goldsworthy and the accidental vindication of paley

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever. Nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of the answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer, which I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there … the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use …” –William Paley, Natural Theology, 1802

”Eventually when it falls down, whether that happens in 15 years or 300 years, it will be a tumbled-down line in the ground,” he said. ”I like that idea, of a faint trace left in the land.” — Andy Goldsworthy, in “Stone Diarist”, The New York Times, May 16, 2004

Every argument for God’s existence is not without its blindspots. The same can be said for arguments against the existence of a deity, however those also come with the baggage of the problems of affirming a negative proposition. Such is not the thrust of this piece, but it warrants mentioning, if for no other reason than to be as even-handed as possible.

William Paley, a British philosopher and theologian at the turn of the 19th Century, famously articulated what is the teleological argument for the existence of God. It has been criticized–and, generally speaking, rightly so–for its shortcomings.

Andy Goldsworthy, from Rivers and Tides (courtesy,

So, several years ago, when I first viewed the documentary Rivers and Tides: Working with Time, a film concerning British landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy, I couldn’t help but think back to Philosophy 101 and Paley’s watch. And it occurred to me that Paley had the right idea, but the wrong analogy: a watch is artificial, refined, almost completely divorced from the natural elements which comprise its features and components. We might come to the same conclusion if I wandered through the woods and found an eight-track player. While we might begin to question the maker of the eight-track player (most notably, ‘what were you thinking?’), being separate from the context in which that hideous piece of 70s crap, it does not stand to reason that the world has design, just that the eight-track does.

Using the elements of nature, however,  and creating design out of the forms therein, Goldsworthy forces us to reconsider the teleological argument, this time within the confines of the immediate context. In so doing, he has vindicated Paley’s intention and has shaped the teleological argument in a way which is considerably more formidable.

The famed philosopher Antony Flew moved away from a strict atheist position in his final work, There is a God, in which he proffered an argument to design from order: design qua design is not enough, and order qua order is similarly insufficient, but [admittedly over-simplified] order –> design –> designer stood to reason, as far as Flew was concerned. It should also be noted that Flew did not, as far as we know, lunge to a Christian theism, but rather conceded that the evidence pointed to a creative force, or god.

Goldsworthy, ‘Stone and Tree’. (courtesy

Goldsworthy’s work gives illustrative force to Flew’s argument and recapitulates Paley. The use of natural elements within a natural context demonstrates design and order, and these works of art leave us no doubt as to a conscious creative force behind it. Goldsworthy is the god of his output, as Edison was the god of the light bulb and the phonograph: others may operate within the idiom, but it comes from a distinguishable noun. One may not know anything about that particular noun, but what can be abductively concluded is that because something must come from something, either a violent storm left this or that someone designed it as such, and that the inference to the best explanation is the latter rather than the former. Paley’s problem was that the watch was the orange–or in this case, perhaps a package of Tang–in the heath’s apple orchard.

While, again admittedly, Goldsworthy-as-Paley doesn’t prove the existence of yhwh, or give us reason to believe the faith claim of Christ’s resurrection, in good faith, it should force us at least to revisit the teleological argument with a fresh perspective, and perhaps concede that Paley wasn’t that far off the mark in his rationale, just in the analogy he employs.

At the very least, for those of us like myself who appreciate collegial mental calisthenics, it gives us something to think about. If what remains is little more than ‘a faint trace left in the land’, even faint traces should give us pause.


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