Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit

The Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit is a counter-argument to modern versions of the argument from design for the existence of God. It was introduced by Richard Dawkins in chapter 4 of his 2006 book The God Delusion, "Why there almost certainly is no God".

The argument is a play on the notion of a "tornado sweeping through a junkyard to assemble a Boeing 747" employed to decry abiogenesis and evolution as vastly unlikely and better explained by the existence of a creator god. According to Dawkins, this logic is self-defeating as the theist must now account for the god's existence and explain whether or how the god was created. In his view, if the existence of highly complex life on Earth is the equivalent of the implausible junkyard Boeing 747, the existence of a highly complex god is the "ultimate Boeing 747" that truly does require the seemingly impossible to explain its existence.

Context and history

Richard dawkins lecture
The "ultimate Boeing 747 gambit" was originally proposed by Richard Dawkins in his 2006 book The God Delusion.

Richard Dawkins begins The God Delusion by making it clear that the God he talks about is the Abrahamic concept of a personal god who is susceptible to worship. He considers the existence of such an entity to be a scientific question, because a universe with such a god would be significantly different from a universe without one, and he says that the difference would be empirically discernible. Therefore, Dawkins concludes, the same kind of reasoning can be applied to the God hypothesis as to any other scientific question.

After discussing some of the most common arguments for the existence of God in chapter 3, Dawkins concludes that the argument from design is the most convincing. The extreme improbability of life and a universe capable of hosting it requires explanation, but Dawkins considers the God hypothesis inferior to evolution by natural selection as an explanation for the complexity of life. As part of his efforts to refute intelligent design, he redirects the argument from complexity in order to show that God must have been designed by a superintelligent designer, then presents his argument for the improbability of God's existence.[1]

Dawkins's name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the "Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit". This is an allusion to the junkyard tornado. Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who was a Darwinist, atheist, anti-theist and advocate of the panspermia theory of life,[n 1] is reported as having stated that the "probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747."[2] Arguments against empirically based theism date back at least as far as the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, whose objection can be paraphrased as the question "Who designed the designer?". According to philosopher Daniel Dennett, however – one of Dawkins's fellow "brights" – the innovation in Dawkins's argument is twofold: to show that where design fails to explain complexity, evolution by natural selection succeeds as the only workable solution; and to argue how this should illuminate the confusion surrounding the anthropic principle.[n 2][3]

Dawkins's statement

Dawkins summarizes his argument as follows;[4] the references to "crane" and "skyhook" are to notions from Daniel Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

  1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
  2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.
  3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a "crane", not a "skyhook"; for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.
  4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that – an illusion.
  5. We don't yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.
  6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.

A central thesis of the argument is that compared to supernatural abiogenesis, evolution by natural selection requires the supposition of fewer hypothetical processes; according to Occam's razor, therefore, it is a better explanation. Dawkins cites a paragraph where Richard Swinburne agrees that a simpler explanation is better but reasons that theism is simpler because it only invokes a single substance (God) as a cause and maintainer of every other object. This cause is seen as omnipotent, omniscient and totally "free". Dawkins argues that an entity that monitors and controls every particle in the universe and listens to all thoughts and prayers cannot be simple. Its existence would require a "mammoth explanation" of its own. The theory of natural selection is much simpler – and thus preferable – than a theory of the existence of such a complex being.[5]

Dawkins then turns to a discussion of Keith Ward's views on divine simplicity to show the difficulty "the theological mind has in grasping where the complexity of life comes from." Dawkins writes that Ward is sceptical of Arthur Peacocke's ideas that evolution is directed by other forces than only natural selection and that these processes may have a propensity toward increasing complexity. Dawkins says that this scepticism is justified, because complexity does not come from biased mutations. Dawkins writes:

[Natural selection], as far as we know, is the only process ultimately capable of generating complexity out of simplicity. The theory of natural selection is genuinely simple. So is the origin from which it starts. That which it explains, on the other hand, is complex almost beyond telling: more complex than anything we can imagine, save a God capable of designing it.[6]

