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The Watches of Paul Newman and William Paley

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Author: Tony Edger
Date: 2024-06-11 03:15:00
Blog: Fossils and Other Living Things


Visiting a watch manufactory is a soothing experience during chaotic times, and the painfully slow assembly of these beautiful objects may well fall under the heading of "God's work." Gary Shteyngart, Confessions of a Watch Geek, The  New Yorker, March 13, 2017. This is a post about real watches and one hypothetical watch.  The hypnotic appeal of the real watches helps explain the power of the hypothetical watch which was used to create a logical argument for the existence of God and divine creation.  Darwin undid that argument. I recently rediscovered a small bag containing items that I removed from my father's safe deposit box after he died.  It included this pocket watch (in the second photo, the back of the case has been removed). It reminded me how easy it is to strip an object of its personal history:  just separate it from its owner.  From the notes my late mother wrote describing the contents of safe deposit box, it's not clear whose watch this was.  Even if I assume it belonged to my maternal grandfather (probably true), I still have no idea how he acquired it or whether he used it.  Nevertheless, for me, this watch or any mechanical watch remains potentially full of stories and abounds with attractive qualities.  Identifying who made a watch and when is frequently possible from the watch face, the case, or the interior of the piece.  Even absent such knowledge, the inner workings of a mechanical watch are still mesmerizing and the source of nearly endless pleasure, particularly if the watch actually works.  The sheer complexity of its parts and their careful and intricate arrangement which accomplishes the intended end of telling time are wondrous, a testament to human ingenuity. This particular 17-jewel timepiece, labelled "Official RR Standard," was assembled and sold by the Ball Watch Company of Cleveland, Ohio.  According to the PocketWatchDatabase, it was probably assembled in 1905, part of a run of nearly 72,000 watches.  At the turn of century, Webb C. Ball, owner of the Ball Watch Company, capitalized on the need for accurate clocks and watches for the safe and efficient operation of the nation's railroads.  The company apparently did not manufacture the watches, but assembled them, or had them assembled, from parts made by other companies to exacting standards Ball established.  In due time, he was appointed the "chief of time services" on many railroads; 125,000 miles of railroad tracks were under his purview early in the 20th century.  "He had the authority to set the standards for watches carried by railroad employees."  (Robert Winslow, Webb C. Ball and the Railroads, Watch & Clock Bulletin, January/February, 2013.  See also, The Ball Watch Company on the Antique Clock Guy website.)  Presumably this pocket watch met the demanding criteria Ball set for the railroads. As I was exploring the general history of this watch, I slowly realized that the current soundtrack to my days (that is, what is being looped on my phone) - the 2021 album See the World by the incomparable Brett Dennen - includes the song titled Paul Newman Daytona Rolex. Here are the first two stanzas: I never been accused of being fancy  I'm not stupid with my money, honey, I could be stupid for free  I took it to the Antique Road Show They told me it was worth a boat load  But I'm never gonna sell it, my grandaddy gave it to me Paul Newman Daytona Rolex  Perpetual motion you know this  Second hand smoother than Cool Hand  No tickin' for real  It makes me feel like time is on my side  Time is on my side  'Cause, baby, I'm a man from another time I had no idea what a Paul Newman Daytona Rolex was.  Turns out that's not an official Rolex name.  The company created the first Daytona watch in 1963 which featured an "exotic" dial (three-colored); the watch proved singularly unpopular (the exotic dial was part of its then limited appeal).  Nevertheless,  Joanne Woodward bought her husband Paul Newman a Daytona in either 1968 or 1969, and Newman wore the watch constantly as evidenced by the myriad photographs in which it appears on his wrist.  The Daytona watch was designed particularly for timing car races, hence the name invoking the Daytona International Speedway in Florida.  Newman himself was a dedicated race car driver.  In time, the early models of the Daytona, like the one Newman wore, grew in appeal to collectors and dealers and, because those models were so intimately associated the actor, came to be called the Paul Newman Daytona.  Apparently, some 2,000 to 3,000 of these watches are in existence and they command a premium price on the watch market.  Of course, the particular Daytona that Newman owned and wore is one of a kind, and, when it came up for auction in 2017, sold for an unprecedented $17,752,500. (For background on the watch, see Cara Barret, The Sale of Paul Newman's Rolex Daytona, The Most Expensive Wristwatch Ever, Hodinkee, October 27, 2017; Hyla Ames Bauer, Paul Newman's 'Paul Newman' Rolex Daytona Sells for $17.8 Million, A Record for a Wristwatch at Auction, Forbes Magazine, October 26, 2017; and Catherine Bishop, All You Need to Know about the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, Swisswatches Magazine, August 8, 2021.) How to account for the incredible appeal of Rolex Daytona (or is that "Daytona Rolex" as some like Brennen have it?) wrist watches?  Well, the early Daytona models are actually quite attractive timepieces, despite being initially unpopular.  Perhaps it's the limited number of these early models that is available that has fueled their desirability.  Still, much, if not most of the cachet is clearly because these watches became such an intimate part of the Newman mystique.  The actor was and is a Hollywood icon, to his fans, a god.  Brett Dennen offers another take on its desirability.  In his song, he is alluding to the timeless appeal of this model Rolex; that it draws its owner out of the present and links them to a deeper history, one presumably including Paul Newman.  He's also, I think, positing that over time the Paul Newman Daytona Rolex will only become more and more popular and valuable. There's so much to a watch. With watches on my mind, I suppose it wasn't completely out of left field that my thoughts segued at some juncture to William Paley's hypothetical watch that has played a central role in the debate over the anti-evolution construct of intelligent design.  Paley, an English clergyman and philosopher, wrote, among other tracts, Natural Theology:  or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802).  (The quotations below from his Natural Philosophy are from a 1848 edition.)  It's an over 500-page-long book presenting a closely argued exposition of how nature proves the existence and benevolence of God. Paley opened the book by imagining that, if he were to be walking across the heath and stumble on a rock, there would be nothing to infer about the rock's origins.  (Well, actually, I think there would be much to infer were he knowledgeable about geology, but never mind.)  As far he would be concerned, the rock could quite possibly have been resting there forever.  