book came to have an iconic status as science and religion began to turn hostile to each other. As religious conservatives began to come in from the intellectual wilderness after about 1960, Paley’s name, and his book, played an important role in affirming the possibility that it was possible to make a philosophical case for the “designedness” of the world.  This cultural memory of science and theology supporting each other was important, too, within more liberal traditions of Christianity, as attempts were made to build a new systematic natural theology (writers such as Paul Tillich, and “process” theologians like AN Whitehead and John Cobb come to mind).

Because Paley has had something of a revival as religious conservatives have entered public life in America (especially), he has also become a figure to be attacked and mocked by those opposing this revived religious activity in the public square. It is therefore inevitable that a site dedicated to the works of William Paley must at least acknowledge the public and emotive controversy which surrounds the conflicts between proponents of intelligent design (creationism) and those who argue for atheism and secular humanism, even if it is no intention of the editor to offer a view on the issue.

It is worth stating, however, that there is a significant middle ground in this dispute, even if the most public conflict is between these two fundamentalisms.