Assessment and criticism

Theist authors have presented extensive opposition, most notably by theologian Alister McGrath (in The Dawkins Delusion?) and philosophers Alvin Plantinga[7][8] and Richard Swinburne.[9] Another negative review, by biologist H. Allen Orr, sparked heated debate, prompting, for example, the mathematician Norman Levitt to ask why theologians are assumed to have the exclusive right to write about who "rules" the universe.[10] Daniel Dennett also took exception to Orr's review, leading to an exchange of open letters between himself and Orr.[11] The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny also considers this argument to be flawed.[12] Cosmologist Stephen Barr[13] responded as follows: "Paley finds a watch and asks how such a thing could have come to be there by chance. Dawkins finds an immense automated factory that blindly constructs watches, and feels that he has completely answered Paley's point."[14]

Simplicity of God and materialist assumptions

Both Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne raise the objection that God is not complex. Swinburne gives two reasons why a God that controls every particle can be simple: first, a person, as indicated by phenomena such as split-brains, is not the same as their highly complex brain but "is something simpler" that can "control" that brain; and second, simplicity is a quality that is intrinsic to a hypothesis, not related to its empirical consequences.[9]

Plantinga writes:

So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex. More remarkable, perhaps, is that according to Dawkins's own definition of complexity, God is not complex. According to his definition (set out in The Blind Watchmaker), something is complex if it has parts that are "arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone." But of course God is a spirit, not a material object at all, and hence has no parts. A fortiori (as philosophers like to say) God doesn't have parts arranged in ways unlikely to have arisen by chance. Therefore, given the definition of complexity Dawkins himself proposes, God is not complex."

He continues:

"But second, suppose we concede, at least for purposes of argument, that God is complex. Perhaps we think the more a being knows, the more complex it is; God, being omniscient, would then be highly complex. Given materialism and the idea that the ultimate objects in our universe are the elementary particles of physics, perhaps a being that knew a great deal would be improbable – how could those particles get arranged in such a way as to constitute a being with all that knowledge? Of course we aren't given materialism.[8]

In other words, Plantinga concludes that this argument, to be valid, would require materialism to be true; but, as materialism is not compatible with traditional theology, the argument begs the question by requiring its premise to assume God's non-existence.[8]

In an extensive analysis published in Science and Christian Belief, Patrick Richmond suggests that "Dawkins is right to object to unexplained organised complexity in God" but that God is simply specified and lacks the sort of composition and limitations found in [physical] creatures; hence the theist can explain why nature exists without granting unexplained organised complexity or the extreme improbability of God.[15]

Some respondents, such as Stephen Law, have suggested that God is or would indeed be complex if responsible for creating and sustaining the universe;[16] God's omniscience would require the retention of and ability to use all knowledge. Concepts such as Kolmogorov complexity have also been used to argue that God is or would need to be complex.[17]

Necessity of external explanations

There are many variations on how to express this objection. William F. Vallicella holds that organized complexity as such does not need explanation, because when in search of an ultimate explanation, one must in the end accept an entity whose complexity has no external explanation.[18] Dawkins has stated that we should search for simple beginnings for explanations, like in evolution which moves from simple to complex, and so what we ultimately accept with no external explanation must be simple for it to be a good explanation.[19] And Plantinga writes that when not in search for an ultimate explanation of organized complexity, it is perfectly fine to explain one kind of complexity, that of terrestrial life, in terms of another kind of complexity, namely divine activity.[8] Dawkins addresses this point in his debate with John Lennox over The God Delusion, saying that it would be perfectly reasonable to infer from artifacts on earth or another planet that an intelligence existed, but that you would still need to explain that intelligence, which evolution does, while for God's existence there is no such explanation.[19]

Alister McGrath suggests that the leap from the recognition of complexity to the assertion of improbability is problematic, as a theory of everything would be more complex than the theories it would replace, yet one would not conclude that it is less probable. Dawkins has responded to this point in his debate with Lennox and at other times, saying that while physics is hard to understand, fundamentally, unlike biology, it is simple.[19] McGrath then argues that probability is not relevant to the question of existence: life on earth is highly improbable and yet we exist. The important question in his view is not whether God is probable, but whether God is actual.[20] In interviewing McGrath for The Root of All Evil, Dawkins responds that the existence of life on Earth is indeed highly improbable, but this is exactly why a theory such as evolution is required to explain that improbability.[21] In the case of God, Dawkins says, there is no such satisfactory explanation.