But, in contrast, were his foot to hit a watch, there would be a great deal to surmise about this object, first of which is that it could not have lain there for eons.  Examination of the watch would reveal that its parts were assembled for an explicit purpose:  telling time.  He offered a rather detailed description of various parts of a functioning watch, showing clearly that a watch consists of a complex arrangement of many parts, and that Paley knew his watches.  Central to his argument is the following: The inference, we think, is inevitable; that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at sometime 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.  (1848 edition, p. 6) I have not read much of Paley's long treatise.  Rather, my understanding of his arguments about God is drawn largely from analyses by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould:  principally his magnum opus The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002, pages 121 et seq. and pages 262 et seq.); and his essay titled Darwin and Paley Meet the Invisible Hand appearing in Eight Little Piggies:  Reflections in Natural History (1994).  (The literature that considers Paley's argument about God in light of evolution through natural selection is quite vast.  One of the more influential pieces that argues persuasively against anything like Paley's position is The Blind Watchmaker:  Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design by Richard Dawkins (1986).) Gould posited that, for Paley, it was not the complexity of the watch that was key (though it was important), rather, it was that the watch was clearly designed for an explicit purpose.  The evident configuration of the watch to address a specific need argued conclusively for Paley that there had to have been a watchmaker, that is, a designer.  He applied this line of reasoning to the many complex organic structures found in the natural world that are evidently well adapted for their intended purposes; one of his favorite examples was the human eye.  He argued that these complex structures far outshone those of a watch in terms of complexity and purpose.  He concluded, The marks of design [in nature] are too strong to be gotten over.  Design must have a designer.  That designer must have been a person.  That person is God.  (p. 246) Paley went further, arguing that the design and harmony one sees in such features of the natural world show that God is himself benevolent and harmonious. Despite his closely reasoned argument, Paley comes up well short of his intended mark, not because of some inherent flaws in his logic (though there are those, one of which I consider below), but because he did not account for a powerful force that we now know operates in nature, a force that plays havoc with his conclusions.  Gould analyzed how Charles Darwin, in Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), decimated Paley's Natural Theology.  Darwin, who had studied Paley and was influenced by him, refuted him in the most fatal way possible.  Darwin, wrote Gould, could agree that "Nature features exquisite adaptation at overwhelming relative frequency."  (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, p. 120-121)  But Darwin toppled Paley by holding that this order, the very basis of Paley's inference about the nature of God, arises not directly from omnipotent benevolence, but only as a side-consequence of a causal principle of entirely opposite import - namely, as the incidental effect of organisms struggling for their own benefit, expressed as reproductive success.  Could any argument be more subversive?  [Darwin] accepts the conventional observation, but then offers an explanation that not only inverts orthodoxy, but seems to mock the standard interpretation in a manner that could almost be called cruel.  (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, p. 120-121) So, evolution by means of natural selection brings down the edifice of logic that Paley constructed so carefully, and it's not a force that one could argue reflects the character of a benevolent deity or any deity for that matter.  It's a force without design.  Keep in mind, though, that it's not random, rather, it's constrained by natural selection's constant testing of organisms.  The test is whether an organism survives and reproduces.  As Gould observed succinctly in a footnote which discusses the potential opponents to his natural theology that Paley identified and disposed of: He never imagines that good order could also emerge as a residue of trying many things out and rejecting most.  (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, p. 263, footnote) The complicated organic structures that, for Paley, were reflections of the genius of God, the master craftsman, e.g., eyes, are in fact often jury-rigged by evolution from whatever is at hand, resulting in constructs that no such craftsman would employ, such as having the optic nerve in the human eye pass through the retina creating a blind spot.  Further, our complex eyes came into being through an incredibly large number of iterations, evolving through many organic configurations bearing little resemblance to human eyes as we know them, but offering in some measure the benefit of sight.  (See, for example, Sean Carroll, The Big Picture:  On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, 2016, p. 289-290.) Gould's characterization that evolution through natural selection tries things out and accepts only a few leads me to mention what I believe is an inherent flaw in the scenario with which Paley begins Natural Theology.  I recognize that Paley intended the watch to be an inferior though impressive analogue for the complex and functional organic structures one finds in nature.  But the logic that Paley applied to the watch - that it is so clearly built and organized with a specific purpose in mind which it well serves - ignores the fact that any watch someone walking across the heath in the early 1800s stumbled upon was not the product of a design that some watchmaker created out of whole cloth.  Rather, a watch, even in the early 1800s, was the product of experimentation over centuries, a process marked by partial or total failures.  In time, successful configurations, initially some with only limited ability to measure time, were built upon; Paley's watch had evolved in fits and starts, hardly the mark of a process in the hands of an all-knowing, omnipotent craftsman.  There was no single watchmaker, but rather many, and no single blueprint for a watch, but many, some better than others.  In a marvelous book on the history of watches, the author Rebecca Struthers, a consummate watchmaker, summed this up: All of these early mechanical devices were suffused with the sheer joy of experimentation and discovery, the result of trial, error and endless possibility.  (Hands of Time:  A Watchmaker's History, (2023)) A beautiful mechanical watch, such as the Paul Newman Daytona or the hypothetical one Paley stubbed his toe on, couldn't spontaneously arise from the workings of natural laws, but natural selection can certainly generate a wonderfully complex organ such as an eye, and has done so multiple times in multiple configurations over the eons.

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