On the point of probability, Alvin Plantinga claims that if God is a necessary being, as argued by classical theism, God is, by definition, maximally probable; thus an argument that there is no necessary being with the qualities attributed to God is required to demonstrate God's improbability.[8] Eric MacDonald has pointed out that theists assume the coherence of their position when they make arguments for God when, by Plantinga's standards, they would have to present an argument that the concept of God is not logically incoherent before discussing other arguments.[22] Plantinga's objection would seem to apply to all atheist arguments that contend that God is improbable, such as evidential arguments about the problem of evil and the argument from nonbelief. But the reason why theists and atheists do not usually address this prior to making their arguments is because they want to go beyond merely discussing whether God is maximally probable or impossible.

Dawkins's response to criticism in The God Delusion

Dawkins writes about his attendance at a conference in Cambridge sponsored by the Templeton Foundation,[6] where he challenged the theologians present to respond to the argument that a creator of a complex universe would have to be complex and improbable.[23] He reports the strongest response as the claim he was imposing a scientific epistemology on a question that lies beyond the realm of science. When theologians hold God to be simple, who is a scientist like Dawkins "to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex?"[24] Dawkins writes that he did not feel that those employing this "evasive" defence were being "wilfully dishonest", but that they were "defining themselves into an epistemological safe-zone where rational argument could not reach them because they had declared by fiat that it could not."[24]

Theologians, Dawkins writes, demand that there be a first cause named "God". Dawkins responds that it must have been a simple cause and contends that unless "God" is divested of its normal associations, it is not an appropriate name. Postulating a prime mover that is capable of indulging in intelligent design is, in Dawkins's opinion, "a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation"; instead, he seeks a "self-bootstrapping crane" (see above) that can "lift" the universe into more complex states. This, he states, does not necessitate a narrowly scientific explanation, but does require a "crane" rather than a "skyhook" (ibid.) if it is to account for the complexity of the natural world.[25]

Notes

  1. ^ Collisions of debris as the vehicle for the distribution of biological material across space.
  2. ^ The notion that "observations of the physical universe must be compatible with conscious and sapient life that observes it" (see Anthropic principle).

References

Footnotes

  1. ^ Michael Shermer (26 January 2007). "Arguing for Atheism". Science. 315 (5811): 463. doi:10.1126/science.1138989. Retrieved 15 March 2007. (also available via the second review here Archived 10 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ The God Delusion, p. 113.
  3. ^ Daniel Dennett (16 October 2006). "Review of Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion" (PDF). Free Inquiry. 27 (1). Retrieved 5 December 2006.
  4. ^ The God Delusion, p. 157–8.
  5. ^ The God Delusion, p. 147–149.
  6. ^ a b The God Delusion, p. 151.
  7. ^ Craig, William Lane; Meister, Chad (24 September 2010). God Is Great, God Is Good. ISBN 9780830868117. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
  8. ^ a b c d e Alvin Plantinga (2007). "The Dawkins Confusion — Naturalism ad absurdum". Books & Culture, a Christian Review. Retrieved 2 March 2007.
  9. ^ a b Swinburne, Richard. "Response to Richard Dawkins's comments on my writings in his book The God Delusion" (PDF).
  10. ^ Norman Levitt (31 January 2007). "What a Friend We Have in Dawkins". eSkeptic. Retrieved 19 March 2007.
  11. ^ Full exchange of open letters at edge.org.
  12. ^ Anthony Kenny, 2007 Presidential Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture (published in Philosophy Volume 82 number 321 (July 2007), pp. 381-397.
  13. ^ Stephen M Barr (2003), Modern Physics and Ancient faith (ISBN 0-268-03471-0).
  14. ^ Modern Physics and Ancient Faith Paperback – February 15, 2006 by Stephen M Barr
  15. ^ Patrick Richmond, "Richard Dawkins's Darwinian Objection to Unexplained Complexity in God", Science and Christian Belief Vol. 19 No. 2 (2007), pp. 99-106.
  16. ^ The Strengths and Weaknesses of the God Delusion (YouTube).
  17. ^ Dawkins and the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit
  18. ^ Vallicella's discussion with Erik Wielenberg.
  19. ^ a b c The God Delusion Debate: Richard Dawkins vs John Lennox Archived 25 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ The Dawkins Delusion?, pp. 24–25
  21. ^ Root of All Evil? The Uncut Interviews (Google Video).
  22. ^ Duking it Out Over the God Delusion
  23. ^ The God Delusion, p. 153.
  24. ^ a b The God Delusion, p. 154.
  25. ^ The God Delusion, p. 155.

Bibliography

Adevism

Adevism (from the Sanskrit term deva, on the analogy of atheism) is a term introduced by Friedrich Max Müller to imply the denial of gods, in particular, the legendary gods of Hinduism. Müller used it in the Gifford Lectures in connection with the Vedanta philosophy, for the correlative of ignorance or nescience. In modern contexts it is rarely found, though it is sometimes used to represent a disbelief in any gods, contrasted with a specific disbelief in the Judaeo-Christian deity (God). Adevism is not to be confused with atheism, which is the denial of a god or gods. Adevism is used extremely infrequently in writing, probably because of the much used term atheism.

Agnostic atheism

Agnostic atheism is a philosophical position that encompasses both atheism and agnosticism. Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not hold a belief in the existence of any deity and agnostic because they claim that the existence of a deity is either unknowable in principle or currently unknown in fact.

The agnostic atheist may be contrasted with the agnostic theist, who believes that one or more deities exist but claims that the existence or nonexistence of such is unknown or cannot be known.

Atheist's Wager

The Atheist's Wager, popularised by the philosopher Michael Martin and published in his 1990 book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, is an atheistic response to Pascal's Wager regarding the existence of God.

One version of the Atheist's Wager suggests that since a kind and loving god would reward good deeds – and that if no gods exist, good deeds would still leave a positive legacy – one should live a good life without religion. Another formulation suggests that a god may reward honest disbelief and punish a dishonest belief in the divine.

Atheistic existentialism

Atheistic existentialism is a kind of existentialism which strongly diverged from the Christian existential works of Søren Kierkegaard and developed within the context of an atheistic world view. The philosophies of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche provided existentialism's theoretical foundation in the 19th century, although their differing views on religion proved essential to the development of alternate types of existentialism. Atheistic existentialism was formally recognized after the 1943 publication of Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre and Sartre later explicitly alluded to it in Existentialism is a Humanism in 1946.

Cultural Muslim

Cultural Muslims are religiously unobservant or secular individuals who still identify with the Muslim culture due to family background, personal experiences, or the social and cultural environment in which they grew up. Cultural Muslims can be found across the world, but are especially numerous in the Middle East (Arabic-speaking countries as well as in Israel, Turkey and Iran), Europe, Central Asia, North America, and parts of South and Southeast Asia.

Evil God Challenge

The Evil God Challenge is a thought experiment. The challenge is to explain why an all-good god should be more likely than an all-evil god. Those who advance this challenge assert that, unless there is a satisfactory answer to the challenge, there is no reason to accept God is good or can provide moral guidance.

Hitchens's razor

Hitchens's razor is an epistemological razor asserting that the burden of proof regarding the truthfulness of a claim lies with the one who makes the claim, and if this burden is not met, the claim is unfounded, and its opponents need not argue further in order to dismiss it.

Implicit and explicit atheism

Implicit atheism and explicit atheism are types of atheism. In George H. Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God, "implicit atheism" is defined as "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it", while "explicit atheism" is "the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it". Explicit atheists have considered the idea of deities and have rejected belief that any exist. Implicit atheists, though they do not themselves maintain a belief in a god or gods, have not rejected the notion or have not considered it further.

Incompatible-properties argument

The incompatible-properties argument is the idea that no description of God is consistent with reality. For example, if one takes the definition of God to be described fully from the Bible, then the claims of what properties God has described therein might be argued to lead to a contradiction.

Jewish atheism

Jewish atheism refers to the atheism of people who are ethnically and (at least to some extent) culturally Jewish. Because Jewish identity encompasses ethnic as well as religious components, the term "Jewish atheism" does not inherently entail a contradiction.

Based on Jewish law's emphasis on matrilineal descent, even religiously conservative Orthodox Jewish authorities would accept an atheist born to a Jewish mother as fully Jewish. A 2011 study found that half of all American Jews have doubts about the existence of God, compared to 10–15% of other American religious groups.

Junkyard tornado

The junkyard tornado is an argument used to deride the probability of abiogenesis as comparable to "the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747." It was used originally by Fred Hoyle, in which he applied statistical analysis to the origin of life, but similar observations predate Hoyle and have been found all the way back to Darwin's time, and indeed to Cicero in classical times. While Hoyle himself was an atheist, the argument has since become a mainstay of creationist and intelligent design criticisms of evolution.

This argument is rejected by the vast majority of biologists. From the modern evolutionary standpoint, while the odds of the sudden construction of higher lifeforms are indeed improbably remote, evolution proceeds in many smaller stages, each driven by natural selection rather than by chance, over a long period of time. The transition as a whole is plausible, as each step improves survivability; the Boeing 747 was not designed in a single unlikely burst of creativity, and modern lifeforms were not constructed in one single unlikely event, as the junkyard tornado posits.

Lists of atheists

Atheism is, in a broad sense, the lack of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist. This is a compilation of the various lists of atheists with articles in Wikipedia. Living persons in these lists are people whose atheism is relevant to their notable activities or public life, and who have publicly identified themselves as atheists.

Negative and positive atheism

Negative atheism, also called weak atheism and soft atheism, is any type of atheism where a person does not believe in the existence of any deities but does not explicitly assert that there are none. Positive atheism, also called strong atheism and hard atheism, is the form of atheism that additionally asserts that no deities exist.The terms "negative atheism" and "positive atheism" were used by Antony Flew in 1976 and have appeared in George H. Smith's and Michael Martin's writings since 1990.

Outline of atheism

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to atheism:

Atheism – rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist.

Atheism is contrasted with theism,

which in its most general form is the belief that at least one deity exists.

Outline of theology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to theology:

Theology is the critical study of the nature of the divine. It is taught as an academic discipline, typically in universities, seminaries and schools of divinity.

Problem of the creator of God

The problem of the creator of God is the controversy regarding the hypothetical cause responsible for the existence of God, presuming God exists. A common challenge to theistic propositions of a creator deity as a necessary first-cause explanation for the universe is the question: "Who created God?". It contests the proposition that the universe cannot exist without a creator by asserting that the creator of the universe must have the same restrictions. This, in turn, may lead to a problem of infinite regress wherein each newly presumed creator of a creator is itself presumed to have its own creator.

Some faith traditions have such an element as part of their doctrine. Jainism posits that the universe is eternal and has always existed. In Mormonism it is believed that the God of this Earth was once a mortal human, who had a father of his own. Ismailism rejects the idea of God as the first cause, due to the doctrine of God's incomparability and source of any existence including abstract objects.

Secular Buddhism

Secular Buddhism—sometimes also referred to as agnostic Buddhism, Buddhist agnosticism, ignostic Buddhism, atheistic Buddhism, pragmatic Buddhism, Buddhist atheism, or Buddhist secularism—is a broad term for an emerging form of Buddhism and secular spirituality that is based on humanist, skeptical, and/or agnostic values, as well as pragmatism and (often) naturalism, rather than religious (or more specifically supernatural or paranormal) beliefs.

Secular Buddhists interpret the teachings of the Buddha and the Buddhist texts in a rationalist and often evidentialist manner, considering the historical and cultural contexts of the times in which the Buddha lived and the various suttas, sutras and tantras were written.

Within the framework of secular Buddhism, Buddhist doctrine may be stripped of any unspecified combination of various traditional beliefs that could be considered superstitious, or that cannot be tested through empirical research, namely: supernatural beings (such as devas, bodhisattvas, nāgas, pretas, Buddhas, etc.), merit and its transference, rebirth, Buddhist cosmology (including the existence of pure lands and hells), etc.

Traditional Buddhist ethics, such as conservative views regarding abortion, and human sexuality, may or may not be called into question as well. Some schools, especially Western Buddhist ones, take more progressive stances regarding social issues.

Theological noncognitivism

Theological noncognitivism is the position that religious language – specifically, words such as "God" – are not cognitively meaningful. It is sometimes considered synonymous with ignosticism.

William Chilton (printer)

William Chilton (1815 – 28 May 1855), was a printer, Owenite, evolutionist, and co-founder with Charles Southwell of The Oracle of Reason, which claimed to be the world's first avowedly atheist journal.

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